afrol News, 20 January - The President of the Comoro Union, Azali Assoumani, and the President of the Union's principal island, Grande Comore, Abdou Soulé El'bak, remain engaged in a power struggle paralysing government. Traditional leaders are trying to find a compromise, but seem to have little success.
Mr El'bak was in May 2002 won the first presidential elections of Grande Comore, the biggest of the three islands constituting the new Comoro Union. After a series of polls in the archipelago, Mr El'bak was the first opposition candidate to win, in harsh competition with Union President Azali. Ex-military leader Azali earlier had won the Union's presidential poll, which was largely seen as fraudulent. Under the new federal Comoro constitution, Mr Azali's powers are however curtailed, especially by a government hostile to him in Grande Comore.
The federal government and the Grande Comore government have spent the last nine months struggling over each other's competences. Not one detail has escaped the power struggle. The latest stab by President Azali has been hindering the Mecca pilgrimage of Grande Comore Muslims, claiming that the locally issued pilgrim passports are invalid without paying an extra fee to the federal government. Pilgrims from the islands of Anjouan and Moheli were avoiding this fee, Grande Comore Minister of Religious Affairs, Abdouraouf Ahmed, had told Pana.
Religious leaders are trying to mediate the conflict over pilgrim passport fees while Grande Comore pilgrims are awaiting permission to leave for Mecca. Meanwhile, traditional leaders are mediating between Presidents Azali and El'bak on who has the authority over the federal gendarmerie on the island. Both Presidents had issued contradicting decrees on the matter earlier this month, provoking the most acute political crisis yet.
As traditional leader are trying got mediate, the Comoro army - until recently headed by President Azali - is getting involved. Army chief-of-staff Soilih dit Campagnard in an official statement has said the army would "not allow" the creation of militias not serving the unity of the state, thus attacking Mr El'bak's bid for local authority over the gendarmerie. President El'bak, on the other hand, points to the autonomous status of Comoro troops on the island of Anjouan, answering to the Anjouanese President.
While President Azali increasingly can count on the support of the Comoro armed forces, President El'bak seems to have increased his popular support and the support of other island Presidents. Especially the Anjouanese presidency - Anjouan had earlier declared its independence from Comoros - agrees that President Azali is undermining the new federalist constitution by trying to concentrate powers in his hands.
Also the stalemate on tax and customs collection in Grande Comore is jeopardising the stability of the new Union. As tax revenues are insecure for both governments, an initiative to reconstruct and develop the conflict-ridden islands remains impossible to implement. Foreign investments are totally out of reach. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year said it would be impossible to draw up an economic programme for Comoros until the current political situation was clarified.
According to the Union's constitution, the three autonomous islands of Moheli, Anjouan and Grande Comore are in control of almost any affairs concerning them, while Mr Azali's union government is to control defence, foreign affairs and overall economic policy.
While there is a federal constitution and President, there are however also three island constitutions, in many parts contradicting the Union's constitution. Especially the financial sector is disputed, as it is unclear who controls the different parts of revenue collection. Also the definition of "defence" is disputed as island governments want to control local security groups such as the gendarmerie.
A December proposal to organise parliamentary elections early this year seems to have been put on ice. According to the Comoro Embassy in South Africa, President El'bak and Azali had agreed on this move to solve the political crisis. As the power struggle between the two Presidents has reached new heights this month, an election agreement is getting less probable. It was also unclear how parliamentary elections could resolve the confusion over administrative control between the two governments.
As the political crisis in Grande Comore continues, local residents are getting increasingly frustrated by the stalemate. Last year, it was hoped that the establishment of the complex Comoro Union, including four referendums and eight elections, would put an end to years of civil war and instability. Now, optimisms have disappeared. Comoros has suffered over 20 coups and coup attempts since independence in 1975, and Comorans agree they do not want yet another one.
Sources: Based on Comoro sources, press reports and afrol archives