Once upon a time a jinni dropped a jewel into the ocean. The jewel caused a great circular inferno. When the smoke cleared, the Karthala volcano had created four islands known as Ngazidja, Mwali, Ndzouani and Mayotte.
Each island started off as a tiny village with one family, then two families then soon a whole community. Centuries later, the islanders sent an emissary known as Mtswa-Mwindze to Mecca on hearing about the Prophet Mohammed. Mtswa-Mwindze experienced many delays during his trip and on his arrival in Mecca, he was heartbroken to discover that the beloved prophet had died. He stayed on in Mecca learning this new religion, was entranced by it and on returning to his homeland started off at Ngazidja converting his people, till he finally got to the smallest of all the islands – Mwali and converted all his people to Islam.
Centuries later, the Bantu occupants of the island started to trade with Madagascar and the Middle East. These traders fell in love with the islands and several settled there. Pretty soon the population became a mixture of Yemeni and Omani Arabs intermarried with bantus and later Malayo-indonesian people. Locals initially traded coral, ambergris – a surprisingly sweet smelling component of whale faeces used as a fixative for perfumes, ivory, tortoiseshell and gold. With time though, the locals discovered a commodity that fetched them an even better price – their skin. Communities turned on each other – neighbours became slave traders and rationalized the new trade with religion, ideas of cultural dominance and a dog-eat-dog mentality that said, “Well, if we don’t subjugate the other and sell them, they might do the same to us.”
When the Portuguese stumbled on the islands, they were ripe for domination. Their thirst for slaves had been shared by Madagascar that sent its warriors to Comoros to get more slaves. The East African sultanate that ran from Zanzibar to Kilwa to Mombasa began to crumble around the same time as when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. The French came to the islands in mid 1800s and signed an agreement with the Malagasy king in Mayotte in which he signed over Mayotte to the French. France realized that the climate in the islands was suitable for plantations and quickly made all the four islands, plantation colonies planting sugar, the rare essential oil plant – ylang ylang, vanilla, coffee, cocoa bean and sisal. All these plantations required a strong workforce. 24 years into France’s occupation of Comoros, 40% of the population were slaves.
In the early 1900s, France again took advantage of the personal greed and ambition of a Comorian ruler. Sultan Said Ali of Bambao – one of the sultans of Ngazidja – the largest of the four Comorian islands, placed the four islands under French “protection” in exchange for French support of his claim to the whole island. In 1912, France combined Comoros and Madagascar to be one territory – a move not unique to the French but a major cause of the several border conflicts that still plague the African continent given how arbitrary borders were drawn separating tribes or in some cases putting together warring communities into a single country that was then expected to simply accept these new divisions and strange partnerships. To date there are 47 disputed lands in Africa – majority of them border territories, shared water bodies and islands.
In 1975, three of the four islands gained independence after a referendum from the French ensuring the people really wanted to be self-governed rather than remain under France’s imprisoning wing. Mayotte voted to remain part of France. Families slept as relatives and woke up with some of them as French citizens and others as Comorian citizens – a slice of France on the African continent.
In less than a year, the first Comorian President – French allied Ahmed Abdallah was removed from power in an armed coup. His replacement was still warming his seat when 5 months later he was ousted by his Minister of Defence – Ali Soilih. Quite coincidentally all this political turmoil was taking place at the time Mayotte was to have its second referendum vote to decide whether to remain as part of France or join Comoros. This time 99.5% of those in Mayotte voted to stay with France as opposed to 64% in the first vote years earlier. They had seen what could happen when a country fell out of favour with France and did not want any part of it.
President Ali Soilih was beginning to believe he had broken the bad luck streak of Comoros coups when a French mercenary – Bob Denard with support from the then Rhodesian and South African governments was sent to Comoros to spice things up a little. President Soilih’s socialist and French isolationist agenda did not sit well with their former master. Bob Denard had cut his teeth in the Algerian war then in the failed Katanga secession in DRC. He would later also be involved in other coup attempts and rebel fights in Angola, Rhodesia, Gabon and Benin. 3 years into President Soilih’s rule, he had faced 7 additional coup attempts. With little luck in each, he was finally forced from office in 1978 and killed.
Comoros’ first president Ahmed Abdallah was reinstated as president and he had a long-lived 11 year term as president. His rule was characterized by authoritarian rule and a return to traditional islam. In 1989 he began to see the end times and suspected that there was about to be another coup attempt. It was long overdue. He called the head of his presidential guard – the same French mercenary – Bob Denard to his office and signed a decree ordering the presidential guard to disarm the armed forces. He was apparently shot dead by a disgruntled military officer after signing this decree and Bob Denard was immediately evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers.
Soilih’s older half brother took over as President and had an impressively long 6 year presidential term. In 1995, Bob Denard attempted another coup in Comoros. This time the French saved the President and sent him to safety in Reunion islands. A French backed presidential replacement was fortunately found and became president of Comoros by election.
Fearing that their country would never know peace, the islands of Ndzouani and Mwali declared independence from Comoros in order to restore French rule in their islands. There were major labor crises in the country, government suppression and constant secessionist conflicts. France rejected the pleas of the two islands to become a part of France. There were bloody confrontations between federal troops and rebels. Yet another coup took place. This would be the 18th coup in Comoros in the 24 years since independence.
The country finally moved to a system of semi-autonomous governance in which each of the 3 islands have their own president and there is a rotating role as president of the three islands. In 2001, French trained Mohammed Bacar seized power as the President of Ndzouani. In 2007, he staged a vote to confirm his leadership. This was rejected by the African Union and the Comorian federal government who then seized rebel-held Ndzouani in a move welcomed by most. Bacar is said to have tortured hundreds if not thousands during his tenure. Bacar fled to the French territory of Mayotte on a small canoe – a “kwassa-kwassa” dressed as a woman to seek asylum from France.
Modern day Comoros is a struggling country trying to rebuild itself after decades of poor governance.