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Revolution! Another coup in the world's most unstable country

According to legend, the Comoros islands have always had an explosive history. Claire Soares reports on the latest eruption

Wednesday 26 March 2008 01:00 GMT
(Independent Graphics)

Africa's One-Day War had been coming for weeks. And just in case the renegade colonel digging in his heels on the remote Indian Ocean island was in any doubt, enemy helicopters skimmed the craggy peaks and lush forests on the eve of the assault, dropping leaflets warning of imminent military action. When the invasion was finally launched yesterday, resistance was paltry and within hours the rebel leader was on the run, reportedly disguised as a woman and trying to escape to sea in a small canoe.

It seems no plot is too crazy for the Comoros islands. This is, after all, a country that used to be a pirate haven; a country that has suffered some 20 coups or attempted coups in the past three decades; not to mention an archipelago that became the spiritual home of the mercenary widely believed to have provided the inspiration for Frederick Forsyth's classic tale of guns for hire in Africa, The Dogs of War.

The trio of islands, nestled off the Africa's east coast between Mozambique and Madagascar, takes its name from "qamar" - the Arabic word for moon. According to one local legend, the island chain only came into being thanks to King Solomon. He ordered one of his mine workers to carry a sparkling ring to the Queen of Sheba, but the errand boy dropped it into the sea onto the way, creating a fiery inferno that became the Karthala volcano, which in turn gave birth to Grand Comore, the largest of the three islands.

Today, the Indian Ocean archipelago blends the warmth of its African location and the Arab traditions of its first settlers with a flick of French chic from its colonial masters thrown in for good measure. The glossy tourist brochures bill them as the "Perfume Islands", in homage to the vanilla, cloves and aromatic ylang-ylang flowers that invade the nostrils of any visitor.

The Comoros islands also boast picture-postcard and largely deserted beaches; dramatic volcanic peaks that plunge straight into the surf; and an array of rare wildlife from green turtles, that have shells the size of suitcases, to the intriguing dugongs - marine mammals whose closest living relative is the elephant. Yet the country has not been able to fully cash in on tourism, because, as the old cliché goes, there's trouble in paradise.

The archipelago must have had a sense of irony to have adopted "The Union" as its national anthem after independence from France in 1975, as it has struggled to function with any collective harmony since. When the revolving door of overthrown leaders has paused for breath, there have been internal squabbles between the three enclaves, escalating as far as declarations of secession.

This time around, it is the second biggest island, Anjouan, that is at the centre of the Comoros storm. Anjouan has been viewed as a renegade province for almost a year after the regional leaderCol Mohamed Bacar, who decided to forge ahead with a election last June-- even though it had been been officially postponed -- and declare himself the winner.

Ever since then he has been calling the shots, much to the annoyance of the Comoros President Ahmed Sambi, who some say delayed the 2007 poll in revenge for his plane being refused permission to land on the island during the election campaign.

Over the past month, troops from the incongruously titled National Development Army have been massing next door on the archipelago's third island, Moheli, in a bid to smoke Col Bacar out of his hole and force him towards a diplomatic solution. Back-up arrived in the form of 1,300 soldiers from the African Union, which has a traditional aversion to any secessionist moves on a continent where the borders were drawn quite arbitrarily by the old colonial powers.

And still Col Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme and one-time coup leader, remained defiant. But yesterday Mr Sambi's patience ran out.

As tropical dawn broke, the Comoros and AU soldiers disembarked onto their Anjouan beachhead to wrest back control of the rogue island. Their arrival was hardly a Normandy surprise to the 300,000-strong population, who had been "love bombed" with leaflets the previous evening and warned not to stray too far from their homes. Children were advised to stay off school; traders to avoid the markets; fisherman to moor their boats; and farmers to abandon their fields until further notice.

Residents woke yesterday to the sound of explosions and gunfire. But the soldiers quickly took charge of the capital Mutsamudu, as well as the port, runway and other key towns, bringing hundreds of people thronging into the streets, some of them chanting "Bacar is a dog" and "We have won".

"Anjouan island is under total control of the army," Major Ahmed Sidi declared within hours of the invasion. "So far we have no dead or wounded to lament. The rebel chiefs have all run away." Later reports surfaced that Col Bacar was dressed as a woman and was believed to be searching for a boat to whisk him away to the nearby island of Mayotte that is still under France's rule.

It is not the first time Anjouan - the size of the Isle of Wight but with double the population -- has been the troublesome Comoros child. In 1997, the island actually made a formal declaration of independence and troops were dispatched to prevent a secession. That time, without the AU reinforcements used yesterday, the army was firmly routed. A tense four years followed, which saw coup and counter coup, featuring none other than Col Bacar. Eventually a new constitution was brokered that gave the individual islands greater autonomy and a regional president but preserved the union. The colonel was elected as Anjouan's leader at the ballot box in 2002 and all was quiet. Until now.

For the islanders themselves the latestchange in the halls of power is seen as more of a personal feud than any grand struggle to revolutionise one of the world's poorest countries, whose sputtering economy relies on fishing and agriculture, producing a GDP per head of less than $2,000 a year.

And while the AU gave the green light to recapturing the island with military might, not everyone on the African continent was supportive of the assault. South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose government had tried to help mediate an end to the crisis, made no attempt to hide his disappointment:"I think it is very unfortunate that the military action has taken place because it takes the Comoros back to this history of force," he said.

For those not as familiar with the tropical isles as President Mbeki, it takes the briefest of history lessons to prove that, when it comes to the Comoros, the phrase "another day, another coup" is not too much of an exaggeration.

And the warning signs were there from early on. Ahmed Abdallah, the country's first post-independence president who took power in July 1975, lasted a political nanosecond. His reign didn't even make it into a second month before he was toppled in a coup.

It is at this point that one of the murkiest and most fantastical characters ever to set foot on the archipelago enters the fray. Bob Denard, the French mercenary dubbed the "Pirate of the Republic", was to develop something of an obsession with the Comoros, that started with him helping to depose Abdallah in 1975. Thereplacement, Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar, did not survive long either. In 1976, he was booted out of power by Ali Soilih, whose government's attempts to drag the islands into the 20th century were compared to the efforts of a band of tearaway teenagers - an accusation not helped by the fact that his chief of police was just 15.

It was not long before Denard, the archetypal 'Dog of War' decided it was time to bring back Abdallah, the man he had kicked out not three years before. In May 1978, Soilih was shot, allegedly while trying to escape. Denard delivered the corpse to the dead man's sister and Abdallah returned to the presidential palace. The French mercenary stayed on the islands, building up his business interests, adopting Comoros citizenship, converting to Islam and taking the name Said Mustapha Mahdjoub as well as a local wife.

There followed what was, at least in Comoros terms, an eternity of stability. For 11 whole years Abdallah stayed in charge. But he perhaps should have been mindful of the local saying, that scorpions always follow their nature. For in 1989, a member of his presidential guard assassinated him in cold blood and Denard was rumoured to have organised the hit. It was an accusation he hotly denied but France, long suspected of giving the mercenary tacit approval for his operations in its former colony, had had enough, and forced him to leave the islands.

The Comoros lure proved too strong for Denard to resist, however,even when he was bordering on pension-collecting age. In 1995 he was back for one last gamble aboard a miniflotilla of inflatable dinghies. He managed to capture Abdallah's successor Said Djohar, in the presidential palace. But times had changed, coups were no longer viewed as a ' necessary evil' and within a week, France had sent 3,000 troops to tackle the mercenary band and free Djohar. Appearing in a Paris court a decade later, in 2006, Denard was given a suspended five-year jail term for his last failed coup. But by this point the septuagenarian was suffering from Alzheimer's so he was not forced to serve time. He died a year later.

Yesterday's convulsions in the Comoros would no doubt have made the veteran mercenary raise a smile. Taking power in the former pirate archipelago has been relatively easy, but as Denard knew only too well, keeping it usually proves to be a lot harder.

And last night, somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was the ousted Colonel Bacar, in a dress, remembering his good old days. And -- if history is anything to go by -- probably plotting his return.

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