The Comorian President, Azali Assoumani, 65, is standing for his own succession in a presidential election on Sunday, January 14, which appears tailor-made for him. Having first arrived at the head of the country in 1999 through a coup d’état, the retired colonel is seeking a third term in a row. His longevity at the head of this archipelago of 870,000 inhabitants and his control over Comorian institutions crystallize the concerns of the opposition, which accuses the current president of the African Union of wanting to block his re-election.

In the streets of Moroni, the capital, the vote took on the appearance of a referendum around the person of Azali Assoumani, whom campaign posters present as “the architect of the Comoros of tomorrow”. The five opposition candidates, who promised to unite in the event of a possible second round, scheduled for February 25, for their part found a common slogan: “Azali, nalawe” (“Azali, get out “).

The Comorian opposition wishes at all costs to avoid a scenario similar to the 2019 election, where Mr. Assoumani was re-elected in the first round with 60% of the votes, at the end of a vote that it considered to be marred by irregularities .

“A new masquerade”

Salim Issa, candidate for the Juwa party, chaired by the former head of state, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, detained for six years, says he fears “a new masquerade”. Despite his lack of political experience, this orthopedic doctor, still unknown to the general public a few months ago, is emerging as the main opponent of the outgoing president.

“We have no confidence in the Supreme Court or in the electoral commission,” he said, from the headquarters of the latter, where he claims to have had to “beg” until Friday for the accreditations of his party’s representatives, which are essential to enter the polling stations. The opposition accuses these institutions of collusion with the presidency since 2018, the date of the constitutional reform which allowed greater centralization of powers in the hands of the executive. An accusation rejected by Azali Assoumani. “The sincerity of the vote is today prey to threats which risk leading our country towards a dangerous and incredible situation,” warn the five opposition candidates in a press release dated January 12.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) is in the spotlight. Several candidates complained of irregularities in the lists of polling station members. The institution responsible for organizing the elections issued the accreditations of civil society observers the day before the vote. “A source of deep concern which could delegitimize the election,” judges a diplomat, who also points to the high proportion of proxy votes: this concerns 20% of the electorate. Another cause for concern, ten days before the start of the campaign, Harimia Ahmed, the senior judge of the Supreme Court responsible for monitoring the elections, was suddenly dismissed by presidential decree.

“The goal is simply to advance in the first round.”

Whatever the criticism, the former colonel, who returned to head the Union of the Comoros in 2016, is in a hurry to fight it out. “The objective is simply to pass in the first round,” he announced to Le Monde. This is, moreover, the slogan of his campaign: “Gwa Ndzima” (“knock with one blow”, in Shikomori). Mr. Assoumani emphasizes the continuity of his project, almost eight years after his return to power. “A trajectory well underway towards 2030,” he says in his program praising its main achievements: construction of roads and hospitals, rehabilitation of hotels to make the archipelago a tourist destination, international influence of the Comoros thanks to his accession to the rotating presidency of the African Union.

However, occupied throughout 2023 by this last function, would candidate Assoumani not have abandoned the Comorian region? A sign of the rumblings, the caravan of the Alliance of the presidential movement was chased from several towns during the campaign, including in the presence of the head of state.

In the archipelago, where 45% of the inhabitants of the three islands that make it up live below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures, the president’s record is often contested. The last few months, in particular, have been marked by long water cuts – the price of which has recently tripled – and electricity. “We found ourselves in the dark for three or four days,” complains Mariama, a civil servant, who prefers to keep her real identity secret.

A report “weighed down by the coronavirus crisis”

“The situation is calamitous,” describes Ankili Mahamoud, a philosophy professor from Ndzouani Island (formerly “Anjouan”), who followed the two-and-a-half-month strike by Comorian teachers, which began on November 17, 2023, to demand, in in vain, a salary increase. “We are caught by the throat, at a time when the price of food is doubling,” he says. The salary of public sector teachers averages 250 euros per month in the Comoros, a country whose budget is partly based on funds sent by the diaspora living in France.

Elected in 2016 using the slogan “One young person, one job”, Azali Assoumani defends himself by asserting that his record has been “weighed down by the coronavirus crisis”. The employment rate reaches only 54% of the population, according to French Treasury data. “Our priority is to realize the Emerging Comoros Plan (PCE) which, in the long term, will develop our country,” the head of state prefers to say. Of the 4 billion euros in investment that the government said it had collected in December 2019 during the Comoros development partners conference, barely more than 1 billion is currently being paid.

If he were to be re-elected, Azali Assoumani could however soon inaugurate two major projects started under his mandate which is ending: the luxury Galawa hotel, in the north of Grande Comore, and the El-Maarouf hospital, in the capital, set to become the largest in the country.