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Madagascar: Another military coup
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

After three months of persistent civil strife that caused 180 deaths, Madagascar’s President Marc Ravalomanana stepped down from power on March 17 and ceded authority to the nation’s military leaders. Instead, Vice-Admiral Hyppolite Ramaroson installed Andry Rajoelina, Ravalomanana’s chief rival, as the new president. This move was condemned by the African Union (AU), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and the international community. Despite this, Rajoelina was inaugurated president on March 21 and chose Monja Roindefos as his prime minister. On that same day the U.S., Madagascar’s main trading partner, suspended all but humanitarian aid and put on hold a five-year poverty reduction grant program. Norway, another major donor, also suspended aid. On March 30, SADC suspended Madagascar and in conjunction with the AU and the United Nations threatened further action unless legitimate rule is reinstated.

This coup follows a recent disturbing pattern of military coups in other parts of Africa, namely Mauritania, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Furthermore, Madagascar has had a history of change of government by military overthrow since it became independent in 1960. Jean Ping, the AU’s top executive, said that “we want constitutional order to continue. Otherwise, it’s a coup. But we are following the situation.” Ravalomanana went to Swaziland, where he is at present.

After the winds of democratic change blew into Africa in the early 1990s, it appeared that Madagascar’s leaders had agreed to end military intervention in political affairs. However, the disputed election in December 2001 between long-time autocratic ruler Didier Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana, then mayor of the country’s capital Antananarivo, ended with the latter declaring himself president in February 2002. Ratsiraka proclaimed martial law and set up a rival capital in Toamasina on the east coast. In April 2002, after a recount, the high constitutional court declared Ravalomanana president, and several months later Ratsiraka fled to France.

In the December 2006 election, Ravalomanana won reelection with 55 percent of the vote. However, an uneasy truce remained between the two groups. Rajoelina, the newly installed president, is the scion of a wealthy minority which has controlled Madagascar’s politics for several decades, whereas Ravalomanana hails originally from the poor class. However, he became wealthy through his entrepreneurial investments, especially his agribusiness firm.

The powers behind the coup, according to an Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) report (March 23), were Rajoelina’s father, former president Ratsiraka, and Ratsiraka’s nephew Roland Ratsiraka, the former mayor of Toamasina. It was actually only a small segment of the military that gave support to Rajoelina, indicating divisions within the military. Rajoelina is 34 years old, too young to legally be president according to the constitution, which requires a minimum age of 40. A one-time radio disc jockey and media magnate, he was elected mayor of Antananarivo in 2007.

Referring to himself as interim president, Rajoelina had originally promised elections in 24 months, as well as a new constitution, which will presumably lower the minimum age for presidency. At the end of a two-day conference to discuss the nation’s political future, Rajoelina announced on April 3 that elections would be held in October 2010. Adding to the international pressure for return to constitutional rule, Ravalomanana announced on April 15 that he will return to Madagascar under the protection of the 13-member SADC, which considers him still the legitimate president of the country. The actual date of his return has not yet been announced. He has called for elections by the end of this year.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, about 85 percent the size of Texas, with a population of just over 20 million. Despite a number of agricultural and mineral resources, plus great tourist potential with its beaches and an array of animal species unique to the island, it remains a very poor country. Seventy percent of the population lives below the poverty line. An ethnic equation also has to be reckoned with: the majority Melina are descended from the Indonesian settlers of the seventh century, while the Cotiers are of mixed African, Malayo-Indonesian, and Arab ancestry.

Despite being handily elected just over two years ago, public discontent with Ravalomanana had risen dramatically by last year for several reasons. Food prices had soared, the high poverty level persisted, and a severe drought plagued the southern part of the island. His growing wealth from his food empire disturbed many people. The purchase of a $60 million presidential jet and the leasing of over one million hectares of agricultural land to South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics to grow food solely for consumption in South Korea also greatly raised the level of anger aimed at him.

This year’s political tussle began at the end of 2008, when Ravalomanana shut Rajoelina’s independent television and radio stations, ushering in a series of weekly protests that grew increasingly violent. Between January 18-20, two major cyclones hit Madagascar, further exacerbating the country’s humanitarian crises. The final nail in the coffin was the military response to protest in Antananarivo in February, when Ravalomanana removed Rajoelina as mayor. On February 7 thousands of Rajoelina’s supporters poured into the streets setting fire to a number of buildings, actions in which scores of people were killed. Two days later, called “Black Monday” in Madagascar’s newspapers, soldiers opened fire on the protesters, killing 28. This incident led to the military’s withdrawal of support of President Ravalomanana, who was blamed for giving the order to fire. Just over a month later he was overthrown.

Whether Rajoelina will be able to continue in power with so much international disapproval is uncertain. Nor is it clear what policy changes, if any, he will introduce. His patron Ratsiraka had been a socialist in the 1970s and 1980s and had nationalized banks, insurance companies and all mineral resources. In the 1990s, he and his rival Albert Zafy, who was president from 1993 to 1997, changed the nation’s ideological position and adopted free-market policies, especially opening the country to investment in export processing zones. In all of Africa, Madagascar has been known as having the lowest salaries for those working in the export zones. Ravalomanana made the country even more open to foreign investment by encouraging agribusiness ventures and allowing Rio Tinto, the world’s fourth largest mining company, to extract the country’s extensive titanium deposits. The U.S. had strongly endorsed Ravalomanana’s move to free-market reforms.

Rajoelina is himself a wealthy entrepreneur and has given no indication of interfering with the export processing zones, the tourist industry, nor Rio Tinto’s investments. However, his first action was to cancel the deal with Daewoo Logistics, which he had heavily criticized last year. He has also promised to:

  • sell Air Force One, the expensive jet Ravalomanana bought
  • lift people out of poverty (though there is no specific plan how to do this)
  • bring food prices down (once again, no details)
  • not be a food entrereneur himself, like his predecessor
  • arrest Ravalomanana for high treason
  • and, as mentioned above, change the constitution and have elections by October 2010.

In the meantime, Madagascar has to deal with another humanitarian crisis. A third cyclone, called “Jade,” struck on April 6 in the north and made its destructive way down the east coast of the island. Combined with all the other problems, aid agencies estimate that 2.5 million people will need assistance in the urban areas, with an additional 880,000 in the drought-affected south. $35.7 million is being sought to provide humanitarian aid. In addition, the government is dependent on $600 million in official development aid (ODA) that represents 75 percent of its annual budget. Much of that has now been frozen. So dire is the budgetary impasse that the government may not be able to pay government workers’ salaries in May.

Bruno Maes, the UNICEF representative in Madagascar, says, “The nutrition situation is already precarious, both in the capital and in the south. We believe that the situation will worsen, and that up to a quarter million children are currently at risk of disease and malnutrition. Diarrhea, or a small change in the quality or amount of food, could push already weakened children into a life-threatening situation of severe malnutrition.”

According to Foreign Policy in Focus, there are also concerns about the environment. “Ravalomanana was one of the Third World’s strongest leaders in sustainable development. Rajoelina must act quickly if he is to continue his predecessor’s work with environmental conservation. Already militia-loggers have returned to the country’s northeast forests to cut down precious and protected ebony and rosewood trees. Africa’s crown jewel of environmental protection is now at risk.”

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