The newly re-elected president of the Comoros, Azali Assoumani, has now managed to centralise power in his hands and has pushed through constitutional changes that could see him potentially govern until 2029. Presidential elections, on 24 March, were marred by violence and their credibility questioned by the African Union (AU).
Assoumani’s actions also meant running roughshod over an earlier agreement between the three islands that make up the archipelago that the presidency of the country will rotate among them every five years. This led to violent protests, notably in Anjouan, where people are bitter about the centralisation of power in Moroni.
Yet there has been no intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) since the trouble started last year; nor has the Comoros figured on the agenda of SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, the institution that should be taking charge of this.
SADC welcomed the Comoros as its 16th member state in August last year, making the grouping the largest Regional Economic Community of the AU in terms of numbers. This happened while it again rejected Burundi’s bid to join the organisation due to the political instability in the country that started with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid in 2015.
The AU, in fact, seems far more engaged. In a statement on 29 March AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said he was ‘very concerned’ about the deterioration of the political and security climate and loss of life following the elections on 24 March. One of the main opposition leaders was arrested for questioning the outcome of the polls and journalists have been intimidated.
Observers from the AU, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and from the Eastern Africa Standby Force noted a number of irregularities during the vote. This made it impossible for them to make a judgment call on the transparency and credibility of the elections, said Mahamat.
The AU last year sent its special envoy for Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020, Ramtane Lamamra, to Moroni to help with inter-Comorian talks that fell apart in October and has on several occasions deplored the tensions in the country.
The organisation in fact has a long history of involvement in the Comoros, having intervened militarily against secessionists in Anjouan in 2008. The move was criticised by some member states, notably South Africa.
Namibian President Hage Geingob, SADC chairperson, congratulated Assoumani on his re-election, calling only for ‘calm and restraint’ in the post-election period. Political stakeholders should follow legal channels to raise their grievances and outside role players should ‘respect the integrity of the country’, he said.
When asked at a press briefing during the Namibia SADC summit in August last year about allowing the Comoros to become a SADC member in such a troubled time, Geingob said the Comoros had applied for membership ‘years ago’ and had subsequently been admitted. SADC supports ‘good governance and democracy’. ‘Now that they [the Comoros] are members SADC can help them to be inclusive,’ he said.
South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki oversaw the constitutional changes in the early 2000s that permitted the rotational arrangement between the islands which has now been scrapped.
Following the recent elections, the European Union (EU) also expressed concern at the violence and irregularities of the poll. The EU said it was fully behind the AU in this regard. That the EU should speak up makes sense since Europe is technically only about 70 km away from Moroni. The island of Mayotte remains French territory despite persistent calls for the re-unification of the four islands.
Some in the Comoros, however, prefer to have France on its doorstep when crises ensue. During the violence in Anjouan at the end of last year, in which three people died at the hands of the security forces, the injured were sent to hospital in Mayotte.
Paris keeps a close eye on what’s happening in the small Indian Ocean country that has been prone to coup d’états ever since its independence. Assoumani in fact first came to power in a coup in 1999. He was then elected in 2002 and served until 2006. In 2016 he was re-elected and after last month’s victory he can now potentially stand again for another five-year term in 2024.
He is certainly not the first to try this on the continent and the AU is still struggling with the definition of ‘unconstitutional changes of government’ as enshrined in the Lomé Declaration of 2000. If a leader pushes an amendment through a controversial referendum, amid alleged vote rigging by the party in power, is that the same as a coup?
Longstanding leaders such as Chad’s Idriss Déby, the Republic of the Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and now even Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, current AU chair, have done this and got away with it.
While technically, according to the AU’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the Comoros should be suspended for bending the rules and centralising power in the hands of the president, this is unlikely given the AU’s leniency regarding similar cases in Africa.
Comorians in the opposition are justified to feel that the continental institutions have let them down. Certainly the Comoros doesn’t represent much in terms of its economy and size, but it is strategically placed.
There is also the issue of principle. If SADC intervention is justified in other small countries such as Lesotho, why not in the Comoros?
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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