Smell of success eludes Indian Ocean spice island
PATSY, Comoros, Aug 15 (Reuters) At the end of a stony track, watched
by soldiers with automatic weapons, the self-appointed leader of a tiny
Indian Ocean island is giving a an Independence Day speech.
Seated in the shade of the presidential palace decked with tinsel and
flashing decorations, his audience includes soldiers and civilians -
their faces ghostly white with sun block - all clapping and squealing
with laughter at his words commemorating the independence from France of
the island of Anjouan.
"When you have power in Comoros, you are popular," said a senior
official on Anjouan, one of three islands in the Comoros archipelago. He
did not want his name to be used. "People are hungry," he added.
Anjouan's leader, Mohamed Bacar, seized power in a putsch in 2001 and
has survived two more coup attempts since. Now he rejects democratic
elections in defiance of the central government, intensifying Comoros'
latest political crisis.
"He's got guns, so he can do what he wants," Ahmed, 27, told Reuters
near the thick stone walls of an 18th-century citadel which once
defended the old port of Mutsamudu from Malagasy pirates.
With a history of coups, assassinations and mercenary invasions since
independence in 1975, the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli
have been notorious for political instability and inter-island
bickering.Suspicions still linger among the islands, whose different
histories and cultures hint at their historical links to Zanzibar,
Arabia, Persia and Madagascar.
Comoros has come a long way since independence. Since introducing its
2002 constitution, the tropical archipelago has had no coups and last
year's presidential election was the country's first peaceful transition
of power since 1975.
France, the former colonial power, backed the early coups but now
supports African Union mediation. And Bob Denard, the French mercenary
involved in four of Comoros' coups, is now suffering from Alzheimer's
However, the islands still face plenty of challenges.
Anjouan, for example, is under strain from a ballooning population
and lack of jobs. The hilly, wooded island exports cloves and about
two-thirds of the world's ylang-ylang, an essential oil used in
perfumes, soap, and aromatherapy. However, speculation and oversupply
have caused the collapse of prices for another export, vanilla.
Sweet aromas waft through the fragrant island, which also produces
ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and a striking variety of herbs and
"Practically all the medicinal plants that you find in East Africa
can be found in the Comoros, especially Anjouan," Halidi Ahmed, a
forestry expert from Anjouan, told Reuters. While other Indian Ocean
islands may be reaping the benefits of oil and minerals, tourism, or
even fishing, Anjouan has yet to enjoy such opportunities.
"We're surrounded by the sea, and what is there?" said Aboulatuf
Mohamed, a resident, noting empty hotels and fishermen still using
dug-out canoes."I don't see a future for my children, or even me," he
told Reuters.By day, Anjouan's capital Mutsamudu is a scruffy mixture of
potholed roads and decaying or incomplete buildings.
Cattle munch on piles of rubbish strewn on the stony
beach.Unemployment and late payment of salaries are standard, although
not confined to Anjouan. Near the mosque, dozens of men sit under leafy
breadfruit trees, while hawkers sell DVDs and toothpaste.
"You get up in the morning and where are you going to go?" a teacher
said. Anjouan may be growing poorer but its proximity to the east coast
of Africa and major shipping routes could make the 374 sq km (145 sq
mile) island a convenient centre for smuggling and other illegal
activities, diplomats say.
The Anjouan government Web site says its strategic location and deep
water harbour at Mutsamudu enables large container ships and cargo
vessels to dock, making it attractive for potential investors. Money
laundering is another concern.
The U.S. State Department reported in March that Anjouan's offshore
finance authority had licensed about 300 offshore banks, many of which
appear to be shell organisations.
"Offshore is one of the things we are trying to look at," Mohamed
Bacar told Reuters in a brief interview. "How it could be used to
benefit the Anjouanais." The islanders' routine may not be lucrative,
but it is less dangerous than crossing in a small boat to Mayotte - the
fourth island in the Comoros - which is governed by France.
Anjouan residents say hundreds of Comorians die every year trying to
reach the more prosperous island. "It's a corridor of death," a resident
said. "Mayotte is El Dorado."