Thursday, November 29, 2001

MUTSAMUDU, Comoros Nunu Afan isn’t too concerned about who is running the government. At 65, he has lived through 17 coups or attempted coups and a presidential assassination not to mention the struggle to rule his home island of Anjouan since its secession four years ago.
“We’re used to it. It’s just theater,” the farmer and former lawmaker said as he watered his small patch of onions and tomatoes on a hillside overlooking the Indian Ocean.
The island’s latest uprising came Nov. 2, led by Lt. Col. Said Abeid Abderemanein, the self-proclaimed president who was ousted himself in a coup just three months earlier. Four persons died in fighting before Col. Abderemanein fled to a neighboring island.
In August 1997, Anjouan declared independence from the other two islands of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros, an impoverished archipelago off the east coast of Africa. It complained it was not receiving a fair share of meager export revenues.
The government on neighboring Grand Comoro island sent troops but failed to quash the secession. France, whose hand was evident in political machinations long after its rule ended in 1975, made no attempt to recolonize the island of 180,000 people.
The present rulers are three former commanders in the Comoros national police: Mohammed Bacar, Halidy Charif and Hassane Ali Toilhat. Since taking over on Aug. 9, they have survived three coup attempts, including the uprising engineered by Col. Abderemanein.
Like many Comorians, Mr. Afan blames France for the unrest, refusing to believe that the former colonial power has lost interest.
“I am a Muslim my prayer is that France leaves us alone, but as long as France is here, we will always have problems,” he said.
Not everyone looked with disdain on France, which took over Comoros in the 1860s through deals to protect feuding sultans from each other and from the British.
Drawings of the French tricolor adorn walls in Mutsamudu, the island’s capital, founded by Arab traders in 1482. Most youths dream of beating strict immigration laws and somehow making it to France, where tens of thousands of Comorians live and work. Without the money they send back, the islands would all go broke.
The political uncertainty has discouraged foreign investment in mountainous Anjouan, where almost everything, even eggs and drinking water, is imported from France, India or Russia.
But United Telecom, a company from Chicago, is persevering with its $2.5 million project to set up a cell-phone network on the island.
John Cantrell, one of two field engineers sent by Cell-Tel Systems Integration of Jacksonville, Fla., said the original contract was negotiated three years ago with Col. Abderemanein.
For now, United Telecom has set up a local cell-phone network for 100 people in Mutsamudu. Mr. Cantrell said most customers received the handsets as gifts from friends or relatives abroad but were willing to buy the service.
“People here talk poor, but when they come to us and we tell them it will cost them 42,000 Comorian francs ($24) to get connected, they say ‘no problem.’”
Mr. Cantrell said the company plans to expand throughout the islands and their estimated population of 710,000.
On Anjouan for five months, Mr. Cantrell has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. “We’re told to stay indoors, and we wait to hear who is in power the next day,” he said.
Besides money sent home by overseas Comorians, the islands survive on the export of cloves, vanilla and ylang-ylang flowers for perfume.
Former police commander Mr. Charif, one of the current ruling triumvirate, said Anjouan is working toward reconciliation with the other islands under an agreement mediated by the Organization of African Unity. A referendum on a new constitution giving greater autonomy to each island is being planned.
“Our concern is to move quickly and have the new constitution ready soon,” he said. “The main reason why we wanted to secede is poverty and lack of justice. Our island is the most densely populated and we are marginalized.”

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