Island country, western Indian Ocean.
Area: 719 sq mi (1,862 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 614,000.
Capital: Moroni. The people are a mixture of Malay immigrants, Arab
traders, and peoples from Madagascar and continental Africa. Languages:
Comorian (a Bantu language), Arabic, French (all official). Religion:
Islam (official; predominantly Sunni). Currency: Comorian franc. Comoros
comprises a group of islands between Madagascar and the eastern African
mainland that includes Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli), and
Nzwani (Anjouan) but excludes Mayotte. They are generally rocky, with
shallow soils and poor harbours, though Mwali, the smallest, has fertile
valleys and forested hillsides. Mount Karthala, an active volcano, is
the highest point, at 7,746 ft (2,361 m). The climate is tropical. One
of the world’s poorest nations, Comoros has an economy based on
subsistence agriculture. It is a republic with one legislative house.
The head of state and government is the president, assisted by vice
presidents. Beginning in the 16th century, Comoros was known to European
navigators, but the dominant influence on the islands was then and for
long afterward Arab. In 1843 France officially took possession of
Mayotte and in 1886 placed the other three islands under protection.
Subordinated to Madagascar in 1912, the Comoros became an overseas
territory of France in 1947. In 1961 they were granted internal
autonomy. In 1974 majorities on three of the islands voted for
independence, which was declared in 1975. The following decade saw
several coup attempts, culminating in the assassination of the president
in 1989. French intervention permitted multiparty elections in 1990, but
the country remained in a state of chronic instability, including
secessionist movements on Nzwani and Mwali. In 1999 the army took
control of the government and negotiated a constitution in 2001.
Official name L’Union des Comores (French); Udzima wa Komori
(Comorian); (Union of the Comoros)1
Form of government republic2 with one legislative house (Assembly of the
Head of state and government President assisted by Vice Presidents
Official languages Comorian (Shikomor); Arabic; French
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit Comorian franc4 (CF)
Population estimate (2008) 645,0005
Total area (sq mi) 7196
Total area (sq km) 1,8626
1The short-form Arabic name is Al-Qumur.
2In actuality, a loose union of semiautonomous islands.
3Includes 15 nonelected seats.
4Formerly pegged to the French franc and since Jan. 1, 2002, to the
euro at the rate of ˆ1 = CF 491.97.
5Excludes Comorians living abroad in France or Mayotte (about 150,000
6Excludes Mayotte, an overseas possession of France.
an independent state comprising three of the islands of the Comorian
archipelago in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa. A fourth
island of the Comorian archipelago, Mayotte, is claimed by the country
of Comoros but administered by France.
The volcanic islands of the Comorian archipelago have been called the
“perfumed islands” for their fragrant plant life and are known for their
great scenic beauty. The four main islands of the archipelago —“four
small effervescent stones, wedged between the nearby large red island
[Madagascar] and the Mozambican coast,” in the words of the Comorian
writer Sitti Saïd Youssouf—combine African, Arabic, Malagasy, and French
influences and were once important in the significant Indian Ocean trade
between East Africa and Asian ports such as India and Japan.
Although the early history of the islands is uncertain, they are
thought to have been explored by Arab and Persian traders in antiquity
and, like Madagascar, settled by small numbers of Malayo-Indonesian
peoples, gaining a sizable population only when Bantu-speaking peoples
from the African mainland settled there. Shīrāzi Persians are thought to
have arrived later, establishing Sunni Islam as the dominant religion.
The ensuing Shīrāzi sultanates established trade relations with other
countries along the Indian Ocean and developed a thriving economy based
on the sale of spices and slaves. The opening of the Suez Canal
substantially lessened the islands’ importance as an entrepôt, though
not their strategic value. European colonial powers agreed that the
Comorian archipelago would come under French rule in 1886–87, and it
became an overseas territory of France in 1947. Three of the islands
gained independence in 1975.
Comoros is poor, witnessing an ongoing exodus of educated and skilled
workers to France and a steady decline in gross domestic product. The
capital, Moroni, located on the island of Ngazidja, has most of the
modern commercial and manufacturing facilities located in the country;
in the absence of other possibilities, most islanders must rely on
subsistence farming. With miles of beautiful beaches, tourists have
always been drawn to Comoros. The islands’ history of political unrest,
however, has hampered efforts to promote tourism.
The Comoros are a group of islands at the northern end of the
Mozambique Channel of the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and the
southeast African mainland, about 180 miles (290 km) off the eastern
coast of Africa. The islands from northwest to southeast include
Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Mayotte
Relief, drainage, and soils
The islands emerged from the floor of the Indian Ocean as a result
of volcanic activity. Coral reefs provide occasional barriers to the
rolling seas of the Indian Ocean, and breakers mark some of the world’s
best diving areas. Along the seashore broad expanses of open, sandy
beaches are interrupted by isolated groups of coconut palms or mangrove
trees. A few coastal areas are distinguished by the harsh, dark tangle
of recent lava flows, while others are covered by smoothly rounded
rocks, eroded reminders of ancient volcanic activity.
Ngazidja is the largest and loftiest island; it rises near its
southern end in an active volcano, Mount Karthala, which at 7,746 feet
(2,361 metres) is the country’s highest point. Karthala has erupted more
than a dozen times in the last two centuries. The capital, Moroni, lies
in the shadow of the volcano along the island’s west coast; the town of
Mitsamiouli lies on the north coast. North of Mount Karthala is a wide
plateau averaging 2,000 feet (600 metres) in elevation. The surface is
generally rocky and the soils shallow. There are no perennial streams,
and the coast, without large inlets, is ill-suited for shipping.
Mwali is the smallest island of the group. Composed largely of a
plateau that averages about 1,000 feet (300 metres) in elevation, the
island ends in the west in a ridge reaching more than 2,600 feet (790
metres) above sea level. The valleys are generally fertile, and the
hillsides are covered with thick forests. A strong sea swell hampers
shipping. Mwali’s chief towns are Fomboni on the northern coast and
Nioumachoua in the southwest.
Nzwani is a triangular island rising centrally in a volcanic massif
(Mount Ntingui) that reaches an elevation of about 5,200 feet (1,580
metres). Although the soil cover is good, much erosion has occurred, and
many areas are no longer arable. There are no good natural harbours.
Mutsamudu, on the northwest coast, is the chief town; its port
facilities were modernized in the mid-1980s.
Southeast of Nzwani lies Mayotte, the oldest of the four islands. It
is claimed by Comoros (a claim recognized by the United Nations General
Assembly), but its status is unsettled, and it continues to be a de
facto dependency of France.
The tropical climate has two clearly marked seasons: a cooler, dry
period between May and October and a warmer, humid season between
November and April. In November the summer monsoon (kashkazi) brings the
highest afternoon temperatures—about 91 °F (33 °C). The highest monthly
rainfall occurs in January with about 11–15 inches (275–375 mm), and the
rainy season is the season of greatest tropical-cyclone frequency. Dry
season daily maximum temperatures fall to their lowest, about 84 °F (29
°C), in July. The average annual rainfall varies between 43 and 114
inches (1,100 and 2,900 mm), being highest on the windward northeast
sides of the islands.
Rain sinks so deeply into the hardened lava and porous rocks of
Ngazidja that wells are difficult to drill. Traditionally, most of
Ngazidja’s water supply has come from reservoirs filled in the rainy
season and from freshwater springs along the coasts (foumbous).
Plant and animal life
Less than one-sixth of the land remains covered with forest, and
rapid deforestation caused mainly by domestic firewood consumption
threatens to reduce the islands’ forested land still more. A coastal
zone of mangroves is followed inland by one of coconut palms, mangoes,
and bananas up to about 1,300 feet (400 metres), above which a forest
zone rises to about 5,900 feet (1,800 metres). Mahogany trees and
orchids are primarily limited to the rugged slopes of the mountains. On
the highest peaks only broom, heather, and lichens grow. Additional
aromatic plants such as frangipani (Plumeria), jasmine, and lemongrass
lend a delightful fragrance to the islands.
Animal life, which is similar to that of Madagascar, includes land
birds (guinea fowl and egrets) and species of both lemurs and fruit bats
that are peculiar to the islands. Turtles abound along the coasts and
are exported. The Comorian waters are one of the habitats of the
coelacanth, a rare fish once thought to be extinct, the fossil remains
of which date to about 400 million years ago. Besides these unique
species, the islands are also home to civets, small lizards, and giant
land crabs. The expanding human population has put a number of wildlife
species under threat of extinction.
The islanders reflect a diversity of origins. Malay immigrants and
Arab and Persian traders have mixed with peoples from Madagascar and
with various African peoples. Most of the islands’ inhabitants speak
island-specific varieties of Comorian (Shikomoro), a Bantu language
related to Swahili and written in Arabic script. Comorian, Arabic, and
French are the official languages; French is the language of
administration. Most Comorians are Sunni Muslims, and Islam is the state
religion. Some three-fourths of the people live in rural areas, and most
of the population is centred on the two larger islands; Ngazidja
contains about half of the country’s population, Nzwani about
two-fifths, and Mwali less than one-tenth. The capital, Moroni, is the
country’s most populous urban area. The birth and death rates are both
high in Comoros, and, although infant mortality is a major problem, the
population growth rate is about twice the world average. Almost half of
the population is younger than age 15.
Comoros, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, has an
economy based on subsistence agriculture and fishing. The country’s
gross domestic product generally has grown at a rate slightly faster
than the population but is among the lowest in the world. Since
independence in 1975, aid from the European Union (EU), notably France,
has been the major underpinning of the economy; Saudi Arabia, Japan, and
Kuwait have also provided financial aid.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Although corn (maize) and coconut cultivation and poultry projects
(aimed at helping Comoros achieve self-sufficiency in food production)
had been established by 1981, at the beginning of the 21st century the
economy remained in poor condition, plagued by overpopulation, poor
harvests, and severe unemployment. Subsistence agriculture yields
cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, and mountain (dry-field) rice, but
much of the country’s food must be imported. Chickens, goats, cattle,
and sheep are also raised. Plantations cultivating vanilla (mostly on
Ngazidja and Nzwani), perfume plants (particularly ylang-ylang on
Nzwani), coconuts (mostly on Mwali), coffee, cloves, and cacao cover
much of the islands. Forestry contributes somewhat to total agricultural
production, but the forested areas have been severely reduced because of
a lack of cultivable land and as a result of ylang-ylang production.
Because Comoros is made up of islands, fishing should be a
significant part of the market economy. Its potential has yet to be
fully realized, however. The industry exists only on a small scale, and
the abundant tuna that inhabit Comorian waters have so far been fished
largely by EU countries. Coelecanth fish that are caught there provide
some income to Comorian fishermen.
Resources, power, and manufacturing
Utilities were privatized in 1997. Although there are hydroelectric
power plants, the islands still suffer from an unreliable supply of
water and power. Manufacturing generally is limited to the processing of
agricultural products—primarily vanilla, essential oils, cloves, and
copra—for export. There are also sawmills and woodworking
Finance and trade
The Central Bank of Comoros (Banque Centrale des Comores) issues the
country’s currency, the Comoros franc. There is commercial and
development banking in Moroni.
Imports, of much higher value than exports, include rice, petroleum,
meat, iron and steel, and cement. France is the country’s main trading
partner for both exports and imports.
Several hotels, primarily on Ngazidja, service a small but growing
tourist industry. The development of this sector is linked to political
stability, however. Tourists come mainly from France, Réunion, South
Africa, and the United Kingdom.
Transportation and telecommunications
Most of the islands’ roads are usable throughout the year. There is
an international airport near Moroni on Ngazidja. Commercial airlines
provide air links with Dubayy, Paris, Réunion, and Johannesburg. A port
was built at Fomboni on Mwali in the early 1990s with EU funds. Sea
connections exist between the islands, and ferries provide a limited
amount of interisland service. Landline telephone service is available
on all of the islands. Mobile phone usage and Internet access were
limited in the early 21st century, but both technologies are growing in
Government and society
Under the constitution of 2001, the three main islands—Ngazidja,
Mwali, and Nzwani—form the Union of the Comoros. Executive power of the
federal government is vested in the Council of the Union, which
comprises a president and two vice presidents. Each council member
serves a four-year term and represents one of the three islands, with
the office of the federal president rotating between the islands every
four years. The president, who serves as head of state, is directly
elected in nationwide elections.
The unicameral legislature consists of the Assembly of the Union;
members are elected to five-year terms. Slightly more than half the
members are directly elected, with the remainder selected by the
islands’ local governments.
In the late 1990s, secessionist movements on the islands of Nzwani
and Mwali threatened the stability of Comoros. The individual islands’
desire for greater independence in their own affairs was not provided
for under the existing constitution (from 1996) and continued to be the
source of much conflict. Changes brought about by the 2001 constitution
granted the three main islands partial autonomy, and each elects its own
president and legislative assembly. The government of each island is
free to administer its own affairs so long as its actions do not
infringe upon the rights of the other islands or otherwise threaten the
state of the union.
The 1996 constitution created a multiparty system, but stringent
criteria severely limited the number of parties with legal recognition.
The 2001 constitution removed these impediments, thus allowing political
parties to operate freely. The country has universal suffrage, and women
participate in all aspects of the economy. By the 1990s women had become
cabinet members and held other positions in various governments.
Justice and security
The legal system is a combination of French and Islamic law. The
judiciary is headed by the Supreme Court. Other components include the
Higher Council of the Magistracy, which is mandated to aid the president
in providing for an independent judiciary, and a Constitutional Court.
There is also a High Council, which is concerned with constitutional and
electoral matters and rules in conflicts involving the islands and the
Comoros maintains a small army. The country also has an agreement
with France that provides for a permanent French military presence in
Comoros. The agreement was suspended after a military coup in April
1999, but it recommenced in September 2002.
Health and welfare
Comoros has hospitals on each of the islands but suffers from a
shortage of medical personnel, modern facilities, and supplies.
Comorians largely depend on traditional medicines and healers. Those who
have more-serious health problems and can afford to seek medical
assistance do so in either Madagascar or France. While infant mortality
has decreased and life expectancy has increased, there are still several
growing health concerns. Less than half of the population has access to
safe drinking water, and parasitic infestation is prevalent. Other
serious illnesses are malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, and, to a lesser
extent, leprosy and AIDS.
Housing in Comoros varies from two-room structures covered with palm
leaves to multilevel buildings made of stone and coral. The part of the
house at street level often serves as a shop or warehouse, but in
earlier times that level housed slaves or servants. Some Western-style
houses, with indoor bathrooms and kitchens, also exist. Because of the
practice of matrilocality—a societal custom where the offspring of a
family reside with their mother—females often remain part of their
mother’s household, even after marriage. This is owing in part to the
practice of polygamy, as well as the traditional need for Comorian men
to travel away from their communities in search of work. The family home
can be expanded, or a separate structure can be built for a woman to
inhabit with her children.
Education is officially compulsory for those between 6 and 16 years
of age, but in practice a large percentage of the country’s children
receive little or no schooling. Instruction is provided by both
traditional Islamic schools, in which the Qurʾān is studied, and
state-run schools established by and patterned on the French system. The
public school system, however, has been chronically underfunded. There
is a university in Moroni. Nearly nine-tenths of the population can read
and write Comorian, using Arabic script, though only about half of the
population is literate in French, the language of government
Over the centuries, diverse peoples have come together to form the
complex cultural mix of Comoros. Contemporary Comorian culture reflects
these many influences; the islands’ towns, for example, blend the
architectural styles of mainland Africa, France, and the Middle East,
and Comorian cuisine draws on many traditions. A culturally liberal form
of Islam is the basis for religious observance during the year, and it
provides the framework for daily life. Traditional Comorian women wear
colourful sari-like dresses called shiromani (French, chiromani) and
adorn their faces with a paste of ground sandalwood and coral called
msinzano (French msindanu). Social organization is generational, with
religious and ritual duties falling mostly to elders, who also enjoy
Daily life and social customs
Elaborate and expensive public weddings lasting as long as three
weeks are common. Typically the unions are arranged between an older man
and a younger woman, and it is the man’s responsibility to pay for the
festivities, as well as to provide a dowry for his bride. These events
often feed the entire community, and tourists are generally welcome to
attend. This custom, called grand mariage on Ngazidja, is so expensive
that only the wealthiest can afford it. A man who hosts a grand mariage
is thereafter considered to be a grand notable—a person of high social
standing. Ali Soilih, who was president of the country in the mid-1970s,
attempted to ban this practice on the grounds that it imposed needless
financial stress on an already impoverished society and kept the poor
from participating in political life, but he was unsuccessful.
The religious centre of Comorian culture is the mosque, but the
centre of daily life is the public square, often merely a tiny plaza
nestled behind apartment houses at the end of a maze of alleyways. In
the public squares on Ngazidja, men gather to one side, ranked by clan,
age, and social status, so that the most-honoured have the best seats;
on another side, sometimes separated by a wooden or fabric partition,
sit women, similarly ordered by status. There they meet to share news
and opinions, drink tea, and play chess and the game of mraha wa ntso.
Students of Comorian society note that younger people of both sexes
often prefer to gather in restaurants, clubs, and discotheques, and
there is concern that the public square will dwindle in importance and
perhaps even disappear within a generation or two.
Comorian cuisine is a mix of East African root-based stews and Indian
Ocean (in particular South Asian and Indonesian) rice-based curry
dishes. Locally grown spices such as vanilla, coriander, cardamom, and
nutmeg figure heavily in regional cuisine, as do fresh fish and mutton.
French styles have also influenced the Comorian table.
Traditional arts include basketry, wood carving (notably doors and
furniture), elaborate embroidery on clothing and hats, and jewelry
making in gold and silver filigree.
Music is a widely shared form of cultural expression, and public
squares and other gathering places showcase local groups and artists.
Comorian popular music blends Arabic, African, Indian, and Western
influences to produce a driving dance sound with lyrical, harmonized
vocals. Common instrumentation includes accordions, guitars, gongs,
drums, and rattles. Many successful musicians have relocated to France,
and several have found a large following among European audiences.
The country has produced only a few internationally known writers,
including Salim Hatubou, Soilih Mohamed Soilih, and Aboubacar Said
Sports and recreation
A wide variety of sports are popular in Comoros, including football
(soccer), basketball, athletics (track and field), swimming, tennis, and
cycling, most of which were introduced during the period of French
colonialism. Comoros participates in several regional and international
competitions, such as the Aces Cup (a Comoros-Mayotte basketball
competition), the Indian Ocean Games, and the Francophone Games.
Football is the most widely played sport. Every town has at least one
team, and fans are fiercely loyal. However, with the creation of a
national basketball federation in the late 1990s, basketball has fast
become as well-liked as football. In 1999, for the first time since
independence, both the men’s and women’s Mayottan basketball teams
played against those representing Ngazidja, a notable cultural and
athletic interchange between the two islands.
Media and publishing
Al Watwan, a government-sponsored weekly newspaper, is published in
both French and Shingazidja, a local dialect that is spoken on Ngazidja.
La Gazette des Comores is an independently owned weekly, and a magazine
called L’Archipel is published monthly. There are several radio and
television stations, which are all government-operated.
Comoros may have been inhabited by people of Malayo-Polynesian
descent by the 5th or 6th century ad and possibly earlier. Others came
from nearby Africa and Madagascar, and Arabs also made up a significant
portion of the early population. The islands did not appear on a
European world map until 1527, when they were depicted by the Portuguese
cartographer Diego Ribero. The first Europeans known to visit the
archipelago appear to have been Portuguese, somewhat later in the 16th
century. The Englishman Sir James Lancaster visited Ngazidja about 1591,
but the dominant foreign influence in the islands remained Arabian 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, 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. Majorities on three of the
islands voted for independence in 1974, 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, Comorian
President Ahmed Abdallah (who was deposed later that year) declared the
whole archipelago independent on July 6, 1975. Comoros was subsequently
admitted to the United Nations, which recognized the integrity of the
entire archipelago as one nation. France, however, acknowledged the
sovereignty of only the three islands and upheld the autonomy of
Mayotte, designating it a “territorial collectivity” (i.e., neither a
territory nor a département) of France in 1976. As relations
deteriorated, France withdrew all development and technical aid from
Comoros. Ali Soilih became president and attempted to convert the
country into a secular, socialist republic. In May 1978 a coup led by a
French citizen, Col. Robert Denard, and a group of European mercenaries
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 again in
1984, when he ran unopposed. He survived three coup attempts, but in
November 1989 he was assassinated. Multiparty presidential elections
were held in 1990, and Saïd Mohamed Djohar was elected president, but in
September 1995 he was deposed in a coup led by Denard. The coup was
defused when French intervention removed Denard and the mercenaries.
New 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
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,
Col. Assoumani Azali, who took control of the government. The new
government was not recognized by the international community, but in
July Azali negotiated an accord with the secessionists on the island of
Nzwani. The secessionists signed an agreement that established a
presidential term that would rotate among the three islands. The
rotating presidential term was approved by all three islands in December
2001, as was a new draft constitution that provided each island with
partial autonomy and their own local president and legislative assembly.
The first federal elections under the terms of the new constitution were
held in 2002, and Azali, from Ngazidja, was elected president. In 2006
the presidential term rotated to the island of Nzwani. Ahmed Abdallah
Mohamed Sambi was declared the winner of the federal presidential
election in May and assumed control of the federal government in a
peaceful transfer of power.
Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer
The fragile peace was threatened in 2007 when the federal government,
in response to violence and evidence of voter intimidation, ordered the
Nzwani (also known by its French name, Anjouan) government to postpone
the island’s local presidential election and called for Nzwani’s
president, Col. Mohamed Bacar, to step down and allow for an interim
president. Bacar ignored the order and in June 2007 held an election in
which he was declared the winner. The results were not recognized by the
federal government or the African Union (AU): both demanded new
elections, which Bacar refused to hold. With the situation at an
impasse, the AU imposed sanctions on Bacar’s administration in October,
which had little impact in pressuring him to comply with their demands.
Comorian and AU troops invaded Nzwani on March 25, 2008, and quickly
secured the island; Bacar avoided capture and fled to the nearby island