Comoros Table of Contents
Figure 1. Comoros, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles: Geographic Setting, 1994
A VAST REGION, the Indian Ocean encompasses an area of about 73.4 million square kilometers, or roughly 14 percent of the earth's surface. The region has been defined variously, depending on whether the Antarctic Sea is included. Commonly, the Indian Ocean is thought to stretch from East Africa (or specifically from the southern tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas where it meets the Atlantic) to Tasmania (where it meets the Pacific), and from Asia to Antarctica.
Historically, the region has played a prominent commercial role in East-West trade since early times. For the colonial powers, particularly Britain and France, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and the nineteenth century until the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the islands of the Indian Ocean provided trading posts and refueling locations en route to their colonies in the East. More recently, the Indian Ocean was a focal point of East-West tension because it served as a route through which much oil from the Persian Gulf states passed in shipment to markets elsewhere.
By the mid-1990s, as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the growing participation in international affairs of a number of Indian Ocean littoral states, such as India and South Africa, the balance of power and external influences in the region had altered markedly. In addition, the island nations that constitute the subject of this volume--Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and Maldives--have experienced a growth in democratic institutions and economic development that has changed their relationships to outside powers. For example, the island states have tended to follow a nonaligned policy in their foreign relations and, reflecting their lack of defense capabilities, have sought to promote the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace, in which they include littoral states.
Despite their unique aspects, these island nations have certain features in common. For example, all have been colonies or protectorates of either Britain or France. All have gained their independence since 1965 (1960 in the case of Madagascar) and have been inclined (with the possible exception of Comoros) to institute rule based on the dominance of executive leadership, specifically based on the personality of one man. This has been true even though in several instances such rule may be under the guise of socialism. Those islands that adopted socialism are now moving toward greater privatization and a free-market system.
Traditionally, agriculture has been the economic basis of all these nations despite the limited land area available for this pursuit. As of the early 1990s, however, the nations were seeking to diversify their economies, stressing fisheries development, tourism, the establishment of export processing zones (EPZs) where raw materials are processed and textiles manufactured, and industrial development, or the creation of international commercial centers. Of these island states, only Madagascar has significant mineral and energy resources, although offshore exploration is taking place near several of the islands.
These island countries consist of multiethnic societies, often with several religious faiths, but some are more homogeneous than others. Notwithstanding this ethnic diversity, in a number of the countries human rights have tended to be limited, particularly with respect to the rights of women, workers, and opposition elements. As democratic institutions are strengthened and public opinion makes itself felt, most of the states are making progress in this regard.
By far the largest of these island nations is Madagascar, which, with nearly 600,000 square kilometers, is somewhat smaller than Texas. Considered by the World Bank (see Glossary) as one of the world's poorest countries, Madagascar had a population estimated at 13.5 million in mid-1994. Nearly 80 percent of the country's population, which consists of some twenty ethnic groups, is engaged in the broad agricultural field, including fishing. After following a socialist path in the 1970s, Madagascar in the 1980s, with the advice of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary), began liberalizing its economy by such measures as establishing an EPZ like that adopted by Mauritius. Madagascar traditionally had had some citizen participation in government through the fokonolona (village council) system; however, the country had been ruled almost singlehandedly by the president, Didier Ratsiraka, since 1975. As a result, pressures for greater political participation overtook economic reforms.
A 1992 referendum voted in a new constitution and resulted in multiparty elections in 1993. Opposition leader Albert Zafy was elected president; his party, the Forces Vives, gained one-third of the National Assembly seats, with the remainder scattered among twenty-five parties. In August 1994, Prime Minister Francisque Ravony announced a new cabinet of twenty-four ministers, most of whom were reshuffled from the earlier government but who also reflected a somewhat broader representation of interests.
Madagascar's budget for 1995, presented to the National Assembly in December 1994, was an austerity budget designed to encourage the country's external funding sources. The government aimed to reach a 3.5 percent economic growth rate--the 1994 rate was only 1.29 percent compared with 2.1 percent in 1993--and to cut inflation from 32 percent in 1994 (the rate had been 13 percent in 1993) to 15 percent in 1995. In late 1994, the African Development Bank considered the steep increase in inflation as a potential source of social unrest.
Concurrently, the regime sought to decrease the budget deficit to 6.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary) in 1995 from 6.76 percent in 1994. Measures to be taken entailed minimizing customs and tax exemptions, increasing tax collections, and eliminating price controls on certain products. In consequence, the government authorized a 15 percent increase in expenditures for the various ministries, apart from the fields of health and education, which were allowed a 20 percent increase. Despite these proposed solutions, the economy faced a troubled future because 1993 had seen a 13 percent decrease in investments as well as a decrease in production. In addition, the floating of the currency had resulted in a 50 percent devaluation of the Malagasy franc (for value of the Malagasy franc--see Glossary).
In January 1995, Ravony dismissed both the governor of the Central Bank of the Malagasy Republic and the minister of finance--the former because of his reckless policy concerning promissory notes and the latter as a result of his inability to control inflation. (The World Bank and the IMF had made the dismissal of the Central Bank governor a condition for their continued economic assistance.) Among the elements of the Malagasy economy in need of assistance are the country's infrastructure, particularly the railroad system, which suffered the impact of two major cyclones in 1994. Because of the shortage of investment capital to promote economic development in the EPZ, the International Finance Corporation (see World Bank entry in Glossary) in mid-1994 established the Madagascar Capital Development Fund of approximately US, $1.1 million. The government also aims to increase tourism and develop its resources of coal and petroleum as well as shellfish. These moves, if implemented, should ease the problem of unemployment and underemployment, especially among young people--60 percent of the population is under age twenty-five.
To achieve economic progress, Madagascar has had to rely on foreign aid, particularly that from its former colonial power, France. Madagascar's major trading partner, France has not only provided bilateral aid and loans for specific projects but also canceled most of Madagascar's debts. Since South Africa's abandonment of apartheid, its relations with Madagascar have also grown apace, featuring a visit by then South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1990 and the establishment of air and shipping ties as well as diplomatic relations in 1993. Both India and Australia have also sought to strengthen commercial relations with Madagascar.
Possibly in part because of its desire to promote foreign investment in the country, since 1993 Madagascar appears to have paid greater attention to human rights. The United States Department of State has indicated that once the 1993 election had occurred, the situation improved because of lack of violence between the Forces Vives (pro-Zafy) and the pro-Ratsiraka groups. Moreover, the government increased civilian control over the military forces and made use of combined commands of military, gendarmerie, and national police in implementing national security. Greater political stability continues to be essential in order to promote foreign investment.
Mauritius, together with Rodrigues, constitutes part of the volcanic chain of the Mascarene Islands; collectively the islands are less than half the size of Rhode Island. The country has a varied ethnic composition. The constitution recognizes four groups: Hindus representing about 52 percent of the population, a general category including Creoles and Europeans at about 29 percent, Muslims constituting about 16 percent, and Sino- Mauritians at about 3 percent. English is the island's official language, and both the government and the education system are patterned on the British model.
The economy in 1993 had a healthy growth rate of 5.5 percent, accompanied by an inflation rate of 10.5 percent. Agriculture represents the main economic activity; sugarcane, tea, fresh vegetables, and cut flowers are the main products. To diversify its economy, Mauritius established EPZs in 1971; export production centers on textiles and wearing apparel. The government also seeks to encourage tourism and to develop the private sector generally. Its economic development is such that the world Bank considers it close to becoming an upper-middle- income developing country. If it is to reach such a status, the economy needs to become more technologically oriented and capital-intensive as opposed to labor-intensive.
Such economic development is facilitated by the country's political system. Mauritius has a multiparty system, which it has maintained since independence, and the government represents a coalition of several parties. Mauritius became a republic in 1992, and the president, appointed by the prime minister and approved by the elected National Assembly, has a titular function. In a bye-election for the legislature in late January 1995, two opposition candidates won. This result has been viewed as a warning to Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth of popular discontent with his government's policies; the government coalition only mustered 20 percent of the votes.
A member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Mauritius has good relations with the West, particularly France and Britain. Nonetheless, some tension exists with France over its claim to Tromelin Island, and with Britain and the United States over Britain's having allowed the United States to establish a military base on Diego Garcia, claimed by Mauritius. Mauritius also has good ties with a number of African, Arab, and Far Eastern nations.
Mauritius has been a leading exponent of the Indian Ocean zone of peace policy and in this and other instances has sought cooperation with other Indian Ocean island countries. For example, meetings of the Seychelles-Mauritius Joint Cooperation Commission occurred in late January and early February 1995 on Mahé Island, Seychelles. The discussions have led to greater bilateral cooperation in the fields of education, industry, and agriculture. In late March, Mauritius brought together a number of Indian Ocean littoral countries: Australia, India, Kenya, Oman, and South Africa, together with Mauritius, to promote trade, industry, and economic cooperation. The conference dealt with such measures as standardizing customs procedures and promoting investment.
The growth of foreign investment is often considered to depend, among other factors, on a country's human rights' record. With regard to Mauritius, the Department of State has indicated that civilians control the paramilitary special mobile police force used for internal security purposes. Trials are considered to be generally fair. However, the government controls all communications media, which it uses for political purposes; private individuals may not operate broadcasting stations. Workers' rights are limited. The government has taken some steps to improve the rights of women, but they continue to face "legal and societal discrimination."
Approximately the same size as Mauritius, Comoros belongs to an archipelago of four main islands of volcanic origin. Of these islands, Mahoré has continued its relationship with France and is not considered part of Comoros. Ethnically, the islands have a mixed population consisting of Arabs, African and Malayo- Indonesian peoples, and Creoles, who are descendants of French settlers. About 86 percent are Sunni Muslims, and Islam is the state religion. Arabic and French are official languages. Schools follow the French education system, but literacy is only about 50 percent.
The country is among the world's poorest, deriving its income primarily from agriculture. Comoros is the world's largest producer of ylang-ylang used in perfume and the world's second largest producer of vanilla; cloves are another major crop. Although markets for these products are somewhat unstable, in January 1995 Comoros announced major contracts for the purchase of cloves with the United Arab Emirates and probably with India, and a vanilla purchase contract with the United States. Because of the limited growing area, the islands must import most of their food. Efforts are underway to develop tourism and some forms of industry.
Economic development is linked with recent political steps that Comoras has taken. Comoros approved a new constitution in a referendum in June 1992, under which the president is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term. The president in turn selects the ministers, the prime minister coming from the majority party in the Federal Assembly. The assembly is the elected body of the bicameral legislature; the Electoral College appoints the Senate. In October 1994, after much infighting among members of the ruling party, President Said Mohamed Djohar named a new government, dismissing the previous prime minister, who had advocated the privatization of the national airlines, Air Comores. The airlines issue involved two of the president's sons- in-law. The previous prime minister was also unpopular for implementing a number of economic reforms demanded by the World Bank and the IMF.
In late September 1994, the IMF expressed its "disappointment" with the economic progress of Comoros, following the visit of an IMF mission to the island in late August and early September. In the first half of 1994, exports decreased 5 percent in volume compared with 1993; this decrease occurred in spite of the 33 percent devaluation of the Comoran franc (for value of the Comoran franc--see Glossary) in January 1994. Revenues were "disappointing" because of reduced trade and failure to recover customs duties due. Most IMF economic indicators had not been met, and arrears on external debt had been reduced only by one-third the targeted amount. As a result, the IMF recommended a freeze on 40 percent of budget amounts for the offices of the president, the prime minister, and the Federal Assembly as well as a freeze on hiring new government employees until personnel cuts had been made.
For its economic development, Comoros depended heavily on external sources, particularly France. Comoros had good relations with France and good regional relations with conservative Arab states and members of the Indian Ocean Commission. Therefore, it surprised many that in November 1994, while attending the Franco- African summit in Biarritz, Djohar announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. However, upon his return to Moroni the president amended his statement to indicate that diplomatic relations would be regularized only after a peace agreement had been signed among Israel, Syria, and Lebanon and the issue of Jerusalem had been resolved.
A source of friction in its relations with other countries is the government's human rights record. This record did not improve in 1994, according to the Department of State, and featured restrictions on the right of assembly and freedom of the press. Several persons were killed on Mohéli by security forces in June 1994 in an antigovernment demonstration. Furthermore, a number of persons involved in an abortive coup in September 1992 continued to be held incommunicado without charge or trial in early 1995. The regime closed the only nongovernment radio station in 1994 and on one occasion refused an opposition party the right to hold a rally. Although women have the vote, there are no women in the legislature or the cabinet. Unions have the right to bargain, but more than 75 percent of the labor force is unemployed so collective bargaining does not, in fact, occur.
Less than one-quarter the size of Comoros, Seychelles consists of an archipelago of 115 islands, most coralline and the rest granitic. The relatively homogeneous population of mixed European and African descent uses three official languages: Creole, English, and French, with a claimed literacy of 85 percent.
Seychelles has a comparatively high per capita GDP of US$5,900 and in the early 1990s was moving away from socialism toward a more liberal economy with greater privatization. Tourism is the major economic activity because the small area of cultivable land limits agriculture, and the small market limits industry. Fishing has considerable potential for diversifying the Seychellois economy. The government is encouraging the fisheries sector, and in August 1994 the Western Indian Ocean Tuna Organization held its meeting on Mahé, with representatives of Comoros, Mauritius, and Seychelles present as well as an observer from Madagascar. Among topics of discussion was the standardization of terms for granting fishing permits because French, Spanish, and Japanese ships conduct extensive fishing in the area. Seychelles alone had fifty-two licensing agreements in effect in early 1995, of which thirty-three were with European Union countries. Furthermore, the African Development Bank in December 1994 was engaged in restructuring the Seychelles state- owned tuna processing firm, Conserveries de l'Océan Indien, to make it eligible for privatization. In addition to tuna fishing, for which Victoria is one of the world's largest ports, Seychelles seeks to develop its shrimp industry and began commercial shrimp operations in 1993.
Furthermore, boasting of its good quality telecommunications system, its privatization of Victoria port in 1994, and new regulations to encourage the private sector, specifically the legal environment for investment, Seychelles is promoting itself as an international business center. A partial basis for such promotion lies in the country's good relations with Britain, France, and such littoral states as South Africa, India, and Australia. Measures contemplated to further the private sector include the establishment of an EPZ and tax measures to reduce employer social security contributions for employees.
It is difficult to reconcile some of these proposed steps with the World Bank's 1993 report entitled Poverty in Paradise (Mark Twain had also referred to Seychelles as "paradise"). According to the report, "In 1993, almost 20 percent of the population were estimated to be living below the poverty line" of 900 Seychelles rupees (for value of the Seychelles rupee--see Glossary), or about US$195 per household per month. The World Bank criticized Seychelles's relatively low expenditure on education, especially secondary education, and the resultant lack of qualified workers in the education, health, finance, and construction fields. In spite of this criticism, the 1995 budget announced by the Ministry of Finance in late 1994 proposed a further 21 percent cut in the education budget, thereby exacerbating the situation with regard to qualified workers.
The relationship of the economy to the country's political system has been very close because Seychelles has followed a socialist form of government. Having gained its independence from Britain in 1976, Seychelles became a one-party socialist state under President France Albert René in 1977. After adopting a new constitution by referendum in 1992, Seychelles held its first multiparty elections in 1993. René was reelected, and his Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF) won twenty-seven of the thirty-three seats in the People's Assembly (some election irregularities are considered to have taken place). As a result of political patronage, control of jobs, government contracts, and resources, the Department of State indicated that the SPPF dominated the country. Moreover, the president completely controlled the security apparatus, including the national guard, the army, the police, and an armed paramilitary unit.
In 1994 progress was made with regard to human rights under this controlled structure. However, the government has a "near monopoly on the media," and freedom of speech and press are limited by the ease with which law suits can be brought against journalists. In addition, because the leadership of both the SPPF and most opposition parties is white, despite the Creole popular majority, there is a perception that nonwhites lack a significant voice.
Maldives, smaller in area than Seychelles, includes some 1,200 coralline islands grouped in a double chain of nineteen atolls. The majority of these islands, which range from one to two square kilometers in area, are uninhabited. The people represent a homogeneous mixture of Sinhalese, Dravidian, Arab, Australasian, and African groups who speak a Dhivehi language. Sunni Muslims in faith, most Maldivians attend Quranic schools. Islam is the official religion, all citizens must be Muslims, and the practice of a faith other than Islam is forbidden. The country claims 98 percent literacy.
Ranked by the United Nations as one of the world's least developed countries, Maldives has a GDP based 17 percent on tourism; 15 percent on fishing, which is undergoing further development; and 10 percent on agriculture. Maldives' 1994 annual per capita income of US$620 is twice that of India. Maldives has some 17,000 foreign workers, many from India and Sri Lanka, most of whom are employed in resort hotels so that Maldivian Muslims need not serve alcoholic beverages.
Possibly in keeping with its more traditional culture, the country has a highly centralized presidential government, based on its 1968 constitution. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has ruled since 1978, was reelected president for a five-year term in 1993. Members of the unicameral Majlis, or legislature, also serve five-year terms; forty are elected, and eight are appointed by the president. The president, who exercises control over most aspects of the country, also holds the posts of minister of defense and minister of finance. Political parties are officially discouraged as contrary to homogeneity. Maldives follows a nonalignment policy with regard to foreign affairs but as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations has particularly close relations with Britain.
The somewhat authoritarian nature of the government is reflected in the country's record on human rights. The Department of State has indicated that in 1994 Maldives restricted freedom of speech, press, and religion. Instances also occurred of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention of individuals as well as banishment to distant atolls. Although civil law exists, Islamic sharia law also applies and has limited the rights of women; for example, in accordance with Muslim practice, the testimony of one man is equivalent to that of two women. Nonetheless, in 1994 two women served in the Majlis and one in the cabinet. The rights of workers are also limited in that they may not form unions or strike. Freedom of the press was advanced somewhat in 1994 with the government's establishment of a Press Council designed to protect journalists.
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The degree to which Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and Maldives will separately and collectively promote democratic institutions, human rights, and economic development and diversification in the late 1990s remains to be seen. These island nations, with the exception of Maldives (which is located considerably to the northeast of the others), have already formed a common body, the Indian Ocean Commission, which seeks to promote commercial and social aspects of their relationship. Conceivably, the commission may broaden its concerns to include such areas as overall economic policy and defense matters. The amount of cooperation that may develop among these island states will depend to a great extent on the relative sense of stability and security of each of the nations involved.
May 31, 1995
Helen Chapin Metz
Data as of August 1994
Comoros Table of Contents