COMOROS: Anjouan situation worse than thought

Saturday, April 5, 2008

With preparations for new local elections under way, following a successful military venture by the Comoros Union government and African Union (AU) troops to restore order to the renegade island by force, deeper humanitarian concerns have emerged.

Last week a combined military force toppled Mohamed Bacar, a rebel leader who had defied demands to re-run local elections, deemed illegal by the AU and Union government. Bacar has fled and is believed to be on the French isalnd of Reunion.

"We have now a new government. It has been working on this [new polls] from day one and the election will be held in mid-May at the latest," Abdourahim Said Bakar, the government spokesman, told IRIN.

Individual island elections in June 2007 were condemned as fraudulent on Anjouan but were approved on the other islands that make up the Union: Moheli and Grand Comore.

Former president of Anjouan's appeals court, Lailizamane Abdou Cheik, was sworn in as the island's interim president on 31 March and appointed his transitional government the following day, Bakar said.

"Having a stable government will enable us to start dealing with the island's problems," Bakar added.

Picking up the pieces

Poor communications with Anjouan and the need to restore the airport facilities to enable planes to arrive and depart had contributed to a delayed assessment about the situation on the ground, according to the UN Resident Coordinator in Comoros, Opia Mensah Kumah.

After access was restored, a recent seven-person fact-finding mission to the island had been undertaken. "Our first mission found severe humanitarian problems," Kumah said, adding that a second mission was being prepared.
He said that apart from displacement - there have been reports of hundreds fleeing to neighbouring islands and of internal displacement on the island - the mission found healthcare and education were under severe strain.

"The regime targeted teachers and doctors because they were talking out loud against him [Mohamed Bacar]," Kumah said, noting that hospitals and schools were left without skilled labour.

"Permanent hospital staff were fired. We have a similar situation at schools," he said.

Despite the already poor development indicators prevalent throughout the archipelago, local problems on Anjouan had been compounded by Bacar's oppressive rule, Kumah said.

With a population of 700,000, Comoros is one of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world. Incomes have been shrinking in real terms for the past 20 years, down to an average US$633 per capita in 2004.

"There is severe malnutrition among children and old people and we have a shortage of medicine, especially to fight malaria," Kumah said.

The UN will establish a permanent presence on the island to help with the return the displaced and to assist with other humanitarian issues.