Washington, DC — Madagascar's opposition took control of the defense ministry over the weekend, strengthening its grip on power in a dispute over the outcome of presidential elections two months ago. Opposition leader Marc Ravalomanana claims he won the Dec. 16 elections outright and has begun operating as president of the republic. Hundreds of thousands of people mounted daily street protests organized to force incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka to step down. Ratsiraka responded by declaring a state of emergency and subsequently martial law in the capital. When those measures were widely ignored, even by the military, he moved his government to Tamatave, also known as Toamasina, a port city on Madagascar's east coast, but has largely refrained from making any statements.
In an interview with allAfrica.com, Calie Rerodo, a former journalist with Madagascar's national TV, says Ratsiraka's silence is prompting fears about his ultimate objectives.
How do you interpret Ratsiraka's silence?
Ratsiraka does not always speak with words. His actions sometimes take precedence. My personal experience as a former TV journalist tells me that even before the current crisis, government censorship was very common. During the 2001 presidential election campaign, the government dominated the airwaves. President Ratsiraka was able to speak whenever he wanted to, unlike the opposition which had only limited airtime, despite the existence of rules regulating the campaign slots. That is in a way censorship. But two weeks ago, the authorities took a drastic measure and suspended transmission because they didn't want the rest of the nation to watch Ravalomanana's proclamation ceremony.
Ratsiraka may have been silent, as you say, but we have to be clear on one thing. Legally, he is still the President. We have to respect his status until such time when he no longer is President. Having said that, I think Ratsiraka would never leave the country just like that. Remember that in the 1991 'revolution', over one hundred people were killed by the army. Today, the military are still divided even if most officers have switched allegiance to Ravalomanana. Ratsiraka is still in power and we should be careful. Just this weekend, an Algerian plane said to be carrying 'communications equipment' landed in Tamatave, Ratsiraka's hometown. We really do not know what Ratsiraka has in mind. The country is now divided and has two capitals. That has never happened before. I don't know for sure if that's Ratsiraka's personal wish but it is a dangerous precedent.
Do you think the fact that Ravalomanana's investiture ceremony was not broadcast to the rest of the country outside the Antananarivo region has helped Ratsiraka in any way in the other provinces?
It helped him in the sense it hurt Ravalomonana of course. May be Ravalomanana would have garnered more support in the provinces if they had seen how many people attended the ceremony and what sort of solemn atmosphere there was at the stadium where the investiture took place. However, it was the population itself that was the real loser from the suspension of transmission. Can you imagine living in a country where such momentous events were happening and you didn't know about them? That would have a very negative psychological impact.
You say Ratsiraka may not be intent on dividing the country but do you think the five governors who pledged support to him may harbour other designs?
I think that in Africa the selfish interests of individuals are sometimes put above those of the nation. May be in ten years' time, we will realise Ravalomanana is also like that, I don't know. But he certainly inspires optimism because he is young and he comes from a business rather than political background. Even so, I think the gap that separates us from democracy today is very big. This crisis is a lesson to bring about more democracy and transparency. It is a lesson to all future governments in Madagascar and the rest of Africa that they can ignore the will of the people at their own peril.
Most of the protests in recent months have taken place in the capital, Antananarivo. What can you tell us about other parts of the country. Is there more support there for Ratsiraka or does Ravalomanana enjoy nationwide support?
I think Ratsiraka still has support but again the population is divided over what it needs. It's true everyone wants change and a chance to get on with their lives but the fact remains that Ratsiraka won in three regions out of six. That is very important.
Do those regions support him because they like him or because they fear him?
They support him because they don't have any other choice. Many people say he should have nominated someone else to run for President because Ratsiraka has been in power for too long. He is old enough to go. May be if he had nominated another candidate, the ruling AREM party would have won an outright majority of votes, sparing the country this crisis. So the problem in Madagascar is that a lot of people want change but they also want somebody from the ruling AREMA party as long as it is not Ratsiraka.
There are about 15 million inhabitants in Madagascar. How many of them would you say support Ratsiraka?
I would say half the population.
If that is the case, then clearly there is a legitimacy problem in the sense that whoever prevails in the end will not have the support of the whole nation. How do you think people in your country should try to resolve that issue?
A popular referedum. That's how we can tell who people really want. We can't speak about a second round because the first one was already unfair as it is.
Ravalomanana appears to accept the idea of a referendum but do you think his supporters accept it, knowing there's a 50-50 chance Ratsiraka could win, as you say?
No, I don't think Ravalomanana's supporters would like the idea of a referendum because in their eyes, Ravalomanana is the de facto President. To them he is already the legitimate leader of the country and it's only a matter of time before he also becomes the legal one. So as far as they are concerned, victory has already been secured.
Most of the army has switched sides. Why do you think the top brass were so unwilling to use force against the demonstrators in Antananarivo?
Let me anwser that with another question. How can you use force against hundreds of thousands of people. How can you open fire when you're faced with more than a million people on the streets? The new military governor of Anatananarivo, appointed by Ratsiraka to enforce the state of emergency and martial law, caused an uproar when he compared the crowds to swarms of 'crickets' but that gives you an idea of the situation. On the other hand, the new Defense Minister said 'I am from the people, for the people'. So the army refused to enforce those laws because they thought the people had a right to demonstrate.
But it seems real military power lies not with the army but with the paratroopers of the gendarmerie. We know that as mayor of Antananarivo, Ravalomanana has been 'good' to the gendarmes, looking after their interests and supplying them with equipment. On the other hand, the army is short on numbers and the little equipment it had acquired from the former Soviet Union has been getting rusty at army barracks for years. Could that be the real reason why the army chose not to move against the people?
No not at all. In 1991, the army was also short on numbers and adequate equipment and yet it obeyed Ratsiraka's martial law orders and moved against the people, killing more than one hundred. I think what we are seeing today is a victory for the will of the people over the law. So the army has accepted that victory.