Freedom in the World
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In 2012, President Ikililou Dhoinine continued to push aggressive fiscal management and governance reforms in response to stagnant economic growth, rampant corruption, and high unemployment. The first sign of success came in December, when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank’s International Development Association announced a $76 million debt relief plan for Comoros. Corruption remained a serious problem, and a case against former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi remained pending at year’s end.
The Union of the Comoros comprises three islands: Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli. Mayotte, the fourth island of the archipelago, voted to remain under French rule in 1974. Two mercenary invasions and at least 18 other coups have shaken Comoros since it gained independence from France in 1975. The 1996 presidential election was considered free and fair by international monitors, but Anjouan and Mohéli fell under the control of separatists the following year. A 1999 coup restored order, installing Colonel Azali Assoumani as leader of the country, and led to the signing of a reconciliation agreement. A 2001 referendum approved a new constitution that increased autonomy for the three islands. Azali took the federal presidency in the 2002 election, after his two opponents claimed fraud and withdrew. Ahmed Abdallah Sambi—a moderate Islamist preacher and businessman—won the federal presidency in May 2006.
Mohamed Bacar, the president of Anjouan, organized unauthorized elections in 2007 to extend his rule and claimed to have won with 90 percent of the vote. In March 2008, an African Union military force removed him from power, and Moussa Toybou, a Sambi supporter, was elected in June 2008.
In a May 2009 referendum, voters approved constitutional reforms that increased the powers of the federal government at the expense of the individual island governments. The reforms instituted a rotation of the federal presidency among the islands every five (previously four) years, downgraded island presidents to the status of governors, limited the size of cabinets, empowered the president to dissolve the federal parliament, and allowed the president to rule by decree with parliament’s approval.
In December 2009 legislative elections, the president’s supporters won 19 of the 24 directly elected seats. Sambi’s term of office expired in May 2010, but an election to choose his successor was postponed due to political disputes. This delay provoked tension, especially among residents of Mohéli, which was the next island scheduled to hold the office of federal president.
In December 2010, Sambi’s protégé, Vice President Ikililou Dhoinine, won the presidential election with 61 percent of the vote. He became the first president of Comoros from Mohéli. His main rival, Mohamed Said Fazul, claimed fraud. However, the national election monitoring group upheld the legitimacy of the election, and Dhoinine was sworn in on May 26, 2011. Opponents alleged that the long transition period, combined with the delayed election, effectively extended Sambi’s term by one year.
Large numbers of Comorans illegally immigrate to Mayotte to settle or to seek entry into metropolitan France, and the economy depends heavily on remittances and foreign aid. In 2009, the global economic downturn contributed to delays and suspensions of public-sector salary payments and a decline in public services. Under Dhoinine’s leadership, the Comorian government in 2012 made noteworthy progress in its fiscal consolidation through an aggressive structural reform agenda that included government-wide spending controls and a decision to privatize Comores Télécom in an effort to overhaul management of the water and electricity utility.
While the country’s unemployment rate continues to hover around 15 percent, and unemployment among young adults at about 45 percent, the government has declared this issue a priority and promised to improve economic conditions through the continued implementation of reforms. After determining that Comoros had fulfilled its requirements to reach the completion point under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, the IMF and the World Bank’s International Development Association decided in December 2012 to support $176 million in debt relief for Comoros, representing a 59 percent reduction of its future external debt service over a period of 40 years.
Comoros is an electoral democracy. Since 1996, Comorans have voted freely in several parliamentary and presidential elections. The unicameral Assembly of the Union consists of 33 members, with 9 selected by the assemblies of the three islands and 24 by direct popular vote; all members serve five-year terms. Each of the three islands also has an individual parliament, which is directly elected. Political parties are mainly defined by their positions regarding the division of power between the federal and local governments.
Corruption remains a major problem. There are reports of corruption at all levels of the government, judiciary, and civil service, as well as among the police and security forces. In September 2011, the opposition Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros (CRC), led by former president Azali Assoumani, filed a complaint in a Moroni court against former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi for alleged misuse of public funds while in office. The allegations concern the sale of Comoros nationality to citizens of Gulf countries, which supposedly generated $200 million, although this money was never accounted for during financial reconciliations. The case was still pending at the end of 2012 while the courts determined if Sambi holds presidential immunity, which would prevent him from appearing before the courts. Comoros was ranked 133 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution and laws provide for freedoms of speech and the press, though self-censorship is reportedly widespread. In April 2012, Interior Minister Hamada Abdallah withdrew the state daily Al-Watan’s monthly supplement from distribution and issued a decree suspending the outlet’s managing editor, Pétan Mouignihazi. The insert featured a special report on corruption and waste in the state sector.
Islam is the state religion, and 98 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Tensions have occasionally arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and non-Muslims are reportedly subject to restrictions, detentions, and harassment. Conversion from Islam and non-Muslim proselytizing are illegal. Academic freedom is generally respected.
The government typically upholds freedoms of assembly and association. 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.
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. Minor disputes are often settled informally by village elders. Harsh prison conditions include severe overcrowding and inadequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition.
The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. However, in practice, women are still underrepresented at the political level. Economic equality also remains a key challenge, as women have far fewer opportunities for education and salaried employment than men, especially in rural areas. Sexual violence is believed to be widespread, but is rarely reported to authorities.