Comoros: Anjouan Road to Recovery Now Open

Port Louis — Over half a million dollars of much-needed emergency funding will help Anjouan, one of three islands in the Comoros archipelago, to address humanitarian needs and re-establish basic administrative structures after a recent military operation backed by the African Union (AU) allowed the central government regain control of the renegade island.

In March, just before the assault that toppled Anjouan's rebel leader, Mohamed Bacar, aid organisations warned that the offensive could have dramatic humanitarian implications. However, government forces met with minimal resistance and Bacar fled to neighbouring Mayotte, a French administered island.

The United Nations has since received US$534,000 to help Anjouan rebuild its administration and cover basic humanitarian needs, according to Opia Kumah, the UN Resident Coordinator in Comoros.

"We believe with this money we can help Anjouan to cover its basic needs - that includes the most needed medication as well as helping to re-establish a fundamental administration." Kumah said government offices were looted during the assault and the administration lacked basic office equipment and documents.

Poverty and repression under Bacar forced many skilled workers, including doctors and teachers, to leave Anjouan, but the scale of the situation only became clear after Bacar relinquished control in March, roughly seven years after taking power in a coup.

"We lack basic medication on the one hand, and on the other hand we have doctors and teachers who worked during Bacar's period and have never been paid," Abdou Salami, in charge of education and health in Anjouan's newly established transitional government, told IRIN.

The problems were already there

Kumah said the island's deep-rooted problems could not be attributed to the assault itself. Instead, they mostly stemmed from years of general underdevelopment throughout the country, but were exacerbated on Anjouan under the rule of the ousted Bacar government.

Years of political bickering and simmering secessionism since independence from France in 1975 have worn away standards of living in the Comoros. The population of roughly 700,000 is growing, but the economy cannot keep pace: for the past 20 years average incomes have shrunk in real terms.

According to the UN Development Programme, which also monitors progress in emerging countries, gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen by -0.5 percent annually since 1990, reaching $640 per capita in 2005. External debt is estimated at a whopping 72 percent of GDP.

In October 2007, failing to negotiate an end to the deadlock between Anjouan and the other two Comoran islands, Grande Comore and Moheli, the AU Peace and Security Council imposed sanctions against the leadership of Anjouan, deepening the island's isolation and sparking concern over the availability food and fuel for the population.

In light of the cash-strapped archipelago's problems, the funds are more than welcome. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development noted that Official Development Assistance (ODA), on which the Indian Ocean islands are heavily dependent, plunged from around $60 million a year in 1990 to $25 million in 2005.

The trouble with elections

Individual island elections in June 2007 sparked the latest spate of hostility between Anjouan and the Union government, when Anjouan forces killed two national soldiers trying to enforce a constitutional court decision ordering Bacar to step down as Anjouan's president.

This marked a return to the political volatility that has been a hallmark of Comoros since the islands achieved independence. To date the archipelago has weathered about 20 successful and attempted coups.

A complex electoral system, brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor of the AU, in the wake of Moheli and Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997 - when an attempt by the government to re-establish control over the rebellious islands by force failed - provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each island, with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.

According to Salami, the first round of voting for the presidency of Anjouan will be held in the second half of May, followed by a second round in the first week of June. "We are now concentrating all our forces to build a stable base here in Anjouan, so that after the elections the new government here will have a good start."

France - Comoros relations under strain

Bacar is now on La Reunion, another French island in the Indian Ocean, where he has applied for asylum. Comoros is demanding his extradition, and relations with France, the former colonial power, have grown increasingly tense.

Many people in the Comoros believe the French government may have played a role in the escape of Bacar and about 20 of his supporters to Mayotte. Suspicions were compounded when a French helicopter made an emergency landing on Anjouan just days before the assault force landed. France claimed the helicopter was patrolling for illegal fishing activity off the coast of Mayotte but the incident remains shrouded in mystery.

The Comoros Union government wants Bacar to stand trial either at home or in an international court. Comoros government spokesman Abdourahim Said Bakar told IRIN: "It [extradition] may take a long time, but we will get Bacar back to the Comoros."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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