One of Africa’s smallest and poorest countries, the Union of the Comoros (“Islands of the Moon” in Arabic), declared independence from France on July 6th, 1975. The archipelago of 1,861 square kilometers is located at the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean. Originally made up of four islands, on December 22nd 1974 Anjouan, Moheli and Grande Comore voted to become independent, while Mayotte decided to remain with the motherland. This decision was never accepted by the new rulers in the capital, Moroni.
The population of 870,000 results from a blend of Arabs, Persians, Indonesians, Africans, Indians and some Europeans that settled between the 8th and 19th centuries. Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the islands served as a regional spice trade hub. Due to the strong Arab and Persian influence, 98% of Comorans are Sunni Muslims. While the median age is 20.5 years, there are 467 people per square meter (compared to 94 in Spain).
First depicted by Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro on a European map in 1527, the French in 1886 made the Comoros a protectorate and in 1912 into a French colony administered from nearby Madagascar. Since 1947 they were represented in French parliament as an overseas territory and enjoyed autonomy from 1961 on.
From the very beginning the Comoros endured great political instability, reflected in 19 coup d’ etats. The first president, Ahmed Abdallah Abderemane (1919-1989) only lasted six weeks in power and was assassinated during his second term. After the islands of Anjouan and Moheli in 1997 broke off from Grande Comoros, in 2001 a power-sharing agreement was reached, in which the federal presidency rotates among the three islands, each maintaining its local government.
The African Union (AU) and Comoran soldiers in 2008 seized the island of Anjouan, ending another secession attempt. Afterwards, the situation has somehow stabilized and in 2018 a new Constitution was approved by popular vote.
An estimated 300,000 Comorans moved abroad, with the flow peaking in the mid-1980s. Their remittances, mainly from France, represent about 25% of the gross domestic product (GDP), though are mostly spent on private consumption and don’t contribute to economic development or poverty reduction.
The combination of a rapidly increasing population, combined with limited land and resources as well as inadequate transportation links, perpetuates widespread misery. The low educational level of the labor force in a nation with no universities and a literacy rate of less than 60% results in an economy at subsistence level.
It also contributes to a heavy dependence on foreign grants, and technical assistance from its former colonial power that remains a key trading partner and donor. While the public sector is one of the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa, opportunities for private commercial and industrial enterprises are limited due to systemic corruption.
The export income, mainly derived from vanilla, cloves and ylang ylang, the flower of the Cananga tree used for perfume essence, is often disrupted by natural disasters and an ongoing electricity crisis. Despite still being an agrarian society, roughly 70% of its food, mainly rice and dried vegetables, needs to be imported.
Poor job prospects motivate thousands of Comorans each year to illegally migrate to nearby renegade Mayotte, nowadays a French “overseas department and region”, which sounds better than “colony”. There they often end up in shantytowns. One in particular, located in the Kawéni commune in the capital Mamoudzou, counts as the “largest slum in France.” It’s a sea of shacks where predominantly youngsters wait indefinitely for jobs, shelter and for obvious reasons naturalization.
Since early 2014, Mayotte officially counts as an outermost region of the European Union. Although much more prosperous than its neighbors, it still faces enormous problems: 84% of the population live under the poverty line of €959 per month and household, 40% of all dwellings are huts made out of corrugated metal sheets and 29% have no running water, 34% of the inhabitants aged between 15 and 64 do not have a job and 48% of the population are (stranded) foreign nationals who are keen to find a backdoor to Europe.
Last, but not least in Mayotte, on paper an integral part of France, the majority doesn’t even speak French as a first language, but two dialects of African and Malayo-Polynesian origin, Shimaore and Kibosy, which are completely unrelated to each other. This fact completes the negative picture of the Comoros as a total mess and a source of unrest in a Europe that is less and less capable and/or willing to defend itself.
P.D.: Surprisingly for a conservative Islamic society, there’s a two-year voluntary male and female military service.