Geography

The islands are located off the southern African coast, between Mozambique (at the northern tip of the Mozambique Channel) and northern Madagascar, with a land size of 2170 sq km.

Historical background

Over the centuries, the island has been invaded by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Gulf, Indonesia, Madagascar, Portugal and, lastly, in 1841, by the French.

Modern political history

Since independence, France has continued to play a dominant role and has made use of mercenaries four times to bring about changes in regime. Comoros has remained closely tied to France and its interests in the Indian Ocean.

The islands have endured in excess of 20 coups and attempted coups that began just weeks after independence. Comoros' first president, Ahmad Abd Allah, was overthrown by French military mercenaries led by Colonel Bob Denard, notorious for his widespread and long-lived influence as a soldier of fortune. The colonel featured in several further power struggles.

In 1997, violent conflict erupted when the islands of Anjouan and Moheli declared independence from Comoros. Only in 2002 did the Comoros government grant the islands – along with the island of Grande Comore - autonomy. Each island has since elected its own presidents and drafted a constitution. However, the central government under the leadership of President Azali Assoumani (an army colonel who himself assumed office in a bloodless coup in 1999) retains power over security and financial affairs.

The African Union (AU) and the Francophonie Organisation have encouraged negotiation over outstanding fiscal and political issues dividing the national government and the regional island authorities.

Official name: Union of the Comoros
Capital: Moroni
Form of government: Independent Republic
Gained independence: 6 July 1975

Economy

Comoros is one of the poorest countries in Africa and relies heavily on international aid. A potentially attractive tourist destination, Comoros has been undermined by three decades of instability drawing just small numbers of French and South African visitors each year. With limited natural resources, the islands export only vanilla, cloves and perfume essence to, mainly, France and Germany. The market is subject to extreme price fluctuations.

Currency: Franc (KMF) - 1 USD = (app.) 393.8 KMF
Natural resources: Almost none
Major industries: Tourism, perfume distillation
GDP: $441m (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 3% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $720 (2002 est)
Imports: 30.7% of GDP (2002 est)
Exports: 14.7% of GDP (2002 est)

Military

The Comorian Security Force consists of a small standing army with a 500-member defence and 500-member police force. A defence treaty with France provides naval protection for territorial waters and air surveillance. France maintains a small maritime base and a foreign legion contingent in Comoros.

Military budget: $6m (FY02)
Army size: 500-member defence and 500-member police force.

Culture

Arab customs and culture is predominant in Comoros as Islam was introduced by merchants and migrants from Arab lands in the 16th century. However 300 years later, the French invaded and established colonial rule. Some islands, such as Mayotte, retain strong French European influences.

Population: 768,000 (2003 est)
Languages: Arabic and French (both official), Shikomoro (a blend of Swahili and Arabic)
Religion: Sunni Muslim 98%, Roman Catholic 2%
Ethnic diversity: Antalote, Cafre, Makoa, Oimatsaha, Sakalava
Literacy Rate: 57%
Important media: The two leading newspapers are the weekly Al-Watwan, published on Grand Comore, and Kwezi, published on Mayotte. There is a national radio station, Radio Comoros, and a national TV service.

Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The Almanac