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Roots of turmoil

The coup that ousted Madagascar’s elected president reflects political and social tensions related to the island’s colonial legacy, says Stephen Ellis.

he overthrow of Madagascar’s elected president Marc Ravalomanana on 17 March 2009 is the latest setback in long-term efforts to establish political stability in the Indian Ocean island. These date from as long ago as 1972, when demonstrations by young people in the capital Antananarivo and other cities brought down the government of Philibert Tsiranana, the country’s first president after independence from French colonial rule in 1960. One of his successors, Richard Ratsimandrava, was assassinated in 1975 after only six days in office.

Madagascar’s instability derives in large part from the combination of extreme poverty (the fate of some 70% of its people) and the fact that the island has one of the world’s highest birthrates (the population has increased from less than 3 million around 1900 to 6 million in 1960, to 20 million today). The arrival of large numbers of young people every year looking to join the job market has created a volatile atmosphere in Antananarivo.

Indeed, control of the urban mob has long been a significant factor in national politics, and was instrumental in the process that led to Marc Ravalomanana’s ousting and replacement by the former mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina. Behind this social phenomenon lies a factor rarely spoken of in public : that many of Antananarivo’s urban poor are the descendants of slaves. The institution of slavery was formally abolished under French colonial rule, but the stigma of slavery continues to be a factor in social and political life. Andry Rajoelina himself, however, comes from an upper-class family in Madagascar’s quasi-caste society.

The 17 March coup - which followed weeks of violence in which more than a hundred people were killed - has reverberations far beyond Madagascar. It is a blow to the African Union (AU), which has been arguing that unconstitutional changes of government as blatant as this are not acceptable. Madagascar is the fourth African country in less than a year - following coups in Mauritania and Guinea, and the murder of an incumbent president in Guinea-Bissau - to experience a military takeover or something close to it. The political fixes that have occurred in Kenya and Zimbabwe since the start of 2008 are hardly more respectable.

The AU has now refused to recognise Andry Rajoelina, who was inaugurated on 21 March, as Madagascar’s new president. So too have the United States government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional grouping to which Madagascar belongs. This international rejection will make it difficult for Rajoelina to ensconce himself in power. Such lack of legitimacy also raises fears of even more widespread and destructive violence.

The pressures of change

A number of factors, both immediate and longer-term, lay behind the removal of Marc Ravalomanana. His main opponent Andry Rajoelina was as mayor of Antananarivo able to rally the support of many young people in the city. This is the latest example of crises in which demonstrations and violence in the streets of the capital have played a key role : comparable events occurred in 1972, in the mid-1980s, and the early 1990s.

Indeed, this series of dramas includes the moment of Marc Ravalomanana’s own rise in 2001-02, when he used his position as mayor of Antananarivo as a base to contest the presidency again the incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka. The presidential elections in 2001 were rigged against Ravalomanana, but with the clear support of most of the island’s population at the time he eventually prevailed. This raised hopes that Madagascar had turned a corner in its search for stability and constitutional rule.

Ravalomanana was elected to a second term in 2006. But even as president he continued to pursue his interests as one of the country’s leading businessmen, and there is no doubt that this contributed greatly to his downfall. For example, he appointed former managers of his companies to government positions ; and rival businesspeople found themselves being frozen out of lucrative markets. It was sometimes difficult to know whether policies were implemented because they were good for Madagascar or just for one or other of the president’s businesses.

Ravalomanana treated the country’s existing political class with something close to contempt, and made it clear that he regarded the armed forces as an unnecessary expense in an island that faces no serious threat of foreign invasion. He also made a grave error in negotiating with a South Korean company that wanted to lease an enormous agro-business concession to grow food for export. This raised fears over land tenure in a country where people are intensely attached to their ancestral land. The deal was abandoned on 19 March, too late to save its architect.

These excesses alienated many Malagasy, including the provincial political bosses who had emerged in the 1980s and 1990s only to be sidelined during Ravalomanana’s nearly seven years in power. There are important regional and ethnic dimensions in this process. Although all Malagasy speak the same language, there are distinctive regional identities. A stock-in-trade of political bosses is ethnic mobilisation, sometimes associated with calls for a federal constitution. Ravalomanana had attempted to trump this ethnic appeal by recourse to a centralised government and a business-friendly economic policy. It now appears that in doing so he underestimated the power of the established political class that he rejected ; and that Andry Rajoelina, in addition to his urban power-base, was able to enlist the support of many of its members.

In the context of Madagascar’s history of political crises, the present tumult is one of the few occasions when the people of the central highlands (about a third of the total population) have not been pitted against those from the coastal areas (côtiers). But if the power-struggle continues, as now seems very likely, this ethnic factor could reappear once more. What is happening in rural areas and provincial towns could play an important role in the outcome.

The hand of power

Marc Ravalomanana’s supporters are adamant that France, the former colonial power, played a significant part in the coup of 17 March. There had, after all, been a series of disputes that led to the removal of the French ambassador in July 2008. Indeed, some circumstantial evidence exists that the accusation is credible. Andry Rajoelina was given asylum at the French embassy in early March, when his campaign was running out of steam. The army mutiny in his favour that immediately followed - and projected him into power - was led by lower-rank soldiers who had received substantial payments from an unknown source. However, France has condemned the coup. French policy-makers appear to have been somewhat surprised by the strength of international condemnation of the political change in Madagascar.

Andry Rajoelina, now sworn in as Madagascar’s president and promising elections within two years, will have difficulty in stabilising the situation. His true support-base is narrow, and he is beholden to an unstable military and to a number of political barons more experienced than he, with provincial power-bases of their own. Marc Ravalomanana’s present whereabouts are unknown, but he continues to have significant support, not least from the churches, which are an important institution in Madagascar. The troubled island’s crisis is not over.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.