Eye witness

May 7, 1999

The Comoros, an isolated group of islands 300 kilometres off the east coast of Africa, is coming to terms with the latest of a series of coups, attempted coups and political unrest since independence from France in 1975.

Some officials say there have been up to 18 coups or failed coups, but academic authorities dispute the figure. Last week the military took power, saying its intention was to safeguard civilian lives and prevent a slide into chaos. Colonel Azaly Assoumani said he intends a return to civilian rule in a year.

Rosemary O'Kane, professor of politics at the University of Keele and an expert on coups, said: "There are plenty of examples of the military making this claim - and sometimes it is true.

"Countries that are susceptible to coups are highly specialised in their exports of primary products, which contribute a large proportion of the revenues. It may not be a price collapse that causes problems, it can be fluctuations in incomes that produce the underlying destabilising conditions."

But Professor O'Kane feels that the Comoros may be "fascinating for its exceptionality" rather than conforming to international patterns for coups.

Key exports - vanilla and ylang ylang, a tropical flower used in perfumes -have been hit by synthetic alternatives.

If coups are unlikely in stable economies, they may also be hindered by the presence of foreign troops, Professor O'Kane said. In the Comoros, the nearest equivalent has been the presidential guard, instrumental in past coups, or mercenaries led by the mercurial Frenchman Colonel Bob Denard, involved in three coups and once head of the presidential guard. But Col Denard is in semi-retirement in France, and the guard took no part in last week's coup.

The trigger has been unrest at a solution to the secession of two islands - Anjouan and Moheli - from the republic. Brokered by France and South Africa, the agreement aimed to give the islands an agreed degree of autonomy, but turned the majority population against the secessionists. Residents of Anjouan are said to envy the relative prosperity of Mayotte, an island that chose to remain a French dependency.

David Jobbins

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