The Comoros were probably first inhabited by Melanesian – Polynesian people who came from the east in the 400s and 500s. Later immigration took place from the east coast of Africa, as well as from Indonesia, Madagascar and Persia, as well as from Arab areas.
In the early 16th century, the islands were discovered by European seafarers, and Portuguese, Dutch and French settled there. However, Arab dominance persisted. France surrendered to Mayotte in 1843, and the other three islands came under French protection in 1886. From 1912 the country was administratively ruled from Madagascar, until 1947 was granted overseas French territory, with its own representation in the French National Assembly.
In 1961, the Comoros gained internal autonomy, and power was shared between the Union Democratique des Comores (UDC) and the Rassemblement démocratique du peuple Comorien (RDPC). The RDPC and the UDC formed in 1972 with a third party, the Parti pour l’évolution des Comores (PEC), a federation that advocated for full independence. This won the election in all the islands except Mayotte, and UDC leader Ahmed Abdallah became the head of government.
Negotiations with France led to an agreement on independence, which was approved in a referendum in 1974. A majority of 96 percent voted for independence, but on Mayotte a majority of 64 percent voted against.
On July 6, 1975, Parliament voted for the unilateral proclamation of independence and elected Ahmed Abdallah as president. France did not intervene but retained control of Mayotte. The conflict over Mayotte’s status has been central to relations between the Comoros and France, where the Comoros have insisted on taking control of the island, while France has maintained that belonging is determined by its inhabitants.
France has played a key role in trying to restore political calm in the Comoros, which has been characterized by a lack of stability to a greater extent than most African states after independence, with a number of coups and coup attempts. Especially from the 1990s, the Comoros have been characterized by demands for autonomy or independence on the two islands of Nzwani and Mwali, which has threatened state formation and further contributed to political instability and violence.
When the Comoros joined the UN in 1975, the World Organization recognized the country’s integrity as one entity (including Mayotte), unlike France, which only recognized the independence of the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli (renamed Njazidja, Nzwani and 1977, respectively ). Mwali) – and not Mayotte, who remained French territory. In 1976, the French held a referendum on Mayotte, with 99 percent of the population voting to maintain affiliation with France.
The first of many unconstitutional takeovers of the Comoros was carried out as early as August 1975, when President Abdallah was deposed in a coup. A governing council led by Saïd Mohammed Jaffar temporarily took over. In 1976, Ali Soilih took over as president and proclaimed the year after the Comoros as a “democratic, secular, socialist republic”. A revolutionary transformation of society took place, with strong decentralization of political governance.
The revolution was somewhat inspired by Maoism, linked to Islamic philosophy, and with a goal of economic self-preservation. The voting age was lowered to 14, and youth and students took over much of the country’s administration.
Bargains and constitutional revisions
In 1978, Soilih was deposed and then killed in a coup by a group of European mercenaries led by Frenchman Bob Denard. The coup was carried out on behalf of former President Ahmed Abdallah, who was reinstated. Denard had support from, among others, South Africa, which used the Comoros partly to break the sanctions on the country and partly as a listening post in its intelligence. In a referendum, a new constitution was passed, and the Comoros became a federal, Islamic republic, with a degree of autonomy for each of the islands. Abdallah was elected president that year and re-elected in 1984, with no counter-candidate.
Parliamentary elections were held in 1978 and 1981; in 1979, the Comoros were made a one-party state, with the Union Comorianne pour le progrès (UCP) as the only permitted party. Abdallah’s regime developed an authoritarian regime, and he was killed during an attack on the presidential palace in November 1989. The attack was carried out by the presidential guard under the leadership of Denard. Supreme Court President Saïd Mohammad Djohar took over as head of state.
The takeover was internationally condemned, and France sent military forces to put pressure on Denard, who left the country and traveled to South Africa. French soldiers then remained in the country. The largest political groups formed a transitional government. A new presidential election was held in 1990, when Djohar was elected. A coup attempt in the fall of 1990 failed. A national conference on the country’s political future was held in 1992, ahead of multi-party elections. The period was characterized by violence, which was mainly due to deteriorating social and economic conditions. Parts of the opposition went on a boycott, and parties that supported Djohar gained a majority in parliament. New elections were held in 1993, and the president’s party, the Rassemblement pour la démocratie et le renouveau (RDR), won the majority.
In September 1995, Denard was behind another coup in the Comoros; large parts of the country’s army joined the mercenaries. President Djohar was deposed and exiled to La Réunion, while Denard deployed a military command led by Captain Ayouba Combo, a former ally. During the coup, a ship that Denard had purchased from Norwegian Telenor was used. The legitimate authorities of the Comoros asked France to intervene. 900 French soldiers were landed and the coup makers surrendered after Combo formally transferred power to two political leaders, Mohamed Taki and Saïd Ali Kemal.
Following the French intervention, Prime Minister Caabi Elyachourtu Mohamed declared himself interim head of state, under the Constitution. Djohar returned to the Comoros in January 1996 after negotiations with the government, but only with a symbolic presidential power. In the presidential election that year, he was replaced by Mohamed Taki, who got 64.2 percent of the vote; Djohar didn’t ask. In the parliamentary elections, Taki’s party gained the Rassemblement national pour le development (RND) majority; Most opposition parties boycott the election.
Taki died in 1998, and Tadjidine Ben Saïd Massoundi was appointed acting president. Before a new election was held, the defense chief, Colonel Assoumani Azali, seized power in a new coup. An attempt to overthrow him in a military coup in 2000 failed. From 2000, national reconciliation was sought, and after mediation from the Organization for African Unity OAU, a reconciliation agreement was signed in 2001.
The separatists, especially in Nzwani, contributed from the late 1990s to the political crisis in the Comoros. A new constitution was passed in a 2001 referendum, when the country’s name was changed to Union des Comores. The new constitution stipulated that the office of president should be interchanged between the three islands that make up the union; the same applies to the Vice President. In addition to a parliament on each of the autonomous islands, a national assembly was established with responsibility for common foreign policy and defense.
At the federal presidential election in 2002, Azali stood as an independent candidate and was elected president of the Union. Mohamed Bacar, Mohamed Saïd Fazul and Bakari Abdallah Boina were then elected regional presidents of Nzwani, Mwali and Njazidja respectively – and formed regional governments. In 2004 elections were held both for regional parliaments and for the Comoros (federal) National Assembly.
2006-07, presidential elections were held for two rounds: The election of Union president in 2006 was won by independent candidate Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi from Nzwani. In the ensuing election campaign in the three autonomous parts of the Union, Mohamed Abdoulwahab was elected to Njazidja and Mohamed Ali Said to Mwali. At Nzwani, the opposition candidates boycotted the election, and Mohamed Bacar declared himself re-elected; the election was declared invalid by the Union Government as well as the AU.
The inauguration of President Sambi represented the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in the Comoros – which has experienced 21 coups and coup attempts. The person responsible for four of them, the French mercenary Bob Denard, was tried in 2006 in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison. However, Denard died in 2007, without having served a sentence.
A constitutional crisis arose in August 1997, when two of the three islands – first Nzwani (Anjouan), then Mwali (Mohéli) – independently decided to break out of the federation with the largest island and government headquarters, Njazidja (Grande Comore). The political elite of Nzwani and Mwali believed the two islands were economically and politically neglected by the central government and wanted to join the old colonial power of France ; like the fourth island, Mayotte.
However, France did not want to take any responsibility for its old possessions, and Nzwani, under the leadership of the Mouvement populaire d’Anjouan (MPA), declared itself independent with its own government. The central government sent a smaller military force to Nzwani to regain power, but failed after probably a hundred people lost their lives. Inside the Nzwani independence movement, there were contradictions, which resulted in, among other things, an unsuccessful attack on self-proclaimed President Foundi Abdullah Ibrahim in 1998, which led to clashes between his supporters and former Prime Minister Chamasse Saïd Omar. The riots led to about 60 killed; several thousand fled.
A reconciliation conference was held in 1997, and a peace agreement between the Nzwani rebels and the Moroni government was signed under the supervision of the OAU, but never complied. Plans for a peacekeeping force from the OAU were rejected by Nzwani, but observers were nevertheless sent to the country. Under the auspices of the OAU, an agreement was drawn up in Madagascar in 1999 between the parties that laid the foundation for the establishment of the union in 2001. Nzwani representatives did not sign, with riots in Moroni as a result. As a result of the subsequent coup, OAU withdrew its observers and threatened sanctions.
Parties that want a full break with the Comoros gained a majority in 1999 in Nzwani’s self- governing parliament. The island’s management did not sign the Madagascar agreement, and the OAU threatened with measures if it was not signed. OAU also sent military observers to the country; these were withdrawn in May 1999. In a referendum on Nzwani in 2000, a clear majority failed to rejoin the federation, prompting the OAU to threaten with extensive sanctions. In response to the pressure, a new referendum was held on Nzwani, which confirmed the demand for full independence. In the fall of 2001, two military coups took place on Nzwani. Based on a peace agreement from 2003, a new African peace operation was launched in the Comoros under the auspices of the AU, after mediation from AU and South Africa.
When Mohamed Bacar refused to step down before the 2007 Nzwani presidential election, Union soldiers were sent to the island, but were defeated by Bacar’s loyal gendarmerie. South African police forces were sent to the Comoros on assignment from the AU to prevent unrest, but not to Nzwani, where the airport was blocked. When Bacar made a delayed election in 2007 and declared itself its winner, relations with the Union authorities deteriorated.
In March 2008, the AU launched a military operation in support of the Comoros government, and landed troops from Sudan and Tanzania, as well as Comorian units, on Mzwani. Bacar sought refuge in the French possession of Mayotte. Extradition claims from the Comoros were rejected by France, who kept him in detention at La Réunion ; Bacar’s application for French asylum was rejected. After a trial, he was granted a stay in Benin.
The Comoros have maintained a close relationship with the former colonial power France after independence. The relationship has at times been tense, especially because of the question of Mayotte – which has remained French territory, despite repeated demands by the Comoros that it must be incorporated into the Republic. Mayotte is considered of significant strategic value to France, which has a military base there.
In 2009, a referendum was held on Mayotte on the future of the island, with an overwhelming majority voting for Mayotte to become a French overseas ministry. This happened on March 31, 2011, but with a transitional period of 20-25 years to introduce all legal and social systems that apply in France. The Comoros still claim sovereignty over the island. Relations with France have also been strained due to supposed French participation in several coups, as well as after the escaped Nzwami President Mohamed Bacar sought refuge in French territory and an extradition request from the Comoros was rejected.
From the mid-1980s, the Comorian authorities established close relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa, and in 1983 President Abdallah secretly visited the country. More recently, South Africa has mediated in the conflict on the island. In 1993, the Comoros joined the Arab League. After the coup in 1999, both France and the United States withdrew their military aid to the Comoros; France resumed cooperation in 2002.