The Comoros is currently facing its most intense political crisis, after 15 years of relative stability and peace. Despite an intervention and issue of recommended measures by the African Union High Representative, Ramtane Lamamra, who in September visited the tri-island state in an attempt to motivate talks between the government and members of the opposition, dialogue has collapsed, leaving the opposition Juwa Party concerned that a platform for dictatorship exists.
Under threat is the constitution of the State given the suspension of the Constitutional Court in April by President Azali Assoumani, on the grounds that it was incompetent. On 30 July, a country-wide referendum was held to change the constitution that rotates the Presidency every five years between the archipelago’s three main islands; Ngazidja, Ndzouani, and Mwali (formerly known as Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli).
The outcome of the referendum was 92.74% in favour of the constitutional change, from a turnout of 63.9%. The result is considered controversial and illegal by the opposition party, Juwa, especially given its boycotting of the referendum and a number of observer reports such as that of Jules Hoareau, a member of the Eastern African Standby Force observer mission. Hoareau questioned the outcome given his observations of the meager number of voters seen at polling stations versus the number of voting papers in ballot boxes.
Under this veneer of democracy, the constitutional change will allow Colonel Assoumani to run two extra terms without rotation. It also abolishes the three positions of Vice-President, and all powers of the constitutional court are now diverted to the Supreme Court.
In consolidating his power, Colonel Assoumani has either arrested or had warrants issued for prominent opposition members, including former President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who is under house arrest for the second time this year. Warrants issued include former Vice-President Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, whose brother has been arrested, and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, Ibrahim Salim.
Opposition Juwa Party spokesperson, Aboubakar Aboud confirms that at least 100 Juwa supporters have been detained or placed under house arrest. “Such suppression does not inspire confidence,” said Aboud. “There appears to be a lack of willingness by government to respect the AU’s recommended measures, and as such we have had no choice but to suspend dialogue.”
There are also rising concerns of verbal and physical violence from the police, torture in prisons, declining freedom of expression, and human rights abuses confirmed by Nadia Tourqui, spokesperson for the Collective of the 3rd Way (C3V), which represents Comorian civil society.
“An atmosphere of terror exists,” Tourqui says. “Comorians are distressed to fall back into the throes of a dictatorship, they feel isolated without any means of protest or recourse.” The C3V has called for “a mass mobilisation of politically active forces, to stop the excesses of the authorities” but fear and retaliation is preventing this from happening.
Floren Geel, Africa Director at the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) has reacted to the climate of fear, referring to Assoumani as a “putschist”, and “trying to retain power by any means.”
Fears are that unless the international community puts pressure on Assoumani and his allies, to abide by the AU’s recommendations and heed the will of the citizens, the political climate will only worsen. Aboud is appealing to African and global leaders to denounce the human rights abuses, and help to guide restoration of dialogue between the conflicted parties: “to ensure no further civil disruptions or potential tragedies occur.”
* Kerry Dimmer is a South African freelance journalist.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.