Comoros Islands


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The Comoros Islands consist of a small group of island located in the Indian Ocean just northwest of Madagascar. The four main islands consist of three mostly Muslim islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan, Moheli and Mayiotte a largely Christian island. They have a poorly developed agricultural economy that relies heavily on foreign grants to sustain approximately 550,000 people. There is little industry and little natural resources. The terrain is mountainous, with only 750 km (450 miles) of roads, 540 km (324 miles) of which are made of gravel and unsealed. The major export of the islands is ylang-ylang, a rare flower used in the production of aromatic oils.

1527 - Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero depicts the Comoros islands on a European map for the first time.

1886 - Comoros become a French protectorate.

1912 - Comoros formally become a French colony administered from Madagascar.

1942 - British forces invade the Comoros and Madagascar, toppling the pro-Vichy administration and handing the territories over to the Free French government of Charles de Gaulle.

1947 - Comoros become an overseas territory of France and are given representation in the French parliament.

1961 - Comoros given autonomy.

In 1973 An agreement was reached with France for the Islands to become independent in 1978. However, the deputies of Mayotte (the largely Christian island) abstained, and  referendums were then  held on all four of the islands. Three voted by a large majority for independence, while Mayotte voted against and remained under French administration. On 6th July 1975, the Comorian parliament passed a unilateral resolution declaring independence. Ahmed Abdallah proclaimed himself the independend of the Comorian State and became its first president. In doing so he insured the   next 30 years would become a period of political turmoil.

On 3rd August 1975, French mercenary Bob Denard, along with clandestine support from Jacques Foccart and the French government, removed president Ahmed Abdallah from office in an armed coup and replaced him with a member of United National Front of the Comoros (UNF) Said Mohammed Jaffar.

Bob Denard,  real name Gilbert Bourgeaud, born 7th April 1929, and saw service in the French colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria. He served in the police in Morocco and embarked on his career as a mercenary in 1961 after seeing a small advert seeking recruits for the Congo (now Zaire). He fought for secessionists in Katanga before serving with royalist forces in North Yemen and then fighting for the secessionist state of Biafra, in Nigeria. He also trained mercenaries for operations on behalf of Unitain Angola, for secessionists in Angola's Cabinda province and in the then Rhodesia.

During January 1976, Jaffar was ousted in favor of his Minister of Defense Ali Soilih. While at the same time, the population of Mayotte voted against independence from France in two referendums. The first being held in December 1974, won 63.8% support for maintaining ties with France, while the second, held in February 1976, confirmed that vote with an overwhelming 99.4%. However, the three remaining islands, ruled by President Soilih, instituted a number of socialist and isolationist policies that soon strained relations with France.

On 13th May 1978, 49-year-old Bob Denard returned by invading along with 46 men from a converted trawler named the ‘Massiwa’. Having sailed from Europe with his black uniformed crew,  to claim ownership of this tiny but idyllic island. His intention was to  over throw president Soilih and to re-instate Abdallah with the support of the French and South African governments. (During Soilih's brief rule, he endured seven additional coup attempts against him, until he was finally forced from office and killed).

Denard had been in the Comoros Islands before, to train the soldiers of Marxist ruler Ali Soilih. Earlier Soilih had forced Ahmed Abdallah into exile and he  had moved to Paris. Later, short on funds but high on ambition, he offered to cut Bob Denard in on a deal  if he would return him to power. The deal was rumored to be worth $6 million.

While back in the Comoros Soilih seemed to be a little short on brain  cells and at one time  appointed a 15 year old to run the police department, burnt all government records, and after a witch doctor told him he would be killed by a white man with a black dog, he killed every black dog on the island.

Bob Denard had seen what a few well trained soldiers could do during his various adventures as a mercenary in Katanga, Yemen and Benin. This time he was in charge. He landed quietly at night and proceeded to the palace to find Soilih in bed with three girls watching a pornographic movie. He shot him, and the next morning drove through the town with Soilih's body draped over the bonnet of his vehicle. Denard also had with him a black Gerrman shepard dog. The crowds cheered and Denard became an able leader of the Comoros for 11 years assisted by 12 other white mercenaries, and the  puppet leader Abdallah of who he pulled the strings tight, very tight.

Denard took a Comorian wife, bought a villa, converted to Islam and became known as Said Mustapha Madjoub.  He  promoted himself to commander of the Presidential Guard (PG) and de facto ruler of the country trained, supported and funded by the white regimes in South Africa (SA) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in return for  permission to set up a secret listening station on the islands. South-African agents had to keep an ear on the important ANC bases in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam and to watch the war in Mozambique, in which SA played an active role. The Comoros were also used for evading arms sanctions,  as they shipped munitions  to Iraq. While he French used these islands to ship arms to the right wing Renamo guerillas.

In 1981 François Mitterrand was elected president of France, and Denard lost the support of the French intelligence service, but he managed to strengthen the link between SA and the Comoros. Besides the Presidential Guard, Denard established his own company SOGECOM, in both the security and building industries. From which he made himself a large amount of money.

In contrast to Soilih, Abdallah's presidency was marked by authoritarian rule and increased adherence to traditional Islam, and the country was renamed the Federal and Islamic Republic of Comoros, and a federal Islamic republic was proclaimed, a new constitution adopted, and Abdallah reconfirmed as president in an election where he was the only candidate. Diplomatic relations with France were restored. However, the use of mercenaries in his return to power led to the Comoros Islands expulsion from the Organization of African Unity (OAU; later African Union).

In 1979 the Comoros became a one-party state, and government powers were increased. In the same year a plot to overthrow Abdallah was foiled. In 1984 he was re-elected president, and in the following year the constitution was amended, abolishing the post of prime minister and making Abdallah head of government as well as head of state.

By the end of the 1980s the South Africans didn't want to continue to support a mercenary regime, and France was also trying to distance its self from the use of mercenaries. Finally, even President Abdallah wanted the mercenaries to leave.

Abdallah continued as president until 1989 when, fearing a probable coup d'état, he signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Bob Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Shortly after the signing of the decree, Abdallah was allegedly shot dead in his office by a disgruntled military officer, though later sources claimed an anti-tank missile was launched into his bedroom and killed him. Although Denard was also injured, it is suspected that Abdallah's killer was a soldier under his command. Soilih's older half-brother Said Mohamed Djohar then became president.

With the death of the  puppet ruler Abdallah, the tide eventually turned against Denard. The South Africans and the French government sub sequentially arranged for Denard's resignation and departure of the Comoros Islands, along  with his mercenaries friends. They were evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers. The move left him  disappointed and bitter that the French had deserted him in his final hour of need. Back in South Africa, he spent most of his time  planning a return to his paradise Islands.

While back In the Comoros Islands a  provisional military administration was set up, with Said Muhammad Djohar, Soilih's half-brother, as president. Attempted antigovernment coups were foiled in 1990 and 1992. While a  general election held in November 1992 proved inconclusive, however in a further election during December 1993 Djohar's supporters won an overall majority.

On 27th September 1995 Bob Denard and a group of 30 mercenaries in rubber dinghies took over the Comoros islands in a coup (named operation Kaskari by the mercenaries) against President Djohar. France immediately severely denounced the coup, and backed by the 1978 defense agreement with the Comoros, President Jacques Chirac ordered his special forces to retake the island. Bob Denard began to take measures to stop the coming invasion. A new presidential guard was created. Strong points armed with heavy machine guns were set up around the island, particularly around the islands two airports.

On 3rd October 1995, 11pm, the French deployed 600 men against a force of 30 mercenaries and a 300 man dissident force. Denard however ordered his mercenaries not to fight. Within 7 hours the airports at Iconi and Hahaya and the French Embassy in Moroni were secured. By 3:00 pm the next day Bob Denard and his Mercenaries had surrendered. This operation, codename ‘Kashkazi’, was remarkable, because there were no casualties, and just in seven days, plans had been drawn up and soldiers were deployed. Finally the French removed Djohar and  exiled him to Reunion. (Kashkaazi - which is a wind blowing in the Comoros during the rainy season.)

Then in November 1995, while Djohar was absent from the country, the acting prime minister, Caabi el Yachroutu Muhammad, declared himself interim president and appointed a ‘government of national unity’.

Djohar was allowed to return in January 1996 in a non-political capacity.

In March 1996 Muhammad Taki Abdoulkarim (1936–98) (a member of the civilian government that Denard had tried to set up in October 1995), was elected president and in May Tajiddine Ben Said Massonde was appointed prime minister. Assembly elections were held in December 1996 and were boycotted by the opposition parties and President Abdoulkarim's new party, the National Rally for Development (RND) was successful on a 20% turnout. Ahmed Abdou was appointed prime minister.

During 1997 Taki's government lost control of two of the Comoros federation's three islands and ignored appeals from France and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to refrain from military intervention. Anjouan (Nzwani), the second largest of the three-island group, seceded in August 1997, with Foundi Abdallah Ibrahim as leader and self-declared president, after months of protest, civil unrest, and clashes with security forces. The smallest of the islands, Mohéli (Mwali), followed suit, leaving Taki's government in control of only Grande Comoro (Njazidja). Comoran government troops launched an assault in September 1997 on the breakaway island of Anjouan, battling with secessionist defenders. The situation, however, remained unresolved.

Taki died in November 1998 and Tajiddine Ben Said Massounde, from Anjouan, became interim president. In mid-December 1998 militia regained control of the capital of Anjouan.

In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani, Army Chief of Staff, seized power in a bloodless coup, overthrowing the Interim President Massounde, citing weak leadership in the face of the crisis. This was the Comoros' 18th coup d'état since independence in 1975. However, Azali failed to consolidate power and re-establish control over the islands, which had become the subject of international criticism.

The African Union, under the auspices of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, imposed sanctions on Anjouan to help broker negotiations and effect reconciliation. The official name of the country was changed to the ‘Union of the Comoros’, and a new system of political autonomy for each island, plus a union government for the three islands.

In 2001 Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme, seized power as President in Anjouan. There were reports of thousands, of people being tortured during Bacar’s tenure and many officials being imprisoned.

Azali stepped down in 2002 to run in the democratic election of the President of the Comoros, which he won. Under ongoing international pressure, as a military ruler who had originally come to power by force and was not always democratic while in office, Azali led the Comoros through constitutional changes that enabled new elections.

A law was passed in early 2005 that defined the responsibilities of each governmental body, and is in the process of implementation. The elections in 2006 were won by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Sunni Muslim Cleric nick-named the "Ayatollah" for his time spent studying Islam in Iran. Azali honored the election results, thus allowing the first peaceful and democratic exchange of power for the archipelago.

In June 2007 Colonel Mohammed Bacar staged a vote to confirm his leadership that was rejected as illegal by the Comoros federal government and the African Union.

On 25th March 2008 hundreds of soldiers from the African Union and Comoros seized rebel-held Anjouan,  and was generally welcomed by the population. Colonel Mohammed Bacar fled in a speedboat to the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte to seek asylum.

Since independence from France in 1975, the Comoros experienced more than 20 coups or attempted coups.

Terry Aspinall 2008






Other articles of interest about the Comoros Island conflicts