The Break with France

The Break with France

Politics in the 1960s were dominated by a social and economic elite--largely descendants of the precolonial sultanate ruling families--which was conservative and pro-French. During Comoros' period of self-government as an overseas department, there were two main conservative political groupings: the Parti Vert (Green Party), which later became known as the Comoros Democratic Union (Union Démocratique des Comores--UDC), and the Parti Blanc (White Party), later reconstituted as the Democratic Assembly of the Comoran People (Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Comorien-- RDPC). Dr. Said Mohamed Cheikh, president of the Parti Vert and of the Governing Council, was, until his death in 1970, the most important political leader in the islands. The Parti Blanc, under Prince Said Ibrahim, provided the opposition, endorsing a progressive program that included land reform and a loosening of the monopoly on Comoran cash crops enjoyed by the foreign-owned plantation sociétés. The second most powerful member of the Parti Vert, Ahmed Abdallah, a wealthy plantation owner and representative to the French National Assembly, succeeded Cheikh as president of the Governing Council soon after Cheikh died.

Well into the 1960s, the two established parties were concerned primarily with maintaining a harmonious relationship with France while obtaining assistance in economic planning and infrastructure development. Given this consensus, politically active Comorans often based their allegiance on personal feelings toward the doctor and the prince who led the two main parties and on whatever patronage either party could provide.

The independence movement started not in the Comoro Islands but among Comoran expatriates in Tanzania, who founded the National Liberation Movement of Comoros (Mouvement de la Libération Nationale des Comores--Molinaco) in 1962. Molinaco actively promoted the cause of Comoran independence abroad, particularly in the forum of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), but not until 1967 did it begin to extend its influence to the islands themselves, engaging in largely clandestine activities. The Socialist Party of Comoros (Parti Socialiste des Comores--Pasoco), established in 1968, was largely supported by students and other young people.

A growing number of politically conscious Comorans, resenting what they perceived as French neglect of the Comoro Islands, supported independence. Independence-minded Comorans, especially younger ones, were energized by dramatic events across the Mozambique Channel on the African mainland. Tanganyika had gained its independence from Britain in 1961 and soon adopted a government based on "African socialism." Zanzibar, another longtime British colony, became independent in 1963 and overthrew the ruling Arab elite in a violent revolution the following year; the island state then merged with Tanganyika to form the new nation of Tanzania. Meanwhile, nationalists were beginning uprisings in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.

Abdallah, although a conservative politician, saw independence as a "regrettable necessity," given the unsatisfactory level of French support and the growing alienation of an increasingly radicalized younger generation. The violent suppression of a student demonstration in 1968 and the death of Said Mohammed Cheikh in 1970 provided further evidence of the erosion of the existing order. In 1972 leaders of the Parti Vert (now the UDC) and the Parti Blanc (now the RDPC) agreed to press for independence, hoping at the same time to maintain cordial relations with France. A coalition of conservative and moderate parties, the Party for the Evolution of Comoros (Parti pour l'Évolution des Comores), was in the forefront of the independence effort. The coalition excluded Pasoco, which it perceived as violently revolutionary, but it cooperated for a time with Molinaco. During 1973 and 1974, the local government negotiated with France, and issued a "Common Declaration" on June 15, 1973, defining the means by which the islands would gain independence. Part of the backdrop of the negotiations was a proindependence riot in November 1973 in Moroni in which the buildings of the Chamber of Deputies were burned. A referendum was held on December 22, 1974. Voters supported independence by a 95 percent majority, but 65 percent of those casting ballots on Mahoré chose to remain as a French department.

Twenty-eight days after the declaration of independence, on August 3, 1975, a coalition of six political parties known as the United National Front overthrew the Abdallah government, with the aid of foreign mercenaries. Some observers claimed that French commercial interests, and possibly even the French government, had helped provide the funds and the matériel to bring off the coup. The reasons for the coup remain obscure, although the belief that France might return Mahoré if Abdallah were out of power appears to have been a contributing factor. Abdallah fled to Nzwani, his political power base, where he remained in control with an armed contingent of forty-five men until forces from Moroni recaptured the island and arrested him in late September 1975. After the coup, a three-man directorate took control. One of the three, Ali Soilih, was appointed minister of defense and justice and subsequently was made head of state by the Chamber of Deputies on January 3, 1976. Four days earlier, on December 31, 1975, France had formally recognized the independence of Comoros (minus Mahoré), but active relations, including all aid programs, which amounted to more than 40 percent of the national budget, remained suspended.

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