Comoros is facing an unenviable catch-22 situation in its attempt to reform a governance system that devours four-fifths of government revenue, but by doing so risks re-igniting the secessionist tendencies that the constitution is designed to prevent.
A public debate has begun on the Indian Ocean archipelago - comprised of Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan islands - ahead of a referendum on 22 March to decide whether to whittle down its cumbersome political bureaucracy.
The timing is complicated by France's decision to hold a separate referendum seven days later, on 29 March, on the contested island of Mayotte to endorse the island's status as a French department. The proximity of the two polls is expected to raise political temperatures across the four islands.
Since independence from France in 1975, Comoros has endured more than 20 coups and secession attempts. The 2001 Constitution, known as the Fomboni Accords, was specifically tailored to put an end to the cycles of violence that had earned it the title of "the coup-coup islands".
But the price of relative stability has come at the cost of stunting development in one of the world's poorest states.
Under the 2001 Constitution, the complex electoral system provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each of the three islands, with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government. The various islands each have a separate parliament, a president and many other prerogatives, which account for about 80 percent of the central government's annual budget.
|For a country of 800,000 people to have four presidents, four governments, four parliaments and 36 ministers is not realistic ... we have to be more modest|
Abdoulrahim Said Bacar, spokesman for the Union government, told IRIN: "For a country of 800,000 people to have four presidents, four governments, four parliaments and 36 ministers is not realistic ... we have to be more modest."
However, the 2001 Constitution did not prevent Mohamed Bacar's tyranny on Anjouan and in 2008 African Union soldiers restored democracy by force.
Mayotte, seen by Comoros as the archipelago's fourth island, and by France as part of the Fifth Republic, is providing Union president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, whose home island is Anjouan, with an unwelcome distraction in his bid to pare down government expenditure and free up finance for development.
The draft referendum proposals seek to concentrate power in the Union government and reduce the powers and costs of the island's autonomous governments by downgrading island presidents to governors, and making its ministers and parliamentarians commissioners and councillors, among other measures.
Comoros is ranked at 134 out of 177 countries in the UN Human Development Index, and income has been shrinking in real terms for the past 20 years, reaching an average of US$633 per capita in 2004.
Attracting the ire of most of those opposed to constitutional reform is the proposal to extend the current Union government's administration to five years, instead of the current four years, feeding opposition party suspicions that this is a first step by Sambi to establishing dictatorial powers and indefinite rule.
Moheli has yet to have a representative serve as a Union president under the 2001 Constitution, and is said to be angry that it could be deprived of its scheduled term as Union president in 2010 if the referendum result favours reform.
Said Bacar noted that Grande Comore president Mohamed Abdoulwahab and Moheli president Mohamed Ali Said were also opposed to the referendum, as they risked being downgraded from president to governor.
The Union government expects the referendum to endorse a new, reduced political bureaucracy, but according to diplomatic sources, there are two possible scenarios: acceptance and endorsement of the new constitution by all parties; or rejection by opposition parties, after which supporters are mobilized and take to the streets, and in reaction Sambi imposes a state of emergency to contain civil unrest.
Opposition parties have called for a boycott of the referendum, but according to Said Bacar the current constitution permits the Union president to hold it. He said he had heard of "secret meetings called to look for mercenaries - as you can imagine this is ridiculous," considering "our sad history."
French mercenary Bob Denard and his private army – Les Affreux (the terrible ones) - were involved in four coups against Comoros governments at the behest of France's chief Africa adviser, Jacques Foccart.
"Mr Africa", as Foccart was known, coordinated a network of agents across the African continent for more than two decades to ensure that former French colonies acted in the interests of their erstwhile colonial power.
The question of Mayotte
The Comoros was strategically important to France because of its location at the northern entrance to the Mozambique Channel, midway between Mozambique and Madagascar, and remain so today, Chris Ayangafac, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think-tank, told IRIN.
|The Comoros archipelago|
"Part of the reason for the growing interest in the east coast of Africa is to counter Iran's growing presence there and in the Comoros, and France's increased presence is a counterbalance to that," he said.
France's referendum in Mayotte was a "repudiation of various international pronouncements," Ayangafac said, and its "claim to Mayotte is a deepening of colonization."
Mayotte's status as a French department, should citizens endorse it by a 50 percent majority - an outcome widely expected - provides the islanders with such benefits as pensions, unemployment benefits and a US$400 monthly minimum wage.
Mayotte has remained under French administration since independence in 1975, and its wish to be a department began more than 50 years ago, "when Mahorais deputies tabled a bill asking Mayotte to be given the status of overseas department", the French Interior Ministry said in a statement to IRIN.
Mahorais enjoy living standards 10 times higher than the Comorians, as well as universal access to education and medical services, the ministry said. In April 2008 the General Council of Mayotte reportedly unanimously endorsed holding a referendum.
Mayotte has acted as a magnet to Comorians in search of employment, and women from the Comoros often make the hazardous voyage to give birth there - although hundreds are thought to have died during the passage - to make their children eligible for French and European Union citizenship.
Said Bacar remarked that "This masquerade of a referendum [in Mayotte] is for the Comoros null and void. The Comoros was accepted into the United Nations as four islands."
Ayangafac said the Mayotte referendum "is legal, but not legitimate. It is not legitimate as it flouts [UN resolution] 1514." The UN General Assembly passed Resolution 1514 in 1960 as a wave of decolonization began sweeping the world.
The resolution reads: "Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
France has shrugged off the clamour from the Comoros as a fait accompli. "The possibility of giving the status of department to Mayotte must be put to the Mahorais for approval, as required under the French Constitution ... It is not a referendum but a popular consultation," the Interior Ministry said.
"The popular consultation of March 2009 is not a fresh vote on whether or not Mayotte should belong to France; Mayotte's status as a part of the French Republic was enshrined in the Constitution when Mayotte was included in the list of French 'overseas collectivities', under the Constitutional Act of 28 March 2003."
|As Moroni's claim to sovereignty is unanimously supported by the entire political class, the Comorian authorities cannot renounce it. However, as the Mahorais' determination not to be Comorian is equally inflexible, any movement in that direction is materially impossible|
The ministry expressed mild surprise at the indignation of the Comoros government over the Mayotte vote, as in September 2007 French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Sambi established a high-level working group "seeking a consensual, calm and constructive way to frame and build development-centred relations between Mayotte and the Union of Comoros."
The benefits of such a partnership, the ministry said, included greater economic and commercial cooperation between the islands, such as the "supply to Mayotte of fresh goods from the Comoros rather than Europe," educational assistance, and two signed agreements relating to health care.
"As [capital of the Comoros] Moroni's claim to sovereignty over Mayotte is unanimously supported by the entire political class, the Comorian authorities cannot renounce it. However, as the Mahorais' determination not to be Comorian is equally inflexible, any movement in that direction is materially impossible, whatever the French government may wish," the ministry said.
The recent break by Comoros from the accepted status quo of postponing the "Comorian question of Mayotte" on the African Union agenda, was "a retrograde step, and difficult to understand," the ministry said.