Transition to tyranny? Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Andry Rajoelina as the President of the High Transitional Authority of Madagascar. Photo by Jeannot Ramambazafy under a CC Licence.
The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world.
The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by recent events on the large island that sits to the south-east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.
But they most certainly are. In 2009, amid political upheaval on the island, 35-year-old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of Antananarivo, the capital, (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority.’
His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the new ‘government’). The bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was also cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de facto administration.
It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate. But the elections did not happen. He managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.
The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. An agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.
But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against what was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.
And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category.
For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.
In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering.
Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world's leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.
Madagascar 3 had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the direction of something happier.