Decolonization, society

Mayotte, the colonial paradox

Building on two posts that I have published here, namely “Madagascar: aborted development” and “Upside Down Decolonization and Remnants of Empire“, I bring to you today an article about Mayotte.

Map of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean

Mayotte in the Indian Ocean

The island is located North of Madagascar, and is a French Overseas Territory. The French far-flung possessions are divided into two (general) categories: the Collectivités d’Outre Mer (COM) and the Départements d’Outre Mer. The main difference between those two categories are in terms of political representation each territory has in the metropole.

France possesses 5 COMs: Saint-Pierre et Miquelon off the Canadian coast, Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean, and Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia in the Pacific. To that must be added New Caledonia which has its own status of Collectivité sui generis. The most prominent feature of these territories is that France is mainly responsible for ensuring basic responsibilities such as defense, police, justice and finances for those territories. The local governments manage the rest of the political prerogatives.

In opposition, the Départements d’Outre Mer enjoy the same political prerogatives as mainland départements (France counts 101 départements). Paris is one example, same as Rhône (Lyon), Bouche-du-Rhône (Marseille) and Gard (Montpellier). Guadeloupe, Martinique, Corsica and Guyana are also part of the list. The latest addition to the list is Mayotte which switched from being a Collectivité to a Département after a referendum in 2011.

Mayotte moves backward on the decolonization evolution 

When looking at decolonization, it is expected that the normal route for territories who have been colonized by a foreign power would be to gain more independence rather than less. By demanding to become a Département d’Outre Mer, Mayotte thus demanded to be more integrated into the French political sphere and thus to abide to French (and Europeans) laws.

Watch this video about Mayotte - France 24

Click on the picture to watch this video about Mayotte – France 24

Mayotte was colonised and administered as part of the Comoros under the status of French overseas territory until 1976 when 3 of the 4 islands making the Comoros seized their independence. The island of Mayotte voted to remain a French dependency, and to increase their integration, which was finally consecrated by the referendum on March 31, 2011.

Mayotte’s many obstacles 

The island is crippled with many disabilities which make its integration into the French system difficult. The local authorities had, until the change of status, little influence in terms of taxation, land ownership and regulations of all sorts. But becoming fully part of France means abiding to the rules in place on the continent. In order to support the development and the necessary changes in Mayotte, the French government has signed a pact with the local authorities. Called “Mayotte 2025″, this pact aims to boost the local economy. 17,6% of the Mahorais, the inhabitants of Mayotte, are unemployed, and the local GDP is more than 5 times lower than on the mainland. Insecurity is also one of the biggest concerns on the island.

Another key issue is linked to the partition from the Comoros. The latter still rejects the 1976 referendum which consecrated the Comoros’s independence without Mayotte as part of it. Historically, the Comoros is a 4-island archipelago. The fact that Mayotte decided to remain French during the decolonization process felt like an amputation for Moroni, which still contest the 1976 referendum. The Comorian President, Ikililou Dhoinine, has spoken four times since his election about the dispute between France and his country in front of the United Nations General Assembly. The representation of Mayotte athletes under the French flag during the Indian Ocean Island Games also caused a diplomatic crisis between Paris and Moroni.

Flag of Mayotte

Flag of Mayotte

It would, however, be wrong to assume that the situation is all positive for France. Accepting Mayotte as the 101th Département also came with a price, which is to adapt the island to the necessary standards. It also meant that the dispute with Comoros would only go stronger, especially as Mahorais are now benefitting from France’s welfare redistribution system, therefore increasing the attractiveness of Mayotte. This in turn has pushed many Comorians to cross the agitated waters that separate them from Mayotte to pursue a better life in France.

Stay tuned for next week’s article: “Indian Ocean: the other migrant crisis” 



Upside Down Decolonization and Remnants of Empires

As mentioned in a previous article, the one about Puerto Rico to be more precise, I wrote my master thesis on non-self-governing territories and their political relations with their metropoles. Those 17 territories (I only study 16 of them because Western Sahara is officially not administered by any foreign country, although Morocco is de facto in charge) are often considered as remnants of empire, territories where decolonization never occurred.

Territories considered as non-self-governing territories by the UN today - Source: UN

Territories considered as non-self-governing territories by the UN today – Source: United Nations

Often seen as the best examples of the failures of the UN to fully decolonize the world, those lands, as overseas territories, are the object of many theories accounting for the reasons why they remain attached to a far-flung power. Those theories are numerous and various, from the obvious realist explanation which suggests that metropoles keep those islands (only Gibraltar and Western Sahara are not islands amongst the list) purely our of interest. Marxists would defend the idea that the rich, that is the metropoles, are exploiting the poor, that is the islands to serve their own purposes. A center/periphery dichotomy can also be applied. The theory which I found the most surprising, because its findings are counter-intuitive, is Upside Down Decolonization.

Upside Down Decolonization

Derived from Postcolonialism (different from Post-colonial), which is an expression of the impacts colonialism had on society, Upside Down Decolonization actually reverses, as its name would suggest, the focus of colonial studies. Instead of looking for explanations in the metropoles’ behaviours, the theory finds that it is actually the overseas territories (OTs) who want to maintain the status quo with their central states. Upside Down Decolonization thus argues that although some territories have not gained full sovereignty, autonomy and control in internal affairs combined with the support that their central states provide them with, makes up for that loss. In return, metropolitan states, by supplying aid to their far-flung territories, manage to secure strategic services. This exchange of advantages thus appears acceptable as both parties seem content with it, and overseas territories have managed to free themselves from the one-sided relationship they were in by using sovereignty games to secure some advantages. In addition, overseas territories often seem eager to maintain their relationship with their former colonizer in an effort to secure the benefits they would not receive if they were independent.

What can be referred to as an “infinite pause in decolonization” is motivated by overseas territories’ will to maintain the status quo and remain in a situation of asymmetric relations with their central state. Apart from rare cases (Scotland, Bougainville and to some extent, New Caledonia), sovereignty is not the ultimate end and autonomy is not necessarily a step towards full statehood.

The originality of Upside Down Decolonization stems from its unique resultas. It is generally assumed that decolonization had never finished because former empires wished to keep last remnants of their past glory and therefore prevented some territories from parting. However, Upside Down Decolonization demonstrates that some territories are the ones advocating for continuous ‘foreign’ domination and thus remain in a situation of colonialism. In these places, “colonialism has largely not been “socially or economically problematic” as it had been elsewhere” which partly explains why those territories are (for most cases) not demanding independence. This approach is nevertheless not diminishing the struggles against colonialism that shook some parts of the world; it simply demonstrates that not all colonial possessions were equal and felt the same needs to free themselves from occupation. It must be emphasized that Upside Down Decolonization neither supports colonialism and its irreversible impact on local cultures and economies, nor does it suggest that it is over.

Upside Down Decolonization also rejects the focus of the UN to impose self-determination under the sole form of independence. However, history has shown that what was crucial after the Second World War, namely independence, is now obsolete and territorial status should rather be adapted to today’s reality. Since the great waves of decolonization of the sixties and seventies, and despite repeated referenda, only East Timor, Montenegro and Kosovo and South Sudan have gained independence. These cases are therefore not the norm considering the number of overseas territories that remain today.

Overseas territories around the world 

Overseas territories are spread across the planet, although they are mainly located in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The remaining overseas territories are under the purview of Australia (6), China (2), Denmark (2), France (16), the Netherlands (4), New Zealand (3), Norway (3), the United Kingdom (17), the United States (14).

Overseas Territories administered by European Union Members - Source: Wikipedia

Overseas Territories administered by European Union Members – Source: Wikipedia

Overseas territories often have limited populations (less than 300,000), they are potentially-sovereign (small states exist) and they are postcolonial, meaning they have been colonized by a foreign power.

Out of the list, very few territories demand independence. In general, the local governments tend to demand a redesign of their political with their metropoles, in order to get more local prerogatives within a federal framework, which has been the case in New Caledonia, a French sui generis community, where the government needed to accommodate the local independentist movement, the FLNKS. In terms of increased autonomy, various sub-national jurisdictions have secured or stuck to their autonomy status, and in some cases enhanced it. These include Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Greenland and New Zealand’s Cook Islands: they have benefitted from measures of self-government – often not shared by other component units of the polity – while remaining comfortably lodged within the purview of a larger, richer, metropolitan state. Some have on the contrary asked for more integration with the metropole, such as in the case of Mayotte.

Advantages or not? 

It must be made clear that overseas territories get advantages from remaining attached to a metropole. For example, the central state must ensure the viability of the local populations, their good governance, but also take care of their foreign policy and defense, elements that small territories would not be able to afford on their own. In return, the advantages from the metropoles vary a lot, from strategic services to financial gains, and access to natural resources. But the burden is heaavy especially in those territories where employment is low and resources scarce, such as in those small islands lost in the middle of oceans, like Saint Helena (UK), Tokelau (New Zealand) and Pitcairn (UK). The territorial management strategies, the financial aids and security they must transfer to their dependencies are weighing the metropolitan powers down. Central governments could allocate the resources they hand out to their OTs to other purposes such as more investment in the metropole rather than on far-flung territories. Possessing OTs demand great financial capacities from the central state also to distribute welfare as OTs rarely have efficient economies – “Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar are almost alone in not requiring substantial external subsidies.


Possessing overseas territories is not a problem per se. Political arrangements are various in order to accommodate all parties and ensure the viability and stability of the political ties between the OTs and the metropoles. Some relationships are more successful than others, but all in all, overseas territories tend to be better off as is that sovereign.

What is however problematic is when the OT is non-self-governing and lack of autonomy. This means that the political arrangement is flawed and thus raises concerns from the international community. It is concerning that local populations are not able to decide on their government and status, or at least not to a sufficient extent, that they are being neglected because metropoles do not see any interest in investing time and effort in them, or that good governance is not being applied. There, the principles of sovereignty and self-determination are being violated. The reasons why territories make the UN non-self-governing list will be detailed in another article.

The cases of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, and the situation of Hong Kong vis-à-vis China also challenge the principle of self-determination and sovereignty. The UN also seems to omit Israeli settlements that continue to be built illegally in the Palestinian West Bank, South Ossetia and Kurdistan, and more recently Eastern Ukraine following the Russian illegal annexation. These cases all present clear examples of failed self-determination that put people’s freedom, lives and democratic practices at risk. The committee focused on seventeen NSGTs which collectively represent less than 0.02% of the world’s population when millions are suffering from the lack of democracy or live under an oppressive government. Fighting ‘colonialism’ seems a narrow phenomenon compared to all the other forms oppression can take.



Puerto Rico, the USA and the UN: Questions of colonialism

This first post is related to what I wrote my master thesis about: non-self-governing territories. You probably never heard of this concept and you probably did not know that, officially, there are 17 of them. I must admit I didn’t either before I stumbled upon them on the United Nation’s website two years ago. In brief, non-self-governing territories (NSGTs) are territories where the principles of autonomy, self-governance and self-determination are not applied, according to the work of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization (also known as the Committee of the 24). NSGTs are different from other overseas territories in the fact that their situation is still considered as ‘colonial’ by the UN. They remain colonized and colonialized (i.e. they still bare traces of colonialism on their culture and are still occupied). Territories such as Samoa, French Polynesia, Gibraltar and Western Sahara are on this list.

This post, however, does not focus on the territories that make the list, which will be the object of future articles. The focus will be put here on the territories that do not make the list (in my opinion and that of experts, many more should), and especially Puerto Rico. According to the UN, the USA are also accused of colonialism in Guam, American Samoa and the American Virgin Islands. So Puerto Rico is not an isolated case. It is just not as official.

A little bit about Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is the most easterly and smallest island of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, and was discovered by Christopher Columbus. The US took it over from Spain in 1898. The island adopted its own constitution in 1951 and has since held regular and democratic elections for its local government. The capital is San Juan.

Flag and location of Puerto Rico

Flag and location of Puerto Rico

In its full name ‘Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’, it is an unincorporated (meaning that a Federal legislation has established the institutions of the local government), organized (not all the provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply) territory of the US, like Guam and the American Virgin Islands. The commonwealth status of Puerto Rico (and of the Northern Mariana Islands) was adopted as a loose translation of the Spanish term ‘“Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico”.

Barack Obama is the Head of State, while the Head of Government is Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla. Puerto Rico has one representative to the House of Representatives, who has no voting right expect for in the committee that person sits on. So the US government is responsible for all of its overseas territories’ external relations, tariffs and trade, judicial system, currency (USD), defense, sustainability and good governance. But Puerto Ricans do not vote for the American President in return.

All in all, and like all the American dependencies which are not American states, Puerto Rico belongs to the United States but is not part of it.

Puerto Rico, the USA and colonialism

Although Puerto Rico had been removed from the Non-Self-Governing list in 1953, allegations of colonial malpractices against the territory persist. As an illustration, the case of Puerto Rico has been the object of 33 resolutions in favour of the island’s right to self-determination since 1973. The case of the island was discussed last May, as the Special Committee on Decolonization gathered in Nicaragua for their annual assembly, and at the Non-Aligned Movement summit. Latin American states, and especially Cuba, have been pushing for the re-examination of the case of the island by the UN. In other words, the recommendations of the Committee of the 24 are believed to have only been partially implemented.

Plus, the question of the political status of Puerto Rico vis-à-vis the USA remains on the table. Several plebiscites have demanded political changes (full integration as an American state, in free association with the USA or full independence) as political influx towards either one end or the other was never completed. Complete independence is unlikely to become reality as the political, economic and historical ties seem too strong for a political rupture between Washington and San Juan (independence in free association or becoming the US’s 51st state are the solutions which have the strongest support). Nevertheless, the nature of the political ties that link Puerto Rico to the USA must be refreshed to abide to the rules of self-determination and self-governance.

A messy economy

Until 2006, the economy of Puerto Rico used to be the fastest growing in the region. The change can be attributed to changes in tax preferences which discouraged firms from investing in the island, as well as to the rise of oil prices which Puerto Rico depends on for its electricity production. This led to high unemployment rates (up to 16% in 2011), brain drain and immigration, mainly to the US. The recent imposition of a minimum wage also took a toll on the local economy as the local GDP per capita is about a third of that of the mainland, discouraging employment. The local government has been unable to address those economic problems as it is unable to declare bankruptcy or depreciate the currency due to its dependency status. The island has thus far accumulated $70 billion in public debt. 

These problems highlight the failures of the United States when it comes to ensuring the financial health of its dependencies, even though, as the administrative power, it is its responsibility to do so.

Puerto Rico as seen from the USA

Despite all these elements, it must be emphasized that Washington is not forcing Puerto Rico to remain a dependency. The situation must be considered as a calculated political choice where both parties find advantages. On one hand, Puerto Rico receives financial support which ensures living standards and benefits which the population would probably not enjoy if the island was an independent state. The territory also has a safety net guaranteed by the United States, in case of natural catastrophe or foreign attack. On the other hand, in spite of the financial burden that accompanies the possession of dependencies, the US enjoys several assets that could explain why it wants to retain control of the Caribbean island. First, it is a strategic outpost in the Far East of the Caribbean, which is interesting for military purposes, as demonstrated by the posting of the US Navy on the island of Vieques where military trainings are taking place. Puerto Rico is also a key asset to monitor and control trade on route to the Panama Canal, as a sea lane passes nearby. The island is also central in the fight against drug trafficking and smuggling to and from the Caribbean.

Why should we talk more about Puerto Rico

The case of Puerto Rico questions several important principles, namely self-determination and self-governance. This case also questions the work of the UN, and that of the Special Committee on Decolonization in particular. Puerto Rico was deemed self-governing more than 60 years ago, but recent events show that this status should be reconsidered. After all, French Polynesia was put back on the NSGT list after half a century off it. The same could – and should – happen to Puerto Rico.