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Internal strains and rivalries between the leaders of Comoros's three constituent islands and the federation president resulted in rising political tensions in 2005. President Assoumani Azali, who is constitutionally obliged to leave office in April 2006, attempted but failed in 2005 to change the constitution to allow him to seek an additional term in office.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. 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 do the other islands. Comorans are among the world's poorest people. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and earns a small amount through exports of vanilla, ylang-ylang, and cloves.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Comoros since its independence from France in 1975. In 1990, in the country's first contested elections, Supreme Court justice Said Mohamed Djohar won a six-year term as president. French soldiers reversed a 1995 attempted coup by elements of the Comoros security forces, who were aided by foreign mercenaries. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected president in 1996 in internationally monitored elections that were considered free and fair; he secured more than 60 percent of the vote in a runoff election. Tadjidine Ben Said Massonde became the interim ruler when Taki died suddenly in November 1998.
Anjouan voted for self-determination in a 1997 referendum, repulsed an attempted military takeover by the central government, and then experienced widespread violence as rival separatist groups took up arms against one another. Separatists on Moheli also declared independence. The federal government is located in Grande Comore, but even there tensions exist between the federal and regional governments.
Efforts to end the separatist crisis began with the 1999 Antananarivo agreement. Anjouan's refusal to sign the agreement led to unrest on Grande Comore and a subsequent coup by Assoumani Azali, then a colonel in the armed forces. A reconciliation agreement, known as the Fomboni Declaration, was signed in 2000 between the Azali government and Anjouan separatists. A national referendum was approved in December 2001 for a new constitution that gave greater autonomy to the three islands of Comoros within the framework of a confederation and provided for a rotating executive presidency among the islands every four years.
In 2002, while elections for the president of each of the three islands that make up the new federation appeared to have been largely free and fair, the poll for the executive leader of the federation was not. Azali, who won the executive presidency, was the only candidate, as his two opponents had claimed fraud and dropped out of the race. Lengthy negotiations occurred over minimum conditions for holding postponed legislative elections. In September 2002, an agreement was reached that would result in legislative polls, which were subsequently postponed until 2004. Key terms of the accord had the central government maintaining control over the country's army, while the police were to be administered by the local presidents. Another key compromise was the decision to set up a provisional customs council to facilitate the fair distribution of revenue among the three islands.
Despite concerns that the government would attempt to rig the April 2004 legislative elections, Comoran and international observers assessed them as legitimate, and Azali's government suffered a serious setback. Candidates supporting the three autonomous islands, which have traditionally sought greater autonomy from central rule, emerged victorious after obtaining 41 out of the 55 contested seats, while backers of Azali won only 12. Following the elections, the various opposition and government authorities have sought to manage their differences, and relative calm has prevailed.
In 2005, deputies from the parliamentary opposition forced the withdrawal of a draft law that would have allowed President Azali to avoid the constitutional provision requiring the federal presidency to rotate between the islands and enabled him to run for a second four-year term in elections next year. Azali is expected to leave office for a presidential candidate from Anjouan in general elections set for April 2006.
The poor condition of the Comoran economy continued, with unresolved conflicts between the central and island governments resulting in sporadic strikes and civil unrest during the year.
Citizens of Comoros can change their government demo-cratically. Comorans voted freely for the first time in the 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections. The 2004 legislative and 2002 presidential elections for the presidency of each of the country's three main islands were considered to be largely fair. However, after the country's electoral commission concluded that the vote for the executive presidency was not fair, the central government dissolved the commission, and a body of five magistrates ruled that the election would stand. Under the archipelago's new national constitution, adopted in 2001, the federal presidency rotates every four years among the elected presidents of the three islands in the Union. Of the 33 deputies in the unicameral federal Assembly of the Union, 15 are selected by the individual islands' local assemblies and 18 by universal suffrage; deputies serve for five years. The Assembly is currently dominated by opposition parties, which hold 26 seats.
A 2004 Comoros government budget audit conducted by an external accounting firm revealed numerous irregularities by the government of the Comoros Union and the autonomous islands of Anjouan and Moheli and the Central Bank. The audit noted a failure of these governments to divide up receipts according to a previously agreed-upon formula. The audit also noted a serious underreporting of customs duties. In previous years, there were complaints of corruption among the security forces and of unpaid salaries for teachers and other government workers. Comoros was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is generally, though not fully, respected. Several private newspapers at times 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. Two state-run radio stations broadcast, and about 20 regional radio stations and five local private television stations operate without overt government interference. In 2005, the government briefly banned Radio Dzialandze Mutsamudu (RDM), a popular, privately owned station based in Mutsamudu, capital of Anjouan. According to local sources, the order stemmed from an interview with a doctor who defended a strike by the island's medical personnel. Internet access is extremely limited.
Islam is the official state religion. Non-Muslims are legally permitted to practice, but there were reports of restrictions, detentions, and harassment. Detainees are sometimes subjected to attempts to convert them to Islam. Christians are not allowed to proselytize. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government generally respects the rights of freedom of assembly and association. The former is explicitly recognized in the constitution, while the latter is not. However, at times security forces respond to demonstrations with disproportionate force. In September 2005, police violently dispersed demonstrators during protests over rising fuel prices; one person was reported killed and 16 wounded. There is a small sector of human rights and other nongovernmental organizations. Unions have the right to bargain collectively and strike, but collective bargaining is rare in the country's small formal business sector.
The Comorian legal system is based both on Sharia (Islamic law) and on parts 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. After considerable delays, and under domestic pressure, in 2005 Azali approved laws reforming the organization of the judiciary. These laws transfer some courts to the jurisdiction of the autonomous islands, leaving only the Supreme Court under the authority of the central government. The president has also stated, however, his intention to uphold the power and authority of the central government against perceived threats. A complex and overlapping system of official security forces exists. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, medical attention, and proper diet.
Due to the islands' poor economic condition, many Comorans, especially from Anjouan, illegally emigrate to Mayotte. The Anjouan-based Observatory for Clandestine Emigration (OCI) has estimated that in the past five years, around 500 people have drowned trying to make the 100-mile crossing to Mayotte.
Women possess constitutional protections. In practice, however, they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education or salaried employment than men do, especially in more rural areas. Women are generally not discriminated against regarding inheritance and property rights. Economic hardship has forced growing numbers of young girls into domestic servitude; they receive room and board, but little or no pay.