Comoros’s volatile political history includes a number of coups and attempted coups, though recent presidential and legislative elections have been reasonably well administered. In 2018, a controversial referendum ushered in a number of major systemic changes, and opponents of the referendum were severely persecuted. Systemic corruption and poverty remain problems.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Electoral authorities said a July constitutional referendum introducing major systemic changes was approved by 93 percent of voters. However, the referendum was boycotted by the opposition, who denounced it as an unconstitutional power grab by President Azali, and it was marred by allegations of intimidation and fraud. Many figures who spoke out against the referendum faced persecution.
- The referendum extended presidential term limits, abolished the previous system under which the presidency rotated among the country’s three main islands, and enshrined Sunni Islam as the national religion. It additionally abolished the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, and transferred its competencies to a new chamber of the Supreme Court.
- Azali banned protests in May, ahead of the referendum, but antigovernment demonstrations took place throughout the year and were often met with violence by security forces. In October, three people were killed in chaotic protests that took place on Anjouan Island, where demonstrators alleged that the new constitution would lock the island’s representatives out of government permanently.
- The year saw a wide-ranging crackdown on opposition figures that publicly criticized the referendum, including key figures who were convicted of plotting against the state. Separately, former president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi—an opponent of Azali’s who had been seen as a contender to win the presidency under the previous, rotating system—was arrested and jailed in August on corruption charges connected to an illicit passport-sale scheme.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 21 / 40 (−3)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12 (−1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
Under the 2001 constitution, the president is directly elected for a single five-year term, with eligibility rotating among the main islands of Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan, and Mohéli. However, a new constitution, approved in a controversial July 2018 referendum boycotted by the opposition, allows the president to run for two consecutive five-year terms, and abolished the system of rotating power among the islands. Under the new constitution, President Azali of the Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros (CRC) will be able to run for two more terms. Early elections were set for 2019 by a December 2018 presidential decree.
Comoros held relatively free and fair presidential elections in 2016. The presidency rotated from Mohéli to Grande Comore. The cycle skipped the island of Mayotte, which Comoros claims but which remains under French administration. Azali won the election with 41 percent of the vote. International election observers noted some flaws during the first round in administration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), and disputes, in the second round, over alleged electoral fraud on Anjouan Island that sparked violence in several constituencies. The Constitutional Court ordered that polling at 13 stations be rerun due to these irregularities; the results of the rerun were roughly the same as in the annulled round.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The unicameral Assembly of the Union consists of 33 members, 9 selected by the assemblies of the three islands and 24 by direct popular vote, who serve five-year terms. In 2015 elections, the Union for the Development of Comoros (UPDC) won 11 seats, the Juwa 10, the Democratic Rally of the Comoros (RDC) 4, and the CRC 2; the remaining seats were split between smaller parties and independent candidates. Although international observers said it was a calm and transparent election, the polls were marred by accusations of fraud, and of misuse of state resources by then president Ikililou Dhoinine’s UPDC.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4 (−1)
The CENI, while generally able to run credible elections, has faced accusations of bias and corruption among its members. In 2016, CENI president Ahmed Djaza and three others members were detained for embezzlement. However, Djaza was reelected as its president in 2017.
The disputed constitutional referendum held in July 2018, which the CENI said passed with 93 percent of the vote, was marred by a boycott by the opposition, which denounced it as an unconstitutional power grab by Azali and said Azali’s dismissal of the Constitutional Court ahead of the vote rendered it illegal. There were also allegations of voter intimidation and fraud. Later, upon facing growing dissent in the parliament, Azali fired the top opposition representative in the CENI.
The new constitution contains a number of new and significant provisions, including allowing the president to run for two consecutive five-year terms, abolishing the system of rotating power among the islands as well as the three vice-presidential posts (one representing each island), and declaring Sunni Islam as the national religion. It further transfers the competencies of the Constitutional Court, which was seen as having the capability to impartially decide electoral matters, to a new chamber of the Supreme Court.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because a constitutional referendum that extended presidential term limits, among other changes, was marred by an opposition boycott, as well as allegations of intimidation and fraud, and because the top opposition representative in the electoral commission was dismissed by the president.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 9 / 16 (−2)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4 (−1)
Political parties are mainly formed around specific leaders and draw on island or ethnic bases of support. In the past, parties have generally been able to operate freely, though the government occasionally disrupted opposition parties’ activities by denying them meeting and assembly space. However, 2018 was marked by a wide-ranging crackdown on opposition figures that publicly criticized the constitutional referendum, both before and after it took place. In June, Juwa secretary general Ahmed el-Barwane was arrested for his involvement in demonstrations against President Azali. In December, he was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of directing an attack against a soldier during the protests.
El-Barwane was one of among some two dozen opposition figures to receive harsh sentences in December in connection with their public opposition to the referendum. Four key figures, including former vice president Djaffar Said Ahmed Hassane and former army head Ibrahim Salim, received life sentences with hard labor after being convicted of plotting against the state. At year’s end, Juwa claimed that 100 of its members including Barwane had been arrested.
The string of arrests, prosecutions, and convictions prompted some Azali opponents to go into hiding. Hassane, for his part, was in exile in Tanzania at year’s end. The crackdown on demonstrations also hampers the ability of opposition parties to gain support.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the arbitrary detentions, prosecutions, and convictions of key opposition leaders for protest activities has hindered the ability of opposition parties to freely operate.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4 (−1)
In the past, Comoros’s numerous opposition parties have seen a realistic chance of gaining power through elections, though they were impeded by occasional government interference in their operations, and allegations of misuse of state resources by incumbents were not uncommon. However, the arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences against opposition leaders who spoke out against the constitutional referendum and the president in 2018 hamper the ability of opposition parties to compete in elections, including in the upcoming 2019 presidential election.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 because the convictions and heavy sentences levied against opposition leaders after they spoke out against the president hampers the ability of opposition to compete in elections.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
People are generally free to exercise their political choices. However, the influence of Comoros’s powerful army—which has cracked down on dissent—as well as of religious authorities can place pressure on voters and candidates.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4
There are no laws preventing various segments of the population from having full political rights and electoral opportunities. However, traditional attitudes discourage women from participating in politics, and women won just two seats in the legislature in 2015 elections. Legal and societal discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people makes political advocacy for LGBT rights difficult.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
According to the constitution, the president decides on the policies of the state, which are executed by the government. However, irregular activity in the legislature has hampered representative policymaking in recent years. In 2015, the newly installed Assembly of the Union chose its president in an irregular election that sparked accusations of an “institutional coup” from the opposition. During the vote, opposition members were prevented from accessing the chamber, at times through the intervention of security forces. The opposition parties, deeming the election illegitimate, unsuccessfully brought a case calling for the dismissal of the assembly president to the Constitutional Court.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
There are reports of corruption at all levels, including within the judiciary, civil service, and security forces. The Azali administration dissolved the National Commission for Preventing and Fighting Corruption (CNPLC) in 2016.
In August 2018, former president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi was arrested for corruption, embezzlement of public funds, and forgery in connection with a large-scale passport sales scheme. A parliamentary report revealed that the plan had cost the country up to $971 million. Sambi, who was from Anjouan, was considered to have been a likely contender to succeed Azali in the presidential race had the system of rotation of power between islands been preserved.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government operations are characterized by a lack of transparency. Various reform initiatives have so far not successfully addressed the problem. Financial asset disclosures by public officials are not released to the public. Comoros provides the public with no opportunities to engage in the budget process.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 29 / 60 (−2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 10 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of speech and of the press. However, the use of censorship laws to prosecute legitimate journalistic work, and other pressure, has prompted widespread self-censorship. A series of press freedom infractions took place in 2018, including the closing of some private radio stations as criticism of Azali and the constitutional referendum gained traction. In July, the interior minister threatened to prosecute journalist Faïza Soulé Youssouf over her reporting on the referendum. In October, she was arrested while covering opposition protests.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
Islam is the state religion, and 98 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The July 2018 referendum officially made Sunni Islam the state religion, and resulted in some wariness of the government among adherents of minority religions. Previously, the state religion had been “Islam;” some observers suggested the change reflected efforts by Azali to bring the country closer to Saudi Arabia, and to counter the influence of a rival, former president Sambi, who is seen as close to Iran.
Anti-Shia sentiments have been publicly expressed by some government figures, while many Christians keep their faith private in order to avoid harassment. Proselytizing and public religious ceremonies are prohibited for all religions except Sunni Islam.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Comoros has two types of schools: madrassas, where the Quran is integral, and state-run schools with French instruction. Academic freedom is generally respected, though the education system is sometimes affected by unrest from student protests and teacher strikes.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
Private discussion is generally free. However, the legacies of the country’s volatile political history, which involves a number of coups and attempted coups, as well as the crackdown on the opposition that surrounded the 2018 referendum, can discourage people from openly discussing politics in some situations.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12 (−1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4 (−1)
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected by the constitution, but these freedoms have been inconsistently upheld, and deteriorated significantly in 2018. Azali outlawed demonstrations in May, ahead of the referendum, though antigovernment protests nevertheless took place throughout the year and were often met with violence by security forces. In October, violence erupted in Anjouan over the dissolution of the rotating presidency, as the island had been set to hold it next; protesters moreover claimed the new constitution would effectively lock representatives of Anjouan out of power for good. Sporadic gunfire, explosions, water and power cuts, and roadblocks took place during several days of protests, and three people were killed, at least two of whom were shot dead by members of the security forces.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because protests against the constitutional referendum were met with violence by security forces, and the president banned demonstrations ahead of the vote.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at times face bureaucratic interference, including requirements to secure permits from high-level officials in order to visit prisons. Some NGO representatives spoke out against the referendum and atmosphere of repression in 2018, but did so at some risk in light of the broad crackdown on dissent.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Workers have the right to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike. In cases of national interest, the government may require essential personnel to return to work. No law prohibits antiunion discrimination or protects workers from retribution for striking. There are some laws that impose mandatory arbitration processes for labor disputes.
F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16 (−1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4 (−1)
The judicial system is based on both Sharia (Islamic law) and the French legal code. Though the law establishes mechanisms for the selection of judges and attorneys, the executive branch often disregards these and simply appoints people to their positions. Court decisions are not always upheld.
In April, Azali abruptly suspended the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, saying it was dysfunctional; the court had not been operating since 2017 because its bench was not full and new judges had not been appointed. (Opposition parties alleged that the 2018 referendum was illegal because it was held after the court’s suspension.) The 2018 referendum abolished the Constitutional Court and established a new constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the president suspended the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, in the run-up to the year’s controversial referendum, the results of which ultimately transferred the Constitutional Court’s competencies to a new chamber.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
All defendants have the right to a fair public trial, but they often face lengthy delays. Corruption can prevent guarantees of due process. A number of politicized prosecutions against figures who opposed the year’s referendum took place in 2018.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
The law prohibits the illegitimate use of physical force, but security agents have engaged in excessive force, and are generally not held accountable for such behavior. There are questions about the will or capacity of the army to identify and punish abuses within its ranks.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
The law provides for equality of persons. However, same-sex sexual activity is illegal, with punishments of a fine and up to five years in prison. Few women hold positions of responsibility in business, outside of elite families. Laws requiring that services be provided for people with disabilities are not well enforced.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 6 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
The constitution and law provide for freedom of movement, both internally and externally. While these rights are generally respected by the government, in practice, poverty frequently prevents travel between the islands as well as access to higher education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
In accordance with civil and some customary laws, women have equal rights in inheritance matters. Local cultures on Grande Comore and Mohéli are matrilineal, with women legally possessing all inheritable property. However, this is complicated by the concurrent application of Sharia, interpretations of which can limit gender equality. In addition, a poor system of land registration and women’s difficulties in securing loans hampers women’s right to own land.
Endemic corruption and a lack of a culture of transparency hampers normal business activity.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Early and forced marriages have been reported in Comoros. The law prohibits domestic violence, but courts rarely fined or ordered the imprisonment of convicted perpetrators, and women and children rarely filed official complaints. Sexual violence and workplace harassment are believed to be widespread, but are rarely reported to authorities.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
The Comorian economy, which is primarily agricultural, relies heavily on remittances from Comorian citizens in France. Many young people struggle to find sustainable opportunities for employment. Poverty has driven many people to attempt the dangerous trip to Mayotte, a French territory, in flimsy boats known as kwassa-kwassa.
Government efforts to identify and prosecute human trafficking are minimal, and trafficking cases, if addressed, are often done so through informal mediation processes. At times, these mechanisms have facilitated the return of trafficking victims to traffickers.