The Comoros consists of four islands in the Indian Ocean between Tanzania and Madagascar. Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan, make up the Union of the Comoros. The fourth, Mayotte, continues to be held by France as an overseas territory; subsidised by France, the people are much better off and no longer want to be reunited with the other islands.
A visit to these islands is unforgettable – mountains on Grande Comore and Anjouan, coral reefs and a local Islamic culture and language very close to that of Zanzibar, Mombasa and Lamu on the East African coast. Visitors arrive at the tiny capital, Moroni, with its mosques and markets, squashed between the sea and the still active volcano, Karthala. The whole of Grande Comore consists of volcanic rock, which breaks down into fertile soil, and here the main crops are the vanilla pod and ylang ylang, the basis of many French perfumes. This makes the smell of Comoran agriculture something special! Transport between the islands is possible, but irreg- ular, and such little tourism that there is can be found mainly on Grande Comore.
Politically, the islands have been disastrously unstable since independence in 1975, with over 20 coups d’état. The islands of Mohéli and Anjouan unilaterally declared independence in 1997 as a result of which a new constitution was agreed in 2001 in a bid to end the cycle of coups and secession attempts. Each island now gets a semi-autonomous government, parliament and president and there is a rotating presidency for the three islands.
This complex system is too costly for such a desperately poor country and the government is contemplating changes, which may set the conflicts off again. The Comoros have a debt burden of US$297 million – 63 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) – and are near the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index.