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The War Nerd March 24, 2008
The Comoros Coup Factory: Vive le Bob!
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
CNN correctly identifies the Comoros Islands, Africa's last great coup factory.
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FRESNO, CA — It's time for something a little lighter, and nothing cheers me up like a tiny African state whose main export is coups. They're getting scarce now, these coup factories, and we'll miss them when they're gone. Democracy is pretty boring, to tell the truth, compared to a system where you know there's a new President when the radio station keeps playing the national anthem for 48 hours in a row, and the stray dogs hide under the house-stilts while the junior officers zoom around town in their M-60 mounted jeeps looking for signs of negative, unhelpful attitudes. That's my idea of an election cycle. For one thing it doesn't usually take so damn long--no primaries.

And so we set sail for the glorious Comoros Islands off the coast of East Africa, a little powerhouse coup-maker. It's had 19 coups since independence in 1975. You may have heard them mentioned in the news, because the islands are about to have the great honor of being the first sovereign state to be invaded by that military powerhouse, the African Union. Right now—that's Monday, March 17, or like us journalists like to say, "as we go to press," the Tanzanians, the annoying Swiss of Africa, are insisting the invasion will go ahead, with 750 of their fearsome shock troops in the lead. The South Africans are bummed about the idea and trying to get out of it, but you can't stop do-goodery like Tanzania's when it's on the rise.

That's the lesson of the greatest man ever to live and work in the Comoros: the French mercenary Bob Denard, who ran the place like a personal pleasure palace for more than a decade. He took over with sheer guts and a handful of mercenaries.

So if you'll excuse me, I'll hold off on puffing the glory of the African Union's first amphibious operation until I see it happen. I'm not sure I'll believe it even then, but I'll try. In the meantime I'd rather give Denard his props. The guy is a war nerd's dream.

To see why the Comoros was the perfect place for a star like Denard to shine, you have to know a little about the place. It's got the kind of mixed-ethnic history to make coups pretty much inevitable. They're one of those "crossroads of civilization" places, right where Arab slave traders heading down the East African coast would meet Bantu canoeing out from the mainland. Even the Persians held the place for a while. Then the Portugese stopped by, followed by the French.

Your social studies teacher told you this cross-cultural stuff is a wonderful thing, but what it really means is permanent gang fights. Add in the fact that the Comoros can get invaded from just about everywhere, like Ukraine on the Risk board, and you see how screwed the place is.

The Comoros is the only African country that belongs at the same time to the Francophone Club, the Arab League, and the African Union. French, Arab, African—not a good combination. Kind of like the arsonist's old favorite: cherry bomb, cigarette, can of gasoline. You flash your membership in those clubs at a cop to try to get out of ticket and he'd say politely, "Sir, please step out of the vehicle to be mercy-killed."

Nearly everybody has landed on these little volcanic outcrops, but nobody could hold onto them for long. First—not that long ago, maybe 1500 years back--came the Polynesians, which is pretty impressive if you look at a world map. Those vine-tied outriggers could move! By the way, you know why Polynesians gain weight easy? Turns out it's because fat people can survive long sea voyages in open boats better. Seriously. That's my new line: I'm not fat, just adapted to marine migration.

The Polynesians set up their Tiki bars on the Comoros and on Madagascar, a few miles south. But they've held sway in Madagascar to this day, whereas the Comoros were too small to build up a population big enough to hold off invaders. In fact, the Malagasy showed their Polynesian solidarity the old-fashioned way, by raiding the Comoros for slaves. They weren't all hulas and fruity drinks, those Polynesian dudes. I remember Long Beach too well to ever fall for that crap. One on one, even the Brothers wouldn't mess with Samoans.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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