The early history of Comoros is one of seafaring visitors calling and leaving whether they came from nearby Africa, were Arab traders from the north or further afield such as India and Indonesia. One group, the Sirazi Arab royal clans arrived in the 15th Century and established their own states across the four islands, Grand Comore (Ngazidja), Mohéli (Mwali), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Mayotte (Maore) in the archipelago.
Although the Portuguese were regular visitors in the 16th Century, by the 19th Century it was the British and French who became more frequent callers. The French eventually purchased Mayotte in 1841 and then in 1887 they established a protectorate over the other three islands. On 9th April 1908 France declared the protectorates and Mayotte a single colony and in 1912 the islands were annexed to Madagascar which was also part of the French colonial empire.
In the Second World War Comoros remained loyal to the Vichy government until 1942 when it was taken over by the British only to be returned to the French in October 1946. After the Second World War the four islands became a French Overseas Territory and internal political autonomy was granted in 1961. The desire for independence was muted but present.
Nevertheless, economic realities of the day and the disassembling of empires all over the world led France to a 1973 agreement that the islands would be given independence in 1978. The people of Mayotte disagreed and in referenda in 1974 and again in 1976 they voted to remain as part of France. Their singular decision has remained a cause of irritation and contention with the other three islands ever since.
In July 1975 the Comorian Parliament decided to declare unilateral independence. Ahmed Abdallah of the Comoros Democratic Union (UDC), who had been President of the government council and Chief Minister of Comoros, became the country’s first President. He lasted less than a month before he was overthrown by Said Mohamed Jaffar in a coup d’état on 3rd August 1975. Jaffar, in turn, was overthrown by Ali Soilih in 1976. To complete the circle, Ahmed Abdallah staged another coup d’état against Soilih in 1978 with the help of a French mercenary called Colonel Robert “Bob” Denard.
Bob Denard would participate in four coup attempts between 1975 and 1995. Having been forced to leave the country after an earlier coup attempt, on 27th September 1995 Denard led 30 men in another attempted coup against president Said Mohamed Djohar, Abdallah’s successor. The French had had enough and on 3rd October 1995 they sent in a force of 600 men, took the islands back and returned Denard to Paris where he was imprisoned for ten months. It should be noted that Djohar himself had been the instigator of a coup d’état in 1989 when the country’s first president, Ahmed Abdallah, was assassinated during his second term in office.
In all there were 17 coups or attempted coups in Comoros between independence in 1975 and 1998 with the French army intervening twice, in 1989 and again in 1995 as mentioned above.
In 1999 there was a further coup when Colonel Azali Assoumani, Chief of Staff of the National Army of Development, seized power in a bloodless coup and overthrew President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde. Azali introduced a new constitution through a referendum in 2001 which provided for the presidency to rotate every four years between the elected presidents from the three islands in the Union. The arrangement allowed for a first round where the voters of the island concerned would chose three candidates in a primary and then the voters of all three islands would chose the president from those three candidates in a second round.
In 2002 Azali, standing as an Independent, was elected President as part of the new arrangement with Grande Comore providing the candidates this time. In 2003 Azali also presided over the change of name of the islands from the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros to the Union of the Comoros.
In 2004 the first properly organised and democratic election in Comoros led to the Camp of the Autonomous Islands, a coalition opposed to Azali, winning the general election and taking 12 of the 33 seats in the Assembly of the Union of the Comoros. The Convention for the Renewal of the Comoros came second with six seats and representatives of the regional assemblies filled the other 15 seats.
Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi was elected President in 2006 in the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of Comoros; he came from the island of Anjouan.
In 2009 another general election was held following a constitutional referendum where the 33 seat Assembly of the Union of the Comoros was filled from 24 single-member constituencies and nine members coming from the three islands, each filling three seats. There were no real parties standing but a loose coalition of supporters of President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi called Baobab won 16 of the 24 elected seats.
In May 2011 Ikililou Dhoinine from the island of Moheli was elected President in another peaceful transition. Although a general election was due to take place in April 2014 it wasn’t until January 2015 that a poll occurred. The Union for the Development of the Comoros, a loose grouping of parties supporting President Ikililou Dhoinine emerged as the winners with eight of the 24 directly elected members in the Assembly of the Union. The Juwa Party, a new party formed around former President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi won seven seats.
Sambi has made it clear that he intends to stand again in the 2016 Presidential election even though this would breach the constitutional rule that the Presidency rotates between the three main islands; Ngazidja, Mohéli and Anjouan. Sambi comes from Anjouan and the next president should come from Ngazidja. Another constitutional crisis and more turmoil in this group of islands may await 2016.
The presidency rotates every four years between the elected presidents from the three main islands in the Union.
The unicameral Assembly of the Union has 33 members elected to serve for five years. Nine deputies (three each) are selected by the local assemblies in the three islands and 24 are elected by universal suffrage.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Comoros at 153 out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 24 (where 100 is least corrupt).