Quest for support

Sowing the seeds of normality. A woman plants mountain rice in stricken Madagascar.

Dominique Halleux / Still Pictures

This year has been one of major upheaval in Madagascar. A civil crisis followed the December 2001 presidential elections, when official results presented no majority winner. The main contenders were Didier Ratsiraka, the incumbent President, and Marc Ravalomanana, self-made millionaire and mayor of the Malagasy capital, Antananarivo. Ravalomanana claimed outright victory, adamant that the vote had been rigged, and major protests and strikes ensued in Antananarivo. Ratsiraka subsequently moved to his stronghold, the port town of Tamatave, while his supporters isolated the capital by destroying bridges and imposing blockades, starving it of fuel and essential supplies. The stalemate – as both men claimed the presidency – dragged on altogether for seven months, as economic and social disruptions multiplied. Foreign investment plunged. Madagascar’s burgeoning textiles industry fell to ruin. In the isolated capital the streets were full of excrement. With shortages in food and medicines, infant and maternal mortality rates rose dramatically. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) faced a welter of logistical problems as the transport and communications infrastructure was severely dislocated.

The political deadlock descended into pockets of military action and the country was on the brink of civil war when a turning-point finally came. On 26 June the US recognized Ravalomanana as the rightful president and other Western powers, including the former colonial ruler France, followed suit. Ratsiraka fled into exile, leaving Ravalomanana to consolidate control across the island and court the support of international donors for a rebuilding of Madagascar. The ousting of Madagascar’s long-standing ‘old-school style’ leader was greeted as a victory for democracy – though the new African Union has yet to recognize Ravalomanana as Madagascar’s legitimate ruler.

It is a tribute to the Malagasy people that, despite stakes and passions running high, there was so little bloodshed – less than 100 direct casualties in a civil crisis spanning half a year. Yet the price they have paid in social turmoil has been huge. Prior to the crisis, Madagascar was designated the world’s eighth-poorest country. It is now significantly poorer, with average incomes across the island down by half and attendance at the island’s limited health centres also 50 per cent of what they were. Between June and August an influenza epidemic affected some 22,000 people, with around 700 fatalities. Many of those affected were children under five suffering from malnutrition – malnutrition being a familiar plight for the Malagasy, exacerbated by the recent upheavals. With malaria a common killer, a three-year-long cholera epidemic, and a powerful resurgence of bubonic plague during the last decade, there is an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe on the island. In the inevitable wake of extreme poverty, the island’s many unique species will inevitably be under threat.

Ravalomanana has pledged that the Malagasy people will emerge from poverty and is looking to the West for support in harnessing the island’s natural riches. Whether he can secure a viable future remains to be seen.

Mal Mitchell works with Azafady, an NGO running health, sustainable livelihoods and conservation projects in southeast Madagascar – where help (both financial and hands-on) is now desperately needed. For volunteering opportunities see or phone: +44 (0)20 8960 6629.

New Internationalist issue 351 magazine cover This article is from the November 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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