A SHORT HISTORY OF THE COMOROS
Pre-Colonial and Colonial Comoros
Dead centre in the northern mouth of the Moçambique Channel, on the western rim of the Indian Ocean, lie the Comoros, a few pencil scratches on a map drawn by a sloppy cartographer. Over a thousand years ago, the original settlers of these islands were the Wamatasha, descendants of an ancient sea-faring people from the Malay Peninsula, with cultural connections throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as far away as Hawaii and Samoa. Later, a black tribe, the Makua, from what is now Moçambique, settled the highlands of Grande Comore. Both groups reportedly lived in peaceful co-existence for centuries. These indigenous peoples would be almost completely erased by their Fifteenth Century conquerors, the Shirazi Arabs of Persia.
The Shirazi were maritime Arab traders who named these volcanic outcroppings, the Islands of the Moon. They brought the Comoros into the enlarging Arab sphere of influence and converted the archipelago from animism to Islam and from tribalism to feudalism. Fourteen Sultans carved up the islands into small fiefdoms and proceeded to wage perpetual warfare against each other. Comoros was renamed the Islands of the Quarrelling Sultanates. By the Seventeenth Century, the population of the original tribes were so depleted by forced conscription and warfare that the Shirazi were compelled to import thousands of black slaves from East Africa, as servants and farm labourers.
The Shirazi Sultans brought war but also the word of Allah to the archipelago. From the top of hundreds of mosques the wailing of the Imam can be heard across the islands five times daily. Muftis, the religious leaders, control much of Comorian daily life. Their authority is five hundred years old and is written into the modern constitution. They teach the Qur’an in the primary schools, conduct prayer in the mosques and enforce the Shari’a, Islamic law: alcohol is forbidden; the left hand is amputated for petty theft; drug smuggling, rape and murder are punished by public beheading, thought the Comoros have not had a beheading in over one hundred years.
The island chain was ignored by the Europeans until the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, when France lost Mauritius to England in the Napoleonic Wars. To maintain the balance of power in the region, the French Naval Office set about acquiring another deep water port for its Indian Ocean Fleet. In 1841 France persuaded the King of Mayotte, a Sakalavan prince from Madagascar, Adrian Tsouli, to sell his island. (The price: an annual pension for himself and an education at the Sorbonne for his sons.) Mayotte is geologically the oldest island in the volcanic chain and has the only fully developed, encircling reef system capable of protecting large vessels, even in the cyclone season.
France colonised all the islands eventually but chose only to leave her mark on Mayotte. The rule of the Shirazi Sultans on the other three islands was left more or less intact. At the end of the 19th century, the colonial administrators, French land company promoters and the Sultans formed private business partnerships called Societés, which harvested cash crops, such as ylang-ylang, clove and vanilla. Though not indigenous, these flowering perfume plants were discovered to be ideally suited to the tropical clime of the archipelago. Their distilled essences fetched splendid prices in Europe. Comoros was renamed, again, the Perfume Isles.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, France guarded her African possessions jealously and was able to forestall the Black Nationalist movement for decades. But the fever of liberation that had gripped the other colonised people of Africa eventually came to the Comoros. Internal autonomy was granted in the early 1960s (but only after a referendum in which the majority chose to remain French). The capital was moved from Dzaoudzi on Mayotte to Moroni on Grande Comore. Over the next decade, the anti-French Comorian opposition in exile in East Africa and the students on the islands rallied the people for Independence. In 1975, in another referendum, independence was clearly favoured by the majority of all Comorians, but eighty-five per cent of the Mahorais, as the people on Mayotte are known, rejected the idea. In order to keep their deep water port, France’s National Assembly in Paris chose to interpret the referendum as if each island were voting separately.
And so began the troubles in the Perfume Archipelago. On July 6, 1975, the President of the Governing Council, Ahmed Abdallah, sent a telegram to President Giscard d’Estaing of France notifying him of Comoros’ Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Such move was unprecedented in French colonial history. While the move was peaceful, it was also naïve. Every other colony that had gained independence from the French had to fight for their freedom to the bitter end.
The leaders of Mayotte immediately seceded from the newly born Federal Islamic Republic and appealed to d’Estaing for protection. France withdrew all financial aid, evacuated civilians and placed her Indian Ocean Fleet on alert.
A year later, in yet another referendum, ninety-nine percent of the Mahorais voted to remain French: “Restez Français pour Rester Liber” (Stay French to Stay Free).
The Tricolour flies over the French Foreign Legion garrison in Dzaoudzi to this day.
Declaration of independence is one matter; independent action is another. President Abdallah introduced a populist proposal that would have a hundred or so French civil servants in Moroni replaced by their Comorian underlings. The French were outraged. The juggernaut of French imperialism dealt swiftly with Abdallah’s audacity. Within weeks and with the explicit permission of the French High Commissioner, a tight crew of middle-aged French and Belgian mercenaries, led by the legendary Corsair Bob Denard, were unleashed.
Denard’s small band landed in inflatables with more firepower than the entire Comorian National Defense Force. They encountered virtually no resistance. Abdallah fled to his plantation estate on neighbouring Anjouan, where he was captured, arrested and deported to France.
Several days later, Denard handed power over to a coalition of six opposition parties, which, it was believed, would be more tractable. The spokesman for the coup and, at first, the new Government’s Minister of Justice and Defence was Ali Soilih. Born to peasant parents, he had risen to the rung of mid-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture in Abdallah’s government. He considered himself a discontented intellectual. A slight man of thirty-two years of age, little charisma, some pomposity, average features and height, Soilih was most distinguishable from his co-conspirators because of his dark grey complexion, which in the social hierarchy of the Comoros, reflected his humble origins.
Since he lacked the necessary political cunning, French advisors helped Soilih consolidate his power. Within six months of the coup, he became President. Soon after, though, it became clear that Soilih was not Paris’s man. He turned out to be Marxist punk, so the French again cut off all aid to the new Republic.
Soilih sought alternative financing from the Chinese. Under the tutelage of a cadre of Chinese and Tanzanian advisors, he embraced a self-made African-Maoist philosophy based on the Four Pillars of Anti-Colonialism, Anti-Capitalism, Atheism and Dynamism. Soilih believed that the common peasant could rise up and change his world for the better without a monetary incentive. The Revolution had begun.
The First Imperative aimed to remove the stain of Colonialism. Soilih sacked the entire thirty-five hundred man civil service (mostly French and some pro-French Comorians). French nationals had their property confiscated. Those that stayed behind after UDI were deported. The Second Imperative was anti-capitalist. Private property and taxation were declared illegal. Previous contractual arrangements were null and void. Soilih nationalised all French businesses including the Societés. The Shirazi business partners went into exile. The Third Imperative outlawed Islam, closed the mosques, forbade veils and fivefold daily prayer and legalised alcohol.
The Fourth Imperative emphasized Dynamism, which meant the ascendancy of youth. The voting was lowered to fourteen. Soilih handpicked his Cabinet, all illiterate adolescents. He created the Moissy, an armed teenage gang of personal enforcers, entrusted with rooting out all enemies of the State and critics of the Pillars. The Moissy raped, burned and murdered at will. They destroyed a hundred and fifty years of the colonial administration’s records in a single bonfire. Since most of the true Enemies of the State had left had already fled the country, the Moissy rounded up the mothers of the Enemies of the State instead, lead them through the centre of town on a rope, hands bound, with a burlap bag over their heads.
One of Soilih’s biggest mistakes at the grass roots level was the outlawing of le grand mariage, the most elemental tradition of the entire archipelago. The defining moment in a Comorian man or woman’s life is le grand mariage. Comorians are polygamists, but the le grand marriage is not necessarily the first marriage. It is the grandest. Typically, a man will save his entire adult life for and spend it all on this one wedding celebration. The bridegroom will invite the entire island for a two-to-three week round-the-clock party, the Toarab, with free food, music and dancing. The greater the festivities, the more prestige garnered. Soilih thought this ostentatious dissipation of wealth counterproductive to the advancement of a modern nation.
For two years, Grande Comore became a self-contained hell, economically and politically cut off from the rest of the world. All commerce ground to a halt. Planes did not land; ships did not dock. Foreign embassies closed or were abandoned. Reporters could not obtain visas. Even humanitarian aid from the UN, Islamic countries, the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent ceased. A trickle of aid from China had been earmarked to purchase some Korean War era bolt-action rifles for the Garde Présidentielle.
There were four assassination attempts, each thwarted by the Garde, under the command of Bob Denard’s right hand man, Jean Guilsou. Each attempt on his life made Soilih increasingly paranoid and widened the circle of enemies upon which to unleash the Moissy. Soilih became more reclusive. He watched movies all night long, slept all day and rarely left the Presidential compound. He alternated hashish, Valium and brandy. He had a vision that a man with a dog had come to kill him, so he instructed to the Moissy to kill all dogs in the Republic, which they did by dragging them behind taxis. Soilih declared himself publicly to be the One True God.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the same right wing French politicians who had originally sanctioned Abdallah’s ouster had by this time determined that Soilih was not in France’s best interest. Bob Denard was instructed to re-install the Former President, now considered a moderate by the king-makers in Paris. In early May of 1978, Guilsou sent the entire Garde to Anjouan on the pretext that there was an incipient insurrection brewing.
With the Capitol and the President unguarded, Denard and twenty-two men landed their inflatables north of Moroni on a small beach at dawn. Armed to the teeth, the mercenaries easily overwhelmed the few troops left behind at the main army barracks, the Presidential villa and the radio station. Most of the guards were asleep at the time of the attack. One skirmish resulted in eleven Comorian soldiers dead. One of Denard’s men twisted an ankle. The Chinese and Tanzanian advisors surrendered without a fight. Soilih was shot twice in the chest and buried in his mother’s back yard under a lava rock mound. Within hours, Denard radioed Abdallah in Paris that all was secure.
Two weeks later, the President Abdallah stepped off of a chartered airplane at Halaya International Airport to the cheers of thousands. Maoism was dead; Democracy and Capitalism had won the day. Abdallah proceeded to court French Paternalism. Allah was praised. Le grand mariage was legal again. The Moissy melted in the tree line, as if it never happened.
A Pirate’s Kingdom
After he shot Ali Soilih, Denard became an overnight Comorian national hero. T-shirts with Abdallah’s and Denard’s faces and the logo “Heroes de la Nacion [sic]” went on sale in the old market in Moroni. The state banquet in his honour was the grandest event in three years. Abdallah appointed Denard as Chief Presidential Advisor and Chief of the Presidential Guard.
Denard split his time between Comoros and his other home in Durban, South Africa. After converting to Islam, he took a Comorian wife and had two children. Eventually, the authorities in Moroni granted him citizenship and a passport under his new Islamic name Said Mustapha Mohamed.
As Chief of the Presidential Guard, Denard ruled over, through and around Abdallah, the nominal president of a nominally sovereign nation. Eventually he became bolder and began to decree without Abdallah’s permission. Over time, Denard transitioned smoothly from liberator to oppressor, from Colonel to Caliph.
In 1986, French President Jacques Chirac announced a scheme to invest heavily in the infrastructure of Mayotte, thereby making the Federal Republic’s repatriation of the fourth island even less likely. So, under Denard’s guiding hand, Abdallah turned away from reconciliation with France towards opportunity in South Africa. He rented out the Comoros to white South Africa, which needed friends in order to skirt sanctions and run guns to de-stabilise its black neighbours, specifically Moçambique. Comoros became the first black nation to openly trade with the Apartheid government, despite international sanctions. South African Airways obtained landing rights at Halaya.
The archipelago became his private fiefdom. Dissent was squashed. The political opposition went into exile. He and his officers gave themselves titles and awarded themselves contracts over various economics sectors (concrete, timber, fishing, etc.), with ambition of siphoning off foreign aid money to personal bank accounts.
The presidential elections at the end of 1989 ended Denard’s run. Seeking a third six-year term, President Abdallah confronted his massive unpopularity. One month prior to the election, he made a campaign promise to end the white mercenaries’ de facto rule of the archipelago. Denard and his band of white mercenaries would finally be forced to leave. Abdallah immediately regained the support of his people.
Denard must have known this day would come, but, on the day of reckoning, Denard could not face his fall from grace. So, on November 26, just weeks before the election, he shot Abdallah point-blank in the chest. This was his third and boldest take-over yet. However, this one was un-sanctioned by the French.
President Denard tried to govern himself without a black intermediary for two weeks afterwards. Nation-wide protests shut the country down. The UN and the African Union would not tolerate the Comoros being openly governed by white mercenaries. To restore order in their former colony, the French finally ordered Denard to leave and sent their navy from Dzaoudzi to Moroni. The mercenary refused and promised to fight back: Garde Présidentielle troops were deployed around strategic points, especially the capitol in preparation for an invasion. The French eventually landed three thousand paratroopers who first captured the airport and then later advanced on Moroni. Denard and his officers were evacuated without surrendering on board a ZS military transport, armed and in uniform, while the command of the Comorian Armed Forces was given to a French officer. Nobody died.
Ironically, Said Mohamed Djohar, Ali Soilih's older half-brother, became President. He was popular and seemed destined to be re-elected in 1996, until Denard returned in September 1995 to invade Comoros again, his fourth Comorian coup. Operation Eskazi, as it was called, was ostensibly without French approval. The French government quickly condemned the coup after the fact (though they have admitted having foreknowledge) and mounted Operation Azalee to oust Denard.
Denard was arrested and flown to a Parisian jail. President Djohar was flown to Réunion for unspecified medical treatment. The French denied Djohar’s request to return to the Comoros until January 1996, just before the elections. With little time to prepare his re-election bid, Djohar lost to Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim. Denard’s last coup was billed as a failure in the press; however, Eskazi was, in reality, quite the success, since its objective was to remove Said Djohar in favour of Paris’ choice Taki.
Taki led the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros from 1996 until it was no more. The islands of Anjouan and Moheli declared their independence from the Moroni in 1997, in an attempt to return to being a French colony. The poorer, smaller islands claimed that Taki's government on Grand Comore received all the international and national revenues but re-distributed precious little.
France rejected the request. Armed struggle between federal troops and rebels ensued but remained irresolute. Taki was unable to defeat or reconcile with the rebel isles before he died under mysterious circumstances in office in November 1998.
In 2001, a new constitution, created under the auspices of the then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, and the African Union, codified the process of decentralization, now officially called the Union of the Comoros. Each island was essentially autonomous and had its own president. A new union government for the three islands was also created. Over three-quarters of the three islands’ resources are earmarked for the bureaucracy created by the new constitution.
Also in 2001, Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme, seized power as President in Anjouan. Until his ouster in 2008, Bacar created on Anjouan what Ali Soilih had done for Grande Comore thirty years prior, albeit on a smaller scale. Bacar’s private militia rounded up and tortured all opposition. After international sanctions, Anjouan descended into a miserable, isolated, impoverished, hateful nightmare.
In March 2008, hundreds of soldiers from the African Union and Comoros landed on Anjouan. Bacar fled in a speedboat to Mayotte to seek asylum. Asylum was not granted; however, neither was the Comorian government’s request for extradition for trial. The French arranged for asylum in Benin, another former colony.
Since independence in 1975, there have been over twenty coups d’état.