Obituary: Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim

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MOHAMED TAKI Abdoulkarim was elected president of the Comoros Islands in 1996 and was the fourth president of the Indian Ocean Islamic republic since its independence from France in 1975. He was the third to die in office.

The Comoros Islands have had a stormy history in recent years and the announcement of Taki's death was quickly followed by assurances that he had died a natural death, having just returned home from an official journey to Turkey. It has been estimated that there have been 17 different coups d'etat, either successful or unsuccessful, since 1975 and the French army has been obliged to intervene in the islands to restore order on two occasions, in 1989 and 1995.

Taki played an important role in this history. Born in Mbeni, on Great Comoro, in 1936, he was educated as an engineer, partly in France. According to the French constitution of the Fifth Republic, the Comoro Archipelago was one of the seven Territoires d'Outremer and as such had the right to send deputies and senators to the French Parliament. Taki built up his influence in his home region and was elected deputy in 1967.

He believed in independence and exerted his influence to that effect, which met with the agreement of Valery Giscard d'Estaing when he became President of France in 1974. The following December a referendum in the islands voted overwhelmingly for independence. But the French government decided in June 1975 to seek notification island by island.

This was done in order that the island of Mayotte which, historically speaking, had for long claimed independence from Madagascar and from the Comoros, could choose to remain part of France. In February 1976 Mayotte voted in favour of remaining French and the following May it was given a particular status in the French Union, being declared a territorial collectivity.

This example of French high-handedness was deeply resented amongst Comoros politicians. Taki was one of those who wished to pursue unity and he became one of the leaders of the National Union for Democracy in the Comoros Islands. He was Minister for the Interior in the first independent government, but the country soon became the scene of a number of coups d'etat, power being seized sometimes with the support of the army, sometimes as the result of crowd movements.

Taki was accused of having attempted to seize power illegally in 1976 and was imprisoned. As a result of another coup d'etat he was freed in 1978 and became President of the National Assembly for the next six years. Then, quarrelling with the President, Ahmed Abdallah, Taki fled to France. He returned in 1989 with the assistance of 200 French troops after Abdallah's assassination.

Turbulence continued. In 1990 Taki claimed that he was the real victor in the presidential elections and that a false victor had been proclaimed. Once again he took refuge in France. In 1992 he returned, and took up the office of Prime Minister, but within a few months he was accused of having the support of foreign financiers and the mercenary troops who had become prominent in the country.

In 1992 he was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to seize power and was forced to go into hiding. In September 1995 the president, Said Ahmed Djohar, who had been elected in 1993, was ousted by the mercenary military leader Colonel Bob Denard, who called on Taki to be Co-President. The French Army then intervened and arrested Denard, taking him to prison in Paris.

But Djohar was not allowed to stand in the presidential elections of March 1996 which were won by Taki. Taki dissolved the National Assembly and held legislative elections in December that year. He claimed that these confirmed him in power, although they had been boycotted by several political groups.

A new crisis occurred in 1997, when the people of the small island of Anjouan declared that they wished to return to the status of being a French colony. They claimed that Taki's government neglected them and that Great Comoro received all the economic favours of the administration, based in the capital, Moroni. Taki attempted to negotiate a compromise by which Anjouan would have special powers, but the population painted itself in the red, white and blue of the French Republic and rejected Moroni. They were clearly affected by the prosperity of nearby Mayotte, and the cry of "La France pour tous" was taken up in another poverty-stricken island, that of the small Moheli.

Paris declined the flattering offer of recovering part of the French empire and the question remains unresolved. Taki suffered from these disputes as well as from quarrels amongst Islamic leaders. His method of dealing with his many problems was to make certain of his home base (and he was often accused of favouring Mberri and the region of Hamahame) and to seek support from abroad. He made 10 official visits to other countries in the course of 1998.

His successor, Said Massounde, is from Anjouan, thus encouraging hopes of a solution to at least one of the many problems that beset these islands.

Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, politician; born Mbeni, Great Comoro 20 February 1936; President, Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands 1996-98; died Beit Salam, Moroni 6 November 1998.