For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Union of Comoros
Area: 2,171 sq. km. (838 sq. mi.); slightly less than half the size of Delaware. Major islands--Grande Comore (1,025 sq. km.), Anjouan (424 sq. km.), Mayotte (374 sq. km.), and Moheli (211 sq. km.).
Cities: Capital--Moroni (pop. 30,000); Mutsamudu (pop. 20,000).
Climate: Tropical marine.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Comorian(s).
Population (2001 est.): 596,202. Mayotte (1990 est.)--70,000.
Annual growth rate (2001 est.): 3.02%.
Ethnic groups: Antalote, Cafre, Makoa, Oimatsaha, Sakalava.
Religions: Sunni Muslim 98%, Roman Catholic 2%.
Languages: Shikomoro (a Swahili-Arabic blend), Arabic, French.
Education: Attendance--60% primary, 34% secondary. Literacy--57.3%.
Health: Life expectancy--60 yrs. Infant mortality rate--84.07/1,000.
Work force (1996): 144,500. Agriculture--80%.
Independence: July 6, 1975 (Mayotte remains under French administration).
Constitution: Adopted by referendum on December 23, 2001.
Branches: Executive--national president; regional island presidents. Legislative--National Assembly. Judicial--traditional Muslim and codified law from French sources.
Political parties: 17 political parties.
Suffrage: Universal adult.
GDP (purchasing power parity): $419 million.
Annual growth rate: 0.5%.
Per capita income: $720.
Agriculture (40% of GDP): Products--vanilla, cloves, perfume essences, copra, banana, cassava, coconuts.
Services (56% of GDP): Commerce, tourism.
Industry (4% of GDP): Types--perfume distillation.
Trade: Exports (1999 est.)--$7.9 million: vanilla, cloves, perfume essences, copra. Major markets--France, Germany. Imports (1998 est.)--$35.84 million: rice, petroleum, meat, wheat flour, cotton textiles, cement. Major suppliers--France 38%, Pakistan 13%, Kenya 8%, South Africa 8%.
The Comorians inhabiting Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli (86% of the population) share African-Arab origins. Islam is the dominant religion, and Koranic schools for children reinforce its influence. Although Arab culture is firmly established throughout the archipelago, a substantial minority of the citizens of Mayotte (the Mahorais) are Catholic and have been strongly influenced by French culture.
The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Arabic also are spoken. About 57% of the population is literate.
Over the centuries, the islands were invaded by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Portuguese explorers visited the archipelago in 1505. "Shirazi" Arab migrants introduced Islam at about the same time. Between 1841 and 1912, France established colonial rule over Grande Comore, Anjouan, Mayotte, and Moheli and placed the islands under the administration of the governor general of Madagascar. Later, French settlers, French-owned companies, and wealthy Arab merchants established a plantation-based economy that now uses about one-third of the land for export crops. After World War II, the islands became a French overseas territory and were represented in France's National Assembly. Internal political autonomy was granted in 1961. Agreement was reached with France in 1973 for Comoros to become independent in 1978. On July 6, 1975, however, the Comorian parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence. The deputies of Mayotte abstained. As a result, the Comorian Government has effective control over only Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Mayotte remains under French administration.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The Union of Comoros is ruled by former Army Col. President Azali Assoumani. The political situation in Comoros has been extremely fluid since the country's independence in 1975, subject to the volatility of coups and political insurrection. Colonel Azali seized power in a bloodless coup in April 1999, overthrowing interim President Tadjiddine Ben Said Massounde, who himself had held the office since the death of democratically elected President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim in November 1998. In May 1999, Azali decreed a constitution that gave him both executive and legislative powers. Bowing somewhat to international criticism, Azali appointed a civilian Prime Minister, Bainrifi Tarmidi, in December 1999; however, Azali retained the mantle of head of state and army commander. In December 2000, Azali named a new civilian Prime Minister, Hamada Madi, and formed a new civilian cabinet. When Azali took power he had pledged to step down in 2000 and relinquish control to a democratically elected president. Instead, in 2001, Azali resigned from the military and ran as a civilian candidate for the national presidency. He was elected in 2002 in flawed but fair elections.
In a separate nod to pressure to fully restore civilian rule, the government organized several committees to compose a new constitution, including the August 2000 National Congress and November 2000 Tripartite Commission. The opposition parties initially refused to participate in the Tripartite Commission, but on February 17, 2001 representatives of the government, Anjouan separatists, the political opposition, and civil society organizations signed a "Framework Accord for Reconciliation in Comoros," brokered by the Organization for African Unity (OAU), now the African Union. The accord called for the creation of a new Tripartite Commission for National Reconciliation to develop a "New Comorian Entity" with a new constitution. Although the commission set June 2001 as its goal for completing the constitution and December 2001 for the national elections, disagreements over procedure and goals delayed completion of the draft constitution. On December 23, 2001, the draft constitution was adopted by referendum.
The African Union and the Francophonie organization have encouraged continued negotiation over the outstanding fiscal and political issues dividing the national government and the regional island authorities. The principal disagreements concern distribution of national revenues and authority over law enforcement and national security. Elections for the individual island assemblies and the National Assembly were completed in March and April 2004, respectively, and were deemed generally free and fair by international observers. The National Assembly is tasked with finalizing a constitution.
Principal Government Officials
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Aboudou Soefou
Representative to the United States and Ambassador to the United Nations--Mahmoud M. Aboud
Comoros maintains a mission to the United States at 336 E. 45th St., 2d floor, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-750-1637).
Comoros, with an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) per capita income of about $700, is among the world's poorest and least developed nations. Although the quality of the land differs from island to island, most of the widespread lava-encrusted soil formations are unsuited to agriculture. As a result, most of the inhabitants make their living from subsistence agriculture and fishing.
Agriculture, involving more than 80% of the population and 40% of the gross domestic product, provides virtually all foreign exchange earnings. Services including tourism, construction, and commercial activities constitute the remainder of the GDP. Plantations engage a large proportion of the population in producing the islands' major cash crops for export: vanilla, cloves, perfume essences, and copra. Comoros is the world's leading producer of essence of ylang-ylang, used in manufacturing perfume. It also is the world's second-largest producer of vanilla. Principal food crops are coconuts, bananas, and cassava. Foodstuffs constitute 32% of total imports.
The country lacks the infrastructure necessary for development. Some villages are not linked to the main road system or at best are connected by tracks usable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The islands' ports are rudimentary, although a deepwater facility functions in Anjouan. Only small vessels can approach the existing quays in Moroni on Grande Comore, despite improvements. Long-distance, ocean-going ships must lie offshore and be unloaded by smaller boats; during the cyclone season, this procedure is dangerous, and ships are reluctant to call at the island. Most freight is sent first to Mombasa, Kenya or the island of Reunion and transshipped from there.
France, Comoros' major trading partner, finances small projects only. The United States receives a growing percentage of Comoros' exports but supplies only a negligible fraction of its imports (less than 1%).
Comoros has an international airport at Hahaya on Grande Comore. Comoros has its own currency, the Comorian Franc, which is currently valued at 437 CF = U.S. $1.
The military resources of the Comoros consist of a small standing army and a 500-member police force, as well as a 500-member defense force. A defense treaty with France provides naval resources for protection of territorial waters, training of Comorian military personnel, and air surveillance. France maintains a small maritime base and a Foreign Legion contingent on Mayotte.
In November 1975, Comoros became the 143rd member of the United Nations. The new nation was defined as consisting of the entire archipelago, despite the fact that France maintains control over Mayotte.
Comoros also is a member of the African Union, the European Development Fund, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the African Development Bank.
The United States recognized the Comorian Government in 1977. The two countries enjoy friendly relations. The U.S. closed its Embassy in Moroni in 1993 and is now represented by a nonresident Ambassador in neighboring Mauritius.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials (all officers resident in Port Louis, Mauritius)
Charge d'Affaires--Stephen Schwartz
Management Officer--Judith Semilota
Public Affairs Officer--Marjorie Harrison
Political Officer--James Liddle
Economic-Commercial and Consular Officer--Dewitt Conklin
Regional Security Officer -- David Walsh