May 14, 2006

Comorans vote, hoping to end poverty, violent past

By Tim Cocks

MORONI (Reuters) - Comorans voted on Sunday in the final
round of a presidential race dominated by concerns over extreme
poverty, and corruption.

Voters on the Indian Ocean archipelago of 670,000 people
will choose between three candidates in a poll it is hoped will
finally end a history of mercenary coups and inter-island
conflicts since independence from France in 1975.

A total of 309,957 people were registered to vote across
the three islands.

Popular religious leader and former MP Ahmed Abdallah
Mohamed Sambi -- nicknamed "Ayatollah" because of his schooling
in Iran -- is the frontrunner.

A businessman and keen basketball player, he has promised
to end graft, create employment and build proper housing for
Comorans living in straw shacks.

The other contenders are Mohamed Djaanfari, a former pilot
in the French military for 30 years, and Ibrahim Halidi, a
candidate backed by outgoing President Azaly Assoumani.

Analysts say the vote will test whether a power-sharing
pact signed between the islands in 2001 can bring their first
peaceful change of power, ending a string of 19 coups or coup
attempts including four by infamous French mercenary Bob

Under the deal, each of the three islands in turn takes the
rotating federal presidency every four years. Azaly is from the
main island Grande Comore and Anjouan takes it this time
followed by the smallest, Moheli, in 2010.

Minor skirmishes have been reported in the run-up to this
round. On May 5, machete-wielding attackers stormed two radio
stations on Grande Comore forcing them off air for 24 hours.

Some Comorans doubt whether Azaly, who took power in a
bloodless coup in 1991 and was elected in 2002, will go
peacefully. But diplomats say he is not likely to undo a peace
deal he helped craft.


Several hundred extra African Union soldiers and two
helicopter gunships arrived in Moroni from South Africa on
Saturday to boost an existing 460-strong force.

They were deployed across the three islands to monitor the
vote and prevent abuses by the army.

The AU did not disclose the exact number of troops, but a
source said they had nearly tripled the existing force.

The AU has warned Comoran security forces to stay away from
polling stations, as ballot-stuffing soldiers marred previous

Azaly's candidate, Halidi, has promised to stick with the
government's development plan donors agreed to finance last

Halidi's backers accuse Sambi of being a closet Islamic
extremist who will introduce sharia law and woo governments
disliked by Western donors, such as Iran.

But Sambi, who has his own television and radio station,
accuses Azaly's government of failing to tackle poverty on a
group of islands which barely produces anything and imports
even staples like rice.

The Comoros export vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang, an
essential oil.

A slump in the prices of these commodities has left it
dependent on remittances from economic migrants to France and
other countries, now the top foreign exchange earner.

Analysts say whoever wins faces the challenge of starting
an economy virtually from scratch.

"There's almost zero production here," said one western

Ninety-eight percent of people on the islands, located 300
km (180 miles) off the east African coast and once a haven for
pirates robbing ships on route to India, are Sunni Muslim but
practice a moderate brand of Islam.

The remaining 2 percent are Catholic.