29 June 2018

Comoros Row With France Intensifies As Turmoil Brews At Home

Photo: Concert RFI
Comoros.
analysis

The long-running dispute over the island of Mayotte has deepened recently. Could developments afoot in the Comoros change anything?

Despite promises to resolve tensions, relations between France and the Comoros have only deteriorated in the past few months. A war of words and popular protests have escalated on both sides, leading France to suspend visas to all Comorian nationals this May.

The diplomatic spat relates to the French overseas department of Mayotte. This tiny island in the Indian Ocean was previously one of four main islands that made up the Comoros, a former French colony. In 1974, the Comoros voted overwhelmingly for independence. But France decided to interpret the results island-by-island, allowing it to maintain control over Mayotte, the one area to vote against independence.

The UN strongly condemned this retroactive move. But despite its occupation being illegal according to international law - a fact former Prime Minister Michel Rocard openly admitted to the author in 2000 - France has consolidated its hold on the island over the years.

This has created a strange divide in the Indian Ocean. Mayotte enjoys considerable state support from Paris and uses the Euro, being the furthermost post of the European Union. Its neighbouring islands meanwhile suffer from political instability and widespread poverty. Because of this discrepancy, thousands of Comorians attempt to migrate to Mayotte every year in search of better schools, healthcare and jobs.

More than 10,000 people have died making this journey in rickety boats since 1995, when France made it necessary for Comorians to apply for a visa to visit their sister island. Today, the French government expels around 20,000 undocumented migrants annually.

This issue has become deeply political on both sides. In recent months, Mahorans (people from Mayotte) have held popular protests, angry that Comorians are putting pressure on public services and complaining of increased crime. French politicians at the national level have used this issue to gain support in the now overseas department; in the 2017 presidential run-off, anti-immigration far right leader Marine Le Pen garnered 43% on this mostly Muslim island.

For the past decade, the Comoros and France have tried to find a solution to this escalating challenge. On 19 April, the nations' foreign ministers met, but the dialogue did not lead anywhere. Instead, demonstrations in Mayotte continued and France maintained its policy of deporting Comorians. The Comoros, along with France's own human rights commission, has condemned these expulsions, which are usually conducted before migrants can see a lawyer or judge.

In April, the Comorian government retaliated by refusing to accept its deported citizens from Mayotte. France responded in turn by suspending the issuance of visas to all Comorians. "[France] has no friends. It defends its interests," responded Comoros' foreign minister.

Change afoot for the Comoros

This long-running quarrel has recently deepened and ossified. But some significant changes underway in Comoros could lead to broader developments.

Firstly, huge reserves of natural resources have been discovered in the nation's waters. Comoros is predicted to have around 10.5 billion barrels of natural gas and 7 billion barrels of oil. For one of the world's poorest countries, this could be transformative. The Comorian government granted exploration contracts to various companies such as Kenya-based Bahari Resources a few years ago and extraction could reportedly begin by as early as 2019.

Ahead of that date, however, Comoros must finalise negotiations over its maritime borders. It successfully completed these talks with Mozambique and Tanzania and is now negotiating with Madagascar. Claims with France, however, remain somewhat unresolved. A comprehensive map of Comoros' oil and gas exploration blocks includes the waters around Mayotte. These seas, from which much seafood is transported to Europe, hold significant strategic and economic importance to France, but it has yet to contest them publicly.

Secondly, Comoros has recently announced that it will join the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in August. The Comorian Foreign minister has said its decision to join is not related to Mayotte, but its membership could certainly bring it stronger allies and more influence in its dispute with France indirectly.

Finally, Comoros is facing rising political turmoil domestically. The archipelago has experienced around twenty coups in its short history and has proven highly unstable. Many fear that President Azali Assoumani's plan to hold a constitutional referendum in July could lead to further unrest. Assoumani wants to change the system that rotates power between the three main islands every five years, a move that would allow him to seek re-election.

The vice-president representing Grande Comore (each island has a vice president under current constitution) has condemned the move as "illegal" and called on Comorians to "reject the dangerous abuse". The government has placed a former president and critic under house arrest and jailed prominent opposition leaders.

Whatever the outcome of this latest controversy, the Comoros is unlikely to loosen its claims on Mayotte, while its instability may only strengthen the resolve of Mahorans who wish to keep their restless former compatriots at bay.

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