African Union: Comoros leadership puts island nations’ priorities on the agenda

By Jaysim Hanspal, Julian Pecquet

Posted on Tuesday, 14 February 2023 11:59
Comoros President Azali Assoumani poses for a photo session during the fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, on November 11, 2022 in Paris. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

The expected takeover of the African Union chairmanship by Comoros later this month will put an island nation in the driver's seat for the first time in the organisation's 20-year history, spotlighting priorities that often get overshadowed by continental concerns.

From trade and development to climate change and big power competition, Africa’s insular states are confronted with a host of issues that impact them differently than their big brothers on the mainland.

With Comoros President Azali Assoumani set to replace Senegal’s Macky Sall later this month at the annual AU heads of state summit in Addis Ababa, environmental concerns are expected to get top billing over the coming year.

“We are concerned by climate change as a developing island nation,” Assoumani told The Africa Report on the margins of the December US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. “While it’s true the big countries are also impacted, it’s not the same dimension.”

Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan echoed those sentiments at a discussion co-moderated by The Africa Report and the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre during the Washington summit.

“One of the problems that Seychelles faces, together with the African island states, is the fact that (when officials) talk of the continent, they tend to forget that African island states exist,” Ramkalawan said.

From the visible rise of sea levels to increasingly powerful storm surges to coastal erosion, the Seychellois leader said, African island states “feel the brunt of climate change.”

“For us, it’s real. It’s not a concept. It’s not something that happens somewhere else,” Ramkalawan said. “It is happening right at our doorstep […] and this is why we will look at things more seriously.”

Vêlayoudom Marimoutou, Secretary General of the Indian Ocean Commission (Commission de l’océan Indien), agrees that island issues are rarely on Africa’s radar. The regional body, headquartered in Mauritius, brings together the African nations of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles and the French island of Réunion.

“Let us be frank,” Marimoutou says, “African islands are rather invisible and unheard [from] at the continental level.”

Rare chance

Comoros’ chairmanship of the AU, Marimoutou says, presents an “unprecedented opportunity” to raise insular priorities on the pan-African stage and to “enhance what is being done at the sub-regional level”.

“In the IOC, we have developed regional mechanisms that work,” he says.

He points in particular to the maritime security architecture that coordinates information and action in Madagascar and Seychelles, as well as Kenya and Djibouti. Meanwhile, SEGA – One Health, the IOC’s healthcare arm, brings together more than 200 human, animal and environmental health professionals to exchange information and training.

Marimoutou adds that the IOC’s priorities are not that different from those of the AU, where the group has observer status.

“Indianoceania belongs fully to the African space,” he says, pointing out that four of its member states belong to the AU.

As such, the secretary-general believes the regional body is aligned with the African Union on many issues, including its priorities regarding the blue economy, maritime security and fisheries. These, he says, are “in line with Agenda 2063 and several AU strategies, such as the AU integrated maritime strategy and the Lomé Charter on maritime safety and security”.

He adds that the importance that the IOC places on preservation and sustainability, which includes climate and biodiversity issues, should align with the AU’s goals moving forward as the climate crisis worsens.

Different impacts

Assoumani tells The Africa Report that as chairman of the AU, he’d prioritise fighting extremism and stopping the recent spate of “unconstitutional changes of government” — aka military coups — that have plagued Africa over the past couple of years. With peace and security under control, he said, African countries will be better equipped to tackle other challenges, including climate change.

If visitors want to continue to be able to vacation on the Indian Ocean island chain’s shores, he adds, the world needs to act.

“Every five years we have to rebuild our roads as the water level rises. These are things we experience every day,” Assoumani says. “That’s why this is a priority — and we’re telling other countries, please take pity on us.”

Ramkalawan says island states have a lot to offer Africa if anyone will listen. Year after year, he points out, Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and Cabo Verde in the Atlantic lead the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance on key metrics.

“We are showing Africa the way forward in terms of good governance, the rule of law, transparency, democracy,” he says.

“It’s those island states that come out first, but, of course, because you’ve got mainland Africa [we end up talking about] the green belt, about transportation moving from Angola to Ethiopia, talking about the exploitation of minerals,” Ramkalawan says. “These are things that we do not have. And I find that sometimes in those discussions, we tend to be left out, even though we are doing our best.”

Business troubles

Island states are also too often ignored when it comes to business and trade, Ramkalawan says.

“Even when we’re talking about investment, you see, we’re only 459 square kilometres. 50% of that is under protection. So there is no room for industrialisation.”

Likewise fishing, he said, is a finite industry threatened by over-exploitation across the region.

“The fish don’t carry Seychelles passports,” he says.

As a result, tourism will remain the mainstay of the country’s economy for the long term even as the tech sector continues to grow.

“Even when we talk about diversification of the economy, it is quite limited,” Ramkalawan says.

Marimoutou also believes that island states have “specific needs and deserve a specific treatment, especially as the Indian Ocean is a strategic theatre where the issues of influence, mobility, and coastal and islands’ fragility are complex.”

Every five years we have to rebuild our roads as the water level rises. These are things we experience every day … That’s why this is a priority — and we’re telling other countries, please take pity on us.

While the mainland looks to build cross-border infrastructure such as roads and railways, the islands have their own unique needs.

“Our roads are oceanic, our [train] stations are ports or airports,” Marimoutou says. “The African islands are facing an immense climate challenge, which is fully experienced by our populations. We are calling for differentiated treatment, easier access to climate financing and concrete and visible consideration of island specificities at the AU level.”

Help wanted

Priorities include the Multi-dimensional Vulnerability Index, or MVI – a proposed United Nations tool that would help small island developing states (SIDS) become eligible for more financing to address their vulnerability to climate change.

Ramkalawan has been named to the high-level committee looking at issues that small island states are facing.

“I can tell you that right now, as we push for the MVI to be accepted, we will also make it clear that we do not want to take concessionary financing from countries that are less well off,” the Seychellois leader said at the Atlantic Council. “We simply want to have access to the funding, so that we can improve the lives of our people, whilst at the same time […] showing a better example to other countries and other islands.”

Marimoutou says regional partnerships are key to improving the climate finance outlook for Africa.

“We want to strengthen our partnership with the AU as well as with COMESA [the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa] and SADC [the Southern African Development Community], which are regional economic communities recognised by the AU, unlike the IOC,” he says.

Innovation in the face of the climate crisis is also a critical step, although increasingly difficult to achieve in the face of a global fuel shortage and rising food insecurity in the region.

“We need to build resilience by reviewing our agricultural and fishing practices, by developing adapted seeds, investing in scientific research and in technical and professional training,” Marimoutou says.

Ambition to mobilise

The Secretary-General hopes that a “move towards inclusive frugal practises, ways of doing things differently with less” will enable a more cohesive effort with the support of specialised training. The mantra that “the jobs of tomorrow have yet to be invented” is emblematic of the IOC’s commitment to adaptability, a lesson the commission wishes to share with the rest of the continent.

As far as developing islands are concerned, it should be remembered that they contribute less than 0.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are paying a heavy price.

At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (or COP21), developed countries reiterated their ambition to mobilise $100bn per year by 2025 (previously 2020) for decisive climate action in developing countries. At last year’s COP27 in Egypt, countries finally formalised funding arrangements for the “Loss and Damage” incurred by developing countries as a result of climate change.

Marimoutou echoes wider concerns that perhaps this is just too little, too late. The Indian Ocean is the region with the third-worst exposure to climate change, suffering more than $17bn in losses over three decades.

“As far as developing islands are concerned,” he says, “it should be remembered that they contribute less than 0.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are paying a heavy price.”

While supportive of loss and damage in theory, he questions African nations’ ability to really benefit from the scheme.

“The mechanisms are complex, the conditionalities numerous and our African countries do not always have the technical and institutional capacities to access and manage this funding,” he says. “There is a need to feed less on international technical assistance from donor countries.”

Strategic location

The geopolitical competition raging between the United States and China in Africa is another area where island states have unique concerns.

As the Sino-US rivalry plays out in the Indian Ocean, Ramkalawan says Seychelles is keen to stay out of the fray.

“We talk to everyone,” he says. “But we say to them: ‘We are not aligned. Keep your geopolitics to yourself’.”

The remarks come as Indian media reports that China is allegedly interested in building a military base in Madagascar to supplement its existing footprint farther north in Djibouti. This in turn has fuelled speculation that India, China’s main regional rival, may once again seek to secure a base in Seychelles after earlier efforts were rebuffed following a public outcry.

“There will never be a military base of any country under my watch,” Ramkalawan asserted at the Atlantic Council event.

Rather, he said, his country is keen to work with others to patrol the seas to combat piracy, illegal fishing and other scourges.

“It’s all about us protecting our 1.4 million square kilometres of ocean,” he says. “It’s about cooperation because we don’t have the resources.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options