1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.5
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 5


The Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros, a tiny Indian Ocean islands nation, was shaken by the November death of President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim as it struggled with the continuing secession of Anjouan and Mohéli slands. High Council President Tadjidine Ben Said Massonde will serve as interim president until elections early in 1999. Wracked by coups and rebellions since independence in 1975, the former French colony sought mediation by the Organization of African Unity to end the rebellion, but also warned that it would seek external military intervention against the separatists if the talks fail. Anjouan rebels are split between those who have declared independence and those seek to be repossessed by their former colonial masters. Both groups cite neglect and discrimination by the central government on Grand Comore island. Separatists on Mohéli have also declared independence, but appear more willing to compromise. Mayotte Island, the fourth island of the Comorian archipelago, voted to remain a French overseas territory in a 1974 referendum and today enjoys a far higher, French-subsidized standard of living. President Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim has faced mounting internal unrest due to the deteriorating economy and mounting criticism of his handling of the Anjouan crisis. Violence by striking students and protests by teachers have been met by police violence and arrests.

Since independence, two mercenary invasions and 17 other coups and attempted coups have shaken the Comoros. France reestablished its military presence in 1996 at President Taki's invitation. Divisive personal, clan, and inter-island rivalries persist.

Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahman, the Comoros' first president, was overthrown by an army coup shortly after independence. French mercenary Bob Denard aided Abdallah's successful counter-coup in 1978. With Denard's backing as head of the army and presidential guard, Abdallah was returned unopposed in 1978 and 1984 one-party show elections. In 1989, he was allegedly assassinated by his own troops on Denard's orders. Subsequent unrest drew French military intervention, and Denard fled the country.

In 1990, in the country's first contested elections, Supreme Court Justice Said Mohamed Djohara won a six-year term as president. A September 1995 attempted coup by elements of the Comoros security forces, which were aided by foreign mercenaries and again led by Bob Denard, was reversed by French soldiers. President Djohar was flown into exile and not allowed to resume office.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

March 1996 presidential and November 1996 parliamentary elections allowed Comorians to exercise the constitutional right to change their government democratically in open elections for the first time. Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, leader of the National Union for Democracy won the Presidency in a run-off election with more than 60 percent of the vote. The polls were viewed as the most fair and efficient in Comoros' history. A new constitution adopted in an October 1996 referendum increased the role of Islamic law and reduced local autonomy, which had helped to spark the Anjouan rebellion. The conservative Islamic main opposition party also holds several seats in the National Assembly. The government's current constitutional status is unclear, however, since President Taki's assumption of emergency powers in 1997 required new elections that have not yet been scheduled. Many constitutionally mandated institutions exist only on paper.

The ruling Rally for Democracy and Renewal has split since President Taki's death. Defeated presidential candidate Abbas Djoussouf heads an opposition alliance. The secessionist movement on Anjouan is led by Abdullah Ibrahim. In July, armed clashes erupted between the competing Anjouan factions.

The Comorian legal system is based on Islamic law and remnants of the French legal code. Islam is the official state religion. Non-Muslims are permitted to practice, but not proselytize. The opposition and the country's few independent newspapers have strongly criticized Taki's use of decree power. The largely independent judiciary is headed by a Supreme Court. Most minor disputes are settled by village elders or a civilian court of first instance. Harsh prison conditions are marked by severe overcrowding and the lack of sanitation, medical attention, and proper diet. The Comoros Human Rights Association operates in a restrained manner reportedly because its civil-servant members fear that strong criticism of the government could cost them their jobs.

Freedoms of expression and association are not constitutionally guaranteed. The semiofficial weekly Al-Watwan and several private newspapers sharply critical of the government are published in the capital. All, however, are believed to exercise extensive self-censorship. A few private television and radio stations operate without overt governmental interference. Transmissions from French-controlled Mayotte are easily received, and some people have access to satellite and other international broadcasting. Foreign publications are readily available.

Trade unions and strikes are permitted, but collective bargaining is rare in the country's small formal sector. Women possess constitutional protections despite the influence of Islamic law. In practice, however, they enjoy little political or economic power and have far fewer opportunities for education or salaried employment. Comorians are among the world's poorest people, and the ongoing secessionist crisis has further damaged an already tenuous economy. Remittances from the large overseas Comorian community sustain many families. The country relies heavily on foreign aid.

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