Tiny Comoros loom large

Tiny Comoros loom large

by Pininvest Analysis

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Mayotte is a French Département in the Comoros archipelago, off the coast of Mozambique in the South-Eastern Indian Ocean

Overpopulated, underemployed, and poorly educated (with the more qualified free to leave for France as they do …), the economic future of Mayotte looks dismal

Unvarnished ambitions of China in the Indian Ocean could deepen its long-term gambit in the Comoros and Russia's newly found interest in all things African could hardly be ignored

Our series ‘the Remains of the Day’ has started to highlight the complex arbitrage medium-sized ex-colonial powers – such as France or the United Kingdom – have to resolve to confront larger resurgent world powers on their overseas territories

Small in size, Mayotte might turn out to be a burning case in point




In the Horn of Africa, independence granted by France to Djibouti in 1977 has been a case of fading influence, creating opportunities for Chinese interference

The dim prospects of French Guiana, fully integrated and supported by French governance, are the awkward product of disjointed expectations,

However, the former French colonies in Central Africa project most vividly today the frailty of medium-sized powers, as their post-colonial commitments are at risk of being bypassed


Here and now

Russia’s push in Central African Republic (CAR), discussed in ‘Bang for Bangui’, is a fact, and a failure of France’s diplomacy, belatedly recognized in recent attempts to regain footing and credibility

The Russian involvement in CAR stops short of a full-blown take-over but lends credence to the planning across Africa, laid out in a June 2019 report, published by the English newspaper The Guardian, and based on leaked documents provided by the Dossier Center, funded by fierce Kremlin-critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky

The expanding role Russia attempts to secure across Africa may – or may not – follow the exact script outlined by Dossier – but the priorities, next to CAR, could hardly surprise

  • Madagascar and Soudan
  • followed on a second-tier list by Libya, Zimbabwe and South-Africa

While the source of these assertions makes them subject to prudent analysis, actual roll-out in CAR, involving the local military, the security apparatus (including the presidency), contractual holdings in  natural resources and the media, is a clear and undisputable signal

It also appears that Russia has signed military cooperation with a large number of African states and – in May 2019 – announced the dispatch of army specialists to Democratic Republic of Congo

Russian military presence had been reported previously in Libya, Egypt and Soudan (though Russia only acknowledged this was the case in Soudan)

(Un)-helpfully, the leaked Dossier report maps the ‘level of cooperation with power structures’ country by country – qualified as ‘excellent’ for both CAR and Madagascar, countries where Russian entreaties are classified as ‘in rivalry with France’ …

partial view - credit - The Guardian - Russia in Africa - 11 June 2019 - source Dossier Center

Obviously sensitive, the Russian strategic thinking lends itself to cautious interpretation - not so much regarding facts for all to see in CAR but as potential challenge to French influence, perhaps imprudently taken for granted, in Africa and beyond, in the Indian Ocean…


Mayotte, racing between demography and economics

Mayotte is part of the Comoros archipelago of four islands, formerly a French colony since 1841, located in the South-Eastern Indian Ocean, near the Northern tip of Madagascar

Mayotte - Comoros archipelago - credit The Saltbush Club

A referendum on independence in 1974 divided the islands between Mayotte, which voted in favor of a French status - essentially to reject dependency from the larger Comoros islands -  and the 3 Comorian islands of Ngazidja, Nzwani and Mwali, which did not

Consequently, France remained engaged on Mayotte, leading up to a referendum in March 2009, supported by 95% of the local voters, to become a full overseas Department, despite the objections of the Union government, the Arab Union, the Arab League and the United Nations

The island will – over a 20-year period – adopt the legal and social system applicable in the rest of France

Subject of tensions – on a legal and political plane because of the French retroactive interpretation of the 1974 referendum festered – the economic and social imbalance between French Mayotte and neighboring countries will prove to be the more critical over time

A 2017 report in the French Senate highlights the gap in terms of national product (PIB in French)

National Statistics Institute - credit June 2017 French Senate Report

Even though the island remains France’s poorest Département, at 25% of French average, its relative economic advantages in the region are an irresistible draw, creating an overwhelming influx of migrants, mostly from neighboring Comoros

With half the population under 17.5 and a 47% unemployment rate for the 15-29 age group (stats 2016), close to half the population foreign nationals and  a population density of 723 inhabitant per sq km (1,872 per sq mile),  there seems to be no end in sight

Home to more than  270 000 inhabitants (Jan. 2019) from 92 000 in 1990 , Mayotte is overpopulated, underemployed, and poorly educated (with the more qualified free to leave for France as they do …) 


A time bomb 

The territorial dispute between France and the Comoros  – with France's presence in Mayotte a violation from the referendum of 1974 from the Comoros viewpoint - would be bad enough

Overwhelmed by arrivals along the century-old sea-faring routes, with more and more brutal local responses on Mayotte hunting down unwelcome Comorians, the French policy of deportations in an attempt to regain control has become one more flashpoint

Although little discussed in France, expulsions on a scale of 15 000 to 20 000 people over the past decade point to the size of illegal entries and to the never ending battle against the networks of people smugglers

Tactics in the Comoros to refuse re-entry of deported immigrants have been effectively used – off and on – to press France to provide aid and support in the larger Comoros archipelago which, with a population of 850 000 guarantees a near-endless stream of migrants

From a July ’19 visit to France, the Comorian president extracted financial promises of €150 million (over 3 years) for schools, healthcare, professional training and renewable energy projects – ambitious programs which highlight, perhaps unintentionally, the relatively modest French support


With very different timelines, key geopolitical players overlook without reservation the fraught political context of the Comoros authoritarian regime

China has kept a fairly low profile over decades, committing to infrastructure projects such as water supply infrastructure, a new airport complex, renovation of the People’s Palace in Comoros’ capital city of Moroni and a new hospital in Anjouan and making a significant contribution in successful eradication of malaria on the islands

More recently, an agreement has been signed with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, to increase connectivity in Comoros, with financing from the Chinese government

Edging past post-colonial France, China could be viewed as top strategic partner of the Comoros, gaining the later's unconditional support for its 'One-China' policy in international conferences 

Playing as long a game as ever, only known to its strategists, China may some day find further advantage in positioning a satellite-monitoring station on the islands, and in prospecting under-water natural gas deposits, already found along the African coast


Relations of the Comoros with Russia are also said to be increasingly close

Sensing an opportunity to exploit the territorial dispute with France, Dossier Center asserts that employees of the organization headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, unofficially tasked by the Russian government aroud the world, visited Comoros via Belarus, reportedly to "test if “political technologies” might be used to inflame the row between Paris and the Comoros government"


While the facts layed out in our note sketch a complex picture of the challenge confronting France in a far-away territory, the intentions of the geopolitical players can only be surmised and may change over timer (or never be known)

  • Explosive population growth, fueled by uncontrolled migration, and lack of economic progress create an unsustainable conundrum for France
  • The International Montego Bay Convention giving control over natural resources in a range of 200 nautical miles will undoubtedly weigh in any future French planning, following discoveries of oil and natural gas off the coast of Mozambique
  • The strategy France will decide upon will have geopolitical ramifications for Madagascar, a country for which Russia is said to show interest, and even more widely for the power struggle in the indian Ocean