Tension is mounting as the political stalemate deepens between the Union of Comoros and one of its semi-autonomous islands, Anjouan, sparking fears of possible military action and postponing much-needed international development assistance.
Individual island elections in June re-ignited inter-island hostility between Anjouan and the other two islands in the archipelago, Grande Comore and Moheli.
The Union's complex electoral system was brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in the wake of Moheli and Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997. The electoral system 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 current elections were held on 10 June on two of the three islands - Grande Comore and Moheli - but the African Union (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 that claimed the lives of two soldiers.
"The election on Anjouan [held on 10 June despite the postponement] were declared null and void by the African Union and the Comoros constitutional court," Francisco Madeira, the AU special envoy, told IRIN.
Mohamed Bacar, 45, who 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. Anjouan has a population of about 200,000.
But Bacar refused to step down, printed his own ballot papers and went ahead with the election, despite a declaration by the AU and the Union government that the poll would be deemed invalid. Bacar has since claimed a landslide victory of 90 percent.
Efforts by the international community, and particularly the AU, to resolve the situation have thus far been fruitless and calls for new elections, endorsed by the Union government, have been dismissed by Bacar.
According to a document issued by officials on Anjouan in response to the "conclusions" of the AU ministerial meeting to discuss the Comoros crisis on 9 July, in Pretoria, South Africa, "elections are not necessary because they have already been held."
Instead of new internationally supervised elections, the document calls for a committee to review the 2001 constitution and the federal institutional arrangements it put in place, presumably as a way of securing more autonomy or "virtual independence", as one local diplomatic source put it.
"According to Bacar, [Union] President Sambi violated the constitution in as many as 20 ... [ways], including the fact that he conducted elections on two islands instead of three," the source said. Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who comes from Anjouan, became president of the Union in a landslide victory in 2006.
In a statement, the AU and the international community termed Bacar's response as "unacceptable and tendentious". Bacar, in turn, has tried to bring AU special envoy Madeira into disrepute by questioning his professionalism, integrity and neutrality on a personal level.
According to some observers, this is an attempt to discredit the view taken by the AU and international community. Bacar has been "trying to target me. I'm the one who is dealing with him," Madeira said.
Military imbalance - intervention not inevitable
Bacar, Anjouan's former chief of police, took part in the island's 2001 military coup before being elected as the island president the following year. He is said to command "100 percent loyalty" from the island's few hundred gendarmes, who have heavy weapons in their armoury, but the island also has an armed militia thought to be about 500-strong.
His investment in military power has skewed the balance of military strength between island and Union forces; his younger brother, Abdou, commands Anjouan's security forces.
"The population [on Anjouan] is taking the situation very seriously; they are afraid continued defiance might lead to some kind of violence," Madeira commented.
Some observers have reported roadblocks and a highly visible military presence throughout the island, while the rising tension has been prompting people to leave. According to the Union Government, over the past two months 600 Anjouanese have fled to Moheli, and Grand Comore has absorbed 2,000.
"The UN is concerned that these population movements do not evolve into a serious problem of displacement. We are monitoring the situation and, if necessary, will intervene at the appropriate moment to assist both the displaced and host communities," said UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Kumah.
"Military intervention is an option that is on the table, but everyone is trying to persuade Bacar to organise a new election," added one diplomatic source. Sambi's entire extended family has been evacuated from Anjouan.
Development held back
"The crisis has put Comoros' development on hold. People are concerned about the impact on IMF [International Monetary Fund], ADB [African Development Bank] and World Bank decisions," Kumah told IRIN.
"An ADB-convened Paris Club meeting to write off Comoros' debt, scheduled for mid-July, was postponed to September because of the Anjouan electoral crisis. If the conflict is not resolved soon, the September meeting could also be in jeopardy," he said.
"The ADB debt write-off is a condition for the IMF to engage in negotiations leading to Comoros acceding to the HIPC [Highly Indebted Poor Countries] process. Lord knows, the country needs this break," Kumah added.
Subject to meeting various conditions, including political stability, the HIPC initiative aims to reduce the external debt burden of the world's poorest countries. Comoros is ranked 132 out of 177 in the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme.
Kumah said that much-needed bilateral assistance was dwindling while various donors waited for the situation in Anjouan to be resolved.