Seeking to end a burgeoning political crisis, African Union (AU) representatives and the Comoros Union government are applying sanctions targeted at the renegade leadership of Anjouan, one of the three islands comprising the Union of Comoros.
The fragile unity of the Indian Ocean archipelago - Grande Comore, Moheli and Anjouan - hangs in the balance, and "further delay in the resolution of the crisis would further destabilise the Comoros", said an AU statement released after its Peace and Security Council endorsed sanctions against Anjouan's leadership in early October.
"The sanctions are targeted at the Anjouan leadership and include curtailing the movements of the leadership and the movements of those who support the authorities ... and the freezing of their assets," Francisco Madeira, the AU special envoy, told IRIN.
Individual island elections in June reignited inter-island hostility between Anjouan and the two other islands in the archipelago, Grande Comore and Moheli. Since then Madeira has been attempting to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the crisis by conducting talks with Union president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi in the capital, Moroni, located on Grande Comore, and the authorities on Anjouan.
A coup-prone union
Comoros gained independence from France in 1975 after more than a 130 years of colonial rule, but has experienced 19 successful and attempted coups in three decades of political instability.
The Union's complex electoral system, brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in the wake of Moheli and Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997, provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each island, with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.
The first round of the latest polls were held on 10 June on Grande Comore and Moheli but the AU and the Union government postponed the poll on Anjouan until 17 June, after intimidation in the run-up to voting and incidents of violence claimed the lives of two soldiers.
Mohamed Bacar, who first came to power in a 2001 coup and was elected president of Anjouan in 2002, was asked to step down by the constitutional court on grounds that he had served his five-year term, and nominated an interim president to head the island's government until the elections were held.
A defiant Bacar printed his own ballots, held elections despite the postponement and claimed a landslide victory of 90 percent. The African Union and the Comoros constitutional court promptly declared the Anjouan elections null and void but Bacar has refused to stand down.
Madeira has been discussing with Comoros union government how the AU sanctions, which run from 10 October to 24 November, would be enforced. "The Union government will require assistance to do this. We [the AU] are considering assistance in the form of boats, helicopters, fixed-wing planes and personnel," to help patrol the island, Madeira said.
The operation would require "maximum use of the [Union] military", he added. Around 200 AU troops are stationed on Grand Comore, but the AU is also "considering strengthening their presence". Military experts are determining the exact size of the force the AU expects to deploy. The sanctions would be lifted if the Anjouan authorities agreed to hold new elections.
Sanctions may hurt more than the leaders
Although the sanctions have been targeted at the renegade island's leadership, Madeira expected that the population would suffer because those in power would make use of ordinary people's "food and money".
"We are explaining to the people that this will entail sacrifices, but that we are targeting only those that are impeding peace and democracy. We hope the leadership will come to their senses," he said.
The lingering stalemate is also hampering much needed international development assistance. "It is a pity that resolution of this crisis continues to elude Comorans," UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Kumah, told IRIN. "Each additional day of conflict represents a lost opportunity for development, and sets the country back further."