The Issue of Mahore

The Issue of Mahore

One of the touchiest issues in the negotiations between Comoros and France over independence in the early 1970s had been whether the 1974 referendum would be considered for the Comoros archipelago as a whole or on an island-by-island basis. Opposition to independence on Mahoré was organized by the Mayotte Popular Movement (Mouvement Populaire Mahorais--MPM), an organization that had been founded in the 1960s by Zeina M'Dere, a spokeswoman for Mahoré shopkeepers, mostly women, who had been affected economically when the colonial capital was moved from the Mahoré town of Dzaoudzi to Moroni on Njazidja in 1962.

The reasons behind Mahoré's 65 percent vote against independence were several. First, the people of Mahoré considered themselves culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct from those of the other three islands; they felt that their long association with France (since 1841) had given their island a distinct Creole character like that of Reunion or Seychelles. Second, given Mahoré's smaller population, greater natural resources, and higher standard of living, the Mahorais thought that their island would be economically viable within a French union and ought not to be brought down to the level of the other three poorer islands. Third, most Mahorais apparently felt that Mahoré's future within a Comoran state would not be a comfortable one, given a perception of neglect that had begun with the much resented transfer of the capital.

In France and among conservatives on Reunion, the 1974 vote on Mahoré in favor of continued association with France was greeted with great enthusiasm. Comoran leaders, in contrast, accused the MPM and its leader, Marcel Henri, of fabricating the illusion of Mahorais "uniqueness" to preserve the power of Mahoré's non-Muslim, Creole elite. The issue poisoned Comoran relations with France, particularly because the Indian Ocean lobby, whose leaders included Reunion's deputy to the French National Assembly, Michel Debré, pushed for a "Mayotte française" (French Mayotte). Apparently leaning toward the interpretation that the December 1974 referendum was an island-by-island plebiscite, the French legislature voted in June 1975 to postpone independence for six months and hold a second referendum. The Abdallah government responded by declaring independence unilaterally on July 6, 1975, for all Comoro Islands, including Mahoré. France reacted by cutting off financial aid, which provided 41 percent of the national budget. Fearing a Comoran attempt to assert control of Mahoré forcibly, France sent members of the Foreign Legion from Reunion and a fleet of three vessels to patrol the waters around the island on July 6-7. On November 12, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution giving Comoros UN membership and recognized its claims to Mahoré, which France opposed.

French policy toward Mahoré had been, in the words of one observer, "to cultivate a more or less honest majority for reunification among the uncooperative Mahorais," particularly after the forthrightly anti-French regime of Ali Soilih ended in 1978. By contrast, the Mahorais' objective appeared to be full departmental status such as that of Reunion, where residents enjoyed full rights as French citizens. In a 1976 referendum, the Mahorais expressed dissatisfaction with their status as an overseas territory. France then created a new classification for Mahoré--territorial community (collectivité territoriale)--under which Mahoré was administered by a prefect appointed by the French government. Local government consisted of a popularly elected seventeen-member General Council. The island was entitled to send elected representatives to Paris, one each to the National Assembly and the Senate. The French franc served as the currency of the island. This status still applied in 1993.

After it appeared that Mahoré would not be tempted by the federalist design of Ahmed Abdallah's 1978 constitution to join the Republic of the Comoros, the National Assembly in Paris decided in 1979 to prolong the existence of the collectivité territoriale until a 1984 plebiscite, resolving meanwhile to study the situation and consult with the islanders. In late 1984, with an overwhelming vote to remain associated with France in the offing, the French government postponed the plebiscite indefinitely. By late 1993, it had still not been held, the Mahorais apparently still eager to remain part of France and as disinclined as ever to reunite with the three troubled islands to their immediate west.

Although many politically conservative French relished the Mahorais' popular vow that nous resterons français pour rester libre ("we will remain French to remain free"), the Mahoré situation caused some discomfort for France internationally. Every year, resolutions calling on France to relinquish Mahoré to Comoros passed with near unanimity in the UN, and the OAU likewise issued annual condemnations. Although Comoran official distaste for the situation became more muted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Comoran government continued to draw French attention to the issue. In May 1990, newly elected president Said Mohamed Djohar called for peaceful dialogue and French review of Mahoré's status. But feeling obligated not to change the Mahorais' status against their will, the French could do little. Anti-Comoran riots and demonstrations, and the formation of an anti-immigrant paramilitary group on Mahoré in response to the presence of illegal Comoran immigrants, were also sources of embarrassment to France.

The economy of Mahoré in some ways resembles that of Comoros. Rice, cassava, and corn are cultivated for domestic consumption; ylang-ylang and vanilla are the primary exports. The main imports, whose value far outstripped that of exports, are foodstuffs, machinery and appliances, transport equipment, and metals. Construction, primarily of French-funded public works, is the only industrial activity.

A five-year development plan (1986-91) focused on large-scale public projects, principally construction of a deepwater port at Longoni and an airport at the capital, Dzaoudzi. The plan and its two main projects were later extended through 1993. Despite Mahoré's great natural beauty, tourism was inhibited by a dearth of hotel rooms and the island's isolated location.

Under French administration, Mahoré had generally enjoyed domestic peace and stability, although tensions appeared to be rising by the early 1990s. In the summer of 1991, the relocation of people from their homes to allow the expansion of the airport met with vociferous protests, mostly by young people. The protests soon grew into violent demonstrations against the local government's administration of the island. Paramilitary attacks on Comoran immigrants occurred in June 1992, and a February 1993 general strike for higher wages ended in rioting. Security forces from Reunion and France were called in to restore order.

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