Comoros: Mysterious Uprising in the Comoros Islands

26 October 2018

Clashes lasting several days between armed rebels and government troops took place on the Comoros Island of Anjouan. No concrete demands were made and residents are wondering who was behind the attack.

For residents of the old quarter of Mutsamudu city on Anjouan, the second largest of the Comoros Islands, it was a frightening experience. For almost a week, rebels barricaded themselves in narrow streets and fought with soldiers. During that time, local residents were forced to stay at home, at times without water and electricity. According to news agencies, at least two civilians were killed. The army was only able to end the rebellion after reinforcements arrived from a neighboring island.

Since then, peace has been slowly returning to Mutsamudu. People are out in the streets again and shop owners are opening their doors. "The military has started to pull back and the residents are regaining their old quarter," reported Kamal Ali, a journalist with DW partner station Star FM in Anjouan. But a lot of questions still remain: "We don't know how many rebels were arrested, how many are still out there and how many weapons are still in circulation," Ali said.

Presidential rotation as a stability factor

At the moment, it is also still not clear where the rebels came from and what they actually wanted. There is considerable dissatisfaction with the government of Anjouan, said Iain Walker from the Max Planck Institute for social anthropology in the German city of Hall, but it is still not clear who is behind the recent clashes. "They [the rebels] don't seem to have had much popular support and there doesn't seem to be a spokesman, there doesn't seem to be anyone who is saying anything. They just sort of holed up in the capital Mutsamudu and started resisting," Walker told DW. The rebels had hardly any support from the population.

For the people of Comoros, violent rebellions are not new. The British weekly news magazine The Economist calculated that there has been a coup in the archipelago every two years since the country gained independence from France. Relative stability only came with the introduction of a rotation principle introduced in 2001, under which the presidency moves from one island to another every five years. But now the opposition in the two smaller islands of Anjouan and Moheli accuse President Azali Assoumani of wanting to abolish the rotation principle under the pretext of needing to cut costs, so as to remain in power.

Controversial new constitution

Azali, who comes from Grand Comore, the main island, should hand over the presidency to a candidate from Anjouan Island by 2021 at the latest. But in July, the president put a new constitution without the rotation principle to the vote and won. The referendum is considered controversial, the opposition had called for a boycott. But Azali could now hold elections next year, stand for re-election and stay in office for another ten years.

Read More:Yes vote in Comoros referendum gives president more power

President Azali seems to be well on the way to turning his country into an autocratic state. In April, he disempowered the constitutional court of the Comoros which until then had been the last politically independent institution in the country. Since the referendum in July, opposition figures reported increased repression, some members of the opposition party Juwa were arrested or forced to go underground. Since May, Azali's main rival, former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, has been under house arrest on corruption charges.

Who's behind the rebellion in Mutsamudu?

For the government,it's clear who is to blame for the recent rebellion on Anjouan Island: Abdou Salami Abdou, the island's governor and an ally of Ahmed Abdallah Sambi. The governor has also been under house arrest since Sunday. He denies any involvement.

In the meantime, there is a theory circulating in the Comoros that president Azali himself played a part in the incident. "There were also rumors that this might be Azali trying to remove him [Abdou Salami], because he is part of the Sambi camp," said Walker. This all seems a little bit complicated and convoluted, but there may be something in it."

Social media commentators are speculating that influential groups on Mayotte, the fourth island on the archipelago, which belongs to France, may also have been involved . "In the past, rebel groups had been armed and financed by right wing French factions based in Mayotte," Walker told DW. But he does not see any indication that was the case this time.

Saudi-Iranian rivalry?

Walker refutes the idea held by some observers that a kind of proxy war could develop between Saudi Arabia with its Sunni Islam majority and Shia-majority Iran in the almost exclusively Sunni Comoros. President Azali had sought closer ties with Saudi Arabia in recent years, while his predecessor and adversary Sambi is said to have close relations with Iran. Ultimately it all comes down to securing financial support.

After last week's fighting, people in Anjouan are now going about their daily business again. Has peace returned for good? That depends on the conditions under which the upcoming elections will take place, says Walker. "If the elections are open to candidates from any island and Sambi isn't released from detention, then there will be problems."

Mireille Dronne contributed to this report.

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