Background Notes: Comoros

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Apr 28, 19924/28/92 Category: Country Data Region: Subsaharan Africa Country: Comoros Subject: Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, Travel, International Organizations, Trade/Economics, History [TEXT] Official Name: Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros


Area: 2,171 sq. km. (838 sq. mi.); slightly less than half the size of Delaware. Major islands: Grande Comore (1,025 sq. km.), Anjouan (424 sq. km.), Mayotte (374 sq. km.), and Moheli (211 sq. km.). Cities: Capital--Moroni (pop. 30,000). Other city--Mutsamudu (20,000). Terrain: Rugged. Climate: Tropical marine.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Comorian(s). Population (1990 est.): 455,000. Mayotte--70,000 (1990 est.). Annual growth rate (1990 est.): 3.1%. Ethnic groups: Antalote, Cafre, Makoa, Oimatsaha, Sakalava. Religions: Sunni Muslim 98%, Roman Catholic 2%. Languages: Shikomoro (a Swahili-Arab), Malagasy, French. Education: Attendance--62% primary, 32% secondary. Literacy-- 15%. Health: Infant mortality rate--120/1,000. Life expectancy-- 54 yrs. Work force (200,000): Agriculture--87%. Government--3%.
Type: Republic. Independence: July 6, 1975 (Mayotte remains under French administration). Constitution: Adopted by referendum in 1978 and since amended. Branches: Executive--president. Legislative--National Assembly. Judicial--traditional Muslim and codified law from French sources. Political parties: 17 political parties. Suffrage: Universal adult. Flag: White crescent moon encircling four white stars on green field.
GDP (1990 est.): $240 million. Avg. annual growth rate (1989-1990): 1.9%. Per capita income: $448. Agriculture (37% of GDP): Products--perfume essences, copra, coconuts, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon, yams, bananas. Services (25% of GDP): Commerce, tourism. Industry (4% of GDP): Types--perfume distillation. Trade: Exports--$22 million: vanilla, cloves, perfume essences, copra. Major markets--France 47%, US 37%, Germany 10%. Imports- -$40 million: rice, petroleum, meat, wheat flour, cotton textiles, cement. Major suppliers--France 41%, Madagascar 12%, Pakistan 8%, South Africa 6%. Official exchange rate (1991): Comorian franc 279=US$1. US economic aid received: US development assistance is administered by CARE, the private voluntary organization (primarily for reforestation, soil conservation, and sustainable agriculture). Assistance in FY1991 was $700,000. The Peace Corps has 21 volunteers. Scholarship assistance totaling $100,000 was available in 1990.


The Comorians inhabiting Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli (86% of the population) share African-Arab origins. Islam is the dominant religion, and Koranic schools for children reinforce its influence. Although Arab culture is firmly established throughout the archipelago, a substantial minority of the citizens of Mayotte (the Mahorais) are Catholic and have been influenced strongly by French culture. The most common language is Shikomoro, a Swahili dialect. French and Malagasy are also spoken. About 15% of the population is literate.


Over the centuries, the islands were invaded by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Portuguese explorers visited the archipelago in 1505. "Shirazi" Arab migrants introduced Islam at about the same time. Between 1841 and 1912, France established colonial rule over Grande Comore, Anjouan, Mayotte, and Moheli and placed the islands under the administration of the governor general of Madagascar. Later, French settlers, French-owned companies, and wealthy Arab merchants established a plantation-based economy that now uses about one-third of the land for export crops. After World War II, the islands became a French overseas territory and were represented in France's National Assembly. Internal political autonomy was granted in 1961. Agreement was reached with France in 1973 for Comoros to become independent in 1978. On July 6, 1975, however, the Comorian Parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence. The deputies of Mayotte abstained, and as a result, the Comorian Government has effective control over only Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli. Mayotte remains under French administration.


Although Comoros has been independent since 1975, the country had no constitution until the return to power of President Abdallah in 1978. A National Assembly was elected in 1982, and the constitution was revised in 1984 to permit the president to appoint governors of each of the three main islands. Two months after President Abdallah's assassination on November 27, 1989, presidential elections were held, and Said Mohamed Djohar was designated president for a 6-year term. It is widely expected that a new constitution, formed by a government of national unity and allowing for a prime minister, will be ratified and adopted in 1992. New elections are also planned for late 1992.
Principal Government Officials
President--Said Mohamed Djohar Minister of Foreign Affairs--Said Hassan Said Hachim Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations--Amin Ali Moumin Comoros maintains a mission to the United States at 336 E. 45th St., 2d Floor, New York, NY 10017, tel. (212) 972-8010.


After a unilateral declaration of independence from France by the Comorian parliament in 1975, Ahmed Abdallah was designated President. After barely a month in office, he was overthrown by foreign mercenaries who installed Ali Soilih. Soilih embarked on a "socialist" revolution, relying on undisciplined youth committees that often terrorized the public. Government archives were burned and civil servants fired. Soilih openly challenged the dominance of Islam, alienating much of the devoutly Islamic population. A second mercenary attack, in 1978, restored Abdallah to power, and Soilih was killed. A constitution was adopted by popular referendum on October 1, 1978, and Abdallah was elected President the same year. Sometime during the night of November 26, 1989, President Abdallah was assassinated at his residence, probably by mercenaries in his presidential guard under Bob Denard. French troops were dispatched from Mayotte, and the mercenaries were forced to leave on December 15, 1989. In early 1990, Said Mohamed Djohar emerged as the winner of the presidential elections. Since then the country has been engaged in rewriting the constitution, which is expected to be adopted this year. The country is also engaged in implementing the terms of an IMF/World Bank structural adjustment program to improve its economy.


Comoros, with an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) per capita income of about $450, is among the world's poorest and least developed nations. Although the quality of the land differs from island to island, most of the widespread lava-encrusted soil formations are unsuited to agriculture. As a result, most of the inhabitants make their living from subsistence agriculture and fishing. Agriculture, involving more than 87% of the population and 37% of the gross domestic product, provides virtually all foreign exchange earnings. Services including tourism, construction, and commercial activities constitute the remainder of the GDP. Plantations engage a large proportion of the population in producing the islands' major cash crops for export-- vanilla, cloves, perfume essences, and copra. Comoros is the world's leading producer of essence of ylang-ylang, used in manufacturing perfume. It also is the world's second largest producer of vanilla. Principal food crops are coconuts, bananas, and cassava. Foodstuffs constitute 34% of total imports. The country lacks the infrastructure necessary for development. Some villages are not linked to the main road system or at best are connected by tracks usable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The islands' ports are rudimentary, although a deep-water facility was recently completed on Anjouan. Only small vessels can approach the existing quays in Moroni on Grande Comore, despite recent improvements. Long-distance ocean-going ships must lie offshore and be unloaded by smaller boats; during the cyclone season, this procedure is dangerous, and ships are reluctant to call at the island. Most freight is sent first to Mombasa or Reunion and transhipped from there. France, Comoros' major trading partner, also provides direct budgetary support essential to the government's daily operations. The United States receives a growing percentage of Comoros' exports but supplies only a negligible (less than 1%) fraction of its imports. Comoros has an international airport at Hahaya on Grande Comore. It is a member of the franc zone (Communaute Financiere Africaine--CFA), with an exchange rate of 279 CFA francs=US$1 (1991).


In November 1975, Comoros became the 143d member of the United Nations. The new nation was defined as consisting of the entire archipelago, despite the fact that France maintains control over Mayotte. Comoros also is a member of the Organization of African Unity, the European Development Fund, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the African Development Bank.


The military resources of the Comoros consist of a small standing army and a 500-member police force, as well as a 500- member defense force. A defense treaty with France provides naval resources for protection of territorial waters, training of Comorian military personnel, and air surveillance. France maintains a small maritime base and a Foreign Legion contingent on Mayotte.


The United States recognized the Comorian Government in 1977, and the two countries enjoy friendly relations.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Kenneth N. Peltier Administrative/Consular Officer Rowena Cross-Najafy The address of the US Embassy in Moroni is PO Box 1318, Moroni, RFI des Comoros (tel. 73-22-03 or 73-29-22). Embassy hours are 7:30-3:30 Monday to Friday.


Climate and clothing: The climate is hot. Light rainwear and summer clothing are appropriate year round. Customs: A valid passport and visa are required. Visas are available through the Embassy of Senegal in Washington. Visas also may be obtained on arrival if unavailable in country of origin. Health: No vaccinations are required. Malaria is widespread, and prophylactics, such as chloroquine, paludrine, and fansidar, are used. Take reasonable precautions in eating fruits, vegetables, and meats. Seek advice before using beaches. Telecommunications: Long-distance telephone and telegraph services are available in Moroni. The country is 8 time zones earlier than eastern standard time. Transportation: There are flights to and from Comoros from Paris, Mauritius, Nairobi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Madagascar. The three main islands are connected by daily flights, but there is no regular ocean communication. Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- April 1992 -- Editor: Peter A. Knecht. Department of State Publication 8963--Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402. (###)