Voters in the Union of the Comoros were supposed to elect a new president in May this year, but the poll has been postponed until late 2011 following a controversial constitutional reform carried out in May 2009 and a decision taken in March this year by the union parliament (Comoros Congress). Although its process was considered credible and its outcome accepted by the international community, particularly the African Union, the constitutional referendum had a low turnout of around 52 per cent, owing largely to opposition protest. This protest still continues regarding the postponement of the election.
On 9 May, the Constitutional Court of the Union ruled in favour of an opposition demand not to allow the postponement of the elections, without specifying when they should be held.
The tension emanating from the March decision and the menace this poses to the continued existence of the federal arrangements and peace on the island has led the AU to engage in serious diplomatic efforts in order to reconcile the views of the Comorian parties. For example, in early April this year, the Commissioner for Peace and Security, together with a special envoy of the Chairperson of the AU, flew to the Comoros to help revive the stalled dialogue between the Union president and those of the autonomous islands.
Located in the Indian Ocean just above Madagascar, the Union of the Comoros is composed of three autonomous islands: Mwali (Moheli), Ndzwani (Anjouan) and Njazidja (Grand Comoros). These three islands are assembled in a federal system with a Union President based in Moroni on Grand Comoros. It has to be noted that the Comorian constitution still considers the ‘French island' of Mayotte as part of the union and thus occupied by France, but the majority of the people of Mayotte, like those of the Island of Reunion, pay allegiance to Paris and consider themselves as French.
The current political crisis in the Comoros goes back to a much more serious one that had threatened the survival of the Union in the late 1990s, itself following decades of chronic instability and a chain of military coups since the country regained independence from France in 1975. The grave crisis of 1997 was finally resolved by the Fomboni Accord of 2000. This agreement came about thanks chiefly to serious diplomatic engagements of the then OAU. Amongst other things, this Accord adopted a new constitution instituting a system of rotational presidency between the three islands every four years starting from 2002. Thus, in addition to the Union President and a Congress of the Union (parliament), each island was to elect its own President every five years, appoint its own cabinet of ministers, and elect its own Council (parliament).
The first Union President, Azali Assoumani, came from Grand Comoros. Assoumani had first come to power through a military coup in April 1999, but resigned in January 2002, as per the Fomboni Accord, to be elected in May of the same year. The current president, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, hails from Anjouan and was elected in May 2006. This means that his term was due to end on 26 May this year to give way to a candidate from the island of Moheli.
The ongoing tension thus stems from a simple yet complex issue regarding the 2001 constitution and the 2009 amendment of the same. The 2001 constitution left a number of overlaps between the powers of the Union government and those of the autonomous island. Another serious issue is the multiple elections that the Union has to organise, given that the Union president has a four-year term and Island presidents five years and each island has to elect its parliament. In fact, a conflict of competencies between the Union government and the islands led to a serious political crisis in 2007 in the island of Anjouan. The then president of this island, Col. Mohamed Bacar, tried to defy the union government and hang on to power after the end of his term, a crisis that occasioned the first military intervention of the AU which ousted Bacar of power. This crisis inevitably delayed the holding of presidential elections in Anjouan until June 2008.
The current constitutional arrangements would thus have the national electoral commission of Comoros to organise a major election (Union president, island presidents, union congress and island assemblies) every year until 2016 with the financial implications involved.
Because of this, the main constitutional amendments carried out in 2009 include the following: a clearer demarcation between the competencies of the Union government and those of islands, with the head of the former retaining his title and those of the latter adopting the title of ‘governors'; the Union President now has the power to dissolve the Union Congress, which could also impeach him; the dispensation of certain judicial matters become the sole prerogative of the Union government; union ministers retain their title while their island counterparts become ‘commissioners' and have their number reduced; union MPs remain as such while their island counterparts become ‘councillors'; and the term of the Union President is extended to five years for greater harmonisation of electoral calendars.
This clearly empowers the Union Government vis-à-vis its island counterparts. But there seems to be a general agreement on all the amendments and some island ‘presidents', such as that of Moheli, have even begun using their new title. The bone of contention seems to be focused mainly on the harmonisation of electoral calendars. But here again, the disagreement seems to be about the timing rather than the principle of this harmonisation process. In the current dispensation, the term of the current Union president runs out on 26 May 2010, that of his counterpart of Grand Comoros expires in late 2011, while those of Moheli and Anjouan are serving, respectively, until 2012 and 2013. Yet the holding in the same year of presidential (and gubernatorial) elections is the main thrust of the harmonisation principle.
Thus, the overriding issue that members of the Union Congress sitting in March this year had to consider was how to harmonise these four elections with the least injustice to the current holders. Given that the term of the president of Grand Comoros runs out in 2011 and his counterpart of Moheli is reported to have declared his readiness to give up one year but not years of his term, the date of 27 November 2011 for the next election of Union President was proposed by President Sambi for adoption by the Congress. The latter adopted this by a majority of 60 out of 84, given the boycott oby some opposition members. Some of the latter are of the opinion that this change is more about allowing President Sambi to prolong his stay in power than about electoral harmonisation and insist that he has to go come 27 May 2010. Sambi, on the other hand, claims to have no intention whatsoever to hang on to power and that he will hand over to a president from Moheli once elections are held.
Given the country's unstable political history, the fear is that if the ongoing crisis is not solved consensually, the situation might unravel the fragile system of the Union with incommensurable consequences. In view of this, the message of the AU has been that the Comorian parties have to strive to find a solution that will satisfy all concerned, so as to ‘avoid any questioning of the principles, mechanisms and balance that underpin the reconciliation process.' Undermining the efforts that have been achieved since the peaceful election of 2002 would be to the detriment of the Union. The ruling of the Constitutional Court does not seem to have offered a definitive solution.
The challenge now is for the Comorian parties to go beyond petty political calculations, engage in creative thinking in view of finding a consensual ground that would break the deadlock.
Written by: Thokozile Mtsolongo, Research Intern, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria office