The prospects for a peaceful resolution to the deepening political impasse between Anjouan, one of three semi-autonomous islands that make up the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros, and the Union government, are becoming ever less likely.
Individual island elections in June reignited hostility between Anjouan and the other two islands in the group, Grande Comore and Moheli. Anjouan forces had killed two national soldiers trying to enforce a constitutional court decision ordering Mohamed Bacar to step down as Anjouan's president.
Efforts by the African Union (AU) to negotiate a deal and the imposition of sanctions targeting the freedoms and financial assets of Anjouan's leadership since then have failed to break the deadlock.
"We have already used up all negotiation channels," said Abdoulrahime Said Bacar, the Union government Minister of Education and spokesman, adding that if Mohamed Bacar failed to concede within the 60-day period by which the AU recently extended its moratorium, a total air and sea blockade of Anjouan Island could follow, with military intervention still a very real possibility.
"The population of Anjouan is increasingly living in fear: fear of possible military action, fear of an eventual embargo, fear political oppression at home," the UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Kumah, told IRIN.
Mohamed Bacar dismissed the threat of armed Union forces landing on Anjouan. "[National president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed] Sambi does not know anything concerning the military, but if I had to advise him I would say that it's not the solution. The first time  the army came we kicked them out. The second time [May 2007] the army came we kicked them out. That means that if they try to come a third time we will kick them out," he told IRIN.
|We have already used up all negotiation channels|
The archipelago's complex electoral system provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each island - Anjouan, Grand Comore and Moheli - with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.
The system was brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor of the AU, in the wake of Moheli and Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997, when an attempt by the government to re-establish control over the rebellious islands by force failed.
"The failure to find a solution has frustrated the population and is gradually sapping public confidence in the government of the Union as well as the African Union," the UN's Kumah warned.
Neither Mohamed Bacar, who is refusing to stand down, nor the Comoros Union government, which is demanding fresh polls, is prepared to compromise. "Our position is still the same: we want him [Mohamed Bacar] to organise new free and fair elections," Abdoulrahime Said Bacar, Minister of Education and spokesman for the Union government, told IRIN.
Mohamed Bacar said he would agree to new elections, with provisos. "If we have to run a new election, we are ready, but we will do it only if elections are held at the same time on all the islands. But if we have to do it only because the [Union] president has decided - no, we are not ready to do it."
Mohamed Bacar has also indicated his willingness to negotiate, but not under the auspices of the AU: "I think for the best of the country the only way to solve this crisis is to have a round table [discussion] between Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan, as Comorans. I think, considering the experience that we have, it would be good to have the AU there, but only as an observer and not to be involved."
The AU and the Union government, citing irregularities and intimidation in the run-up to voting, postponed the June polls on Anjouan, although these elections were held on Moheli and Grand Comore. A defiant Mohamed Bacar then printed his own ballots, held elections despite the postponement and claimed a landslide victory of 90 percent.
The AU and the Comoros constitutional court promptly declared the Anjouan elections null and void, but Bacar has refused to stand down.
According to AU special envoy Francisco Madeira, "We have come up with a concrete, clear-cut position. [Mohamed] Bacar should accept to have new elections: his term of office expired, he is in his eighth month of illegal governance; we have been very patient with him, we have tolerated him. Since 2001 he has embarked in a process of destruction."
|We have been very patient with him [Bacar]. Since 2001 he has embarked in a process of destruction|
In October the AU Peace and Security Council imposed sanctions against Anjouan's leadership. "All [AU] member states shall immediately freeze the funds, other financial assets and economic resources owned or controlled by the illegal authorities of Anjouan". Travel restrictions also came into effect, but the AU statement said all sanctions, initially imposed for 45 days, would be lifted if the Anjouan authorities agreed to hold new elections.
The mild AU measures disappointed the Union Government, and the local press described extension of the sanctions for another 60 days as a psychological victory for Mohamed Bacar.
"People are becoming increasingly impatient and they are expecting action - we think its high time we got a solution," said the Union government's Abdoulrahime Said Bacar. "People in Anjouan have started to pressure [Mohamed] Bacar, but he has retaliated and many people have been arrested."
Sanctions plus years of conflict deepen poverty
Despite the standoff, both parties agree that sanctions and the growing marginalisation of Anjouan's people will only aggravate poverty. Anjouan is the poorest of the three islands.
In the short term, the population of Anjouan may experience shortages of basic necessities like imported food items and fuel. "There are reports of people leaving the island either to escape economic hardship or political persecution. We have contingency plans in place to handle a rapid deterioration of the situation," said the UN's Kumah.
Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
|Children play in a river that cuts through the centre of Mutsamudu, the capital of Anjouan|
The Union government's Abdoulrahime Said Bacar agreed. "We do not want the sanctions to hit the ordinary people. We target the group in power, we are very conscious of that."
Elyachroutu Mohamed Caabi, a former Union vice president and now economic and social advisor to Mohamed Bacar's government on Anjouan, alleged that the Union government had started rationing fuel to the island. "There is already a problem of oil. People have no fuel for lighting or cooking, and transport is already becoming more expensive," he said.
"We need a solution because the people are suffering. Poverty is increasing, there is no development, there is no investment, no economic activities, no employment, and the international community will not start helping until we have stability," Caabi added.
Kumah pointed out that "many donors, as well as potential investors, have expressed frustration with the never-ending conflict and have adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards effective engagement".
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the Comoros has been falling: ODA plunged from around US$60 million a year in 1990 to 25$ million in 2005.
"It is clear that most Comorans, from all islands, would like to see a speedy end to the crisis so that the country can focus its energies on developing the country," Kumah said.
Mohamed Bacar also acknowledged that the crisis was hindering efforts to overcome poverty. "Since independence Comoros has never had a significant period of stability - we will never have development without democracy and respect for the law."
Independence from France in 1975 led to 19 attempted or successful coups in 30 years and a steady decline in the standard of living. Comoros is burdened with debt of $297 million, representing 63 percent of its gross domestic product.
The country's ranking slipped in the UN Development Programme's 2006 Human Development Report from 132 in 2004 to 134. "For over 30 years since independence, the economy of Comoros has stagnated," Kumah warned. "In many areas it has actually regressed."