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The Comoros was inhabited by people of Malay-Polynesian descent by the 5th or 6th century AD and possibly earlier. Others came from nearby Africa and Madagascar, and Arabs became important. The islands did not appear on a European world map until 1527, when they were depicted by the Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero. The first European known to visit the archipelago was the Englishman James Lancaster about 1591, but the dominant foreign influence in the islands remained Arabic until the 19th century.

In 1843 France officially took possession of Mayotte, and in 1886 it placed the other three islands under its protection. Administratively attached to Madagascar in 1912, the Comoros became an overseas territory of France in 1947 and was given representation in the French National Assembly. In 1961, a year after Madagascar became independent, the islands were granted internal autonomy. In 1974 majorities on three of the islands voted for independence, but most of the inhabitants of Mayotte favoured continuing French rule. When the National Assembly of France held that each island should decide its own status, Comoran President Ahmed Abdallah (who was deposed later that year) declared the whole archipelago independent on July 6, 1975. The Comoros was subsequently admitted to the United Nations, which recognized the integrity of the entire archipelago as one nation. France, however, recognized the sovereignty of only the three islands and upheld the autonomy of Mayotte. In 1976 France designated Mayotte a “territorial collectivity” (i.e., neither a territory nor a département) of France. As relations deteriorated, France withdrew all development and technical aid from the Comoros. Ali Soilih became president and attempted to convert the country into a secular, socialist republic. A coup by a group of European mercenaries in May 1978 brought Abdallah, the exiled former president, back into power.

Diplomatic relations with France were resumed, a new constitution was drawn up, and Abdallah was reelected president in late 1978 and in 1984, when he ran unopposed. He survived three coup attempts but was assassinated by European mercenaries in November 1989. French intervention in the Comoros removed the mercenaries and permitted multiparty presidential elections in 1990. Saïd Mohamed Djohar was elected president but, in September 1995, he also was killed in a coup led by the same mercenaries who had earlier assassinated Abdallah. Again, France intervened and elections were held in 1996.

Under the newly elected president, Mohamed Abdoulkarim Taki, a new constitution was ratified and attempts were made to curtail government expenditures and increase revenues. By August 1997 secessionist movements on the islands of Nzwani and Mwali had become strong enough that their leaders declared each island independent of the republic. The following month an attempt was made by the federal government to suppress the secessionist movement, but troops sent to the island of Nzwani were completely routed. The independence of the two islands was not recognized by any political polity outside the islands, however, and attempts to mediate the situation by international organizations failed.

President Mohamed Taki died suddenly in November 1998 and was replaced by an interim president, Tadjiddine Ben Saïd Massounde. The constitution called for new elections, but before any were held the interim president was ousted in April 1999 by a military coup led by the army chief of staff, Colonel Assoumani Azzali, who took control of the government. The new government was not recognized by the international community, but in July Azzali negotiated an accord with the secessionists on the island of Nzwani. The secessionists signed an agreement brokered earlier that year by the Organization of African Unity, which previously had been signed by representatives of the federal government and the island of Mwali. The agreement established a three-year presidential term that would rotate among the three islands.

Martin Ottenheimer

Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer
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