Background Notes: Comoros

Contributed By RealAdventures

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 Malagasy are also spoken. About 48% 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.

The present government of President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected in March 1996 in internationally monitored elections that observers generally considered free and fair. Taki's election followed a short-lived coup by foreign mercenaries in October 1995 that ousted then-President Said Mohamed Djohar. French troops intervened, arresting the coup leaders and placing Djohar under virtual house arrest in the neighboring French territory of Reunion. An interim government ruled for five months prior to the March elections. The Taki government has taken several steps, including banning the sale of alcohol to Comorian residents, designed to appeal to the country's Islamic majority. The government has also indicated its desire to strengthen relations with the United States and France.

President Taki won an overwhelming majority in the March elections. He promptly replaced many ranking civil servants associated with the Djohar regime and believed to have been extremely corrupt. Their replacements have yet to establish a track record, but many observers believe widespread corruption continues. There were no reports of civil strife in the first nine months following the French intervention that ended the October 1995 coup; the March 1996 elections were conducted peacefully with no reports of violence. Civil unrest broke out in early 1997 as civil servants demanded payment of salary arrears. At President Taki's request, France agreed to maintain a small troop presence in Comoros. While Taki appears to be more popular and able than his predecessor, democratic institutions in Comoros are weak and political life will remain unstable until they are strengthened and the economy improves.

National Security
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 troop presence in Comoros at government request. France maintains a small maritime base and a foreign legion contingent on Mayotte.

President--Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Said Omar Said Ahmed
Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations--vacant

Comoros maintains a mission to the United States at 336 E. 45th St., 2d floor, New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-972-8010).

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 34% 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 deep-water facility was recently completed on Anjouan. Only small vessels can approach the existing quays in Moroni on Grande Comore, despite recent 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 or Reunion and transshipped from there.

France, Comoros' major trading partner, also provides direct budgetary support essential to the government's daily operations. 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. It is a member of the franc zone (Communaute Financiere Africaine--CFA), with an exchange rate of 428 CFA francs = U.S. $1 (1991).

In November 1975, Comoros became the 143d 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 Organization of African Unity, 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 United States closed its embassy in Moroni in 1993 and is now represented by a non-resident ambassador in neighboring Mauritius.

Ambassador--Harold W. Geisel (resident in Port Louis, Mauritius)
Administrative/Consular Officer--vacant

The address of the United States embassy in Mauritius is Rogers House, John F. Kennedy Street, Port Louis. (tel: 230-208-2347; fax: 230-208-9534). The mailing address for the embassy is Department of State, Washington, DC 20521-2520.

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