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Comoros gets day in the sun as president to chair AU assembly



The Union of Comoros is not usually in the big leagues. For years, it stayed in the shadows of close neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles, wallowing in isolation, poverty and conflict, and being host to one of the notorious coup ‘corps’ under French mercenary Bob Denard.

This week, however, it will get a day in the sun by chairing the African Union Assembly for the first time in the continental body’s two decades.

This chairmanship of the Summit is usually ceremonial and year-long, but it may bring the island nation the much-needed international image for its President Azali Assoumani.

President Assoumani will replace Senegalese leader Macky Sall, who took over last year as the continent struggled with a food crisis, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Africa was also just smarting from Covid-19.

Get global audience

Chairing the African Union may mean the Comorian leader continues lobbying the AU’s positions. But it will also enable him get the global audience.

A former soldier, President Assoumani’s rise to power began on a wrong footing. Under the African Union, his country could have been suspended were he to do it today.

He seized power in 1999 in a bloodless coup during the era of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the AU. This was one of the 20 coups or attempts in the country’s now 47-year independence history.

Divided nation

Once he took over, he was faced with a divided nation, with some islands wanting out. The African Union would then impose sanctions on one of the mutinying islands to toe the line. After talks, the country would reach a peace deal to have a rotational presidency.

Assoumani would win elections in 2002 after a constitutional review but was forced to step down four years later. Nonetheless, he became the first Comorian president to hand over power peacefully to Abdallah Sambi in 2006. Sambi was jailed last year for life for selling passports to stateless people.

Assoumani would return to the presidency in 2016 and later pushed for constitutional changes that would grant a president consecutive two terms before handing over. Under Comorian law, there are no term limits but a president now can only lead for two terms.

In the 2019 elections, opposition groups refused to participate, allowing his party to win a landslide in parliament. It means he enjoys maximum support in the legislature and the executive.

Poverty and internal strife

Comoros has about one million people, half of whom live below $1.25 a day, according to World Bank figures. Much of the poverty has been blamed on the country’s own internal strife: It had a first coup just three weeks after independence.

Assoumani has set for the country Vision 2030, targeting to reduce extreme poverty as is the global goal of the UN. But the island nation needs special attention on climate change.

“Small island developing nations such as Comoros are in a particularly bad situation and they need greater attention to be paid to them by the leaders,” he told the UN General Assembly last September, referring to climate change.

“We are also facing many challenges including piracy, pollution, illegal fishing and pillaging of marine resources and drug trafficking. We are part of regional and global initiatives which are fighting these barbaric acts.”

Western Sahara

Assoumani had said in the past he endorses “autonomy” for Western Sahara, as a solution to the continual conflict in Morocco, whose southern regions are claimed by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).

At the UN General Assembly, he said having an autonomous region situated within the “sovereignty of Morocco” can help “bring about a rapid and pragmatic solution” to the conflict. Both Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Republic are members of the AU. The continental body may be called on to decide the future of SADR.

One of the most immediate tasks, however, will be for Comoros to lead members in deciding whether Israel becomes an observer state in the African Union. When the matter was tabled last year, an objection by South Africa and Algeria forced the continental body to defer a decision to this year, to allow deliberations.

Assoumani said last year that he supports the rights of Palestinian people to have a sovereign state, with East Jerusalem as their capital, living in harmony with their neighbours Israel.



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