A country divided
Whilst a sovereign state under International Law, the distance by sea between the four islands, as well as their disparate colonial experiences, have resulted in an ambiguous sense of Comorian nationality. Whilst the inhabitants of the four islands share key elements of a national identity including a mutually comprehensible language in Shikomoro, the Shafi’i Sunni Islamic faith, diet, dress and music, there is a sense that distinction outweighs similarity (Ottenheimer 2008; Walker 2007; Massey 2013). For Iain Walker, ‘the lack of a subjective sense of nationhood explains why these differences are exaggerated in a denial of the socio-cultural unity that would imply, or so it is feared, a homogenised space and the domination of one island over the others’ (Walker 2007: 600). And yet despite, or perhaps in response to, this diversity, it is French culture that acts as the thread that weaves the islands together. It is in the light of this cultural heterogeneity that the relationship between Comorians from the Union and those from Mayotte, at once envious and resentful, should be understood.
This insularity also partially explains the instability that has characterised the Union’s political history since independence. Depending on definition, the country has suffered between 19 and 25 successful or attempted coups d’etat, four of which were organised by the notorious French mercenary Bob Denard who it is widely assumed was acting on concealed orders from Jacques Foccart, the perennial, and Machievellian, head of the French president’s cellule africaine (Renou 2006). Arguably, and despite the current president, Francois Hollande, and his government signalling otherwise, this impulse on the part of France to shape the direction of the Union’s governance persists. Pierre Caminade, a member of Survie, an organisation that is highly critical of French African policy, argues that France has sought to ‘sabotage’ the three islands of the Union whilst ‘protecting’ its interests in Mayotte (2004).
Denard’s coups safeguarded the primacy of France as the Union’s closest external partner, a position that continues to be reinforced by the
French Treasury guaranteeing the Comorian franc. In 1997, there was an unprecedented attempt to reverse independence. The combination of distinct island identities, a perception of marginalisation within a Union dominated by Comorians from the largest island, Grande Comore, and France’s enduring influence led to Anjouan and Moheli seeking to secede from the Union and ‘reattach’ themselves to the former colonial power (Alwahti 2003; Cornwell 1998). Although, formally rejected by the then French president, Jacques Chirac, France continued to be accused of meddling in the disputes between the islands of the Union, notably by tacitly supporting Mohammed Bacar, the former island president of Anjouan, who, in 2007, once more attempted to withdraw from the Union when his term of office came to an end. Union authority on Anjouan was only restored following a military intervention by the African Union to oust Bacar’s forces. Fleeing to Mayotte, the French authorities refused requests to send Bacar to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, rather dispatching him to exile in the West African state, and former French colony, Benin.
Following the attempted secession, legislation was passed to limit island self-government and bolster the authority of the federal Union government. Under the presidency of Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, Comoros sought to reach beyond France for external cooperation, becoming one of very few countries with cordial relations with both the US and Iran. However, neither Sambi, nor his successor, Ikililou Dhoinine, have been able to break the political, economic and, in particular, cultural ties with France. Indeed, as discussed later in the chapter, the government of Francois Hollande, has sought to bind the Union still closer to France.
Yet, if France assumes the archipelago to be within its ‘sphere of influence’, it is the island of Mayotte that has been singled out for preference. France orchestrated the, reasonably substantial, but not overwhelming, vote against independence on the island at the time of the Union-wide referendum in 1974. As colonial power, France had already transferred the seat of power within the archipelago from Mamoudzou to Moroni, the capital of Grande Comores, prefiguring the dismemberment of Comoros as a unified entity. During the referendum campaign, the French used Mahorais soldiers from Mayotte (inhabitants of Mayotte are known as Mahorais) enlisted in the French army to ‘encourage’ voters in their home villages to support the ‘no’ campaign (Fouillet 2007). On a turnout of 93 percent of the electorate, the vote for independence across all four islands was 94.5 percent and 5.5 percent against. However, nearly all the votes against independence were cast on Mayotte where 64 percent of the island’s electorate voted to remain part of France. Thus, when unilateral independence was declared on 6 July 1975, France accepted the independence of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli, but reneged on the original rules of the referendum to accept the decision of the archipelago’s electorate as a whole, and opted to retain control of Mayotte as a collectivite territorial. For ordinary Comorians with relatives, friends, or a need to visit or do business on Mayotte, the key juncture, however, was the adoption by the French government of Edouard Balladur of a new visa regime applicable to all Union citizens wanting to travel to Mayotte. Detailed the following year, and still in force, the stringent conditions required to obtain this ‘Balladur visa’ makes legal entry into Mayotte for Comorians all but impossible.
French overseas policy in this part of the Indian Ocean, given bureaucratic authority by the Balladur visa, was ultimately endorsed in a referendum by nearly all Mahorais. On 31 March 2011, the island became a full overseas department and region of France. The decision to actively press the Mahorais to remain part of overseas France was based on France’s enduring priorities in its dealings with its former colonies and overseas territories: status, strategic advantage and an abiding impulse to preserve its cultural legacy.
The predictable outcome of the split has been two divergent development trajectories for the Union islands and Mayotte. In 2012, the Comorian GDP per head was measured at US$858 per capita, whilst in 2011, on Mayotte GDP per head was US$10,270 (UN 2014; INSEE 2014). It is this gulf in incomes that acts as the chief pull factor for migrants who travel in the hope of earning enough from Mayotte’s black economy to remit money home and, possibly, to save enough to engineer a way to metropolitan France or another EU member state. The other main pull factor is the potential to obtain French, and hence European, citizenship for the next generation through the exercise on Mayotte of the traditional French legal practice of jus soli, birthright citizenship. A child born on Mayotte is French at birth if one of the parents is French or, if both parents are non-French, can apply for French citizenship on attaining adulthood.
The numbers involved in this irregular migration are large, but even more dramatic given the relatively small populations of Mayotte and the Comoros as a whole. Estimates of the number of irregular migrants on
Mayotte vary from 60,000 to 100,000, with over ninety per cent originating from the Union islands. Between 7,000-10,000 have drowned attempting the crossing although this number is an under-estimate, since France does not count deaths that occur outside its maritime boundaries. However, given that the population of the three islands of the Union was estimated at 718,000 in 2012, the death toll represents, at least, one per cent of the Comoros national population since the introduction of the Balladur visa. Likewise, a report for the French Senate compiled in 2012 estimates that about a third of the population of Mayotte’s population, 212,645 in 2012, is irregular.