- At a summit in Antananarivo today, the African Indian Ocean nations agreed to intensify regional cooperation. The Heads of State from Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and the French islands Réunion and Mayotte (President Jacques Chirac) participated at the third summit of the Indian Ocean Commission (COI), where solidarity among the rich and poor nations of the region was focused.
The one-day summit, held today in the Malagasy capital, was launched under the theme of "valuing the common patrimony of member states and the strengthening of solidarity for durable development" of the entire region. The region is currently split between the rich island states of Mauritius, Seychelles and Réunion on one side and poor Madagascar and poor and unstable Comoros on the other side.
Marc Ravalomanana, President of Madagascar and current COI President, hosted the summit, which for the first time gathered all Heads of States of the regional organisation. French President Chirac had flown in from Paris to represent Réunion and President Azali Assoumani for the first time represented the Comoros Union. Thus, already the list of attendants indicated this COI summit would be of importance.
In their introduction speeches, President Ravalomanana, President Chirac and COI Secretary-General Monique Andréas Esovelomandroso emphasised on the need for a stronger regional integration. A "regional identity" had to be created to achieve the goal of greater solidarity among states, they pointed out.
COI has indeed been one of the less fruitful African regional organisations so far, much due to the great economic and political differences between the Indian Ocean states. Mauritius, being the only stable democracy enduring over decades, has earlier seen it as difficult to cooperate with other autocratic regimes of the region, many of which have been strongly leftist.
The new, more enlightened regime of President James Michel in Seychelles however has opened up for a new wave of cooperation between Mauritius and Seychelles, the two independent states of the region being most economically successful. The two island states, together with French Réunion, have large common interest in the tourism and fishing industries, which again unites them in an interest for regional stability and in environmental issues.
Comoros has so far been the "regional troublemaker", counting more than 20 military coups since independence in 1975. Comoros is also in conflict with France over the island of Mayotte, whose population has chosen to remain French despite international recognition of Comoran sovereignty. A wave of separatism of Comoran islands in the late 1990s further caused open warfare and threatened regional stability.
Madagascar, which almost slipped into civil war as President Ravalomanana was elected a few years ago, together with South Africa plaid an important role in re-establishing peace in Comoros. Pressure from Indian Ocean neighbours and the African Union (AU) has strongly contributed to maintain the Comoran peace and reconstruction on track during the last two years.
With peace, stability and economic progress marking the entire region at the same time, the COI thus seems to have gathered momentum. Comoros and Madagascar are keen to follow their neighbours' successful development of a large tourism industry and regional cooperation in the sector has already been launched by private actors. Thus, capital from Réunion is involved in the new Comoran airliner and regional airliners cooperate in offering tourists "island hopping packages".
Also in the environmental sector, all nations have stood out as important international players, in particular regarding global warming and the protection of the region's many endemic species. A healthy environment is seen as key to both the tourism and the fisheries industries - providing the region with most of its capital earnings.
Seychellois President Michel in Antananarivo presided a forum to foster "durable development and solidarity between the peoples" of the region, indicating that this rich island nation is willing to assist its poorer neighbours for the sake of regional stability. The French President looked into how COI member states could cooperate better in political, diplomatic and security issues, aiming at the same goal.
Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam meanwhile headed a session studying a deeper economic integration of COI member states. Currently, economic cooperation is patchy and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has plaid a stronger role than COI. Currently, Mauritius is a SADC member, while Madagascar is in the process of becoming a full member. Seychelles recently pulled out of SADC, which is Africa's most vibrant regional organisation.
Due to these more important regional organisations, the economic integration session showed few results. It was however agreed that Réunion should apply for membership in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a relatively dormant organisation that unites all regional states except the French island of Réunion. Hyped up with French subsidies, the island is a regional powerhouse, which could become a new market for the region - and even an indirect market access to France.
The session on creating a regional identity, headed by Comoran President Assoumani, however set more ambitious aims. The regional Heads of State agreed to "rapidly examine the conditions, ways and possibilities to open up the borders with a view to concretise the COI." To follow up its aims of regional integration, the COI also signed an accord with the European Union (EU), which is to finance its programmes with euro 30 million.
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