Like other islands of the Indian Ocean, the Comoros were settled by successive waves of explorers, traders, and colonists. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Malayan and Arab traders and immigrants settled on the archipelago. Later, slaves were brought to the islands and more immigrants arrived from neighboring Madagascar and the African continent. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, French, Dutch, Indian, and Chinese traders also made their way to the islands. Native Comorans were often enslaved and exported to other French-occupied territories in the Indian Ocean (e.g. Mauritius, Reunion, and the Seychelles) to work on sugar plantations.
An Islamic political structure was established during the fifteenth century by Shirazi Arab traders who settled on the islands of Grand Comore and Anjouan. These settlers divided the two islands into sultanates and eventually expanded their rule over the islands of Mayotte (the fourth island in the archipelago) and Mohéli. The Shirazi introduced a dynamic economic system and built a booming center of commerce where rice, spices, and slaves were traded in abundance. Indeed, as trade on the islands grew, so too did competition among sultanates for the rich European merchants' business. This competition led to strife and warfare between various sultanates. In the late 1700s, Sakalava slave raiders from the coast of Madagascar attacked the Comoros with such furor that they virtually depopulated the island of Mayotte. Following the defeat of the Sakalava kingdoms at the hands of the Merina, many liberated slaves returned to Mayotte and Mohéli. In the mid-1800s Comoran traders began importing captives from East Africa and disseminating the human cargo to the plantation economies of other Indian Ocean islands. This trade proved lucrative for Shirazi businessmen and contributed to the formation of a three-tiered social system with Shirazi elites, middle-class traders, and slaves.
France officially acquired Mayotte in 1843 and by 1886 had taken control of the remaining three islands in the archipelago. The French governor-general of Madagascar administered all four islands as one territory. In 1947, the Comoros became an overseas territory of France and did not gain internal independence until 1961. Full independence was not achieved until 1975 when 96% of Comorans approved a national referendum to split from France. However, the population of Mayotte rejected the referendum, opting instead to remain a dependent of France.
Since independence, there have been numerous shifts of power in the Comoros, almost always precipitated by a military coup d'état. President Ahmed Abdallah was designated president of the government council and head of state in July 1975. By August of that same year he was deposed by Ali Soilih, who seized power with the help of French mercenary Bob Denard. This political instability continued for the next 25 years.
After four unsuccessful coup attempts during the mid-1970s, Soilih was overthrown in 1978 by Denard and 50 of his fellow mercenaries. The coup plotters replaced Soilih with Ahmed Abdallah and Soilih's former deputy, Muhammed Ahmed—effectively creating a co-presidency. Nevertheless, Denard was effectively in control of the Comoros for the next 11 years.
Following the 1978 coup, France resumed aid to the Comoros that had been suspended during the Soilih administration. In October 1978, a new Constitution for the Comoros was approved by 99% of the electorate, officially changing the name of the nation to the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. Under this new Constitution, individual autonomy for each island was guaranteed. Individual governors were elected and a 38-member federal assembly, comprised of representatives from each of the islands, was put into place. Although the assembly was meant to represent all of the political parties in the Comoros, it voted in 1982 to create an official state party, known as of 2003 as Rassemblement National pour le Development (RND—National Assembly for Development).
In 1984, Abdallah was elected to another six-year term. Buoyed by his new mandate, he set out to extend and consolidate his power. One year later, Abdallah succeeded in abolishing the office of prime minister, and, in 1989, pushed through a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term for the presidency. On 26 November 1989, members of the presidential guard, under the direction of Denard, assassinated Abdallah.
The Comoran Constitution proscribed that Said Mohammed Djohar, the president of the Supreme Court, assume the role of interim head of state. Denard and his supporters, however, continued to maintain de facto control of national political and military power. Indeed, Denard and his band of mercenaries remained ensconced in Moroni until France intervened and they fled to South Africa.
Djohar held elections in February 1990 that were widely viewed as fraudulent and later annulled. Opposition parties were allowed two months to organize but were still narrowly defeated by the sitting interim president: Djohar received 55% of the vote while the leader of the Union Nationale pour la Democratie aux Comoros (UNDC—Union for Democracy and Decentralization), Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim, received 45%. Djohar's presidency was marked by instability, with periodic dissolution of federal assemblies, charges of corruption, strikes, and several attempted coups. On 25 September 1995, Denard returned to the Comoros and again took control of the government, forcing Djohar into exile. Captain Ayaiba Combo headed the "transitional military committee" and claimed responsibility for the coup. In October of that same year, Combo handed power over to two civilian opposition party leaders, Said Ali Kemal and Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim. Thus, interim officials again ruled the Comoros until another set of elections could be organized and a political transition could be achieved.
The elections of March 1996 involved 15 candidates and were well contested. Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim won the race and, for the first time in the nation's history, presided over a peaceful political transition. Peace in the Comoros, however, was short-lived. By 1997, the country was gripped by economic and social crises and fell prey to secessionist fervor. Recognizing that the state was once again in disarray and disgusted by the greed of politicians in the capital, the people of Anjouan decided in August 1997 to break from the union and declare independence. Indeed, the Anjouanais sought to rejoin their former colonizer, France, in a territorial arrangement similar to the French-Mayotte accord. The secession movement also took root on Mohéli, which also asserted its independence from the government based in Moroni, further destabilizing the nation. Complicating the matter further was the fact that more than 70,000 Anjouanais
live on Grand Comore and make up about half of the "national" army's approximately 800 troops. This dynamic has created an ethnic division that runs deep in the military.
Taki's tenure as president was short-lived. He died from an apparent heart attack in November 1998. Again, the president of the Comoran Supreme Court, Tadjiddine Ben Said Massonde, was elevated to interim president on 6 November 1998. But the Massonde administration had little success in returning the Comoros to stability. Anjouan and Mohéli reasserted their demands for secession, which heightened political and ethnic tensions on Grand Comore. Indeed, tensions surrounding the secessionist debate spiraled out of control in April 1999, leading to three days of rioting in the capital, during which businesses were looted and destroyed and hundreds of Anjouanais were forced to flee Moroni.
The chaos ended on 30 April when Colonel Azali Assoumani, the army chief of staff, staged a bloodless coup, overthrowing Massonde and restoring order to the streets of Moroni. While this event marked the eighteenth coup attempt in the Comoros 24-year history, and the fourth to succeed in ousting a sitting government, Comorans greeted it as a "necessary evil" to reestablish security and calm in the nation. Azali promised the people that his interim military government would last only a year. However, stability did not return, and the island of Anjouan continued to fight the Grande Comore government into 1999.
In a move to stop the ongoing Anjouan rebellion, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) ended all communications with the island in March 2000. Further, it imposed a trade embargo and insisted that Azali turn rule back over to a civilian authority. Finally, in February 2001 he signed a reconciliation agreement with leaders of the three islands; it was even signed by Colonel Said Abeid, the rebel leader of Anjouan (who would soon be ousted in a coup). Negotiations were also initiated for a new Constitution. Finally brokered by the OAU and signed in the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo, the so-called "Antananarivo Agreement" gave each of the three islands its own president, parliament, and local government and established the presidency of the Comoran federation, to rotate between the three island presidents every four years. The federal president would have overall authority of the Union of Comoros. The president of Grande Comore would have the first rotation. In December 2001 voters approved a new Constitution.
In January 2002 Azali stepped down from the military presidency in order to qualify for new elections to select the Grande Comore president. Three candidates presented themselves in the election: Said Ali Kemal, Mahamoud Mradabi, and Azali Assoumani. But just before the 14 April 2002 elections, Kemal and Mradabi boycotted and withdrew, claiming irregularities. Thus Azali, running unopposed, emerged the winner. At first the election results were declared invalid by a national election monitoring commission, but the commission was dissolved, and a new commission confirmed Azali the winner with 75% of the vote. This decision, supported by the African Union (the renamed OAU as of July 2001), made Azali the union's first federal president.
Between the time Azali stepped down in January and his official inauguration, Grande Comore and the Union was run by an interim government with Hamada Madi Borelo as head of state/prime minister. The interim government was dissolved when Azali assumed power as federal president.