28 April 2002

Madagascar: Political Standoff Threatens Future

Washington, DC — The Indian Ocean Island that has been hailed as an emerging economic success story is on the brink of chaos, according to opponents of ousted Madagascar president Didier Ratsiraka.

Representatives of businesses, churches and development agencies, as well as supporters of Marc Ravalomanana, who claims to have won December's disputed election, charge that Ratsiraka loyalists are using detention, torture and suppression of media to keep control in areas outside Antananarivo, the capitol.

The city, where Ravalomanana has been a popular mayor, is under a state of siege from provincial officials and Ratsiraka backers, who have blockaded bridges and roads, halting supplies to the population of two million and idling industries, particularly in textiles, that have expanded in the wake of export opportunities afforded by the African Growth and Opportunity Act passed by the US Congress in 2000. The World Bank warns that 150,000 jobs are threatened by the continuing crisis, a huge loss in one of the world's poorest countries, where an estimated three-fourths of the population of some 14 million are malnourished.

Regional governors loyal to Ratsiraka issued a statement on Friday, reported by Agence France Presse, saying they will defy Monday's ruling by the High Constitutional Court, if the court says that its recount of ballots shows Ravalomanana winning. Unless the justices mandate a new election, the governors said, the provinces will declare an independent state. The governors said they had expected that the recount -- agreed to by both presidential claimants during recent talks in Dakar, Senegal -- would be conducted not by the court but by an independent body representing both political parties, supervised by an international adjudicator.

The BBC reported Sunday that Ratsiraka has returned to Madagascar in a defiant mood, saying that the high court itself is illegal and that the recount will mean nothing. He called for Ravalomana's resignation and demanded a new vote. The fact that Ratsiraka has been in France for the ten days since signing the Dakar accord has reinforced the belief among many Ravalomanana supporters that the French government is backing Ratsiraka as more subject to Paris's influence.

Tensions have been growing in Madagascar since the sitting Ratsiraka government announced that the December 16 election resulted in no clear winner, requiring a run-off. Ravalomanana supporters took to the streets in large numbers -- over half a million people daily -- saying their candidate had won 52.15% of the vote and forcing Ratsiraka appointees out of cabinet offices. Despite criticism from the Organization of African Unity and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called for an internationally supervised poll to resolve the impasse, Ravalomanana was inaugurated on February 22 in a ceremony regarded as illegal by Ratsiraka forces.

In the talks between Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka, brokered by Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, the two men agreed that a recount would be followed by a new vote within six months if no clear winner emerged. Ratsiraka also agreed to end the blockade of Antananarivo.

During telephone interviews with allAfrica.com over the weekend, residents of provinces controlled by Ratsiraka militias told of widespread intimidation and selective use of force against Ratsiraka opponents. Hundreds of people are reportedly fleeing northern areas, where civic groups have accused a parliamentarian from Ratsiraka's party, Deputy Soaline, of ordering militias to terrorize opponents. On Saturday, in an hour-long radio address, Soaline denied the charges, saying that she had nothing to do with the militias, who took their orders from Ratsiraka loyalist Gara Jean Robert, the governor of Antsiranana province.

At least 20 people in the province who advocated the vote recount are reported in detention and at least 50 are said to be in hiding, many with children. "The future looks grim," said a local businessman. He said he narrowly escaped detention when colleagues were beaten and arrested after presenting officials with community complaints about the destruction of a radio station. Other sources say that at least six private radio stations in the province have been closed.

The businessman predicted that if the high court rules that Ravalomanana won the election and the governors refuse to accept the results," they will face a popular rebellion." If that happens, he warned, the heavily armed Ratsiraka forces will try to crush the opposition, "making Madagascar look like Kosovo."

Madagascar's churches say they are suffering reprisals for opposing Ratsiraka's use of force to retain power. Leaders of the island's four main religious bodies, the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and FJKM churches, representing six million members -- over a third of the population -- participated in Ravalomanana's inauguration, as did representatives of Madagascar's Muslim community, some seven per cent of the population. The churches say they are "pro-justice" rather than pro-Ravalomanana, and that they supported his inauguration because it was a result of the democratic process.

The FJKM (the Church of Jesus Christ of Madagascar), with two million members, says that at least 14 of its pastors in the north and another six elsewhere are in hiding for fear of their lives. Church President Edmond Razafimahefa, in a letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA), said that millions of ordinary people have sacrificed and demonstrated "to have their votes fairly counted and to have a president who is elected by the majority of the people and not by voter fraud."

A pastor in Sambava, a north-east coastal city, reports that militiamen have been persecuting and intimidating residents there. The Dakar Accord has not yet had a positive impact, he said, appealing for international condemnation of human rights abuses by Ratsiraka forces. "This is the right moment for the international community to intervene and to restore normalcy," he said, so that the country can move forward with its development agenda.

A businessman involved in construction and fisheries, speaking from the capitol, called Madagascar's economic situation a "catastrophe." He said that because three-quarters of basic commodity imports, including petroleum, come through a Ratsiraka-controlled port and travel on routes that run through Antannarivo to other provinces, the shortages of essential goods is widespread in the country, which is a little larger than France and the Netherlands combined. "Unless the international 'eye' arrives quickly" to break the blockade, he said, the long-term consequences could be disastrous.

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