Old battleground, new players.

Author:Bickersteth, Arthur

The Comoros, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, is often referred to as Africa's 'forgotten nation' but its strategic location has attracted various powers over a long history. It is now again embroiled in power struggles involving outside players. Arthur Bickersteth reports.

Comoros' strategic geographic location has been Doth a blessing and a curse. Merchants have long provided Comoros with trade, but this shared space marks the confluence of residual European interests, re-emerging Arab influence and old domestic rivalries.

"The struggle to recover my country's sovereignty waits for noone but us," said a student protester to La Gazette des Comores during peaceful demonstrations against French deportations of Comorians from the Department of Mayotte last month. The Department of Mayotte is part of the four islands that make up Comoros. The Comorian government blocked the entry of the deportees, claiming that Mayotte is part of its sovereignty.

Bold as the student's words may be, he faces a formidable challenge. The European presence in the Indian Ocean dates back to the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498.

Da Gama's historic journey was a watershed moment, but merchants, traders and explorers were nothing new in this part of the world. Sea-borne trade had always been the lifeblood of the Indian Ocean; African and Arab dhows had been crisscrossing it for hundreds of years. Monsoon winds and ocean currents carried intrepid merchants to their fortunes, or demise.

Until the present, the desperately poor Comoros has struggled to break free from the influence of these historical powers. France refuses to cede control over neighbouring Mayotte, undermining what Comorians view as their territorial integrity. Gulf Arabs have returned--this time not in dhows but private jets--offering shady business deals instead of spices.

Lying strategically along crucial trading routes, the Union of the Comoros is separated from its nearest neighbours, Mozambique and Madagascar, by hundreds of kilometres of ocean. While isolated, the Comoros have always been connected to the wider Indian Ocean arena, where Arab, African, European and Asian interests converged. These cultures each left legacies, and continue to influence and shape the Comoros to this day.

Same crisis, different sea

The distance from Anjouan, Comoros' second largest island, to Mayotte is 70 kilometres. This should be a straightforward hop between two...

To continue reading