A Charm Offensive in the Comoros

If you don’t already know, I am preternaturally interested in the independent archipelago republic of the Union des Comoros. The three constituent islands, Grand Comore, Anjouan and Moheli, lie in the Mozambique channel almost equidistant between Madagascar and the Kenyan coast. A little way off to the south is the island of Mayotte, a French department retained by the once influential post-colonial power.

More specifically, I am especially concerned about the fate of the mongoose lemur, a critically-endangered primate native to Madagascar but introduced to Anjouan some considerable time ago. The mongoose lemurs on Anjouan are of particular interest as a reservoir population of animals that could be pivotal to the survival of the species, which is profoundly threatened throughout its range in north-west Madagascar. It’s often the case with developing countries that nature news from overlooked places reaches us by a painfully circuitous route on the internet. I recently explored just such a convoluted rabbit warren, but found little that was new about the current threats to the mongoose lemur on Anjouan.

I did, however, find out something else that I didn’t know before that underscored some important points I made in my book, ‘The Fragmented World of the Mongoose Lemur’; the main one being ‘things can change very quickly’. That is, if they haven’t changed already. Could the mongoose lemur, which was relatively populous on Anjouan in 2019, find itself severely under threat before any of us concerned about its future could learn of impactful changes, much less respond to them?

Boy and pet Mongoose Lemur, Anjouan

If you want to know what’s going on in the world then you should, perhaps, ask someone who’s out there talking the talk and walking the walk. Who better to ask, surely, than a well-travelled diplomat like the Union des Comoros ambassador to China, Maoulana Charif. Fortunately, I do not need to bother chasing him for an interview. He conveniently spoke to the Global Times in 2008 about China’s deep and abiding love for all things Comorian in a way that reveals much about the far-reaching ambitions of a global super-power.

In the interview, which reads like a glow-in-the-dark review of Chinese foreign policy, he talks warmly of China as a “sincere friend and reliable brother” whose “friendship with and support for Comoros has been unconditional”. What this has meant in real terms is a charm offensive that has included doling out anti-malarial medication, introducing the populace to Chinese movies, and more-or-less re-building the infrastructure of the Comoros. Or at least delivering these benefits to the administrative capital of Moroni, which is located on Grand Comore. Little mention is specifically made of the ways in which the sister islands of Anjouan and Moheli prosper from friendship with China.

All of the foregoing is, of course, the rather cloying narrative of Chinese overseas aid, which not only purports to be philanthropic, but over-amplifies its significance and exaggerates the benefits. If we are to believe the Global Times, an English-language manifestation of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, ‘The People’s Daily’, then malaria has been all but eradicated in the Comoros using artemisinin combination therapies (ACT); an achievement described as “miraculous”.

Map of the independent republic of Union des Comoros
with (French) Mayotte at south

Fast forward to May 2020 and an article by Mark Peplow in ‘Chemical and Engineering News’ who wrote, “Artemisinin resistance is already a big problem in Southeast Asia, where 80–90% of parasites have a mutation that enables them to survive treatment with ACTs…. Signs of rising resistance have also appeared in Rwanda, Guyana, and Papua New Guinea.”

The effects of artemisinin may appear miraculous to some, but the treatment hardly constitutes a permanent solution to a pathogen more than capable of mutating, resisting, and ultimately fending off the most aggressive of therapies. But Chinese largesse apparently hasn’t stopped there. As Charif puts it, “For many Comorian people, Chinese doctors are as close to them as families. This friendship has lasted for nearly 30 years. Since 1994, batches of Chinese medical teams have brought healthcare services to the Comorian people.

I have to say that I didn’t see many doctors on Anjouan when I was there in the 1990s, much less Chinese ones. At that time, French road-building contractors and American missionaries were far more prominent. But what does all this have to do with the mongoose lemur, you rightly ask. Well, the partial answer to that comes as a package of wider Chinese ambitions in Africa, and in the Indian Ocean in particular.

In May 2022, Malouana Charif, who will soon have his own column in ‘The People’s Daily Online’ wrote the following: “Businesses in Comoros are….welcome to make good use of the “green channel” for African agricultural products to be exported to China and the zero-tariff policy for products from the least developed countries to enter China…..Comoros, with abundant natural resources, promises enormous development potential….Comoros’ industrialization involves oil and mineral resources exploitation as well as agricultural products processing. Comoros is ready to welcome all investors from China and elsewhere in the world.”

Moroni Harbourside, Grande Comore

As journalist Bharat Shakti reported on the Dryad Global maritime security website in June 2022, the wider context for this apparently sudden interest in a previously impoverished and dysfunctional African state has its origins elsewhere in the region. The development of an overseas military base in Djibouti began in 2016, but the ground had already been laid three years earlier with investments in Djibouti’s commercial port at Doraleh. This was the pretext for constructing a fortified logistical support area that is, in truth, a military foothold in strategically important location. Djibouti, you see, sits astride the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the northern Indian Ocean. It separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea, and functions as a “pinch-point” for maritime traffic accessing the Suez Canal.

Shakti goes on to quote General Stephen Townsend, Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM) who states without any sense of irony, “Their first overseas military base, their only one, is in Africa, and they have just expanded that by adding a significant pier that can even support their aircraft carriers in the future, … “around the continent they are looking for other basing opportunities”. Not unlike the USA, the UK, France, or Russia, we might add.

Step forward the Union des Comoros. Contracts have been drawn up and plans are afoot for, among other things, “the construction of a deep-water port by dredging and redevelopment of the existing port of Moroni…..and a greenfield deep-water port planned for development in Sereheni, three kilometres south of Moroni. This is expected to cater to vessels of up to 30,000 gross tons.” Indeed, in 2017, work was completed on the smaller island of Moheli by the China Communication Construction Company, which built the deep water Port of Moheli at a cost of US $ 149 million.

As Bharat Shakti quite rightly points out, “It could well be a matter of time before China’s innocuous-looking developmental agenda in Comoros steadily metamorphoses into a strategic footprint in the form of a quasi-military real estate, leading to a permanent military presence.”

Domoni, Anjouan

I would go further and suggest the pre-ordering of the Union des Comoros as a vassal state has already begun. The archipelago is a stepping stone into East and Central Africa where the dash for gas and the parcelling of oil concessions already threatens protected forests and fragile ecosystems. More cynically, and not at all fanciful, is the link between the enthusiastic roll-out of anti-malarial therapies in the (previously ignored) Comoros and an anticipated influx of Chinese personnel into the region.

All of this is more than just hypothetical, and more than just a threat to the mongoose lemur and, of course, endemic Livingstone’s Fruit Bat, which is confined to Anjouan and Moheli. It implies a ‘change of use’ for the Comoros with much of its natural and semi-natural environment given over to infrastructure projects, extensive construction, and development of the few natural resources it has at its disposal. There will be little if any room for wild animals on Anjouan, a curiosity of island natural history that has, in its own quaint way, preserved two seriously endangered species, largely by leaving them alone.

Bats do have a habit, if you’ll forgive the pun, of clinging on in marginal habitat, but the mongoose lemur’s situation is more complex. It will be harder to justify the protection of a non-native species (no matter how globally endangered it is) in the face of local economic imperatives and a radically revised view of exploitation and development. These are pressures that are especially challenging where a global superpower, having charmed its way into hearts, minds and wallets, begins applying the pressure from within.





Link to Featured Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comoros_forests

Michael Stephen Clark