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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Comoros’s political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the holding of legitimate presidential elections and a decline in military influence over political choices.
In May 2006, a moderate Islamist preacher and businessman, Ahmad Abdallah Sambi, captured the Comoran presidency with 58 percent of the vote in an election deemed by observers to reflect the will of the people. Sambi pledged to implement policies focusing on improving the economy of the islands, one of the poorest countries in the world. The nation continues to suffer from serious tensions between its three main constituent islands.
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, claiming fraud, had 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. 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 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 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 May 2006, Ahmad Abdallah Sambi, a moderate Islamist preacher and businessman, won the Comoran presidency with 58 percent; observers said the election reflected the will of the people. Sambi earned early plaudits by ending a teachers’ strike that had paralyzed middle and high schools for two months. However, he raised concerns by canceling a World Bank–approved contract to manage the port of the capital of Moroni. His relationship with Iran was also closely watched by Western countries as Sambi, nicknamed “the Ayatollah,” had studied in Iran and was suspected of pro-Iranian sympathies. Tensions remained on the division of powers between the central government and the autonomous islands. Late in 2006, for example, authorities on Anjouan temporarily closed the airport to prevent the arrival of a military delegation from Grande Comore. Sambi pledged to focus on improving the economy of the islands through increased investment and took steps to limit corruption and government spending.
Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996, Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections, and the 2006 presidential election was widely praised as free of significant irregularities. Under the archipelago’s 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 deputies elected in opposition to then-president Azali. Some parties include the Movement for the Comoros, the Camp of the Autonomous Islands, and the Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros.
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. President Ahmad Abdallah Sambi has pledged that his earnings and those of his ministers will be made public. Comoros was not ranked by Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government partially limits press freedom. For example, in 2006 paramilitary police detained the editor of an independent newspaper after he published a story critical of the military. 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 5 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. Sambi authorized the restoration of a private radio station transmitter that had been confiscated by the authorities during the presidential election campaign. 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. Proselytizing for any religion except Islam was illegal. In 2006, four men were sentenced to three months in prison for “evangelizing Muslims.”
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. No actions were taken against the police in the wake of this incident. A few human rights and other nongovernmental organizations exist. In June, the National Assembly passed a law establishing a human rights commission, but this had not yet convened by the end of the year. 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 transferred some courts to the jurisdiction of the autonomous islands, leaving only the Supreme Court under the authority of the central government. 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. In September 2006, five senior judges who had been appointed by Azali were suspended from their functions after they freed several former high-ranking Azali government officials who had been accused of corruption.
As a result of the islands’ poor economic condition, many Comorans, especially from Anjouan, illegally emigrate to Mayotte. In 2005, the Anjouan-based Observatory for Clandestine Emigration (OCI) 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. The Sambi government includes just one woman minister. 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.