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)
The Comoros’ political rights rating increased from 4 to 3 as a result of the restoration of legitimate government to Anjouan, one of the country’s constituent islands.
In March 2008, the leader of the Comoran island of Anjouan, who had sought to rule independently of the central government, was forced out of power by a multinational African Union military force. Also during the year, President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi became the focus of increasing unrest, which was fueled largely by the rising cost of living.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Residents of Mayotte, the fourth island of the archipelago, voted to remain under French rule in a 1974 referendum, and subsequently enjoyed French subsidies and a far higher standard of living than that on the other islands.
Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Comoros since it gained independence from France in 1975. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected president in a 1996 poll that was considered free and fair by international monitors, but in 1997, Anjouan and Moheli fell under the control of separatists. Azali Assoumani, a colonel in the armed forces, staged a coup in 1999 in a bid to restore order. A reconciliation agreement known as the Fomboni Declaration was signed in 2000, and referendum voters in 2001 approved a new constitution that gave greater autonomy to the three islands. The 2002 elections for the island presidencies were deemed largely free and fair, but Azali won the federal presidency after his two opponents claimed fraud and withdrew.
Comoran and international observers assessed the 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, won 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.
The Comoros ranked 134 out of 177 countries on the UN Development Programme’s 2007–08 Human Development Index. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and remittances from workers overseas and earns a small amount from spice exports. Large numbers of Comorans illegally emigrate to Mayotte, either to settle there or to seek entry into metropolitan France.
In 2008, rising food and fuel prices accelerated the Comoros’ economic crisis, resulting in swelling discontent with the Sambi administration.
The Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996 Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections. Under the archipelago’s 2001 constitution, the federal presidency rotates among the islands every four years. Current president 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 dominated by deputies elected in opposition to then president Azali Assoumani. 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 defined 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 of unpaid salaries for teachers and other government workers. The Comoros was ranked 134 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but the government partially limits press freedom. The authorities have arrested journalists, seized newspapers, and pulled broadcast outlets off the air for reports found to be objectionable. For example, paramilitary police in 2006 detained the editor of an independent newspaper after he published a story that was 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. Internet access is extremely limited for economic reasons.
Islam is the official state religion, but tensions have risen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In 2007, about 60 senior Sunni clerics 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. Non-Muslim proselytizing 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 2005, one person was reportedly killed and 16 wounded when police violently dispersed protests against rising fuel prices.A few human rights and other nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. Workers have the right to bargain collectively and to strike, but collective bargaining is rare. In 2008, teachers and medical workers went on strike to protest deteriorating economic conditions.
The 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 informally by village elders or by local courts. A series of reforms in 2005 transferred some courts to the jurisdiction of the respective islands and left only the Supreme Court under the authority of the central government. A complex and overlapping system of security forces exists. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and a lack of adequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition.
Women possess constitutional protections, but in practice 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 for little or no pay.