Madagascar: Systemic crisis underpins turmoil

March 21, 2009

Following a series of anti-government protests that were brutally repressed — with more than 100 people killed since January 26 — the military forced the corrupt and brutal Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana to step down.

He was replaced by opposition leader, and wealthy businessperson, Andry Rajoelina — whose first move was to suspend parliament.

The abridged article below is by Madagascan women's and human rights activist Zo Randriamaro and has been translated by Josh Ogada. It was originally published on February 26 at

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For the last few weeks, Madagascar has been in the grip of a political crisis whose genesis remains unclear.

The media and diplomats have focused on the open conflict between the elected President Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina, the beleaguered mayor of Antananarivo, who declared himself de facto leader of the country.

This conflict has led to violence and the destruction of property belonging to the MAGRO corporation owned by Ravalomanana. The bloody suppression of a march on the presidential palace by supporters of Rajoelina on February 7 resulted in a number of deaths.

A number of senior military officers have made it clear that if a solution is not found, "we will take over, as the last bastion of the republic and national unity".

Regardless of the army's motives, this ominous statement is a warning that we should look at the structural causes underlying the crisis.

Key factors are inequality and social injustice. In spite of a 6% growth rate in 2007, 70% of the population still survives on less than US$1 a day, and more than 59% of the population are chronically malnourished, according to 2007 African Development Bank figures.

This points to a growing exclusion of the majority from the benefits of this growth. Previously, poverty was characteristic of rural areas, but according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2007, urban poverty has grown from 43% in 2001 to 52% in 2005.

Moreover, the eagerness of Ravalomanana's government to pursue neoliberal policies has led to the privatisation of basic social services, putting them out of reach of those who need them most.

Discontent with the regime is largely due to this drop in living standards, exacerbated by a rise in the price of petrol and basic goods, and a decline in production in the export processing zones (EPZs) that, prior to the end of the Multi Fibre Arrangement that regulated the global trade of textiles until 2004, were a major source of employment.

Presidential power has become increasingly dictatorial, heightening public anger and frustration.

In addition, the president has made a series of serious economic mistakes. The purchase of a presidential jet for $60 million and the granting of a 99-year lease to Daewoo for the cultivation of more than half of the country's arable land are the most oft-cited examples of economic mismanagement.

In the meantime, the World Bank and the IMF have frozen $35 million in aid.

Given the weakened state of the opposition and the erosion of institutional power structures, Rajoelina did not find it difficult to channel public anger and position himself as the spokesperson for the regime's opponents.

Commentators have drawn parallels between Ravalomanana's and Rajoelina's trajectories to power. Both were successful in business, both were mayors, and both came to power on the wings of popular movements.

In Madagascar, the youth form the majority. However, women and youth continue to be subordinated. Rajoelina, 34 years old, represents a departure from this oppressive social order and the promise of success for the youth — just as Ravalomanana did when he came to power.

It would, however, be erroneous to assume that the population of Antananarivo is split between the supporters of both factions. Despite Rajoelina's calls for a general strike, factory workers in the EPZs defended the factories and demanded to continue working.

Most of those employed in the EPZs are unskilled labour, yet they refused to strike because they could not afford to lose their salaries, however meagre, rather than because they supported the elected president.

From a historical perspective, the current clash between these two men is but an episode in a decades-long crisis.

Previous regimes, whether radical socialist or avowed neoliberal, have come and gone, neither able to understand nor resolve this crisis.

This is the fourth time in the country's history that a popular uprising has gripped Antananarivo. The three previous ones took place in 1972, 1991 and 2002.

Some scholars have identified a cyclical trend to these uprisings. They seem to occur every 10 years or so, although public tolerance has dropped to seven years in the current instance.

Each time, the incumbent government, claiming electoral legitimacy, has put down the uprising.

It is not by chance that the upheavals have taken place in Antananarivo, the country's political epicentre. Although the ripples are felt elsewhere in the country — restricted to isolated demonstrations and cases of looting — the intensity of events in the capital reveal a political chasm between the centre and periphery.

The only solution to this long-standing gap would be to jumpstart the process of decentralisation that was set in place by previous regimes.

This political divide has dominated political discourse and action, and continues to raise questions about the nature of counter forces in Madagascar. It would be instructive to analyse the role of churches and civil society in the present crisis — and their capacity to provide viable alternatives and inspire real democratic change.

The current crisis provides a unique opportunity to revisit the principles of democracy, citizenship and human rights in Madagascar.

Women's organisations have realised this, and have demanded a general conference of Malagasy society and a constitutional referendum — as well as equal participation for women in all political processes.

These are positive signs that indicate the willingness of women to actively work to resolve the crisis, rather than settle for negotiated democracy.

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