26 February 2009

Madagascar: Settling the Country's Vagaries


President Marc Ravalomanana and beleaguered mayor of Antananarivo Andry Rajoelina - the two protagonists in the Malagasy crisis - have finally met. Thus the crisis that escalated into violence and which has left hundreds dead since 26 January seems to be headed for a negotiated settlement. But for Malagasy writer Jean-Luc Raharimanana, the blood that has been shed must not be washed away by yet another period of political games and treachery. The 'Great Island' must move away from the political vagaries that have plagued it since independence, the author writes.

There was a sense of déjà vu about it all... young entrepreneur, wealthy, handsome and popular, mayor of the capital city. A massive crowd crammed into the Place du 13 Mai. Protests and an immense sense of hope for real democracy. Peaceful demonstrations and a march on the presidential palace and other symbolic seats of power. A military cordon, brief negotiations, and then the massacre. Weapons took over and today, the people are still mourning their dead...

These events took place back in 1972. On 13 May 1991, the people were protesting the neocolonial character of the Tsiranana regime, when the army opened fire on the crowd. On 10 August 2002, the crowd was marching to Lavoloha Palace when Vice Admiral Didier Ratsiraka ordered troops to fire on the crowd. In 2009, six months of 'peaceful' demonstrations followed the interruption of elections after the first round. Finally, the self-proclaimed president Ravalomanana sounded the battle cry. On 7 February, a crowd was marching to Ambohitsirohitra, another presidential palace. Live ammunition was the definitive responsible.


Let us first of make it clear that before ascending to power, Ravalomanana had already enriched himself under the dictatorship of Ratsiraka. He was jailed for corruption in 1988. He was released by Ratsiraka and somehow managed to win the tender for privatisation of the same company for which he had been convicted; this is the cornerstone of the Tiko business empire. Tiko was funded by the World Bank and went on to benefit from all manner of favours, never paying taxes. The government only realised all of this too late.

Ratsiraka had hoped that Ravalomanana would serve as his front man, while Ravalomanana himself was after power. He benefited his company through tax exemption, massive duty rebates on raw materials (with maximum duties for his competitors), absolute control over tender calls, delayed payments to peasant producers, ridiculously low purchase prices for public land, annexation of land, monopolistic control of all sectors of the economy, control of the media and the imprisonment of intellectuals and opponents. Added to this, of course, was the tacit approval of donors and foreign powers. All the fittings of the perfect dictator...

The Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana regimes forced young Madagascans into a life of survival and coping with adversity. The public sector was not a viable employment option. Most of them opted for private enterprise, dabbling in everything, failing, and trying again elsewhere. Thus, farmers became IT technicians and doctors became pig-farmers. Andry Rajoelina himself was a DJ and events organiser, before he set up an advertising and communications agency.

Unlike Ravalomanana under Ratsiraka, Rajoelina did not benefit from state largesse. Rather, Ravalomanana went out of his way to set obstacles in his path. The case of the billboards in 2004 was the genesis of his current popularity. Ravalomanana, incensed that the young entrepreneur's billboards were better than his, had them removed. What ensued was a game of back and forth, with Rajoelina hitting back each time.

The denizens of the capital, particularly the youth and those businesspeople who had suffered at the hands of the Tiko empire keenly followed this open challenge. It is no surprise that they overwhelmingly backed his bid for election as mayor of Antananarivo. Once the mayoral seat was secured in January of 2008, the next stop was Ravalomanana's perch. Unlike Ravalomanana, who had free rein, as soon as he was elected mayor, Rajoelina felt the full might of the government. Power outages in municipal areas and all suburbs of the city, the naming of another city (Toamasina) as administrative capital of the country, the shift of refuse disposal to the commune and the removal of powers to appoint 'fokontany' (village leaders). The current situation stems from Ravalomanana's refusal to share power, and the final straw was the closure of radio Viva.

Andry Rajoelina was faced with a choice: to submit or to revolt, either joining Ravalomanana's corrupt circle, or awakening the simmering rebellion of the people. We now know what he chose. The current tally is over a hundred dead since 26 January. Was this a coup attempt by a young power-thirsty entrepreneur, or a popular uprising led by a heroic resistance figure? Or both?


The violence seen in Madagascar is reminiscent of countries with illegitimately imposed governments. If a democratic state implies a symbiotic relationship between the land, the people, and the government, then the case has never been in Madagascar... a country for the people, power for the people, and a people who recognise the legitimacy of the state. This may sounds like a catchy slogan, and a little simplistic, but this has been the key problem of Madagascar for along time.

Ndimby (Madagascar Tribune, 2 February 2009) asserts, 'it is outrageous that after 50 years of independence, the powers that be are once more resorting to unconstitutional means to cling to power. Power has rarely been achieved through the ballot, but once in power, certain leaders have assured their position through one or several elections.'

No Madagascan has ever stood for elections in conditions remotely resembling normal, with the possible exception of Philibert Tsiranana's first election in 1959. Even this, however, was not under conditions of universal suffrage but rather within the particular context of decolonisation. Madagascar also offers us with the full variety of exits form power: an assassination (Ratsimandrava), a resignation (Ramanantsoa), an impeachment (Zafy), a transfer (Andriamahazo) and two exits due to a major political crisis (Tsiranana in 1972, and Ratsiraka in 1991 and 2002).

The only case that could be considered democratic is the departure of Norbert Lala Ratsirahonana following his defeat in elections that he called in 1996. Didier Ratsiraka (1993) and Zafy Albert (1997) were both defeated while trying to recapture seats that they had lost.


The people of Madagascar have never enjoyed these three basic elements. Before the colonial period the country was fraught with territorial rivalries and conflicts between the kingdoms. During the colonial period, France declared that all vacant and fallow land would belong to he who used them: the colonist. This, however, proved to be a poisoned chalice for France, with a rebellion in 1947 leading to one of the worst massacres in the country's colonial history. According to the French army there were 89,000 deaths, but this has been disputed ever since. The colonial state was not established to benefit its subjects, but rather for the exploitation of the land.

With independence, it was assumed that the matter was resolved, with the land reverting to the Malagasy people. Unfortunately the unequal development between the provinces together with France's meddling in the economic and diplomatic affairs of the country led to the 1972 uprising. Tsiranana was deposed and what followed was a period of political instability, until 1975, when Ratsiraka came to power and installed the 'fivondronana', the 'firaisana' and the 'fokontany'. These territorial divisions soon became regional (ethnic?) divisions, with each division denying a non-indigene the right to exercise any real power.

With the country thus divided, enclaves started to form. Those 'fivondronanas' that were far from the centre found themselves sinking deeper into misery. Furthermore, by creating a national revolutionary front, in which the different political parties divvyed up territories, ministries and administrative offices based on a shaky ethnic balance, Didier Ratsiraka further weakened the state, leaving each branch in the clutch of an ethnic oligarchy. The enclave structure is still evident within the state, and not just through the absence of road infrastructure.

An ineffective public service has quickly resulted in a lack of legitimacy and ownership of the state by the people, leaving the use of force as the only means at its disposal for retaining power. Dictatorship rode in on the revolutionary dream. Ratsiraka clung to power for two seven-year terms before the people arose in 1991. His centralised grip on power came apart in spite of the 10 August massacre when he ordered troops to open fire on the crowd.

Between February and April of 1992, 1,400 government and civil society representatives worked on a new constitution through regional forums and a national one. In the process, Zafy Albert was elected president. Having gotten rid of a dictator, drafted a new constitution, and set in place a process of decentralisation, it began to look like the Malagasy people were finally getting there. It soon became clear that the new policy was still immature. Power was exercised through ministerial portfolios, and there was still a prevalent mentality that political and administrative positions were a means of personal enrichment. Zafy Albert refused to play along with parliament and was subjected to a censure motion. He was eventually impeached and had to leave office in 1996.

While the Malagasy people had agreed upon the new constitution, politicians had a different attitude. The 1997 elections saw the return of the new Ratsiraka and his famous philosophy of 'ecological humanism' that was awarded the European Umberto Blancamano prize and funded by the World Bank. Ratsiraka set about replacing the parliamentary system with an executive system that prevented impeachment. He did cede ground on the matter of provincial autonomy, which had been a key demand of the people. However, in the course of his new term, he effected the transfer of powers as was expected. With the preservation of the land as a political programme, the humanism of the Malagasy people as a source of democracy, and a government that respected the land and its people, Ratsiraka appeared to have solved the problem, while all the while disguising his oligarchic power.

Ravalomanana's entry into politics coincided with the resurgence of the same popular demands of 1991. The people, with the support of civil society and the churches, saw in him an ideal champion for their democratic aspirations. One term later, the people find themselves faced with the realisation that their champion sought power not for the sake of developmental ideals, but to extend his own empire. Ravalomanana did not revise the executive system, but reinforced it instead, by withdrawing regional autonomy, ascribing to himself the right to hire or fire regional representatives at his pleasure.

The country is divided into 22 regions, which approximates well to the demographic realities of the country. However, budgetary allocations are entirely at the president's whim. 'Opposition' towns (Toamasina under Roland Ratsiraka, Fianarantsoa under Pety Rakotoniaina, Antananarivo under Andry Rajoelina) have either lost their budgets or their functional autonomy.

Never before has a Malagasy president used the land-people-power equation to their advantage to such a degree, not even Ratsiraka. In the 2007 legislative elections the parliamentary gazette stated that Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM) had garnered 105 out of 125 seats. Nineteen seats went to pro-TIM independent candidates, while the remaining seat went to Jonah Parfait Prezaly of Leader fanilo, who in effect became the only opposition member in the new national assembly. Thus, Ravalomanana the businessman has absolute control of the island's economy.

In reforming the land-tenure system, Ravalomanana has placed thousands of illiterate farmers in jeopardy. They know nothing of cadastral mapping or private property, and have been farming according to traditional codes where ownership and use are agreed upon at a family and village level. Without their knowledge the land has been expropriated and given to companies close to the president or to large multinationals who seek to exploit its riches at the expense of the population.


So, was Rajoelina right to revolt? Maybe he was. Was he justified to unleash the people on a blind government? Maybe not. The hundred or so dead bodies are the net result. The order given by Ravalomanana to fire on the crowd was criminal, but had Rajoelina known that this was going to happen before marching on the presidential place? To use the same yardstick on the two leaders would be unfair. Ravalomanana has played the dictator for some time, while Rajoelina has simply incarnated the freedom aspirations of the people. Can he be held responsible for the 7 February massacre? Ravalomanana claims to respect the law and democracy, but how legal or democratic is it to order the use of live ammunition on demonstrators?

Rajoelina is demanding a transitional government, but if this transition will only be a game of musical chairs then it is not worth it. To remove all possible doubts, Rajoelina must come out clearly and repeat his refrain that he is not interested in the presidency, and that his sole objective is the restoration of democracy in Madagascar. It is untenable for Ravalomanana to retain his position, and equally so for Rajoelina to take his place. There must be a neutral transitional government, whose members must promise not to seek any mandate in the subsequent elections, to avoid having a transition period of political games and treachery. The transition period would therefore give the Malagasy people the opportunity to reassess everything: notions of the state, limits to the exercise of power, and the creation of mechanisms to end the uncertainties that have plagued the country since independence. The island cannot afford to carry on as if nothing happened.

The UN, AU, France and the US are mediating the talks, which is good, but real growth will only happen when the Malagasy people come face to face with the Devil and dine with him. This is also the only way to safeguard democracy. In the US we saw the George W. Bush clan start two wars for their own ends. In Russia, Vladimir Putin remains the king of petroleum and gas. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi still controls a massive media empire as well as other business interests. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy lounges on a yacht while his billionaire friends win tenders.

* Jean-Luc Raharimanana is a Malagasy writer.

* Translated from the French by Josh Ogada.

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.

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