Trouble in Madagascar

2009-04-07 00:00

IT’S a familiar feature of the map of Africa — a large almost rectangular island, the world’s fourth largest, off the south-east coast — but Madagascar is a little-known country, except perhaps for its biodiversity and growing tourist industry. However, recent political instability has pushed it into the headlines and led to its suspension by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

Whether it was a coup, or an unconstitutional transfer of power, the capital’s mayor, Andry Rajoelina, with the help of the army and a low-key popular uprising in Antananarivo, ousted the elected president, Marc Ravalomanana, now in exile.

Rajoelina, a former disc jockey, is too young according to the Madagascar constitution to be president. He would still be under age when the next elections are held in 2011, which may explain why his Tagora malaGasy Vonona (Determined Young Malagasies) party has seized power out of nowhere, rejecting Ravalomanana’s suggestion of a referendum.

Madagascar is a desperately poor country: of its 20 million people, 70% live on the symbolic dollar a day, or less. From 1975 to 1990, the former French colony was a one-party, socialist state under President Didier Ratsiraka, which gave way to multiparty politics in 1990. Ratsiraka was finally ousted in a dubious election in 2002 by Ravalomanana, who won again in 2006.

It is tempting to view the current crisis as just another episode in Madagascar’s politics of personality, possibly involving behind-the-scenes manipulation by Ratsiraka’s old political establishment. But it has deeper meaning and possible consequences. The transition from a controlled economy in a poverty-stricken country had predictable dangers.

The once-popular, and very wealthy, Ravalomanana was accused of misspending, tyranny and running the country like a business. And there is evidence of this in one of Rajoelina’s first decisions.

He has revoked a land deal with the South Korean conglomerate Daewoo that would have ceded 1,3 million hectares of scarce arable land in the south of the island for the intensive farming of corn and palm oil. This would supply half of South Korea’s corn imports, but in a country that places a high value on land it was seen as neocolonialism. Rajoelina has said that land is not for sale or rent, although he is prepared to talk to investors.

In spite of this populist decision, it is not at all certain just how far his popularity among the urban poor extends outside the capital in a country that has marked regional tensions. Nor is the situation within the army clear.

Middle-class supporters of Ravalomanana, maintaining that he made strides in providing roads, clinics and schools, have demonstrated their displeasure at his removal. There is a possibility of violent conflict, based perhaps on old antagonisms between capital and coast.

Political instability, suspension of foreign aid (70% of government expenditure) and a downturn in the tourist industry (income worth $400 million and the employment of 125 000 in 2008) could spell economic disaster.

Over 80% of the workforce is dependent on agriculture and fishing, which provide most of the exports; although there is considerable mining potential and the possibility of Africa’s curse — reserves of oil and natural gas.

The undermining of democracy, economic collapse and a high chance of political violence pose a major challenge. The African Union (AU) was due to hold its July 2009 summit in Madagascar, which now has six months’ grace before sanctions are applied to its leaders.

The contradiction of announcing this from Swaziland, one of the continent’s most despotic states, will not have been lost on Rajoelina.

Like Guinea and Mauritania, suspended by the AU in similar circumstances, Madagascar poses a challenge to the continent. Politicians and armies tolerate constitutionalism and democracy for as long as is convenient. But with sufficient discontent, which will grow as the global financial crisis deepens, the populist option is tempting. Why wait for elections when there are quicker and easier routes to power?

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