Thursday, February 12, 2009

Madagascar: After the carnage - the blame game

Protestors gather in Antananarivo

As emotions continue to run high in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, many people are asking who is to blame for the political turmoil in which over 100 people have died in anti-government protests organised by opposition leader and former mayor of the capital, Andry Rajoelina.

What was once a peaceful democracy movement has become part of a political struggle which reached a new low when security forces shot dead 28 people outside the presidential offices on 7 February.

"We want change," Henri, a teacher told IRIN at an anti-government demonstration in Antananarivo. "I am here because I believe the government has made mistakes. But change should be democratic - Rajoelina should find another way to show his opinion."

The 7 February tragedy have left many questioning the motives behind leading a crowd of protesters to march on a presidential building guarded by armed soldiers. "There was only ever going to be two outcomes," said Solofo, an eyewitness of the day's events. "Bloodshed or storming the palace."

"There was a time when I supported the democracy movement," Solo, a basketball coach, told IRIN. "But now it has become too extreme."

Promises broken

Since his election as mayor of Antananarivo in December 2007, Rajoelina has set himself up as a vocal opponent of President Marc Ravalomanana, attracting the support of many who had become disillusioned with a government that they feel has failed to address the needs of Madagascar's poorest.

Analysts said Rajoelina's election in itself was a signal to the president that he was becoming increasingly distant from the people who once voted him into power. While a tiny elite in Madagascar has benefited from his liberalisation of the economy, the conditions of the poor have worsened, despite macro-economic growth.

Ravalomanana's economic reforms have attracted foreign investors - after years of economic stagnation and isolation - tempted by the country's oil and mineral wealth. Mining giants such as Rio Tinto have invested billions of dollars in local projects. Canada's Sherritt International Corporation, a natural resource company, is investing $3.4 billion in developing one of the world's biggest nickel mines just east of Antananarivo.

"The economy has shown positive results since 2004. There has been huge increase in foreign investment, especially in the mining sector, and the economy has been showing signs of recovery," Herinjatovo Ramiarison, economics professor at the University of Antananarivo, told IRIN.

"But the negative side of this free market is that it has increased the gap between rich and poor, and I think that is the main cause behind this crisis. Everywhere inequality is a source of political and social frustration and trouble, and it is very easy for people to be led to strike and protest," he commented.

"The government succeeded in implementing economic policy, but failed to implement social policies to counteract the inequality between the poor and rich."

Looking out for number one

The president himself has benefited enormously from Madagascar's economic growth. His success as an entrepreneur in dairy products helped him win the respect of his supporters during his campaign for the presidency in 2001, but people have reportedly become suspicious of overlapping public and private interests, and it has taken little to provoke people to take to the streets of Antananarivo in protest.

Many people also believe there are other, more powerful forces at work behind the opposition leaders. "The violence that we are seeing has the hallmarks of past struggles here," a political analyst and resident of Antananarivo, told IRIN.

"There are political people from the past here – what we call dinosaurs – and maybe some of them are involved in some way. It is difficult to say, but there is a lot of money involved in this anti-government movement, and it is not clear where that money is coming from."

The damage caused when the protests escalated into violence could be long-term. In just a few shorts weeks the work of many years to re-position Madagascar as a safe investment has been set back - by some estimates it could take between six and ten years for the economy to fully recover.

Coming to terms

While Rajoelina's attempt to wrest power from a democratically elected government has been condemned by African Union, Western diplomats, under the auspices of the United Nations, are pushing for dialogue and a focus on addressing the grievances expressed in the demonstrations.

"We call on the authorities, political parties and civil society to find a solution to this crisis through dialogue, with respect of the constitution, and to follow the reforms necessary to respond to calls for more social justice and democracy, and for the good management of public affairs," said a statement released by the European Union on 6 February.

Others have more immediate concerns: "It is easy to forget that it is still the cyclone season here. This is the most difficult time of year for people, and now, in addition to a global economic crisis that is expected to affect Africa severely in 2009, we have a political crisis here in Madagascar," said Ramiarison. "I am worried that we won't be able to avoid a food crisis if they don't find a solution to this situation soon."

It will be hard for Ravalomanana to recover from the bloody events of what the local media have called "Red Saturday", but there is little political alternative to the 59-year-old tycoon. At the age of 34, Rajoelina is viewed by many as too young to be president.

"I am not pro-Ravalomanana," said Solofo, "but he was elected president and we have to let him finish his mandate. The current protests are a warning, but he can change, and if not, he is out in the next elections."

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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