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Madagascar: trouble in paradise

The Indian ocean island is emerging from instability, but it is still haunted by ghosts of the recent past

Antananarivo in Madagascar by Paul Melly

You are 11 months into your term as the new democratic president of Madagacar – a country that previously endured a near five-year transitional regime installed by the army and notorious for corruption and the theft of protected natural resources.

You are battling to rebuild the confidence of foreign aid donors – and convince your own public that things really can get better.

But the roads are still full of holes, many teachers are unqualified volunteers and the rate of child malnutrition is the fourth highest in the world. The 2015 budget only secured national assembly approval after your government softened up complaining parliamentarians by giving them free tablet computers

This is the swampy political environment that confronts President Hery Rajaonarimampianina. And it’s far from clear that he has yet learnt how to navigate his way through.

This nation of 23-25 million people – no one is really quite sure of the correct figure – has a popular international image as an ecological paradise, home to a cornucopia of rare and extraordinary species found nowhere else.

And there is international awareness of the distinctive culture of the Malagasy people, shaped by Asia as well as Africa, and their island’s role as a leading producer of vanilla and tropical spices such as cloves and cinammon.

These dimensions are real enough.

But Madagascar is also a low income country – and one whose development progress has fallen far short of its potential, after repeated bouts of political instability.

The island has been spared war and serious terrorist violence. But twice in recent years it has been held political hostage by the ambitions of rival claimants to the presidency

In 2002, a disputed first round election result saw then head of state Didier Ratsiraka refuse to concede defeat to Marc Ravalomanana, then mayor of the capital, who had claimed victory. For months the country endured paralysis as the two rival would-be presidents jostled for power, before Ratsiraka fled into exile.

Ravalomanana provided real leadership on development. But he ruled in an increasingly high-handed manner – and Berlusconi-style, he also owned the country’s biggest indigenous busines empire.

Then in early 2009 he was faced with a wave of urban protest, headed by a new Antananarivo tycoon mayor, Andry Rajoelina.

This time the army stepped in, installing Rajoelina as transitional president, while Ravalomanana fled into exile. For four years southern African mediators struggled to negotiate a compromise settlement of this clash of egos.

International aid and trade cooperation was largely suspended in an effort to persuade Rajoelina to allow his deposed predecessor home to contest new elections.

But – as so often – sanctions hit the poor hardest, freezing development projects and provoking mass job losses in the textile export industry, while the elite survived comfortably enough, many tapping into the proceeds of corruption and the illicit plunder of Madagascar’s precious protected rosewood forests.

Eventually, international pressure and the courage of new judges on the national elections court, forced both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana to stay out of a new presidential contest – which was held late last year.

The two main camps were represented by stand-in candidates – Jean-Louis Robinson, a former health minister was Ravalomanana’s man, while Rajoelina put forward Rajaonarimampianina, his former finance minister. The latter, able to far outspend all challengers, emerged victorious.

But Rajaonarimampianina – universally known as “Hery” –  has come into a bleak inheritance, ravaged by corruption and social inequalities.

The Malagasy people are resilient. And in parts of the administration committed officials have resisted political pressure from above to maintain the disciplines of proper management and regulation.

But the damage wrought by the transition is evident everywhere. Many economic and social indicators now lag behind those for mainland sub-Saharan societies with far fewer resources.


Paul is an Associate Fellow of the Africa programme at Chatham House. He has expertise in French and EU Africa policy, development policy, grassroots development, development finance, and project and trade finance. He writes for, among others, the Economist intelligence Unit, Middle East Economic Digest, Africa Confidential, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and Sasakawa Africa Association.

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