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As Comoros prepared for a referendum in December 2001 to decide the archipelago's future, a small invasion force added another chapter to the country's history of mercenary invasions. A group of more than a dozen men, reportedly including a number of former French soldiers, were apparently on their way to the main island of Grande Comore when they were forced to land on Moheli. Several of the mercenaries were killed and others were taken prisoner. The referendum went ahead as scheduled and provisional results indicated that at least 75 percent of voters approved of the new constitution that would give greater autonomy to the three islands of the Comoros within the framework of a confederation. Elections for each of the island's leaders and a federation leader were to follow in 2002.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken Comoros since independence in 1975. In 1990, in the country's first contested elections, Supreme Court Justice Said Mohamed Djohara won a six-year term as president. A September 1995 attempted coup by elements of the Comoros security forces, aided by foreign mercenaries, was reversed by French soldiers. An interim government ruled for five months until President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected in 1996 in internationally monitored elections that were considered free and fair. Tadjidine Ben Said Massonde became the interim ruler when Taki died suddenly in November 1998. Colonel Azali Assoumani seized power in April the following year.
Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Anjouan voted for self-determination in a 1997 referendum, repulsed an attempted invasion by the government, and then dissolved into violence as rival separatist groups took up arms against each other. Separatists on Moheli have also declared independence, but appear more willing to compromise. Mayotte Island, the fourth island of the Comorian archipelago, voted to remain a French overseas territory in a 1974 referendum and today enjoys a far higher, French-subsidized standard of living than the other islands do.
Efforts to end the separatist crisis began with the 1999 Antananarivo agreement, which gave greater autonomy to the islands of Anjouan and Moheli, and provided for a rotating presidency. The parties agreed that Colonel Assoumani would head a transitional administration that would oversee the establishment of an electoral commission, a constitutional commission, and a mechanism to disarm militia members. Anjouan's refusal to sign the agreement led to violence on Grande Comore and Assoumani's coup. A reconciliation deal, known as the Fomboni Declaration, was signed in 2000 between the Assoumani government and Anjouan separatists. The Organization of African Unity and the Comorian opposition had rejected the declaration as a gimmick by both military regimes to retain power and said the deal would undermine the unity and territorial integrity of the Comoros. Neither regime has international recognition. Political repression remains severe on Anjouan and less so on Grande Comore.
A framework agreement on a new federation was signed between the government in Grande Comore and Anjouan in February 2001, paving the way for elections in 2002 and a transition to democracy. The separatist leader of Anjouan, Lieutenant Colonel Said Abeid, who had seized power in 1997, was ousted in August 2001. The power base of the new leader on Anjouan, Major Mohamed Bacar, is fragile and there were three attempts to overthrow him later in the year.
Comorians are among the world's poorest people, and the ongoing secessionist crisis has further damaged an already tenuous, agriculture-based economy. Remittances from the large overseas Comorian community sustain many families. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and earns a small amount through exports of vanilla, ylang-ylang, and cloves.
Comorians are no longer constitutionally guaranteed the right to change their government. The head of state has legislative power, organized through ordinances, and executive power, exercised through decrees.
Comorians exercised their constitutional right to change their government democratically in open elections for the first time in the 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim won the presidency in a runoff election with more than 60 percent of the vote. The conservative Islamic main opposition party held several seats in the national assembly. Anjouan held its own legislative elections in August 1999. Secessionists won an overwhelming majority in voting that was marked by intimidation and a low turnout.
The Comorian legal system is based on Sharia (Islamic law) and remnants of the French legal code, and is subject to influence by the executive and other elites. Most minor disputes are settled by village elders or a civilian court of first instance. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, medical attention, and proper diet.
Freedoms of expression and association are not guaranteed. The semiofficial weekly Al-Watwan and several private newspapers sharply critical of the government are published in the capital, but they appear only sporadically because of limited resources. All are believed to exercise extensive self-censorship. A few private television and radio stations, such as Radio Tropique, operate without overt governmental interference. Transmissions from French-controlled Mayotte are easily received, and some people have access to satellite and other international broadcasting. Foreign publications are readily available.
Islam is the official state religion. Non-Muslims are legally permitted to practice, but there were reports of restrictions and detentions. Detainees are sometimes subjected to attempts to convert them to Islam. Christians are not allowed to proselytize.
Women possess constitutional protections despite the influence of Islamic law. In practice, however, they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education or salaried employment. Economic hardship has forced more and more young girls, known as mpambe, into domestic servitude. They receive room and board, but little or no pay.
Unions have the right to bargain and strike, but collective bargaining is rare in the country's small formal sector. Public hospital doctors went on strike in September, complaining of poor working conditions.