Since independence from France in 1975, the Comoros has experienced multiple political disfigurations including nearly two dozen coups (or attempted coups), secession (of Mayote, the fourth island in the pre-independence cluster), international intervention, and now, for some years, growing authoritarianism as the current president Azali Assoumani seeks to centralise power in the island federation.
In 1999, Assoumani was at the epicentre of a military intervention that displaced then acting president Ben Said Massonde. Assoumani was subsequently elected President (and Premier under the Constitution) in 2016. The narrow margin by which he beat then vice president Ahmed Sambi was widely contested with accusations of vote-rigging and people expressed their dissatisfaction violently.
On 24 March 2019, Assoumani again put himself before the voters in presidential elections among twelve other candidates. This followed draconian government efforts to suppress opposition, including suspension of the Constitutional Court; the detention of Sambi and hundreds of civil society actors; and widespread allegations of police brutality and torture throughout the islands, especially in Anjouan.
Previous constitutional arrangements, which saw the rotation of the presidency between the triad of islands, vice-presidents drawn from each with its own elected assembly, and strict limits on presidential service, were also scrapped in another contested referendum in 2018. While Assoumani punted this as a simplification of the political system, it allows him to occupy the presidency well beyond his current term of office.
The latest election was an overwhelming “victory” for Assoumani – his ostensible 61% of the vote is significantly more than the majority necessary for the presidency. However, the result lacks credibility due to gross irregularities as noted by the three main external observers, the African Union (AU), the Community of East and Southern African states (COMESA) and the Standby Forces of the East. All three reported the stuffing of ballot boxes prior to the vote, denial of access to voting stations, and violence against the opposition.
Civil society, represented by opposition leader Ahamado Mahamoudou, and the other losing candidates, have called for new elections, but this is unlikely given the scale of Assoumani’s victory and his tendency to meet dissent with force. Already on 25 March security forces were deployed to deal with protesters in Moroni, the capital of Grande Comore, alleging an electoral “hijack” and all public meetings have since been banned.
None of this suggests political stability in the immediate future.
While only 54% of the electorate turned out due to fear and doubt that Assoumani would surrender power under any circumstances, the most powerful of civil society organisations such as C3V continue to allege electoral fraud and corruption. While this could encourage protests, it will mean more public violence met by a heavy-handed security response. This is especially likely in Anjouan where most are resentful about the constitutional changes which deprive the island of the presidency based on the federal rotation system.
Assoumani has substantial support among the small but politically influential Comorian security forces, many of whom originate from the ‘main’ island of Grande Comore. Some of the senior officers are ‘centralists’ who have participated in actions to repress unilateral independence by Anjouan and Mohali in the past. Others are tied to Assoumani by personal affiliations or through corrupt networks. Most of the senior leadership also supports his aim of concentrating power in Grande Comore to reduce the risk of a coup by rivals in the outer islands. However, the recent arrest of the Chief of the Army, Ibrahim Salim, ahead of elections caused some discontent in the command structure where some senior officers are thought to have thrown their weight behind Soilihi Mohamed, the former Army Chief of Staff and an unsuccessful electoral candidate.
The Comoros is, in addition, an Islamic nation, once deemed an Islamic Republic. The renaming of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli as Nguzidja, Ndzouani and Mwali respectively, hints, some believe, at Assoumani’s efforts to tap into early (and more fundamental) Islamic traditions as a basis for the emergence of a national identity. This is of concern for United States (US) and British strategic interests in the Indian Ocean, especially after the recent decision of the International Court of Justice to uphold the Mauritian claim to the Changos Islands, one of which hosts the important US Air Force base at Diego Garcia.
The exact political framework after the election is still unclear. There are three possibilities, none of which is especially optimistic in the last analysis.
The first of these involves an authoritarian and basically unconstitutional version of the federation as currently advocated by Assoumani in the face of his critics.
Secession represents a second scenario where Anjouan and/or Moheli follow the path of Mayote, leave the current federation, and seek a closer relationship with former metropole, France.
Thirdly, and most curiously, presidential spokesperson Mougni Barak Said has blamed the military for disturbances in the last few days since the election. This may be a precursor to an eventual outright military intervention triggered by the inability of the Assoumani presidency to build the trans-island legitimacy necessary for sustainable governance and development.