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Comoros. The ‘Next Djibouti’ for Beijing.

The World Bank continues to finance the upgrading of the ports of the Comoros islands, where China has put its eyes on for years in search of a new safe haven for its military expansion strategy in the southern Indian Ocean.

Fifteen million dollars to upgrade the three main ports of the Comoros islands. This is what the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) put on the table at the end of May to improve maritime connections between the ports of the three islands of the archipelago: Moroni in Grande Comore, Mutsamudu in Anjouan, and Boingoma in Mohéli.IDA is the part of the World Bank that helps the world’s poorest countries, including the Comoros, one of the smallest nations (2,235 km²), least inhabited (870,000 inhabitants) and least developed in Africa (GDP per capita estimated to be $1,420, at the end of 2020).

The city of Moutsamudu on the Island of Anjouan. 123rf

With this new liquidity injection, the aid package for the modernization of the ports of the southern Indian Ocean archipelago, to which in addition to the World Bank the French Development Agency also contributes, now amounts to 85 million dollars. The launch of other projects for the upgrading of the country’s smaller ports is also expected within this year and the African Development Bank will also contribute to the financing.

Isolated archipelago
In recent years the pandemic and the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (the Comoros import wheat flour from Kyiv and petroleum products from Moscow) have made the situation in the archipelago even more complicated.A large portion of the World Bank financing, amounting to 60 million euros, will be used to renovate the port of Boingoma, in the northern part of Mohéli island, the smallest of the three islands located between Grande Comore and Anjouan. The port of Boingoma has only a 70-metre wharf with a 2,4- metre depth, it is therefore accessible to only very small vessels.

The Harbour in the city of Moroni. 123rf

All exports from and imports to Mohéli must be transited at Moroni or Mutsamudu with cargos offloaded and reloaded onto smaller vessels. The port of Boingoma is operational for only two working days per week. The current linear design of port Boingoma is highly vulnerable to climate events. In 2019, Cyclone Kenneth, and Cyclone Cheneso in 2023, damaged the structures of the port, which is not sufficiently protected against the ocean waves. The internal roads of this island are in a bad state. Mohéli is the poorest of the three islands that make up the Comoros State with a poverty rate of 53%.

China’s expansion strategy
Despite these limitations, the proximity of the Comoros to the strategic Mozambique Canal, through which 30% of global tanker traffic passes, still makes the archipelago attractive. China is the country that has invested the most in local ports in recent years. In 2015, the China Communication Construction Company was awarded the contract to build the Port of Mohéli Island. The work took two years to complete at a cost of almost $150 million.
In 2018, China Road and Bridge Corporation invested in the expansion of the port of Moroni, located on the western side of Grande Comore, 300 kilometres from the African mainland. Having very shallow waters, this port is not accessible to large merchant ships which must anchor offshore, and barges are used to transport their cargo to land. To solve the problem, Beijing has invested 165 million dollars to build a port off the coast of Sereheni, a town located 3 kilometres south of Moroni, so as to accommodate ships of up to 30 thousand tons.

Moroni. Grande Comore. CC BY-SA 2.0/Woodlouse

China, the first country to recognize the independence of Comoros from France in 1975, and among the few to maintain a permanent diplomatic representation there, has made large investments to rebuild the airport, the People’s Palace of Moroni, a stadium, roads, houses, and submarine fibre optic cables connecting the islands to the coasts of East Africa. Furthermore, China has also offered health aid against the spread of malaria.China is also strengthening the defence sector of the Comoros, training the local military personnel. In several respects, the Comoros could represent the ‘next Djibouti’ for Beijing, the microstate where China built its first military base abroad. And as in Djibouti, where Ismail Omar Guelleh has governed since 1999, also in Comoros, power has been for years in the hands of the same president, Azali Assoumani, former army chief of staff serving his fourth term.
Being able to count on an interlocutor that has so far proven stable, the Chinese government is toying with the idea of the archipelago as the next haven for its armed forces deployed in the southern Indian Ocean. In this sense, the redevelopment and expansion plan for the port of Moroni could serve as a test bed for the Chinese ambitions and it could lead, at a later stage, to a permanent military presence of China in the Comoros islands. (The landscape on the coast of the village Moya on the Island of Anjouan.123rf)

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