THE FEDERAL ISLAMIC REPUBLIC of the Comoros is an archipelago situated in the western Indian Ocean, about midway between the island of Madagascar and the coast of East Africa at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. The archipelago has served in past centuries as a stepping stone between the African continent and Madagascar, as a southern outpost for Arab traders operating along the East African coast, and as a center of Islamic culture. The name "Comoros" is derived from the Arabic kamar or kumr, meaning "moon," although this name was first applied by Arab geographers to Madagascar. In the nineteenth century, Comoros was absorbed into the French overseas empire, but it unilaterally proclaimed independence from France on July 6, 1975.
Comoros has had a troubled and uncertain course as an independent state. Mahoré, or Mayotte, the easternmost of the archipelago's four main islands, including Njazidja (formerly Grande Comore), Mwali (formerly Mohéli), and Nzwani (formerly Anjouan), remains under French administration, a majority of its voters having chosen to remain tied to France in referendums held in 1974 and 1976. By the mid-1990s, the integration of Mahoré into Comoros remained an official objective of the Comoran government, but it had taken a back seat to more pressing concerns, such as developing a viable national economy. Meanwhile, the Mahorais were making the most of their close relationship with France. They accepted large amounts of developmental aid and took an intense interest in French political events. Although South Africa played a major role in the Comoran economy in the 1980s, by the early 1990s France was the island republic's foremost patron, providing economic aid, political guidance, and national security.
Comoros is densely populated and dedicates only limited amounts of land to food production. Thus, it depends heavily on imports of rice, vegetables, and meat. Its economy is based on the production of cash crops, principally ylang-ylang (perfume essence), vanilla, and cloves, all of which have experienced wild price swings in recent years, thus complicating economic planning and contributing to a burgeoning trade deficit. A growing dependence on foreign aid, often provided to meet day-to-day needs for food, funds, and government operations, further clouds economic prospects. Comoros suffers the ills of a developing nation in particularly severe form: food shortages and inadequate diets, poor health standards, a high rate of population growth, widespread illiteracy, and international indebtedness.
The country has endured political and natural catastrophes. Less than a month after independence, the government of the first Comoran president, Ahmed Abdallah, was overthrown; in 1978 foreign mercenaries carried out a second coup, overthrowing the radical regime of Ali Soilih and returning Abdallah to power. Indigenous riots in Madagascar in 1976 led to the repatriation of an estimated 17,000 Comorans. The eruption of the volcano, Kartala, on Njazidja in 1977 displaced some 2,000 people and possibly hastened the downfall of the Soilih regime. Cyclones in the 1980s, along with a violent coup that included the assassination of President Abdallah in 1989 and two weeks of rule by European mercenaries, rounded out the first fifteen years of Comoran independence.
In the early 1990s, the omnipresent mercenaries of the late 1970s and 1980s were gone, and the winding down of civil conflict in southern Africa, in combination with the end of the Cold War, had reduced the republic's value as a strategic chess piece. However, as in the 1970s and 1980s, the challenge to Comorans was to find a way off the treadmills of economic dependency and domestic political dysfunction.
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