analysisBy Peter Fabricius
Hery Rajaonarimampianina was widely regarded as a mere proxy for Madagascar's previous ruler, Andry Rajoelina, in last December's presidential elections - which Rajoelina himself was barred from contesting according to a deal brokered by regional mediators.
But having won the elections, Hery then surprised his would-be puppet master by turning on him. He disbanded two special police units established by Rajoelina, which were behaving as his personal political militias. Then he faced down Rajoelina over the appointment of a prime minister, choosing Kolo Roger, a compromise candidate, over Rajoelina's man.
And so a disgusted and disgruntled Rajoelina found himself in opposition to his 'creation.' Hery now seems genuinely committed to healing the many wounds that have been inflicted on Madagascar in the five years of political turmoil since Rajoelina and the military toppled former president, Marc Ravalomanana, in a coup in March 2009 - and drove him into exile in South Africa.
'The new government, the new president, bring a new framework of authority,' Hery said after addressing investors in Johannesburg last week before attending President Jacob Zuma's inauguration. 'I have to set up the rule of law and justice and to fight corruption. This is important to set up a new democracy. It's not easy.'
South Africa's Ambassador to Madagascar, Gert Grobler, vouched for Hery's sincerity, telling the investors that his reform moves had created a new spirit of optimism in the country. This was also reflected by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) restoring normal relations, and sanctions starting to be lifted. South Africa too was 'ready to build a strong relationship' with Madagascar, as Grobler told Hery.
The United States (US) also endorsed him this week, announcing that it had lifted all remaining restrictions on direct assistance to the Madagascan government, and would invite Hery to President Barack Obama's first US-Africa summit in Washington in August.
Despite these promising signs, Hery has much more to do if long-term stability is to be returned to the chronically turbulent Indian Ocean island state.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group said 'the political system, which is the primary obstacle to sustained recovery, needs much more than a cosmetic makeover; fundamental reform is necessary.'
The report highlighted the institutional weakness of Madagascar, noting how not just the political system, but also other institutions that should be well beyond political interference - such as the judiciary and the military - were all subject to the island's notorious personality cult politics. Hery himself pulled off a rather dubious manoeuvre when he packed the courts with his own appointees, to reverse a judgement that would have obliged him to appoint Rajoelina's man as prime minister.
Another key reform must be to professionalise the military and the police, and ensure the former is properly subject to civilian control in the coup-prone state. Hery must also reconcile the bitter political enmities on the island to help stabilise its turbulent politics - not least that between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana.
That would require, among other things, granting amnesty to Ravalomanana and allowing him to return from exile in South Africa - as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which led the international effort to mediate an end to the political crisis, has stipulated.
Yet, having asserted his independence from Rajoelina, Hery seems strangely reluctant to allow the return of Ravalomanana - who is Rajoelina's enemy, not his. He told journalists last week that he was not opposed in principle to Ravalomanana's return, which he described as a 'transitional' problem. But he then added that it would be better, both for Ravalomanana and the country, if he returned 'in a fair environment; a peaceful environment,' adding 'I'm not sure that environment is already there.' Madagascar is still 'a fragile democracy' that needs to be strengthened.
Hery also raised the obstacle of the tax arrears that Ravalomanana owes, and the conviction and life sentence against him for his alleged responsibility for the fatal shooting of over 60 protestors by the presidential guard in the last weeks of his presidency. Hery said that the problem needed to be removed first, because if Ravalomanana were to return and be immediately jailed, it would create a 'disturbance in society.'
When it was put to him that barring Ravalomanana's return could be even more destabilising because it could anger his large support base in Madagascar, Hery - significantly perhaps - played down Ravalomanana's support. He noted that Ravalomanana's political movement, and even Ravalomanana himself, had pledged support to him as president.
That was a rather disingenuous argument, as quite clearly those pledges of support - or certainly Ravalomanana's - were meant as a gesture of reconciliation, which ought to be reciprocated rather than exploited.
Ravalomanana also faces legal obstacles to his return. South African authorities have seized his passport because he faces charges under South Africa's International Criminal Court (ICC) Act, also related to the shooting of protestors by the presidential guard.
Yet, Hery also told me last week that it was within his power to pardon Ravalomanana. And one might have thought that the South African charges could be dropped if they were impeding vital reconciliation, since there is more than the whiff of a hint that they were politically inspired anyway.
Hery also suggested that the military might not be happy if Ravalomanana returned. Yet, SADC reviewed the security impediments to his return some time ago and found they were surmountable.
David Zounmenou, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) who was an observer at the Madagascar elections last December, believes Hery will eventually allow Ravalomanana to return - but that it may take about six months.
He believes that Hery is genuinely concerned about the resistance to Ravalomanana's return from some of Hery's own political supporters and from the military, and so feels he should not rush things. But he also says Hery knows that Ravalomanana's supporters helped him to sideline Rajoelina, and so he cannot afford to alienate them by refusing Ravalomanana's return.
Zounmenou believes that Hery might have met with Ravalomanana when he was in South Africa last week to begin negotiating the terms of his return. He also thinks, though, that those terms might include Ravalomanana retiring from politics in exchange for his freedom and financial compensation for the huge losses he has suffered.
Ravalomanana ought, in truth, to be allowed to return from his five-year exile to his home country as soon as possible, and only with basic minimum conditions: that he publicly accept Hery's electoral victory, which he had contested (his proxy candidate Jean-Louis Robinson lost to Hery in the run-off), and that he does nothing to incite any violence against Hery's government.
To demand that Ravalomanana relinquish his political rights would be a retrogressive move, suggesting that Hery has calculated that he could pick off Ravalomanana's supporters, leaving him out in the cold. If so, that would be the kind of short-term expedient thinking that has been the bane of Madagascar's politics for too long.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa