Mayotte: why is this French department claimed by the Comoros?


On September 22, 2022, Assoumani Azali, the President of the Union of the Comoros recalled during 77e Ordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly on territorial dispute which opposes his country to France concerning the island of Mayotte.

Indeed, the sovereignty of the youngest and smallest French department located in the Indian Ocean is at the heart of a territorial dispute and the subject of heated debates since several decades.

If it is indisputable that the four islands forming the Comoros archipelago have a geography and a large part of their population in common, it is necessary to briefly return to the history of the archipelago to understand the tensions between Mayotte and its neighbors. .

Map representing the Comoros archipelago
Comoros Archipelago, 2022.
Victory Cottereau, Provided by the author

"The Archipelago of the Fighting Sultans"

At VIIIe century, the islands were populated by Bantu farmers and fishermen from Africa as well as Malagasy traders and Austronesians from theindonesian archipelago.

From the XNUMXthe century, families from Shiraz, in Persia, settled in the archipelago and immediately tried to establish their domination, impose their culture, and reduce the local populations to slavery. The islands are then governed by sultans from different Chirazian families. In perpetual competition, these monarchs regularly organize military expeditions from one island against another. Affected by violent disturbances (looting, raids of slaves, etc.), the islands were baptized “the archipelago of the battling sultans”.

Representation of Andriantsoly, former Sultan of Mayotte, January 1, 1855
Representation of Andrian Tsouly (or Andriantsoly), former Sultan of Mayotte, January 1, 1855.
Unknown author — Édouard Charton (dir.), Le Magasin picturesque, Paris, 1855/Wikimedia

Tired of these quarrels, the Sultan of Mayotte, Andrian Tsouli, seeks the support of a foreign power in order to consolidate his political base in the most Malagasy island of the archipelago.

In 1841, he ceded Mayotte to France. The island became a French colony in 1843. The French protectorate was established on the other three islands in 1886 and these were erected as French colonies in 1912, nearly 70 years after Mayotte. Contrary to popular belief, the Comoros archipelago never constituted a political entity before the French presence.

The fight of the "ticklers"

Historically, the determination of the inhabitants of the island of Mayotte, known as the Mahorais, to achieve permanent anchorage within the French Republic predates the period of decolonization.

The year 1958 marked a break in the relationship between Comorians and Mahorais. The Territorial Assembly of the Comoros vote the transfer from the capital of Dzaoudzi (Mayotte) to Moroni (Grande Comore).

This situation secretes a a certain resentment among the Mahorais and leads to the foundation of Mahoran People's Movement (MPM) in 1966.

The women, known as "ticklish", begin their fight by carrying out protest activities against the territorial authority and demand departmentalization.

Panel on which is written "Mayotte is French and will remain so forever".
Victory Cotterau, CC BY-NC-ND

Decolonization in the Comoros Archipelago

In 1974, the Comorians were questioned about their desire for independence. It is decolonization that marks the starting point of the "painful file that has lasted for more than forty years" between France and the Comoros, as recalled by Azali Assoumani, President of the Union of the Comoros on September 22 2022 before the UN.

While the inhabitants of the three neighboring islands vote mostly "yes", the Mahorais stand out by voting "no" and underline their desire to remain within the French Republic.

Faced with this result, the assembly of the Comoros proclaimed in 1975 the independence of the islands of the archipelago, including Mayotte. Faced with the protest of the Mahorais and the concern of losing a geostrategic territory in the Indian Ocean, France takes note of the independence of the islands, except Mayotte, nearly six months after the proclamation of independence and a few weeks after the new Comorian state joined the UN.

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Instead of considering this vote as a whole according to international law in the name of the intangibility of borders, France is organizing a second consultation of the population of Mayotte on their wish to remain French or to integrate the new Comorian state. In 1976, the Mahorais choose France with more than 99% of the votes.

This act lends legitimacy to the development of a "Constitutional Micmac" as the activist Pierre Caminade writes, in order to keep the island under his control.

The United Nations General Assembly immediately took up the matter, condemned the actions of the French State and affirmed Comorian sovereignty over the island of Mayotte. To this condemnation, France retorts with the principle of self-determination of peoples and, therefore, considers his decision to be in conformity to international law.

A connection that is no longer at the heart of international concerns

From 1976 to 1994, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 18 resolutions. Each of them refers to the Resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960 asserting Comorian sovereignty over the island of Mayotte.

However, over the course of these, the words used by the UN are more and more nuanced moving from “condemns” to “invites”, and the abstention of the voting States to rule on this subject is constantly increasing. During the last resolution, the "yes" vote remains a majority but with only 47,28% of the States.

From 1996, the Union of the Comoros no longer took the necessary steps to have the question of Mayotte placed on the final agenda of the UN General Assembly. Despite this, diplomatic tensions are still very present and the subject is regularly raised in the speeches of the comorian president.

For its part, France clearly affirms its desire to prefer the opinion of the people to that of international bodies. Mayotte becomes 101e French department in 2011 and a outermost region (OR) of the European Union in 2014.

This latter status was obtained following a unanimous vote by the European Council de facto designating Mayotte as French, while none of the Member States noted any contradiction with its own position in the UN.

Although French Mayotte does not yet have any international recognition, it seems that this issue is no longer at the heart of global concerns and that it is increasingly taking the path of acceptance, except for Comorians.

An unstable political situation in the Comoros

Suffering around twenty coups between 1975 and 2001, the Comorian State has experienced long political and institutional instability since its independence. The separatist crisis the most profound probably resides in the declaration of secession of the islands of Anjouan and Moheli in 1997. The islands declare their independence and unsuccessfully request their attachment to France. Failing to regain its authority by force, the central Comorian government began a long process of reconciliation which ended with the ratification of the new constitution of the Union of the Comoros of 2001).

This constitution marks the establishment of political stability by granting greater autonomy to the islands that make up the Union and by establishing the principle of a rotating presidency at the rate of a non-renewable mandate per elected native of each of the three he is.

However, in 2018, Azali Assoumani organized a constitutional reform in order to be able to extend the duration of the presidency from one to two terms. Re-elected in 2019, the opposition cries out for an "institutional coup" and the "Electoral hold-up".

Beyond the political and institutional instability of the country, the Comoros are also confronted with climatic and environmental events (cyclones, floods, etc.), economic events (shortages of basic necessities) ou health (epidemics, etc.). Today, the country is one of 47 states whose level of development is the weaker and is ranked 21e Most corrupt state according to the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2020. This situation offering few happy prospects to the Comorians, the candidates for emigration are numerous to want to join Mayotte.

Mayotte: a French department under tension

The geographical proximity and economic differences between the islands of the archipelago quickly transformed Mayotte into an "eldorado". Today, almost one in two inhabitants is foreign nationality and 77% of the inhabitants live below the threshold of poverty, often in slums.

Social inequalities and the demographic explosion, linked to a high birth rate and significant migratory flows, generate many tensions on this small island of only 375 km2. Daily insecurity and outbreak of violence of recent years have crystallized the debates around the migration issue. In this sense, France is today the leading donor to the Comoros and grants it significant financial aid, in return for a fight against departure of these nationals to Mayotte.

France 24, The Observers.

Before the UN assembly last September, Assoumani Azali stressed that "new perspectives are opening up with the spirit of dialogue that has been created between the [Comorian and French] parties", after recalling the mahor island comorian character.

La French government policy has the "willingness to resolve these disagreements bilaterally and to find constructive solutions over time" through the establishment of a new partnership in development, as President Macron expressed during a joint press conference with President Azali in 2019.

However, many Mahorais question the usefulness of this policy. They denounce a "migratory crisis fueled by the Comorian authorities and instrumentalized for their territorial claim on Mayotte", to use the words of the MP Estelle Youssouffa who also went to the United Nations last September to defend the choice of the Mahorais to remain French.

Hampered by the insoluble territorial dispute concerning Mayotte, the strengthening of regional cooperation links nevertheless appears to be a necessity and should continue.

Victory Cottereau, Lecturer in geography at the CUFR in Mayotte, associate researcher at the Migrinter laboratory, Poitiers and at the ESPACE-DEV laboratory, Research Institute for Development (IRD)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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