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Mayotte: The island that chooses colonialism over independence

Mayotte: The island that chooses colonialism over independence

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Politics History Basic Rights

Tuesday 3 October 202305:19 pm
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Whenever French authorities conduct a referendum in Mayotte, an island nestled in the Comoros archipelago, claimed by the Union of the Comoros Islands, the last of the 22 members to join the Arab League, the outcome overwhelmingly favors joining France.

So why do the people of Mayotte reject independence and cling to their former colonizer?

The answer to this question lies in the realm of numbers. Despite Mayotte's per capita GDP being lower than that of mainland France, it still remains significantly higher than that of the Union of the Comoros and Madagascar, with which the island shares a historical connection that predates French colonialism by centuries. Mayotte boasts an average per capita GDP of $10,850, in stark contrast to approximately $1,485 in the Comoros and a mere $552 in Madagascar. This economic discrepancy is just one facet of the higher standard of living, enhanced freedoms, and rights that Mayotte enjoys when juxtaposed with its neighbors. Additionally, the residents of Mayotte hold French citizenship, entitling them to all the benefits and privileges that come with it.

Why do the people of Mayotte reject independence? Despite the low per capita GDP compared to France, it remains higher than that in the Comoros and Madagascar, as well as the high standard of living, freedoms, and rights in Mayotte compared to its neighbors

 Between France and the Comoros Islands

Mayotte is a small archipelago of volcanic islands spanning 376 square kilometers, composed of two main islands: Grande-Terre and Petite-Terre. It is located approximately 70 kilometers from the island of Anjouan, which, along with the larger Comoros Islands and Moheli, forms the Union of the Comoros.

European presence in these four islands, nestled between Madagascar and the African coast in the Indian Ocean, facing Mozambique and Tanzania, dates back to the era of Portuguese maritime exploration. In 1527, Portuguese explorer Diogo Ribeiro crafted the first European map of the Comoros archipelago, with subsequent French and English explorers venturing into the region. In 1843, Mayotte officially became a French colony, and slavery was abolished on the island in 1846. Forty years later, the remaining three Comoros archipelago islands—Grande Comore in 1886, Anjouan in 1887, and Mohéli in 1892—were annexed by France through protectorate agreements, becoming colonies in 1912, seven decades after Mayotte.

In 1974, France organized a referendum regarding the independence of these four islands. The inhabitants of Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli opted for independence, thereby forming the Union of the Comoros. Conversely, the people of Mayotte elected to remain an integral part of the French Republic, with 63.8% of the populace voting in favor.

However, the Union of the Comoros did not recognize the results of the referendum, deeming France's presence in Mayotte as an occupation. When Mayotte joined the Organization of African Unity in 1975 (which later became the African Union in 2002), the organization adopted a stance against referendums organized by France on the island post-1974 and endorsed this position. France subsequently conducted a second referendum in Mayotte in 1976, a mere year after the Comoros declared independence. In this referendum, an astounding 99.4% of voters unequivocally chose to maintain their affiliation with the French Republic.

France held a third referendum in 2000 to determine Mayotte's status within the Republic. In this vote, 73% favored granting the island the status of an "overseas provincial territorial authority." Then, in 2009, an overwhelming 95.2% voted for Mayotte to become a French department (province). In 2011, Mayotte officially became the fifth overseas department and the 101st French department. Additionally, in 2003, Mayotte was integrated into the French constitution. Since 2014, it has held the status of an outermost region within the European Union.

Comoros objects

In 1993, the Union of the Comoros joined the Arab League. However, the Arab League refrained from explicitly supporting the Comoros' stance against France, although it emphasized the "Comorian identity" of Mayotte in its summit declarations. Notably, the former Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, expressed his rejection of France's occupation of the island.

To reinforce their claim to Mayotte, the Comoros' constitution includes several provisions asserting this right. The constitution's preamble, for instance, states that the "return of the island of Mayotte in its natural entirety is a national priority." Article 6 mentions Mayotte as one of the four components of the Union of the Comoros. Article 122 specifies that Mayotte's constitution will be drafted after the end of its occupation. Furthermore, the four stars on the island's flag each represent one of the four islands constituting the union, including Mayotte.

Mohamed Abdelghafour, an activist and French language teacher from the Comoros, explains to Raseef22 that despite sharing language, religion, history, customs, and more with the three other Comoros islands, Mayotte's inhabitants are unwilling to join the Union of the Comoros. They refuse to relinquish their French nationality and all the unlimited privileges that come with it.

Despite sharing language, religion, history, customs, and more with the three other Comoros islands, Mayotte's inhabitants are unwilling to join the Union of the Comoros, or relinquish their French nationality and all the unlimited benefits that come with it

On the other hand, Ali Mohamed Toueibo, an activist from the Comoros, points out that due to the extreme economic disparity between the desperately poor Comoros islands and prosperous Mayotte, the residents of Mayotte are unlikely to consider joining the union under current circumstances. Nevertheless, according to Toueibo's conversation with Raseef22, there are many people in Mayotte who support unity with the Comoros islands and consider themselves Comorian citizens.

Toueibo accuses France of manipulating the results of the 1974 referendum, alleging that 90% of Mayotte's population had voted in favor of independence at the time. However, France's desire to retain control over the island allegedly led to the manipulation of the results.

In terms of the international stance on Mayotte's status, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring Mayotte's affiliation to the Union of the Comoros. Typically, the results of the 1974 referendum should apply to all four islands collectively, rather than each island individually. However, when the matter was referred to the United Nations Security Council, France exercised its right to veto.

The refugee crisis between the two countries

Since gaining independence, this dispute between the two nations has cast a shadow over the issue of movement between Mayotte and the other three islands. France imposes restrictions on the entry of Comorian citizens into the island, a policy that the Comoros vehemently opposes. In response, the Comoros refuses to cooperate with France in controlling illegal migration between Mayotte and the other islands.

The dispute between the two nations resurfaced in April 2023 when French authorities announced a plan to deport approximately 20,000 refugees from the Union of the Comoros to the nearby island of Anjouan, located 70 km from Mayotte. However, the Comoros authorities rejected the reception of ships executing the operation.

Toueibo contends that, concerning the expulsion of Comorian citizens from the island of Mayotte, the Comoros government should not accept them. According to international law and the political vision of the Comoros, Mayotte is a Comorian island, and therefore, Comorian citizens are present in Mayotte within their legal rights.

Subsequently, the French operation, known as Wuambushu (“take back” in Mauritian), was suspended by the French judiciary, which rejected the plan to demolish the shanty homes where both citizens and illegal migrants reside. However, the French Minister of the Interior and Overseas Territories vowed to appeal the court's decision. This operation was not the first of its kind, as the issue of migration from the Comoros and Madagascar to Mayotte remains one of the most significant challenges facing France.

Some have accused France of manipulating the results of the 1974 referendum, alleging that 90% of Mayotte's population had actually voted in favor of independence, and that France's desire to retain control over the island led to it manipulate the results

According to an official French report, Mayotte ranks among the most densely populated regions in France, trailing only behind Paris and its inner suburbs in population density. Currently, there are approximately 747 citizens per square kilometer, and this figure is expected to surge to 2,000 citizens per square kilometer by the year 2050. To provide some context, in 1958, Mayotte had a population of roughly 23.3 thousand individuals, which expanded to 40.7 thousand by 1975. By 2017, the population had swelled to around 256 thousand, with a projected estimate of 664 thousand inhabitants by 2050. The population growth rate stood at approximately 4% as of 2017, while in a nation grappling with a population boom like Egypt, it reached about 1.7% in 2021. It's noteworthy that Mayotte's population multiplied sixteen-fold over the past six decades.

Furthermore, the refugee crisis in Mayotte has other dimensions, including an uptick in crime due to limited economic opportunities for both refugees and residents alike. Alarmingly, roughly 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. Additionally, informal settlements account for approximately 40% of the housing on the island. These factors have prompted local residents and authorities to stage protests against the central government in Paris, alleging its failure to adequately address the issue of illegal migration.

With regard to Paris's efforts to foster development on the island, French reports suggest that progress has fallen short of expectations. Paris introduced two development initiatives for Mayotte: "Mayotte 2025" in 2015 and the 2018 "Plan for the Future of Mayotte", with a combined budget of around 1.3 billion euros. Nevertheless, the level of implementation continues to lag behind expectations for various reasons, including the lack of the necessary local workforce to manage its affairs and project delays.

Owing to the population predicament on the island, a French report has issued a cautionary note that Mayotte's future may only entail "large residential areas, parking facilities, and road networks." In general, France faces limited alternatives for addressing the quandary of illegal migration, which constitutes roughly one-third of Mayotte's population. One potential avenue involves adopting a novel approach that centers on supporting development in the countries serving as the source of migration to the island, with particular emphasis on the Union of the Comoros. This approach echoes the European Union's attempts to tackle the crisis of illegal migration from North African countries to EU member states, albeit with outcomes falling short of expectations.

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