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Comoros Engagement

Since independence in 1975, the Union of Comoros, an archipelago located north of Madagascar whose population is 99 percent Muslim, has endured a history of successive coups, little economic development and relative isolation from the international community. There is a fledgling business community at best, and development prospects remain bleak. In addition, Comoros is the birthplace of wanted terrorist Mohamed Abdullah Fazul, one of the masterminds of the 1998 Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Despite years of stagnation and political chaos, Comoros has undergone an historic transition over the past three years from a military dictatorship to a democratically elected, representative civilian government; from a fractious, secessionist grouping of islands to a consensus-driven, federal union.

Embassy Port Louis represents United States (US) interests in the Republic of Mauritius, Republic of Seychelles and Union of Comoros. The Embassy’s most important achievement with respect to Comoros has been the fact that US government (USG) political engagement has increased significantly since I arrived in Port Louis, Mauritius three years ago. In addition, as outlined in our Mission Performance Plan (MPP), promoting democratic systems and practices, economic growth and development, and the prevention and response to terrorism, have been the three main thrusts of US government foreign policy with Comoros.  I have worked to meet these goals through every asset at my disposal. Doing what we can to prevent the Union of Comoros from becoming an incubator or a safe haven for fugitive terrorists strongly influences many of our efforts. I am proud to say that we have achieved many successes in Comoros over the past three years, and our engagement increases every month.

Increasing Political Engagement

Our government-to-government relationship has increased markedly over the past three years. When I arrived in Mauritius in April 2002, Comoros did not have an elected President or National Assembly. Section 508 sanctions were firmly in place blocking any USG military assistance, and this Embassy rarely sent officers to Comoros.

Peace Agreements in 2001 led to presidential elections in the spring of 2002 and legislative elections in 2004. These developments provided a unique opportunity for the re-engagement of the USG after years of minimal communication. The 9/11 attacks made our efforts all the more necessary.

Once the trend toward stability and democratization became apparent, I made it one of my first priorities to lobby Washington for the removal of Section 508 sanctions, which bar certain military assistance programs.  In December 2003, sanctions were lifted opening the door to all types of military assistance including a renewed International Military Education Training (IMET) program in Comoros.

I have since worked to develop a close relationship with President Azali Assoumani. He and I now enjoy open lines of communication. 

As this article is being written, President Azali is on the verge of his second trip to the United States during my tenure.* His first mission was associated with the opening of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September. During that meeting, he met with representatives of several agencies within the US government in an attempt to raise the profile of Comoros. During this second mission, he will continue to further US-Comoros bilateral relations with a variety of agencies, as well as meet with members of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to encourage their re-entry into Comoros.

I have mounted an aggressive campaign to send Mission personnel to work directly with the Government of Comoros (GOC) and to encourage stability and the development of a democratic framework. I have made it an Embassy policy that either an American officer or I visit the Union of Comoros at least monthly to engage the Comorians on everything from regional security to health and education.

Promoting Democratic Systems and Practices

Our MPP goal in this area has been twofold: to educate the people of Comoros about the role of civil society and function of civil institutions in federal government, and to expand the Embassy’s outreach and to promote an understanding and appreciation of US values. We work to meet this goal through a combination of dialogue, media and public outreach, and modest development and technical assistance.

In the past two years, the Embassy has spent $9,000 on democracy and human rights programs to support a fledgling human rights organization and the newly formed University of Comoros.  In addition, the IMET Program will spend more than $100,000 on programs this year. We have focused initially on English training as part of a long-term commitment to better equip the Comorian military to play a proper role in a civilian led democracy, and facilitate closer ties with the US military.

Comoros’ democratic institutions are new. The very nature of Comoros’ geo-graphical composition as a three-island nation has made the challenge of solidifying democratic institutions particularly difficult. As mentioned above, I have established a solid working relationship with President Azali, but I also have made it a point to establish open lines of communications with the three island Presidents. Whenever my staff and I meet with these officials we discuss the importance of utilizing the newly formed democratic institutions to settle their disputes.  In addition, I ensured that our Political Officer traveled to Comoros during the second phase of the legislative elections to act as an international observer.

Promoting Economic Growth and Development

Promoting economic development in Comoros remains an important part of our Embassy’s mission due to the linkage between prosperity and political stability. I have directed my economic section to develop regular contact with the GOC and relevant players in the private sector. The Embassy’s Economic Officer traveled to Comoros in September 2004 on a mission aimed at strengthening the ties between the fledgling business community and the USG. Banking, life insurance and tourism are some key sectors of opportunity. His second aim was to gather information on money laundering and urge local officials to be more vigilant in this fight.

In addition, I have worked vigorously over the past three years to convince the Peace Corps to restart its program in Comoros and, in December 2003, the Embassy’s Political Officer visited Comoros with the African Regional Director of the Peace Corps.  I also continue to lobby for US Agency for International Development (USAID) projects to start again, and will continue to encourage that both organizations be fully active in the coming months to assist where help is needed most.

Finally, in fiscal year 2003, the Embassy administered self-help projects that totaled $35,800. Eight projects aiding community-based education and women’s empower-ment were funded. The Embassy also funded $8,500 worth of projects, including $5,000 to the University of Comoros for educational and development projects in fiscal year 2004.

Preventing and Responding to Terrorism

The third MPP goal is the principal focus of our efforts in Comoros. In effect, the two previous MPP goals serve as means to the larger goal of preventing Comoros from becoming a safe harbor or breeding ground for terrorists.  I have directed Embassy officers and relevant law enforcement representatives to make it a high priority to engage the GOC and the local civil society on the importance of the prevention of terrorism and the identification and prosecution of suspect groups and activities.

The branch of the Saudi Arabian nongovernmental organization (NGO), Al Haramain, in Comoros was a cause for concern in this regard because of its links to terrorists. The group was also the only NGO operating in a serious, nation-wide capacity in Comoros, and was spending millions of dollars on water projects and school and mosque construction. Its influence in Comoros was strong. Since my arrival at post, I have been concerned with the influence that this NGO was trying to exert in Comoros under the cover of humanitarian assistance. In my earliest conversations with President Azali, we discussed my concerns that this NGO might be using Comoros as a safe haven for terrorist activities, and might be actively recruiting young Comorians into terrorist organizations.

Soon after my dialogue with President Azali began we received notification that he had taken steps to begin dismantling this organization by asking certain foreign members of the group to leave the country. Sensing an opportunity, I continued to press him about Al Haramain. Soon after, we were informed that President Azali ordered the transfer of buildings owned by Al Haramain to the newly created University of Comoros.

One month before the group was listed by the United Nations Sanctions Committee, I received word that President Azali had closed the branch in Comoros.  Immediately afterwards, President Azali and I held a long discussion during which he told me that the group had been disbanded and the remaining foreign members of the group had been asked to leave the country. I am certain that this Embassy’s engagement with both President Azali and his government convinced him that the organization, despite the millions it was bringing into this impoverished country, was not in the best interest of Comoros.

I will continue to lobby the US government and other sources of financial assistance for increased aid in order to fill the gap left by the closure of this NGO. We must not let this group or groups like it find their way back into this country.

Our engagement with Comoros continues on a variety of fronts. I have discussed the professionalization of security forces and division of responsibilities between the internal and external security forces at the highest levels of the national and regional governments.

The Embassy’s Regional Security Officer has traveled to Comoros five times in the past year alone. The result of these missions has been to establish liaison and working relationships among law enforcement organizations and to identify needs and gaps in training. We also have established a “Rewards for Justice Program” in Comoros to develop information leading to the capture of Comorian national, Mohamed Abdullah Fazul, one of the terrorist masterminds of the Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.

Perhaps the most urgent need in Comoros has been support for the new University of Comoros. GOC officials have expressed several times that the purpose of the University is to give young Comorians the option of doing their university studies in Comoros instead of being drawn to countries where they might learn more radical ideas. I agree with this assessment and this effort is something to which I have directed particular attention. This year, the Democracy and Human Rights Fund sent a University of Comoros administrator to a conference in Nigeria on education for democracy. When I visited the University, I personally made a commitment to donate ten microscopes to the University’s science lab.

An important part of this Embassy’s efforts to combat terrorism in Comoros has been to increase the understanding and exposure to American culture and values. I have directed my Public Affairs Section to provide American books and magazines to the University of Comoros, and establish an American Corner in the University. With the support of Africa Regional Services (ARS) in Paris, this will become a reality in early 2005.

I also have worked in general to facilitate distribution of English-language books to Comoros, particularly through the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section. The Church of Latter Day Saints, under its humanitarian aid program, has expressed an interest in providing books to Comoros, and we are working with them and the University of Comoros to make this happen.

In order to familiarize Comorian people with American culture, the Embassy invited the Jazz Ambassadors to perform in Comoros in March 2004. This event was well received and very successful at exposing Comorian people to a part of American culture they would not have had access to otherwise.

Another important part of our engagement with Comoros has been with media outlets. The Public Affairs Officer is in regular contact with both Al-Watwan, the local government supported newspaper, and la Gazette des Comores, the opposition newspaper.

Finally, my personal intervention with the leadership of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) and US Pacific Command (PACOM) has initiated a review of this region for defense, security, counterterrorism and regional cooperation. I have attempted to foster greater coordination between CENTCOM (that covers Seychelles), and PACOM (that covers Mauritius and the Union of Comoros). One of my sincerest concerns is that this sharing of responsibilities could lead to these countries missing a certain level of focus, and issues could “fall between the cracks.” This particularly applies to the military’s efforts in the global war on terrorism as it applies to Comoros, which is thousands of miles from PACOM’s headquarters in Hawaii.

I am pleased that our efforts appear to be succeeding. CENTCOM’s Joint Counter-Terrorism Task Force - Horn of Africa (JCTF-HOA) Commander, General Helland, visited Comoros in December 2004 at the invitation of the Minister of Defense and held meetings with the Ministry and Comoros’s military leadership.

Looking Ahead

The many achievements I have described above have developed a momentum with respect to our engagement with Comoros.  We must take advantage of this momentum to solidify both our diplomatic objectives in Comoros and help the GOC continue its progress toward a stable democracy and active participation in the global war on terrorism. 

As an example of Comoros’s remarkable progress, the National Assembly, created in elections held last April, has begun to debate issues that go to the heart of the dispute that has divided this country for decades. When tensions mounted over a variety of deeply contentious issues, the newly formed democratic institutions, not guns, resolved the debate.  No shots were fired and no blood was spilled. The political debate remained just that…a political debate.

Although tremendous challenges lie ahead for Comoros, there is clearly reason for optimism. I take tremendous pride in the work the US government has undertaken in Comoros.  It is clear that our efforts there are making a difference to achieve our goals in the global war on terrorism, and improve the lives of the people of this remarkable but struggling country.

This tiny, chronically unstable country, which is desperately poor and the birthplace of a terrorist, is being transformed into an emerging democracy.  My experience in working with Comoros suggests that an increased US diplomatic effort, building on the successes that have already been achieved, can and will make a difference!

We must continue to broaden our efforts with Comoros. Visits by Congressional delegations would boost this effort considerably by giving Senators and Representatives an opportunity to see and interact firsthand with the reality on the ground in Comoros and to share with the Comorian people and officials a broader range of American interests and concerns. These visits also would serve to attract greater attention to Comoros, which could stimulate additional interest and much needed investment.  Interest and investment is what Comoros needs now, more than at any other time in its history, to ensure a stable, free, and peaceful future.

* Editor’s Note: President Azali visited the United States on February 23, 2005.

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United States Ambassador to Mauritius