The strangest invasion in history? was the assault on Anjouan island really necessary or was it a convenient and easy face-saving victory for AU peacekeepers? Tom Nevin examines the evidence.
As a flag-waving opportunity for the AU, however, it was irresistible. Following lacklustre performances in Darfur and Congo the AU as a keeper of the peace was in serious need of a victory--as much to boost its own sagging morale as to uplift its image in increasingly sceptical regional and global political circles. So it went in boots 'n' all as back-up to the Comorian army to put down the rebellion on Anjouan Island and emerged covered in dubious glory.
What appeared to make the power play unnecessary was the fact that Bacar had offered to rerun the election within two weeks; even South African President Thabo Mbeki's diplomatic intervention was given just three days to bear fruit before it was brushed aside and the shooting started. (See box.) Bacar, who came to power in a 2001 coup backed by 500 French-trained troops, had staged an election in June last year by printing his own ballot papers and subsequently claiming a landslide victory. The central government rejected the ballot and demanded fresh elections, but Bacar wanted talks first. The status of Anjouan has been a point of dissension for the past decade and has led to frequent clashes between separatist Anjouanese and government troops. At issue was Anjouan's unhappiness with the Comoro archipelago's union government centred in the capital of Moroni on Grand Comoros Island. Matters came to a head in late March this year when the secessionist leadership demanded "separation, nothing less".
At the same time the flag of the self-proclaimed state was raised alongside the flag of France, Comoros' former colonial administrator. After elections on Anjouan, denounced by the central government as illegal, the new leaders of the breakaway island of 250,000 people demanded separation from the Comoros and return to colonial status under French rule. A celebration march after the election was headed by a picture of former French leader Jacques Chirac with the slogan "La France pour tous" (France for all).
The self-imposed Anjouan government was reported by Comoros newspaper Le Journal de L'Ile as saying there were two options for Anjouan: Reunification with France or independence in association with France. French officials quickly rejected this, apparently concerned over fallout on neighbouring Mayotte and Reunion, which France still controls.
France had ultimately backed the AU decision to invade, in accordance with EU agreements to support regional organisations after attempts at diplomatic solution produced little result. "We remain in support of dialogue and a peaceful solution to this crisis," said Pascale Andreani, the spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry. "Colonel Bacar must immediately confirm his agreement to organise elections in Anjouan in the nearfuture and to allow the AU troops to take up position at the port and the airport in Anjouan to make the elections safe."
The AU military contingent had arrived on 22 March in the harbour of Fomboni on Moheli Island, ready to invade neighbouring Anjouan by sea that night or the following day. The troops were stood down when Mbeki intervened appealing for a last-ditch diplomatic intercession to be given a chance. The execution of the raid was stayed for three days. When little sign of a breakthrough had appeared by 25 March, the operation swung into action and the invaders took to the sea for the short crossing in four assault craft.
The military expedition made a noisy landing on Anjouan, detonating grenades and firing their rifles. There was little resistance. From the landing the invasion moved swiftly and in a matter of hours Mohamed Dosara, the Comoros defence chief of staff, was able to report by phone: "We have now taken the Anjouan capital."
Of Colonel Bacar there was no sign. He had slipped off the island with about 20 supporters and fled by speedboat to the nearby French-ruled island of Mayotte. They were later moved to Reunion, another French administered island in the region. On arrival in Reunion they were charged with illegally entering French territory and breaking weapons laws.
The Comoros government immediately issued an international arrest warrant for Bacar, accused by Ahmed Abdalla Sambi, president of Comoros, of rebellion and planning to seek independence for Anjouan.
"If France doesn't want to extradite him to a country where the death penalty is still in force, then it should hand him over to another court such as the one in The Hague," said Sambi.
On Reunion, Bacar asked France for asylum but first had to face the charges of weapons possession and for entering the island of Mayotte illegally. Citing a technical glitch, the court annulled proceedings against the deposed rebel leader, opening the way for him to apply for asylum in France. That case is pending. The Comoros vice-president, Ikililou Dhoinine, was despatched to Anjouan to head a central government delegation until a transitional administration could be put in place.
The invasion, criticised by Mbeki as "unnecessary", has been questioned by analysts, bringing the issue of peacekeeping efforts under the microscope. As a public relations exercise, the invasion produced mixed results for the AU's capabilities as Africa's policeman. While it might have earned some international prestige, the invasion of Anjouan also underscored the organisation's limitations in dealing effectively with more demanding missions such as Darfur, Somalia and Congo.
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A Sledgehammer to cracka peanut
Some critics of the island assault accused the AU of "using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut". The AU's previous military missions, in Somalia and Sudan's wartorn Darfur Province, ended ignominiously and inconclusively and the organisation was in urgent need of a victory. Mbeki was critical of what was described as the high-handed and hasty military action when political measures were in place to resolve the conflict.
"It seems to us that there was no need to deploy any military forces as the government of the Comoros had undertaken to rerun the elections in May," says Mbeki, while his foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, noted that "there is no violence, no loss of life, no social unrest" and that it was "unusual to go militarily into Comoros".
According to Dlamini-Zuma, the real war was about whether the discusions come first and then elections, or elections first and then discussions later. "The Anjouanese authorities have given a date, they've said 'let's have a discussion and have the elections by May', which we thought could be a basis for solving this diplomatically," the minister said. In her view talks would have had to be held anyway, since the central government was itself guilty of irregularities. When the invasion was launched she observed that attempts at brokering peace had failed.
"There are countries that have needed the call of the president of Comoros to assist him to solve the problem militarily. So that is what is happening. But we believe that it could have still been done diplomatically. It's a small thing."
RELATED ARTICLE: Anjouan
A swashbuckling history
Since its inception, Anjouan (also known as Ndzuwani or Nzwani) has had a free-spirited hankering after independence. To all intents and purposes the 424sq km island ruled itself from within the island state of the Union of Comoros, an archipelago of three beautiful but impoverished islands whose only means of economic support is sporadic tourism, vanilla and the export of ylang-ylang flowers reputed to be the world's most magnificent. Tourism is an off-and-on economic activity.
Comoros has been the scene of 19 coups d'etat since independence 33 years ago. Its capital is Mutsamudu and its population is about 277,500.
The first inhabitants of the island were explorers and immigrants from Indonesia and Polynesia. They were joined by other Indian Ocean islanders and in about 1500, the sultanate of Ndzuwani was founded and soon became the most powerful of all the Comoran sultanates. The island came under French protection in 1886 and was formally annexed by France in 1912. Anjouan joined the Comoros nation when it became independent in 1975.
In 1997, the islands of Anjouan and Moheli declared independence from Comoros, but were reunified with the island union in 2002, under a new constitution that conferred autonomy within the Comoros and allowed the election of a president.
Mohamed Bacar, leader of the separatist government since 2001, was elected for a five-year term. His tenure expired in April 2007. President of the assembly, Houmadi Caambi, became acting president but was overthrown by forces loyal to Bacar.
Peace talks were convened between the Union government and the local regime. They agreed to hold free elections in which Bacar would stand. Impatient at what he saw as delaying tactics by the Union government, Bacar's followers unilaterally printed ballots and held an election in June. The result, as expected, was an overwhelming victory of 90%. Less than a month later, in July 2007, he once again declared the island of Anjouan independent of the Comoros.