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Madagascar’s March Madness

The fourth-largest island in the world, blessed with both a mild tropical climate that is hospitable to an incredible biodiversity – it is home to some 5% of the earth’s animal and plant species, including some 9,000 flora found nowhere else in the world – and as well as an open economy that has been growing at a steady pace of 7% annually and whose perceived success made it the very first country with a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact when it signed an agreement worth $110 million in April 2005, Madagascar seemed to have a lot going for it. Unfortunately, mob actions which culminated in this week’s overthrow of President Marc Ravalomanana have significantly set back progress on the France-sized isle in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa.Unless the 20 million Malagasy regain their sense of balance, they place in jeopardy not only their own recent gains, but those of the entire African continent, at a time when neither can afford to run such risks. The uprising also calls into question the policies of Madagascar’s generous foreign benefactors, including the United States, who have invested heavily in what has proven to be the country’s rather illusory “success.”

Since achieving independence from France in 1960, Madagascar’s political development has been uneven, to put it mildly. The first president, Philibert Tsiranana, gradually transformed the republic into an authoritarian one-party state with his once moderate Social Democratic Party as the dominant political force, brutally crushing a rebellion in 1971. The following year, however, amid widespread protests, Tsiranana was forced to resign, handing power over to General Gabriel Ramanantsoa, who downgraded relations with France, while pursuing close ties with the communist bloc. In February 1975, Ramanantsoa’s interior minister, Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, used the pretext of new protests to seize the presidency for himself. Ratsimandrava only lasted six days before he was assassinated and replaced by yet another military man, General Gilles Andriamahazo, who managed to steer the country back from the precipice of civil war before resigning four months later in favor of Vice Admiral Didier Ratsiraka.

Ratsiraka dominated Malagasy politics for most of the next quarter-century. After holding a bogus referendum which awarded him – with 95% of the vote, no less – a seven-year term of office, Ratsiraka set about building a one-party socialist state, nationalizing most of the economy and cutting the remaining ties to France (earlier, as his predecessor’s foreign minister, he had expelled the United States ambassador, Joseph Mendenhall; Ratsiraka also shut down the NASA tracking station at Tananarive). Ratsiraka further consolidated power in 1977, when his political party was the only one allowed to contest the parliamentary elections. He was subsequently “reelected” president by lopsided margins in 1982 and 1989. During his rule, Ratsiraka forged even closer ties with the Soviet Union, which provided his regime with military advisers and technical advice as well as access to MiG-21 “Fishbed” jet fighters. The Soviets also built a series of sea lane intercept stations along Madagascar’s western coast astride the Mozambique Channel, although these subsequently were abandoned at the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of his Soviet patrons and growing opposition at home forced Ratsiraka to allow early multiparty elections in 1993, which he lost to opposition leader Albert Zafy, who won more than two-thirds of the vote. Amid frustration at his perceived failure to turn around the country’s economic decline, Zafy found himself impeached by the National Assembly and thrown out of office after barely three years. The special election held after Zafy’s removal allowed Ratsiraka to return to office from where, in 1998, he maneuvered the passage of a constitutional amendment that empowered him to dissolve the National Assembly as well as to appoint the prime minister and government without legislative approval. Angered opposition parties boycotted the provincial elections of 2000, setting the stage for the hotly contested presidential poll of 2001.

Ratsiraka was challenged in the December 2001 election by Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire who had gone on to become the widely popular mayor of the capital, Antananarivo. The official results of the poll gave Ravalomanana 46% of the vote to Ratsiraka’s 40%, a clear win, although less than the absolute majority needed to avoid a second round of balloting. The run-off was never held, however, because Ravalomanana, claiming he had won a majority in the first round, appealed to the Constitutional Court to review the vote. Ratsiraka’s supporters then blockaded their opponents, who were heavily concentrated in the capital and its environs, while Ravalomanana’s backers declared him president in February 2002. The Constitutional Court backed him with a ruling two months later, although the stand-off continued until July when, having slowly lost control of Madagascar’s provinces, Ratsiraka fled the country, ironically going into exile in France (the former president was subsequently tried in absentia for corruption and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor).

During his first term in office, Ravalomanana was widely credited with improvements to Malagasy infrastructure as well as to education and health, although many remain discontented with the slow pace of economic progress for those trapped in poverty. Running for a second term in 2006 against a field of 13 other candidates, Ravalomanana was reelected by a solid majority, winning 54.8% of the vote in the first round. The following year, early parliamentary elections gave Ravalomanana’s Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM, “I love Madagascar”) party a solid majority of 105 seats in the 127-seat National Assembly.

In retrospect, the September 2007 parliamentary poll was the high water mark for Ravalomanana and TIM. Just three months later, voters in Antananarivo elected a 32-year-old former disc jockey named Andry Nirina Rajoelina as their mayor. After working for a number of years as an entertainer, Rajoelina went into business with financial backing from Pierrot Jocelyn Rajaonarivelo, a Malagasy ambassador to the United States and later deputy prime minister under Ratsiraka who was subsequently convicted of abuse of office (although he fled into exile rather than serving the sentence of 15 years of hard labor). After launching an advertising company and radio and television network about ten years ago, Rajoelina traded on the free media exposure provided by his enterprises and subsequent adulation of fans to make his foray into politics in late 2007. As the Madagascar Tribune observed at the time: “Because his real ‘success story,’ many young people – if not all of them—want to be just like him.” The paper’s reporter was virtually in rapture as he went on report some of the banal maxims which Rajoelina threw about in lieu of anything resembling well-articulated political platform:

Responding clearly to his followers, Andry showed them the value of audacity. “One must dare and always go forward,” he emphasized, “despite adversity and competition.”…

According to him, competition must be innovative, not destructive as some people conceive it. “Doing better than one’s competitors must be the objective, rather than to seek to destroy at all cost.”

These “pearls of wisdom” must sound much better in Malagasy than they do in either French or English, because the citizens of Antananarivo elected Rajoelina mayor with 63.3% of the vote. Nicknamed “TGV” after the high-speed French rail service on account of his energy, the baby-faced Rajoelina soon found his new municipal job less fun than the campaign trail where his thousands of adoring fans sported T-shirts emblazoned with his face and gyrated to the beat of trendy music before pledging their votes to his quasi-eponymous TGV (Tanora malaGasy Vonona, “Determined Malagasy Youth”) movement. However, with a minimum age of 40 prescribed by the constitution for accession to the presidency, TGV’s electoral train would conceivably have to idle for the better part of a decade before he could legitimately seek the country’s highest office. Fortune, however, smiled on the ambitious young-man-in-a-hurry in the guise of the global economic downturn which, in turn, cut demand on the world market for the foodstuffs and primary commodities on which the Malagasy economy depends for more than 70% of its earnings, and in the ham-fisted way the Ravalomanana administration tried to shut down Rajoelina’s Viva TV after it broadcasted an interview in late December 2008 with fugitive former president Ratsiraka.

Tension escalated between President Ravalomanana and Mayor Rajoelina and their respective partisans, especially after Rajoelina called for a general strike in January aimed at ousting the man he publically reviled as a “dictator.” Street protests became increasingly violent, with Rajoelina supporters setting fire the building housing the state-owned radio network as well as attacking a television station owned by Ravalomanana (they latter returned to torch the television studio as well). As the violence spread, so did the casualties, including several dozen people who were trapped inside a department store when looters set it ablaze. In early February, after Rajoelina proclaimed himself the new leader of Madagascar and demanded Ravalomanana’s resignation, the president invoked the constitution and dismissed the mayor from his municipal office. Rajoelina, far from being cowed, proceeded to appoint a rival government. Violence continued to escalate as the two leaders held competing rallies which drew tens of thousands of people.

Only towards the beginning of March that Ravalomanana seemed to have come to terms with the perilous position he found himself in and tried to arrest Rajoelina, who then went into hiding at what turned out to be the French ambassador’s residence. Meanwhile, events were quickly spinning out of control. On March 8th, soldiers based outside the capital mutinied when they received orders to participate in a crack-down against the opposition. Two days later, after the death toll in the violence passed the one hundred mark, the chief of staff of the Malagasy army, General Edmond Rasalomahandry, gave both sides a seventy-two-hour deadline to settle their differences peacefully, threatening to intervene if the deadlock continued. Instead, less than 24 hours after laying down his ultimatum, it was General Rasolomahandry who was gone, driven from army headquarters by pro-Rajoelina troops, and replaced by a subordinate, Colonel André Andriarijaona. The defense minister, Vice Admiral Mamy Ranaivoniarivo, was likewise forced from office, resigning hastily after receiving a “visit” from a group of junior officers who had declared for the TGV. The next day, March 12th, other pro-Rajoelina soldiers seized the Ministry of Finance building. On March 13th, the chief of the military police, General Pily Gilbain, declared for Rajoelina while another officer, Colonel Noel Rakotonandrasana, reportedly sent tanks under his command towards Iavoloha Palace, the official residence of the Malagasy head of state 15 kilometers outside the capital, where Ravalomanana was holed up, protected by a human shield of several thousand supporters who surrounded the compound. The following day, after the prime minister’s offices in Antananarivo fell to his supporters, Rajoelina demanded that the president resign “in order to respect legal procedure.” Instead, Ravalomanana emerged at the presidential residence last Sunday to propose a national referendum on whether he should stay in office or not.

Sensing he had his opponent cornered, Rajoelina rejected the call for a vote and called on security forces to arrest the president. On Monday, soldiers who had declared for Rajoelina stormed the French colonial AmbohitsirohitraPalace, the official offices of the Malagasy president in Antananarivo, and handed the building over the former mayor of the capital who installed himself in the presidential suite. From there, Rajoelina sent supporters out to seize the offices of the Central Bank of Madagascar. The next day, President Ravalomanana, who had fled the capital and hiding in an undisclosed location, gave up the struggle, signing an order turning executive power over to the senior officer left in the Malagasy armed forces, Vice Admiral Hippolyte Ramaroson. Late Tuesday, however, the BBC reported that the naval officer had declined to accept the authority the outgoing president tried to hand off and turned the leadership of the country over to Rajoelina, despite constitutional provisions mandating that the leader of the Senate assume the acting presidency and organize elections within two months should the head of state resign.

In an interview Wednesday with the BBC, Rajoelina, who is six years too young to constitutionally serve as president even if he had entered office in a more regular manner, promised elections within two years after he time to tinker with the constitution and the electoral laws: “We’ll have to change the constitution…have to analyze the law on political parties, the electoral code; we need time to do all this.” Like all too many who have seized power before him in Africa and elsewhere, he claimed exigent circumstances and the mandate of the masses for his having bypassed legal norms: “The life of the country cannot wait, so for this reason the people, the very life force of Madagascar, have named me as president of the republic.”

The Malagasy coup d’état has been widely condemned, with most criticism directed at the extralegal recourse the Rajoelina and his supporters took to vindicate their grievances. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announcedgravely concerned about the evolving developments in that he was “Madagascar.” At the U.S. State Department, acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters Tuesday that while “all of the parties to this conflict need to exercise restraint and resume dialogue…any extra-constitutional resolution will result in a cutoff of U.S. assistance.”Later in the day, the State Department ordered all nonessential staff at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo and the families of all American personnel there to leave the country, while Jody Olsen, acting director of the Peace Corps, announced the suspension of the program and the safe evacuation of all 112 volunteers working in Madagascar to South Africa. Meanwhile, the European Union’s high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, issued a statement declaring that “the use of violence as a means to short-circuit the constitutional process is unacceptable.”

Similarly the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, declared the takeover “unconstitutional,” while the Voice of America quoted Burkina Faso’s representative to the pan-African body, Ambassador Bruno Nongoma Zidouemba, acting president of the AU Peace and Security Council, as noting that because Ravalomanana had resigned under duress, “it will be a coup d’état. And as usual, we will apply the rules of the AU. All of these provisions condemn the anti-constitutional changes of government, be they military or civilian or a combination of both. So on this, there is not a doubt and the Council is unanimous on this.” (In two other cases where power has been seized in Africa in recent months, Guinea in December 2008 and Mauritania in August 2008, the AU has suspended the countries from the organization. In a third case, Comoros, it deployed a military mission exactly one year ago to reassert the authority of the national government over an island threatening secession. While Andry Rajoelina in Antananarivo will undoubtedly be shunned by the continental grouping just like his counterparts Captain Moussa Dadis Camara in Conakry and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott, it is inconceivable that the AU could mount any sort of armed intervention against him like it did against Colonel Mohamed Said Bacar on Anjouan.)

While its ultimate disposition is still unclear at the time of this writing, what are some of the general conclusions might be drawn from this episode?

First, the international community needs to be alert to the tremendous pressure that the current global economic crisis places on financially fragile developing countries like those in Africa. Despite the progress that Madagascar has seen in recent years, especially under the now-maligned President Ravalomanana, more that 70% of the population still struggles to make ends meet on less than $1 a day. And, unfortunately, with the collapse of prices on its primary export commodities – coffee and vanilla – the sheer number of people struggling with poverty has increased. Moreover, unlike past periods, those who find themselves marginalized are no longer suffering silently in remote villages. They are more likely to be congregated in urban centers like Antananarivo where they can be easily whipped into a frenzied mob by demagogues like Andry Rajoelina.

Second, mob rule is the form of government least likely to achieve positive outcomes, much less deliver the sustained economic growth that individual members of the mob in places like Madagascar so desperately need. To do grow their economies, countries must attract investment by being competitive, which means, according to the Lake Kivu Consensus: An Agenda for a Competitive Africa, a recently document published by the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, “the ability to sustain an environment in which firms can profitably produce goods and services that the market will pay for.” Madagascar will take years to recover from the damage which the mass demonstrations of recent months and the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected head of state has wreaked on the island’s reputation, to say nothing of its investment climate. The same goes specifically for Madagascar’s nearly $400 million a year tourism business, one of the fastest growing sectors of the Malagasy economy. Not many well-heeled tourists will be looking to vacation in a place where angry mobs have been roaming about for several months baying for the blood of their own elected leaders.

Third, while the Malagasy themselves bear primary responsibility for the situation in which they now find themselves – after all, just a little more than three months ago, Ghanaians on the other side of the African continent, likewise stood on the brink, but they and their leaders wisely backed away once they took a hard look at the precipice (see my January 15tb report on “Ghana Again Blazes the Trail for Africa”) – Madagascar’s international partners are not without some responsibility. In a sharp critique published last year in the venerable journal of the Royal African Society, African Affairs, Dr. Nadia Rabesahala Horning of MiddleburyCollege raised the question of why it is that Madagascar, a country that has always struggled to meet its development and environmental goals, never suffered a shortage of foreign assistance. Focusing in particular on aid to conservation efforts, the scholar makes a convincing case that a “mutual dependency” has developed between donors and the beneficiary of their largesse:

The case of Madagascar reveals a great irony: while foreign donors seek to control recipient governments’ policy agendas, they find themselves trapped in a situation of dependency in which the incentives for aid organizations to turn foreign aid into strong development or environmental performance become weak. The dilemma is that the success of foreign aid goes against the very raison d’être of aid agencies and against the interests of the professionals who work for them.

Fourth, Madagascar’s international partners in general and the various agencies of the United States government in particular all need to reassess their analytical protocols and determine how it is they were largely ill-prepared for – if not altogether surprised by – the current crisis. Certainly given the now manifest weakness of the democratic ethos, much less of the governmental institutions, in Madagascar, it almost beggars the imagination that just a few years ago this was the very first country deemed worthy of support from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Millennium Challenge Account. Nor are the American diplomatic and foreign aid bureaucracy the only part of the U.S. government to have invested much in a partnership with the Malagasy. The U.S. defense establishment likewise banked considerably on the stability and capabilities of the Ravalomanana government. In 2006, the Combined Task Force-Horn of Africa, together with the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo, with support from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), chose the Malagasy capital as the venue for the first-ever conference on maritime security in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean as a precursor for what would the following year be a ministerial-level meeting. Less than two months ago, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General William E. “Kip” Ward, made his first official visit to the island nation, conferring with President Ravalomanana and various other officials of the now-deposed government.

Finally, if democracy is to be promoted in Africa, then greater attention must be paid to the content and nuance of what is actually being advanced. Last year, commenting in this column space on the post-election violence in Kenya, I noted that “democracy is more than merely counting heads periodically” and quoted James Madison – whose 258th birthday coincidentally was earlier this week – in the tenth paper of The Federalist to the effect that “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Instead, I argued, “the democratic ideal that ought to be proposed to…African countries should include not only by representation, whereby those governing are chosen by the people in periodic free, fair, and transparent elections, but also constitutionalism, which provides for a government based on the rule of law whose power is circumscribed to prevent the abuse of the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals by the majority or plurality of their fellow citizens. Only when the cost of being out of power is lowered below that of political violence to achieve it will African countries know the security and stability without which the prospects for their future – and America’s national interests in an increasingly significant geopolitical space – will be quite bleak.” More than one year later, the mad mobs on the streets of Antananarivo are a sober reminder of just how far a road much of Africa has yet to travel.


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