Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Comoros’ political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 as a result of the illegitimate reelection of the president of Anjouan, one of the country’s constituent islands.
Comoros continued to suffer from political instability in 2007. The president of the island of Anjouan refused to leave office at the end of his term in April and mounted unauthorized elections to legitimize his continued rule. Also during the year, scores of Comorans drowned while attempting to emigrate illegally to the neighboring French territory of Mayotte; thousands who survived the journey were deported back to Comoros.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Mayotte, the fourth island of the archipelago, voted to remain a French overseas territory in a 1974 referendum and today enjoys a far higher standard of living, thanks in part to French subsidies. Comorans are among the world’s poorest people.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Comoros since its independence from France in 1975. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected president in a 1996 poll that was considered free and fair by international monitors. 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.
Assoumani Azali, a colonel in the armed forces, staged a coup in 1999. A reconciliation agreement known as the Fomboni Declaration was signed in 2000 between the Azali government and Anjouan separatists. Referendum voters in December 2001 approved a new constitution that gave greater autonomy to the three islands.
In 2002, while elections for the president of each of the three islands were deemed largely free and fair, the poll for the federal presidency was not. Azali won the latter contest after his two opponents claimed fraud and withdrew. In September 2002, an agreement was reached for holding legislative polls. Key terms of the accord included central government control over the army, island government control over the police, and the establishment of a provisional customs council to fairly distribute revenue among the islands.
Comoran and international observers assessed the April 2004 federal legislative elections—which resulted in Azali supporters capturing only 6 of the 33 seats—as legitimate. In May 2006, a moderate Islamist preacher and businessman, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, captured the federal presidency with 58 percent of the vote in an election that was also deemed legitimate by most observers. Sambi pledged to focus on improving the economy.
Serious tensions between the islands persisted in 2007. In a continuing show of defiance against federal authorities, Colonel Mohamed Bacar, president of Anjouan, refused to leave office at the end of his term in April. He organized unauthorized elections in June to legitimize his continued rule, claiming to have won with 90 percent of the vote.
According to a 2007 UN report, the Comoran economy grew by only 1 percent in 2006. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and remittances from workers overseas and earns a small amount from spice exports. Many Comorans illegally emigrate to Mayotte, either there for permanent residence or to seek entry into metropolitan France. Dozens died in 2006–07 while attempting the journey, and French authorities reported that more than 16,000 Comorans were deported from the island in 2006. In 2007, according to French government officials, the number could be as high as 20,000.
Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996 Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections. Under the archipelago’s constitution, adopted in 2001, the executive presidency rotates among the islands every four years. The current leader, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, is from Anjouan. The unicameral Assembly of the Union consists of 33 members, with 15 selected by the three islands’ local assemblies and 18 by universal suffrage. All members serve five-year terms. The Assembly is currently dominated by deputies elected in opposition to then-president Assoumani Azali. The main parties include the Movement for the Comoros, the Camp of the Autonomous Islands, and the Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros. Parties are mainly identified by their positions regarding the division of power between the federal and local governments.
Corruption is a major problem in Comoros. In August 2007, former Moheli president Said Mohamed Fazul received an 18-month suspended prison term and a fine for fraud. There have also been complaints of corruption among the security forces and unpaid salaries for teachers and other government workers. Comoros was ranked 123 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but the government partially limits press freedom. In 2006, paramilitary police detained the editor of an independent newspaper after he published a story critical of the military. Several private newspapers that are at times critical of the government are sporadically published in the capital. Two state-run radio stations broadcast, as do about 20 regional radio stations and five local private television stations. The authorities reportedly closed an independent radio station just before the 2006 presidential elections, accusing it of airing threats and calls for demonstrations. Internet access is extremely limited for economic reasons.
Islam is the official state religion, but tensions have risen between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In February 2007, about 60 senior Sunni clerics in the Comoros called for Shia Islam to be banned and for the expulsion of foreigners accused of spreading the sect. Non-Muslims are legally permitted to practice their faiths, but they are reportedly subject to restrictions, detentions, and harassment. Proselytizing for any religion except Islam is illegal. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government typically upholds freedoms of assembly and association. However, security forces sometimes respond to demonstrations with excessive force. In September 2005, police violently dispersed demonstrators protesting rising fuel prices; 1 person was reported killed and 16 were wounded. A few human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. Unions have the right to bargain collectively and to strike, but collective bargaining is rare.
The Comoran judicial system is based on both Sharia (Islamic law) and the French legal code and is subject to influence by the executive branch and other elites. Most minor disputes are settled by village elders or civilian courts. A series of reforms in 2005 transferred some courts to the jurisdiction of the autonomous islands and left only the Supreme Court under the authority of the central government. In September 2006, five senior judges who had been appointed by Azali were suspended after they freed several high-ranking Azali administration officials who had been accused of corruption. A complex and overlapping system of security forces exists. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and the lack of adequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition.
Women possess constitutional protections. In practice, however, they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education and salaried employment than men, especially in rural areas. Economic hardship has forced growing numbers of young girls into domestic servitude; they receive room and board, but little or no pay.