We demand a slot at the table where global decisions are made

Thursday April 06 2023
Azali Assoumani President of Union of Comoros

Azali Assoumani, President of the Union of Comoros and chairperson of the African Union. PHOTO | JOEL SAGET | AFP


The President of the Union of Comoros and chairperson of the African Union Azali Assoumani spoke to Joseph Warungu on his new assignment and the plans he has for the continent besides his own country.


One of the battles you will have to pursue is Africa’s desire to have a permanent seat at the G20. Why is this membership so important for the continent?

This is very important because Africa has a lot of economic potential, and our current partnership with Europe and other countries means that we cannot capitalise on the resources that we have. So, sitting in these international bodies today will allow Africa to have its voice heard by our partners. That is very important and I would like to thank President Macky Sall of Senegal [immediate former AU Chair] because he is the one who made the effort to push for this and we hope that we will participate in the next G-20 that will take place in India.  We are also still fighting for Africa to become a permanent member of the [UN] Security Council. In other words, we want Africa, with the ambitions that we have, to participate in all the structures where international decisions are taken.

The Barbados Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, has been championing her Bridgetown Initiative to restructure the international financial system and reform the way rich countries finance poor countries in a climate crisis. Do you support this initiative?


Yes, we have made this kind of proposal ourselves. This problem concerns the debt that weighs heavily on our economies and prevents us from investing. And this has serious consequences; we have scarcity of goods and materials and we depend a lot on the outside world.

We’ve had discussions with the European Council. We’ve also had a meeting with officials from the World Bank. I think people are convinced of this: that with the cancellation of the debt, the rich nations will actually gain. They will gain because when the debt is cancelled, it will give us the possibility to contract debt again to finance production and guess what, when we contract debt, who is gaining? Them of course! Whereas if today we are weighed down by debt, we cannot hire, we cannot invest and they are the ones who will lose.

Now, the methodology remains to be seen, but overall, the message has been understood. The notion of debt is indeed a leitmotif for us Africans, but above all, for them - the investors, the Europeans, and those who lent us this money. They understand that indeed if we don't work, who would they sell their money to?

Are there meetings already set up to address this debt issue, are there any planned dates?

We have not set the dates, but the idea is that by the first half of 2023, we will have to meet our donors to look into it deeply. But in the meantime, we will try to have a methodology and concrete proposals to submit to them hoping we can have a solution by 2024 at the latest.

Aside from debt, you’re inheriting the leadership of a continent that is also dealing with conflict in some of the regions such as the Great Lakes. How will you approach the security issue in eastern DRC?

I'll talk to both parties [Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo]. I’ll make arrangements to go there and come up with the right way to handle it so that it is beneficial. So, there is a methodology that will be adopted.

There seems to be an overlap of several mediation efforts involving the Angolan President João Lourenço and also former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta. What role are you going to play in all of this? Have you already talked with Kenyatta and Lourenço?

Very much so, rest assured! We are not going to create cacophony. On the contrary, we will complement each other. Indeed, the people, the mediators who are on site who do the work, give us the report and it is up to us to see how we can complete the work they are doing. Actually, it is some quality work, that we value.  It's up to me to help them. It's up to me to support them. So indeed, the problem, as we know, is the same problem. Wherever there are tensions, there are mediations.

In July 2022, the AU Executive Council adopted the African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Transition. What will you do to address energy poverty and accelerate the transition to clean energy?

Very good question. I think the main word there is transition. Because Africa has all the energy resources but we have been somewhat held captive by our partners who come to exploit these resources. Now we want to exploit the resources with them. So, in fact, as we've said, we're going to have to take the climate problems into account. So, this renewable energy policy is undeniable. But we need a transition that is useful and not negative. If we take the example of Kenya, which has good geothermal power. But it did not go straight to geothermal. It started with other sources before it got there. So, this is a good example that we want to give and show to the whole of Africa, to the whole world.

Given the economic challenges facing Africa, what are your key priorities for growth and development?

We had a summit last year in Niger on the industrialisation of Africa. In all honesty, I think that, indeed, we are accelerating the continental free trade area, but the issue of industrialisation is still very important. We have a lot of potential in Africa. What is happening? We export raw goods. Then they process them there and they come and sell them to us 10, 20, 30, 40 times what we sold. Why not ensure that we have industrialisation here in Africa to try to transform these products that we consume? This way we can avoid shortages.

So, these manufacturers who come to buy, we will call them and tell them ‘come with us, and invest in Africa.’ Instead of exporting vanilla and cloves as we do in the Comoros, we call whoever transforms the product, ‘Come to Africa and you process your products. When you transform here, there is a label, there is work for young people’. Also, when they transform here, we will start by consuming the products then will proceed with exports. This is a salient point, it is not easy, but we're going to have to do it.

We know that with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a shortage of wheat, but we in Africa have all that. We can capitalise on this especially with the African Continental Free Trade Area. Today, if two countries have the same product, the same industrialist can try to invest in relation to this product and suddenly there is quantity. It can encourage him to come and produce more. Indeed, it is a priority because with the war in Ukraine, and with Covid, we’ve learnt that these catastrophes can recur in later years. So, it is up to us to make the necessary arrangements.

You often use the United Nations platform to remind the world about the Comorian character of the island of Mayotte. Are you going to use this position at the African Union to talk about the issue of Mayotte?

Why not? But you have to be efficient! I prefer to say it at the Elysée than at the United Nations platform. When I was at the Élysée, I told Macron that Mayotte was Comorian; he told me that Mayotte is French. It means there is a contradiction. How do we find a solution? Well, without any pretension, I think the solution is in the dialogue. Otherwise, we've been presenting resolutions for 47 years (at the United Nations Security Council), what did we get from it? At the African Union, the Arab League, we make resolutions, how far have we got? Resolutions are necessary but not enough.

I understood that what can give a solution is indeed the dialogue with France. Fortunately, Macron agreed. Because the destiny of Mayotte is in the region. It is in in the Reunion islands. And I told them, before being in Mayotte, you are a regional country, so the peace of the region concerns you. For what is called blue economy now, on which we want to capitalize, a country like France can be an important partner to help us win. So, it means that if we find a solution to this problem, it would be in our interest together. That's why I tried with Macron to agree that their security is a concern to us all. So, with this problem, indeed there are occasions when I have mentioned it to make sure it is taken into account. But to focus on typing out resolutions does not yield results. There is no point walking in the same place, tapping one’s feet. We have to be creative, and I hope with that we can achieve results.

And at the moment, where are you with the dialogue with President Emmanuel Macron?

The dialogue covers multiple aspects because after all, despite this dispute, we have very good relations with France. France, within the framework of the emergency policy that we have launched, is making a great contribution and it’s begun to materialise on the ground. So, we have a lot we share that can lead to a win-win solution in this dispute, and we will look into it. What I am trying to convince him of is that if we manage to solve this problem here, it can add to the potential of our relationship.

But if we leave it like that, it can still remain a knot. I say to him, ‘Well, with me and you Macron we are discussing; but if tomorrow my successor says, we are not going to discuss, then we are going to lose’. So, I think he got it right. We capitalised on this relationship to show the Comorian-French peoples that we have common interests. You know in France, there are more than 300,000 Comorians. Almost half of the population is in France. There indeed we have the obligation to discuss because we have common interests but also, we have common links. So, I'm hopeful that we'll find a solution.

How do you intend to promote the interests of African island nations at the African Union? For instance, have you tried to make efforts to develop the blue economy a little more within the African Union?

That's a very good question. In any case, these are two things that go together. Because   we island countries are exposed to climatic hazards. Then we have this potential of a blue economy. So, among the themes or subjects or problems that must come along with AfCFTA, is the climate issue. How to effectively tackle climate issues in general as it was the case this year, and also as we will see at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, we will capitalise on the blue economy. In the Comoros, for example, we have a very good capital city in relation to this blue economy, and we are working on it as part of our emerging plan. We hired consultants to come and work with us so that we could design a project and develop it. It's not just in the Comoros, but all African countries because there are many African countries that are islands, or next to the sea, so they can capitalise on that.

Quite frankly, this is one of the salient issues that are retained at the level of the African Union. As part of the AfCFTA, we are accelerating it. We talked about this problem of the blue economy; it must be capitalised on because it can help even in the context of renewable energy.

Four years ago, the Comoros and other countries were hit by Cyclone Kenneth, which caused a lot of damage and loss of lives. Has the Comoros fully recovered?

Well, thank God. It wasn't easy, but we got through it. And Cyclone Kenneth coincided with Covid and also the Russia-Ukraine war. So, there you have it, three phenomena for a small country, a country that doesn't have the resources. It really affected the economy of the country. But, thank God, the Comorian people accepted the measures we proposed and, thanks to these measures, there was no famine, no shortage. Well, it's true that in terms of growth, we expected a growth rate of four per cent. We got only 1.2 per cent. With the support of our partners we've been able to reduce the negative impact.

Finally, back home the Comorian opposition is concerned to see you at the top of the African Union. Your rival in the opposition, Mahamadou Ahamada, felt that Africa has nothing to expect from a leader, I quote "who has never been able to do anything at home". What's your reaction?

Well, you’re going to have to tell him to keep up with the news. In 2018, the Comoros rose from one of the least developed countries to become a middle-income country. Maybe he doesn't know this, tell him. Secondly, our GDP is at $1,500. There are not many countries that have the same achievement. Let him know this.

Thirdly, there was Covid-19, there was Ukraine war – yet we never had shortage of food in the country. There has never been a strike with people claiming that we don't have this or that. There were people who attacked the state and who were convicted, I pardoned them. We don’t want to fall into self-appraisal, they can say whatever they want. But today, should we condemn 54 African countries who have decided to give this responsibility to our country? I thought at least they were going to be proud, as Comorians. If they don't want to say it because they think it will honour me, then it’s better to keep quiet!