The Comoros are an archipelago of four small Indian ocean islands that lie between East Africa and the northwestern coast of Madagascar. The four islands are called Ngazidja (formerly Grande-Comore), Nzwani (formerly Anjouan), Mwali (formerly Moheli), and Mayotte. In all likelihood they were visited in antiquity by Phoenician sailors. The first settlers were probably Melanesian and Polynesian peoples, who came to the Comoros by the 6th century AD ; later immigrants arrived from East Africa, Arab lands, Indonesia, Persia, and Madagascar. The Portuguese discovered the islands about 1503, and Frenchmen first landed in 1517. The Englishman James Lancaster visited the islands toward the end of the 16th century; at that time, and for many years afterward, Arab influence predominated over that of Europeans. Malagasy invasions also took place in the 16th century. In 1843, a Malagasy who ruled over Mayotte ceded the island to France, and in 1865, a Malagasy ruler of Mohéli signed a friendship treaty with France. A French protectorate was placed over Anjouan, Grande Comore, and Mohéli in 1886, and in 1908 the islands were joined administratively with French-ruled Madagascar. In World War II, the islands were occupied by a British force and turned over to the Free French. The Comoros were granted administrative autonomy within the Republic of France on 9 May 1946, acquiring overseas territorial status, and on 22 December 1961 achieved internal autonomy under special statute. This status was amended on 3 January 1968 to give the territory greater internal autonomy.
On 11 December 1958, the Territorial Assembly voted to remain in the Republic, but the cause of independence, championed by the Comoro National Liberation Movement, based in Tanzania, was eventually embraced by the ruling coalition on the islands. An agreement for independence within five years was signed in Paris on 15 June 1973, and in a referendum held on 22 December 1974, a large majority on all islands except Mayotte voted in favor of independence. The vote was ratified by the French parliament, which decided that each island should vote separately on a new constitution. On 6 July 1975, nevertheless, the Comoros legislature unilaterally declared independence for all the islands, including Mayotte. The French government, rejecting the Comorian claim to Mayotte, ordered a separate referendum for the island. As preparations were made for the 1976 referendum, relations between France and the Comoros deteriorated. The Comorian government nationalized all French administrative property and expelled French officials. With strained French-Comorian relations as the backdrop, Mayotte voted on 7 February 1976 to remain part of France. The UN General Assembly, however, backed the Comorian claim to Mayotte in 1976 and 1979 resolutions.
Considerable domestic turmoil accompanied the birth of the new nation. The first Comorian government took power on 6 July 1975 and was led by Ahmed 'Abdallah. It unilaterally declared independence from France and was overthrown within a month on 3 August 1975 with the aid of foreign white mercenaries. A National Executive Council led by Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar was created. Jaffar was the leader of a group that favored a more conciliatory policy toward Mayotte and France. In January 1976 he was replaced by 'Ali Soilih who led a military coup that toppled Jaffar a year earlier. In 1977 Soilih's government changed the French names of the four islands (Grande-Comore, Moheli, Mayotte, and Anjouan) to Ngazidja, Mwali, Mahore, and Nzwani. Four unsuccessful coup attempts were launched during Soilih's rule. However, on 13 May 1978, Soilih was overthrown and killed by mercenaries led by Bob Denard, whose previous exploits in Zaire and elsewhere made him infamous throughout Africa. Denard reinstalled the nation's
first president, Ahmad 'Abdallah, who had been living in exile in Paris. Denard remained the true power behind 'Abdallah. Their government was close to right-wing elements in France and to South Africa, where the Comoros served as a conduit for supplies to the Renamo rebels in Mozambique. Soon after the coup, France agreed to restore economic and military aid, which had been suspended during the Soilih regime. Most African countries were, however, unhappy with the role of mercenaries in toppling the Soilih government and the Comoros were expelled from the OAU (Organization of African Unity).
In September 1978, Denard and his mercenaries were asked to leave the Comoros due to the international stigma their presence caused the Island nation. This was a façade, as Denard remained the true power on the islands; however, the ruse did succeed in getting the Comoros back into the OAU. A new constitution was approved on 1 October 1978 by 99.31% of the voters. The new constitution created a Federal Islamic Republic in which each island was granted increased autonomy. On 22 October, 'Abdallah, the only candidate, was elected president with a reported 99.94% of the valid votes.
Chronic economic problems were worsened in January 1983 by tropical cyclone Elena, the worst in 30 years. The damage was estimated at C O F R 200 million; up to 80% of the crop was damaged.
'Abdallah was reelected unopposed with 99.4% of the vote in September 1984. There were coup attempts in 1985 and 1987. Elections to the Federal Assembly were held in March 1987. By 1989, however, resentment for the overbearing influence of Denard and his men grew. Even 'Abdallah grew disenchanted and, with the backing of France and South Africa, he moved to displace Denard's mercenaries. Before this could be implemented, however, on 26 November 1989 a member of the Presidential Guard (many suspect Denard) assassinated 'Abdallah. This unit was included European mercenaries and was under the command of Denard.
Said Mohamed Djohar, head of the Supreme Court, was appointed interim president pending a presidential election. With the help of Paris and Pretoria, on 15 December 1989, he forced Denard to relinquish power in exchange for safe passage to South Africa.
In January 1990, demonstrators protested the postponement of the presidential election that was scheduled for February. A French peacekeeping force enabled the government to lift political restrictions and conduct the presidential election as originally scheduled. The election was held on 18 February, but it was abandoned following allegations of fraud. On 4 March, fresh elections were held in which no single candidate for the president received a majority of the votes. In a run-off election held one week later, Djohar won with 55% of the vote to the UNDC's (Union Nationale pour la Democratie aux Comores) Mohammed Taki Abdulkarim's 44%. In March, Djohar appointed a government that included two of his opponents in the previous presidential election. Price Said Ali Kemal, a lawyer and grandson of the last Sultan of Comoros was one of the former Presidential hopefuls who was made part of the coalition government. Djohar's coalition government survived three coup attempts and several ministerial defections. One coup attempt was launched on August 1990, by army rebels with help from European mercenaries. Another coup was attempted a year later and involved the president of the Supreme Court Ibrahim Ahmed Halidi, who announced that he was dismissing President Djohar and assuming the role of president. The bloodless coup received support from opposition parties who saw Djohar as corrupt and viewed the presidency itself as being vested with too much power. The coup was thwarted, however, and Djohar responded by ordering the arrest of several supreme court members, including Halidi, and imposing a month long state of emergency. Djohar pledged to seek constitutional reforms and reshuffled his Cabinet, bringing in disgruntled opposition members.
In January 1992, amid continued unrest, a new transitional government of national union was installed, as constitutional reforms were debated and prepared for referendum. In May 1992, 18 opposition political parties demanded the resignation of Djohar's son-in-law, Mohamed M'Changama, as Minister of Finance following allegations of corruption. Djohar responded by creating a new government, however, his son-in-law his Ministerial position. The new constitution was voted on in June and was passed overwhelmingly. Legislative elections were supposed to be held shortly after, but Djohar delayed, despite considerable public protest, including one in which security forces joined in, calling for elections. Amid heightened political unrest and a deteriorating economic situation, Djohar conceded and balloting commenced in November and December 1992. The Federal Assembly was badly divided (the largest party had 7 of the 42 seats) and could reach no consensus with the president on his choice of ministers. Governments fell frequently. On 18 June 1992, Djohar dissolved the National Assembly. In the long-delayed and controversial December 1993 legislative elections, supporters of Djohar won 24 of the 42 seats in the Assembly. Members of the opposition parties rejected Djohar's appointment of Mohamed Abdou Madi as Prime Minister as they contested the validity of both the election results and the choice of Djohar's son-in-law as president of the Assembly. They accused the Ressemblement pour la Democraie et le Renouveau (RDR: Djohar's new party) of being "usurpers." On 17 January, the main opposition parties agreed to coordinate their actions in a Forum for National Recovery (FRN), as Djohar's government grew increasingly authoritarian. Demonstrations became frequent. A public sector strike began in April 1994 and grew quite acrimonious, and lasted until January 1995. In April, Djohar dismissed the Prime Minister after the latter accused him of corruption. Civil order continued to deteriorate as 1995 provincial elections were repeatedly postponed and as government after government collapsed. Djohar, however, remained in power, influenced by his son and Said Mohamed Sagaf, his son-in-law, who held various ministerial posts.
By September 1995 conditions had deteriorated badly, and Bob Denard, from exile, staged a coup that resulted in the arrest of President Djohar. Denard appointed a close associate, Captain Ayouba Combo, as the leader of a provisional government called the Transitional Military Committee. The Transitional Military Committee released political prisoners and in October transferred authority to two civilians, Mohammed Taki and Said Ali Kemal. Although France had for some time been displeased with Djohar's authoritarian ways, they were very unhappy with Denard's action and, after being asked to intervene by Djohar's prime minister, Mohamed Caabi El Yachroutu, landed 1,000 troops and ousted the coup leaders. El Yachroutu assumed the post of interim president—Djohar had fled the country—and scheduled new elections for 1996.
Presidential elections were held on 6 March 1996 and a runoff on 16 March. Mohammed Taki Abdulkarim won with 64% of the vote. Legislative elections on 1 and 8 December of that year resulted in an Assembly situated as follows: National Rally for Democracy, 36; National Front for Justice, 3; independents, 4.
On 23 November 1996 an Ethiopian airliner carrying 175 people was hijacked over East Africa, then ran out of fuel, and crashed into the sea just off a beach on the Comoros, killing at least 58.
In July 1997, security forces killed two people after separatists on Nzwani raised the French flag, blocked roads, and engaged in demonstrations demanding a return of French rule. Unrest quickly spread throughout Nzwani and Mwali. On 3 August 1997, separatists on the island of Anjouan (Nzwani) declared independence from the central government and were soon joined by the island of Mwali. In early September 1997, President Taki dispatched the army in an unsuccessful attempt to reunify the islands. Hoping to find a peaceful solution to the situation, the OAU intervened in favor of a negotiated settlement. In October, despite the objections of the Taki's government, a referendum was held on Nzwani in which 99% of those voting supported independence. France, for its part, rejected demands by the islands to reestablish its sovereignty.
In November 1998, President Mohamed Taki, died shortly after returning from a trip to Turkey and Spain. Interim President Ben Said Massounde took power in Ngazidja (Grande Comore). A month later, a reported assassination attempt on Nzwani (Anjouan) island leader Foundi Abdullah Ibrahim led to heavy fighting in the island. At least 60 people were reported killed. The assassination attempt and fighting was thought to have been instigated by Chamasse Said Omar, a political opponent of Ibrahim who was upset that the Nzwani leader wanted to negotiate a new relationship with the government of Ngazidja.
On 30 April 1999, interim President Massounde was toppled in a bloodless coup, and was replaced by Colonel Azali Assoumani on 6 May 1999. The coup was triggered by unresolved issues in the negotiations with the separatist islands that would have given them greater autonomy within a political union of the three islands. The autonomy proposal, which caused widespread resentment on Ngazidja, erupted in rioting in which residents from the other islands were targeted and blamed for the harsh economic conditions on the main island. As the secession stalemate continued, the government announced on 21 March 2000 that it had foiled the country's 19th coup attempt since independence while Assoumani was in Saudi Arabia. Among the suspected plotters were two sons of the assassinated first President Ahmed 'Abdallah.
Assoumani pledged to resolve the secessionist crisis through a confederal arrangement named the 2000 Fomboni Accord. In December 2001, voters approved a new constitution, and Assoumani resigned his post on 16 January 2002 to run for president in the 14 April 2002 elections. He was elected with 75% of the vote and was sworn in 26 May 2002. In the interregnum, his prime minister, Jamada Madi Bolero was appointed interim president and Djaffar Salim the interim deputy prime minister.
Following the election, the confederal arrangement went into effect, and the three islands of Moheli, Anjouan, and Grande Comore assumed authority over most of their own affairs. However, power struggles continued over the authority of certain ministries. In February 2003 the central government arrested a dozen soldiers and two local ministers in connection with an alleged coup attempt. The accused were said to be linked closely to the island government of Grande Comore. In April traders organized a strike on Grande Comore to protest double taxation by the island and union governments. A congress on the Comoros was scheduled for June 27 in Pretoria to end the crisis, and to discuss organization of local elections and finalization of the constitution. However, union president Assoumani was not expected to attend, casting doubt on the viability of the process and Assoumani's political future.