|Union des Comores
Udzima wa Komori (Comorian)
Union of the Comoros
|Motto: "Unité – Solidarité – Développement" (French)
"Unity – Solidarity – Development"
|Anthem: Udzima wa ya Masiwa (Comorian)
"The Unity of the Great Islands"
(and largest city)
|President of the Assembly
|July 6, 1975
|2,235 km² (178th (incl. Mayotte))
863 sq mi
|Comorian franc (
|not observed (UTC+3)
The Comoros (officially the Union of the Comoros) is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. The country consists of three islands in the volcanic Comoros archipelago: Njazidja, Mwali, and Nzwani. Comoros also lays claim to Mayotte (aka Mahoré), a neighboring island in the Comoro archipelago that remains a French Overseas Territory.
The Comoros is notable for its diverse culture and history, as a nation formed at the crossroads of many civilizations. It has three official languages— Comorian (Shikomor), Arabic, and French. Its name derives from the Arabic word qamar ("moon"), as seen depicted on its flag. However it has had a troubled history since independence in 1975, with an inordinate number of coups.
At 2,235 km², the Comoros is the third smallest African nation by area and one of the smallest in the world, and with a population estimated (2007) at 711,400 it is also the sixth smallest African nation by population, though it has one of the highest population densities in Africa.
Comoros is located off the eastern coast of Africa on the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between northern Madagascar and northeastern Mozambique. The nearest countries are Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. The area occupied by the Comoros Islands is slightly more than 12 times the size of Washington, D.C.
The islands: Njazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Maore (Mayotte) with their French names in parentheses, have distinct topographical characteristics due to their different ages. Maore, the oldest of the islands, is highly eroded with slow, meandering streams. Ngazidja, the youngest of the islands, is dominated by a massive, active volcano, that erupted as recently as 2005. Volcanic experts are concerned that a very violent eruption may occur in the near future. The other two islands are mountainous but have no active volcanic activity. The capital, Moroni, is on the western edge of Njazidja.
Flora and fauna
The mountainous terrain on several of the islands creates a variety of habitats with diverse animal and plant species, several of which are unique to the Comoros, such as Livingstone's fruit bat, the world's largest bat with a wing span that exceeds four feet.
In the waters around the islands lives the famous coelacanth, once thought by scientists to have been extinct for millions of years. But in the second half of the last century, an ichthyologist learned that Comorian fishermen regularly caught coelacanths in the deep waters surrounding the islands of Njazidja (Grande Comore) and Nzwani (Anjouan). Several specimens have since been preserved and can be seen today in museums around the world.
There is an abundance of life in the sea around the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, large sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish, to lobsters, crabs and tiny shrimp. Deep water close to the islands, coral reefs, miles of sandy beaches, plus fresh water streams and shoreline springs provide multiple habitats for marine life.
Located a little more than 10 degrees below the equator in the western Indian Ocean, the islands have a maritime tropical climate. In the wet season from October to April, the predominant northerly winds of the Indian Ocean bring moist, warm air to the region. Heaviest rainfall occurs from December to April and amounts can reach as high as 15 inches (390 mm) in a month. The mean temperature during the wet season is in the high seventies with the hottest month, March, averaging temperatures in the middle eighties (Fahrenheit). From May to September southerly winds dominate the region. These are cooler and drier, and temperatures in the islands average around 66 degrees Fahrenheit (19 degrees Celsius).
Rainfall and temperature vary from island to island during any month and even vary on an island due to the topography. The central, higher areas of an island are often cooler and more moist than the coastal regions. This variation results in microecologies on the islands, with distinct flora and fauna.
The first human inhabitants of the Comoro Islands are thought to have been Polynesian and Melanesian settlers, Malays and Indonesians, traveling by boat. They settled in at least the sixth century C.E., the date of the earliest known archaeological site, found on Nzwani, and some sources speculate settlement as early as the first century. The islands of Comoros became populated by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Settlers of the Swahili people first reached the islands as a part of the greater Bantu expansion that took place on the continent of Africa throughout the first millennium.
Development of the Comoros is divided into phases beginning with Swahili influence and settlement from the ninth to tenth centuries, in which the islands maintained only a single central village each. By the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, trade with the island of Madagascar and Middle Eastern merchants flourished and smaller villages sprang up while towns grew. Contact with Middle Eastern merchants brought Islam to the islands for the first time, and it gained in popularity. Large mosques were soon constructed.
The Comoro Islands, like other coastal areas in the region, were important stops in early Islamic trade routes. Despite its distance from the coast, it is situated on the major sea route between Kilwa and Mozambique, which was an outlet for Zimbabwean gold. By the early seventeenth century, slaves had become Comoros' most important export commodity. Beginning in 1785, the Sakalava of the west coast of Madagascar began slaving raids on Comoros. Thousands of islanders were sold to work on sugar plantations in French-occupied Madagascar, Mauritius, or Reunion.
By the nineteenth century, Shirazi influence dominated the islands. Sunni Arabs from Shiraz, Iran, the Shirazi traded along the coast of East Africa as well as in the Middle East and India, and established colonies in the Comoros. Arab influence increased with the ascendancy of Zanzibar under Arab Omani rule, Comorian culture, especially architecture and religion, increasingly reflected Arab contact. Many rival sultanates were established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
European contact and French colonization
Portuguese explorers visited the archipelago in 1505. France first established colonial rule in the Comoros beginning in 1841. The first French colonists landed in Mayotte, and Andrian Tsouli, the king of Mayotte, signed the Treaty of April 1841, which ceded the island to French authorities. In 1886, Mohéli was turned over to French protection by its Queen Salimba Mochimba. That same year, after consolidating his authority over all of Grand Comore, Sultan Said Ali agreed to French protection of his island, though he retained sovereignty until 1909. Also in 1909, Sultan Said Muhamed of Anjouan abdicated in favor of French rule of the island.
The Comoros (or Les Comores) was officially made a French colony in 1912, and the islands were placed under the administration of the French colonial governor general of Madagascar in 1914.
The Comoros continued to be used as a way station for merchants to the Far East and India until the construction of the Suez Canal greatly reduced traffic passing through the Mozambique Channel. The only native commodities exported by the Comoros were coconuts. 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. France converted Mayotte into a sugar plantation colony. The other islands were soon transformed as well, and the major crops of ylang-ylang (which produces an oil used in perfume), vanilla, coffee, cocoa, and sisal were introduced.
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 independence. The deputies of Mayotte, which stayed under French control, abstained. Referendums on all four of the islands except Mayotte showed strong support for independence. Ahmed Abdallah became the first president and proclaimed the Comoros' independence on September 5, 1975. By staying part of France, Mayotte residents get free education, health care, and a minimum wage.
The next 30 years were a period of political turmoil. It began in 1975 when mercenary Bob Denard, with clandestine funding by Jacques Foccart and the French government, removed President Ahmed Abdallah from office in an armed coup on August 3, 1975, and replaced him with United National Front of the Comoros (UNF) member Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. Just a few months later, in January 1976, Jaffar was ousted in favor of Minister of Defense Ali Soilih.
Around that time, in two referendums — December 1974 and February 1976 — the population of Mayotte voted against independence from France (by 63.8 percent and 99.4 percent, respectively). The three independent islands instituted a number of socialist and isolationist policies that soon strained relations with France.
In 1978, Denard returned and overthrew President Soilih by force and re-instated Abdallah with the support of the French and South African governments. Abdallah's presidency was marked by authoritarian rule and increased adherence to traditional Islam.
Abdallah continued as president until 1989 when, fearing a probable coup d'état, he signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Shortly thereafter, Abdallah was allegedly killed by a disgruntled military officer. Denard was evacuated to South Africa and Said Mohamed Djohar, Soilih's older half-brother, became president and served until September 1995 when Denard returned and attempted another coup. France intervened with paratroopers and forced Denard to surrender. The French removed Djohar and Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim became president by election. He led the country from 1996 until he died in November 1998, a time of labor crises, government suppression, and secessionist conflicts. He was succeeded by interim President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde.
The islands of Anjouan and Mohéli had declared their independence from the Comoros in 1997, attempting to rejoin French rule. France, however, refused, and there were bloody confrontations between federal troops and rebels during Taki's government.
Col. Azali Assoumani, army chief of staff, seized power in a bloodless coup in April 1999, citing the interim president's weak leadership in the face of crisis. The BBC reported that Azali's takeover was the Comoros' eighteenth coup d'etat since independence in 1975. A subsequent failed attempt by Azali to consolidate power and reestablish control over the islands was the subject of international criticism, and the African Union, under the auspices of President Mbeki of South Africa, intervened, imposing sanctions on Anjouan to help broker negotiations and effect a reconciliation. This involved a system of governmental autonomy for each island, plus a Union government for the three islands.
Azali stepped down in 2002 to run in the democratic election for president of the Comoro Union, which he won. Under international pressure as a military ruler who had originally come to power by force and was not always democratic while in office, Azali led the Union through constitutional changes that enabled new elections. A "Loi des compétences" (a law that defines the responsibilities of each governmental body) was passed in early 2005 and is in the process of implementation.
The elections in 2006 were won by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Sunni Muslim cleric nicknamed the "Ayatollah" for his time spent studying Islam in Iran. Azali honored the election results, thus allowing the first-ever peaceful and democratic exchange of power in the archipelagos' recent and turbulent history.
In 2007, however, in voting for the presidencies of the three islands, Mohamed Bacar refused to relinquish his post and inaugurated himself for a second term as president of Anjouan Island, in defiance of the Union government.
Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the president is both head of state and head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. The constitution was ratified by referendum on December 23, 2001, and the islands' constitutions and executives were elected in the following months. It had previously been considered a military dictatorship, and the transfer of power from Azali Assoumani to Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi in May 2006 was the first peaceful transfer in Comorian history.
Executive power is exercised by the government. Federal legislative power is vested in both the government and parliament. The preamble of the constitution guarantees an Islamic inspiration in governance, a commitment to human rights, and several specific enumerated rights, democracy, and "a common destiny" for all Comorians.
Typically, the president is to be elected by direct universal suffrage to a five-year term and is limited to two terms. Suffrage is extended to all citizens over the age of 18 who possess full civil and political rights. The president nominates ministers to form a cabinet called the Council of Government. If the presidency becomes vacant for any reason the president of the Supreme Court serves as interim president until an election can be held.
The legislature is bicameral. Assembly (lower house) representatives are elected to four-year terms through a popular vote. An electoral college chooses senators. The leader of the party with the most number of seats in the Assembly holds the post of prime minister.
Each of the islands has a great amount of autonomy in the Union, including having its own constitution (or Fundamental Law), president, and parliament. The presidency and Assembly of the Union are distinct from each of the islands' governments. The presidency of the Union rotates between the islands. Anjouan holds the current presidency rotation, and so Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi is president of the Union; Mohéli and Njazidja follow in four-year terms.
The Comorian legal system rests on Islamic law and an inherited French (Napoleonic code) legal code. Village elders or civilian courts settle most disputes. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and the executive.
The Supreme Court acts as a Constitutional Council in resolving constitutional questions and supervising presidential elections. It also arbitrates in cases where the government is accused of malpractice. The Supreme Court consists of two members selected by the president, two elected by the Federal Assembly, and one by the council of each island.
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 troop presence in Comoros at government request as well as a small maritime base and a Foreign Legion Detachment on Mayotte.
When Comoros became a member of the United Nations in 1975, the new nation was defined as consisting of the entire archipelago, although France maintains control over Mayotte. Comoros has repeatedly pressed its claim to Mayotte before the UN General Assembly, which has adopted a series of resolutions opining that Mayotte belongs to Comoros under the principle that the territorial integrity of colonial territories should be preserved upon independence. As a practical matter, however, these resolutions have little effect and there is no foreseeable likelihood that Mayotte will become part of Comoros without its people's consent. More recently, the Assembly has maintained this item on its agenda but deferred it from year to year without taking action.
Comoros is a member of the African Union, the Arab League, the European Development Fund, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the African Development Bank.
Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world. Sixty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Economic growth and poverty reduction are major priorities for the government. Unemployment is high (20 percent). Agriculture, including fishing, hunting, and forestry, is the leading sector of the economy (accounting for 40 percent of GDP), and 80 percent of the working population is employed in that sector. Yet most of the land is used for cash crops rather than food crops, and Comoros imports most of its food. Imports of rice, the main staple, account for 90 percent of all imports. High population densities — as much as 1,000 per square kilometer in the densest agricultural zones — may lead to an environmetal crisis in the near future, especially considering the high rate of population growth (2.84 percent by 2007 estimates).
The Comoros' real GDP growth was a low 1.9 percent in 2004 and real GDP per capita was declining annually ($600 by a 2005 estimate). These trends are explained by such factors as declining investment, a drop in consumption, rising inflation, and an increase in trade imbalances in part due to lowered cash crop prices, especially vanilla.
Comoros has an inadequate transportation system, a young and rapidly increasing population, and few natural resources. The low educational level of the labor force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity, high unemployment, and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. Agriculture provides most of the exports. Comoros is the world's largest producer of ylang-ylang (whose essential oil is used in distilling perfumes) and the second-largest producer of vanilla. It is also a major exporter of cloves.
The government is struggling to upgrade education and technical training, privatize commercial and industrial enterprises, improve health services, diversify exports, promote tourism, and reduce the high population growth rate.
Remittances from Comorans living abroad are seen as a lifeline for impoverished communities at home, where there is little hope that the government will be able to meet their daily needs. With almost one-third of its population living outside the country - mainly in France - recent research has shown that, where the state has failed, contributions from the Comoran diaspora are playing a central role in providing basic services. In terms of its dependence on remittances per capita, the Indian Ocean archipelago ranks second after Eritrea in the African continent.
But World Bank researchers pointed out that a large portion of the financial contributions received from abroad went into "private consumption," with very little channelled towards savings and productive investments. Although remittances were also used to improve nutrition, shelter, education, and health, the survey highlighted that a substantial portion was spent on luxury goods unrelated to poverty reduction. One such "luxury" are grandiose wedding ceremonies, which are estimated to account for over half the expenditure of all remitted funds.
These wedding ceremonies are a series of elaborate rituals that involve an exchange of expensive gifts between the couple's families and feasts for an entire village. The cost of the ceremony can amount to between $20,000 and $60,000, raised primarily by pooling the remittances administered by community associations.
The Comoros claims the Banc du Geyser and the Glorioso Islands as part of its exclusive economic zone.
With fewer than a million people, the Comoros is one of the least populous countries in the world but also one of the most densely populated, with an average of 275 people per km². In 2001, 34 percent of the population was considered urban, but that is expected to grow, since rural population growth is negative, while overall population growth is still relatively high. Major urban centers include Moroni, Mutsamudu, Domoni, Fomboni, and Tsémbéhou.
The islands of the Comoros share mostly African-Arab origins. Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, representing as much as 98 percent of the population. Although Arab culture is firmly established throughout the archipelago, a minority of the citizens of Mayotte (the Mahorais) are Roman Catholic and have been strongly influenced by French culture. Malagasy and Indian minorities also exist, as well as Creole-speaking minorities mostly descended from Réunionnaise. Chinese peoples are also present on Mayotte and parts of Grande Comore (especially Moroni).
The most common language is Comorian, or Shikomor, a descendant of Swahili with Arabic influences. Shingazidja, Shimwali, Shinzwani, and Shimaore are the local dialects spoken on each of the islands, Ngazidja, Mwali, Nzwani, and Mahoré, respectively. French and Arabic are also official languages, along with Comorian. Arabic is widely known as a second language, being the language of Qur'anic teaching, and French is the language of all other formal education. Malagasy is also spoken by a small number of Malagasy immigrants. About 57 percent of the population is literate in the Latin alphabet, more with the Arabic alphabet; total literacy is estimated at 62.5 percent. More males than females are literate (64 percent compared to 49 percent). Comorian has no native script, but both Arabic and Latin scripts have been used.
Islam helps to integrate Comoran society. As Sunni Muslims, the people follow religious observances conscientiously, and fundamentalism is on the rise, especially among the young who have studied abroad. Comoros' poverty and instability make it a fertile area to recruit adherents.
Most of the educated populace of the Comoros has attended Qur'anic schools at some point in their life, often before regular schooling, where boys and girls are taught and memorize the Qur'an and Arabic at early ages. Some parents specifically choose this early schooling to offset French schools that children usually attend later. Since independence and the ejection of French teachers, the education system has been plagued by poor teacher training and poor results, though recent stability may allow for substantial improvements.
Marriage tends to be polygynous, but in a remnant of African matrilineal traditions, the husband moves into his wife's home, maintaining several households. Women are also able to own and inherit certain landholdings, another survivor of African customs.
Only by fulfilling the ritual grand marriage can a man be entitled to participate in his village's assembly of notables or get further involved in political life.
There is no national newspaper in Comoros; the leading regional paper is Al-Watwan, published on Grande Comore; Kwezi is also published on Mayotte. Radio Comoros is the national radio service and Comoros National TV is the television service.
Political and economic stability are elusive in the Comoros. The mainstay of the economy, agriculture, is causing deforestation and erosion of the fragile soil. The government exists on foreign donors' aid. The beauty of the mountains and beaches could draw tourists if the poliitical situation were more stable and infrastructure developed.
- Comoros. State.gov (2010-05-05). Retrieved January 5, 2012.
- excluding Mayotte
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