Fresh crisis in the Comoros

The arrest of a top opposition leader has plunged the Indian Ocean islands into chaos once again

On average, someone attempts a coup in the Comoros once every two years, according to The Economist. There’s no sign of bucking that trend.

On October 28, the governor of Anjouan island, who’s also a prominent opposition leader, was formally indicted by the state prosecutor. Arrested in the island’s capital of Mutsamudu, Abdou Salami Abdou faces charges of undermining national unity, participating in an insurrection movement and complicity in murder and rebellion, acts which he is alleged to have committed against the government of President Azali Assoumani.

Reports of Abdou’s indictment prompted a call to prayer by youth in the town of Vouvouni, located on the island of Grande Comore, which serves as the seat of government for the Indian Ocean archipelago. Security forces attempted to disperse the prayer gathering, but were forcibly resisted by the congregants.

The charges against Abdou follow a period of unrest on Anjouan island. On October 15, Comoros soldiers were deployed to Mutsamudu to disperse members of Abdou’s Juwa party, the largest opposition entity in the Comoros, which established protest camps in the streets of the city’s Old Quarter.

Protesters engaged security forces in running battles down Mutsamudu’s narrow streets, prompting the closure of local business, the suspension of public transport and the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

After the deployment of additional military assets to the city, the armed protesters retreated from the Old Quarter. At least two people were killed, four injured and dozens more arrested in the multi-day standoff.

Calm has returned to Mutsamudu, and public and business services have resumed, but a curfew remains in effect between 10pm and 6am.

Despite calling for an end to violence on the island he administers, Abdou was nonetheless detained on claims that he incited the armed uprising. Abdou is now the second Juwa party leader to face prosecution by the Assoumani administration since judicial proceedings against former Comoros president Abdallah Sambi on charges of corruption.

Abdou, Sambi and the wider Juwa party have emerged as the primary critics of Assoumani’s constitutional reform programme, with which the president has enacted a string of legislative measures that centralise power in the office of the executive.

In the controversial July constitutional referendum Assoumani extended presidential term limits, reduced the political powers of the Constitutional Court, diluted the authority of the semiautonomous governments administering the country’s key islands and — most controversially — terminated a constitutional tenet that guaranteed that the presidency of the archipelago rotated among its islands every five years.

Abdou and his Anjouan administration have pledged to resist implementing the mandated reforms, claiming that they would bring a return to political instability in the Comoros, which has faced as many as 20 unconstitutional power grabs, both successful and unsuccessful, since it gained independence from France in 1974.

The European Union has called for opposing parties to denounce violence and agree to dialogue, and the African Union is attempting to mediate a resolution to the political impasse.

But discussions have broken down. The Third Way Collective, a coalition of Comoros civic groups, has formally withdrawn from participation in the dialogue process. The opposition withdrew from talks in late September after they accused Assoumani of acting in bad faith by failing to release political prisoners and by dissolving the islands’ administrative councils amid the dialogue process.

Assoumani and the Juwa party signed an agreement on October 24 that denounces the use of violence. In terms of the deal, Assoumani must release all political prisoners and grant immunity to all those involved in the recent uprising in Mutsamudu. In return, armed opposition supporters must desist from further violence and relinquish all weapons to the military.

A ceremony for the weapon handover process and the granting of immunity was planned but, by October 29, had not yet been held.

Ryan Cummings is a director at Signal Risk

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