Africa, Headlines

COMORO ISLANDS: Anjouan Leader Plans Referendum On Secession

Moyiga Nduru

NAIROBI, Oct 13 1997 (IPS) - Defiant Anjouan separatist leader Abdalla Ibrahim is pressing ahead with a proposed Oct. 26 referendum to decide whether the island should secede or remain part of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Reports from the tiny island, which declared a unilateral independence from the Comoro Islands on Aug. 3, say registration is underway in the territory’s five prefectures.

Campaigners for secession are urging the islanders to register. And on Monday, Ibrahim was quoted by European radio stations as saying that the registration would close next week.

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Arab League have urged Ibrahim to refrain from holding the referendum, warning that the exercise would complicate the negotiation process.

“If such plan is carried out, it might seriously compromise the success of the process that is underway,” OAU envoy Pierre Yere told journalists in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on Oct 9.

The Cairo-based Arab League has also advised against the plebiscite. Both the OAU and the Arab League say they will not honour the results.

The troubled island is still recovering from the effects of the Sep. 3 invasion by a special crack force of 300 soldiers from the central government in Moroni which was repulsed by the separatists. Journalists and businessmen returning from the Comoros say the renegade island has placed its troops on high alert.

“The people of Anjouan behave as if they are in a state of war,” said a journalist here on Monday. “Each time, you hear a wild rumour about Moroni preparing to invade Anjouan. I think, the people live under a constant state of fear,” he told IPS.

The OAU says it will send a small force of about 25 troops to Anjouan as observers. It is also planning for a conference in early November on the island’s future to be held in Addis Ababa.

The OAU launched its mediation bid in July after Anjouan and Moheli declared unilateral independence from the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros.

An archipelago of four small islands, The Comoro Islands lie between the East African coast and the North-western coast of Madagascar. The French names for the four islands are Grande- Comore, where the capital Moroni is situated, Anjouan, Moheli and Mayotte.

OAU Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim, who appointed Yere to sort out the conflict, said the OAU would help the government in Moroni to address the thorny issues raised by the separatist elements in Anjouan and Moheli.

Three of the four Comoro islands, with a combined population of some 540,000, won independence from France in 1975. The fourth, Mayotte, opted in a 1974 referendum to remain under French administration.

Twenty-two years on, some of the residents of Anjouan and Moheni, who account for half of the federation’s population, are now changing their minds about independence which, they say, has brought only poverty, civil strife and numerous coups. They want to return to French rule.

The rebels appear to be attracted by the higher standard of living, elaborate social security system and the regular payment of civil servants enjoyed by the people of Mayotte.

France has however, ruled out bringing the islands once more under French administration. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yves Doutriaux has made it clear that Paris would only back efforts by the OAU to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the Comoros.

To force Anjouan to fall back to fold, Mohamed Taki, the president of the Islamic Federation of Comoros, has imposed an embargo on the island, something which the authorities there say is hurting the islanders.

On Oct. 8, Ibrahim issued a statement in which he appealed to the international community for oil, saying the blockade was threatening to cause an environmental catastrophe.

He said Anjouan had received no oil for five months, leaving islanders reliant on wood and fuel as the shortage continues.

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