afrol News, 26 May - Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, nick-named the "Ayatollah", was today sworn in as the President of the Union of Comoros, representing the first-ever peaceful and democratic power exchange in the archipelagos' coup-plagued history. The Muslim cleric with an affection of turbans used his first speech as Comoroan President to counter rumours of being an Islamist and fundamentalist.
Outgoing Comoroan President Azali Assoumani, who came to power in a 1999 military coup, assured himself a remarkable position in the history of Comoros today, by allowing for a constitutional change of government for the first time since the archipelago became independent in 1975. Although not always respecting democratic rules during his time in power, ex-President Azali playd by the rules of the new Union constitution he had contributed to shape and handed over power to an elected President from the island of Anjouan today.
President Sambi won the 14 May polls by a landslide, even if he does not represent the largest and most populous island, Grand Comore. According to the new Union constitution, the presidency rotates between the archipelago's three islands, and this year, only candidates elected in a first round on Anjouan were presented. While the Anjouan vote was undecicive, Mr Sambi got 58 percent of all Comoran votes standing against two other Anjounaise candidates.
Mr Sambi - who is nick-named "the Ayatollah" - indeed gathered most votes on Grand Comore and Moheli, where he stood ot as a man who could bring values back to politics and would stand up against rampant corruption. Himself being a cleric and a successful businessman without much political experience secured an untainted image in a country where politicians are not trusted by the public.
The new Comoran President caught his nick-name for having studied Islam in Iran. Here, the 48-year-old also caught his affection for turbans, which have become his trademark in Comoros. The "Ayatollah" nick-name however has become somewhat of a burdon as Mr Sambi has become internationally known, as it could indicate a sympathy for the extremist Shia Muslim regime in Iran.
The new Comoran President however is a Sunni Muslim cleric and has tried to make it clear that he is nothing but "a good Muslim". The rumours of him being an Islamist or fundamentalist have disturbed the new Comoran leader.
Therefore, he also used a substantial part of his presidential inauguration speech to clarify these rumours. "If being an Islamist means conforming to the moral and intellectual values of our country, then I am an Islamist. If being an Islamist means showing compassion to the less fortunate, then I am an Islamist," Mr Sambi said. However, "being a good Muslim is not synonymous with being an Islamist and fundamentalism," he added.
President Sambi also on earlier occasions had calmed down foreign observers and the ccasional sceptical Comoran, saying he had no intentions to turn the tradtionally liberal Muslim archipelago into an Islamic state. There were no plans of introducing Shari'a laws or obliging women to wear veils, Mr Sambi was forced to tell the foreign press again and again.
As the new Comoran leader, Mr Sambi now faces much tougher challenges than a sceptical international press. Comoros remains the poorest and less developed state of the region, much owed to the tens of coups and coup attempts that have haunted the archipelago. President Sambi has pledged to fight corruption, to bring employment and development and to give a lift to values in the Comoran society.
The very constitution that brought this Anjouanese to power however will limit his possibilities to achieve the results he promised Comoran voters. The Union presidency is in a constant power struggle with the presidencies of the three islands, which according to the constitution are strongly autonomous. President Sambi will have little to say over citizen-close island affairs if he sticks to the Comoran constitution.
Time being, however, both Mr Sambi and the international community celebrates his peaceful grab of power in Comoros. The African Union (AU), which has been deeply involved in the Comoran peace process, last week praised the peaceful power exchange in the archipelago. The AU's Security Council said Comorans had displayed a "high sense of responsibility during this decisive phase of the national reconciliation process," and urged foreign donors to assist President Sambi "to consolidate" the process.
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