10 March 2002

Madagascar: Presidential Claimant Gains Ground in Madagascar as Threats Loom

Washington, DC — The continuing constitutional crisis in Madagascar poses a difficult question for the international community. Is the Indian Ocean island nation in the process of a "popular power" democratic revolution, or is a power seeker with wide popular support staging a peaceful but illegal coup?

Last week, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan took the latter position, calling the situation a failure of UN diplomacy. On Friday, a delegation from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) arrived in Madagascar for talks with both sides.

The crisis stems from a disputed December 16 election, which the challenger claimed to have won outright, while the incumbent said the vote was inconclusive and required a run-off. Annan expressed dismay that the opposition had rejected a UN proposal for an internationally supervised poll to resolve the impasse.

Annan noted that five of the country's six provincial governors are backing the old government of Didier Ratsiraka, but opposition supporters argue that the people have spoken. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of the capital every day for more than a month to protest Ratsiraka's refusal to leave office. The country's civil service, on strike against Ratsiraka for five weeks, is now back at work for the challenger Marc Ravalomanana. The army formally assumed a neutral stance, which favored Ravalomanana and his battalions of determined citizens.

Meanwhile, the rival presidential contenders are consolidating their authority in competing locations. On Friday, the Ravalomanana administration assumed control of the last government ministry not already in its hands, when Ravalomanana and his prime minister, Jacques Sylla, installed General Jules Mamizara as defense minister. The resignation of former defense minister Marcel Ranjeva, who pledged his allegiance to Ravalomanana, and the acceptance of the post by Mamizara are further signs that the country's army is accepting Ravalomanana's authority. But although the military has pledged not to intervene in the dispute, the army chief of staff, General Ismail Mounibou, at the weekend warned Mamizara not to lead the country into civil war by appealing to the military to switch allegiance to the new administration.

At the same time, Ratsiraka's loyalists have established a new capital in Tamatave, also known as Toamasina, an east coast port city, through which most imports to the official capital, Antananarivo, must pass. The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports that Ratsiraka supporters have set up blockades and have even dismantled a bridge to prevent supplies from reaching Ravalomanana. Their hope is to starve the city of vital necessities, including petroleum, in the hope of eroding Ravalomanana's popular base. Already, Leithead says, the normally vibrant textile industry, dependent on imports and exports, is crumbling, threatening the economy.

The Defense Ministry appointment leaves the Foreign Ministry as the only remaining vacancy in the cabinet of Ravalomanana. His special advisor, Andriamaneha Rabetsitonta, spoke to allAfrica.com about the delay in appointing a Foreign Minister, at a time when the new administration must deal with questions from abroad about its legitimacy.

Ravalomanana recognizes the Foreign Ministry as an "extremely sensitive portfolio under the present circumstances," Rabetsitonta said, and it will continue to be occupied by Prime Minister Sylla until a "suitable" alternative is found. Asked if filling the post has been complicated by the cool reaction of the international community to Ravalomanana's self-proclamation as president, Rabetsitonta said he thought not. "But we have to deploy all our efforts at this point in time to convince the outside world of the legal as well as legitimate character of Ravalomanana's government," he said.

A few weeks ago, Amara Essy, the OAU Secretary General, told the press upon his arrival in Antananarivo that Ravalomanana may derive legitimacy from the results of last December's election, but he warned that self-proclamation would undermine the legality of that claim. Since then, several OAU missions, including the latest one, have tried to broker a solution to the crisis.

But Rabetsitonta says that if the international community continues to press for a second round of elections, they are wasting their time. "Not only is Marc Ravalomanana the new President of the Republic, but he is also the only one who can issue orders and have them executed," he said. "Marc Ravalomanana and Jacques Sylla have been installed in their functions and as of next week, they will get the machinery of government working again. To ask the Malagasies to go to a second round now would be totally incomprehensible to them.."

Although Ravalomanana appears to have won the popularity contest, Ratsiraka is not without backers. Besides the support of five provincial governors, he has historically had a following in his home area around Tamatave. However, the BBC's Leitfield reports that, despite a few small marches in support of Ratsiraka, "political apathy" may be a better description of the mood in his capital.

According to Rabetsitonta , the only way out of the current quandry is for the OAU to negotiate Ratsiraka's final departure from Madagascar and for all Malagasies to vote on the new government in a referendum. "If the people say no to this project, President Ravalomanana will resign. But if they say yes, this will show everybody that he has been upheld by the Malagasy people to be the real and sole President of this country." The Ravalomanana camp has put its the proposal to the visiting OAU mission and is awaiting the response of both the African delegation and of the United Nations.

It is clear, however, that tensions are rising, and Ravalomanana's supporters fear that Ratsiraka's side is prepared to use force. The Antananarivo newspaper Midi Madagasikara has reported that an Algerian military plane, loaded with five tons of cargo, landed in Tamatave from Mozambique on Friday .The Algerian embassy in Madagascar issued a communique saying that the "military aircraft was exclusively carrying equipment for setting up a radio and TV station. It is the same aircraft that delivered tents to Madagascar during the solar eclipse of June 2001." Ravalomanana's special advisor expressed concern that the plane may have delivered weapons to Ratsiraka and his backers. He also says the new administration is investigating a rumour that a Syrian plane has also landed at Tamatave.

This is not the first time that "people power" and the threat of violence have clashed around Ratsiraka's claims to power. He ruled Madagascar for more than 15 years after seizing the presidency in a 1975 military coup. During an administration characterized by suppression of dissent and economic mismanagement, opposition against his administration grew.

He was forced to share power in 1991, following weeks of marches that brought as many as half a million people to the streets in daily demonstrations. When his government declared a state of emergency and banned protests, the opposition instead held outdoor "balls," and the streets filled with hundreds of thousands of dancers. After presidential guards killed fifty-one protesters on June 30 of that year, opposition parties united to name their own government, and - as in recent weeks -- throngs of supporters escorted the new appointees to their ministries. Ratsiraka was trounced at the polls in 1993 but made a comeback during an economic crisis to win the election of 1996.


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