In just five months the relatively calm Indian Ocean island of Madgascar has been riven by a political row that has seen almost 60 people killed since January and more than 65,000 jobs lost. The World Bank on Tuesday said the economic fallout from the protracted crisis could spell disaster for the poorest of the poor in the country. The leadership wrangle began in January when Marc Ravalomanana, the charismatic mayor of the capital, organised mass protests accusing incumbent president Didier Ratsiraka of rigging the December polls in an effort to prolong his 23-year rule. The crisis recently turned uglier with incidents of clashes between two of the country's largest ethnic groups. IRIN asked Madagascar specialist Stephen Ellis at the African Studies Institute in Leiden, Netherlands, how a country known more for its vanilla exports and sandy beaches became one of Africa's hotspots.
MADAGASCAR: IRIN interview with Africa analyst, Stephen Ellis JOHANNESBURG, 21 May (IRIN) - In just five months the relatively calm Indian Ocean island of Madgascar has been riven by a political row that has seen almost 60 people killed since January and more than 65,000 jobs lost. The World Bank on Tuesday said the economic fallout from the protracted crisis could spell disaster for the poorest of the poor in the country.
The leadership wrangle began in January when Marc Ravalomanana, the charismatic mayor of the capital, organised mass protests accusing incumbent president Didier Ratsiraka of rigging the December polls in an effort to prolong his 23-year rule. The crisis recently turned uglier with incidents of clashes between two of the country's largest ethnic groups.
IRIN asked Madagascar specialist Stephen Ellis at the African Studies Institute in Leiden, Netherlands, how a country known more for its vanilla exports and sandy beaches became one of Africa's hotspots.
QUESTION: It's been almost six months since the 16 December election and despite a concerted effort by African mediators to resolve the political row, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has yet to secure lasting peace. Why is that?
ANSWER: Obviously there has a been general lack of international mediation.
The OAU on its own lacks the political clout. While the Secretary General Amara Essy is a skilled and experienced diplomat, and I am sure that he has committed these skills to the situation in the country, the OAU as an organisation simply does not have the political or economic leverage to effect major changes. Moreover, the credibility of the OAU comes into question because of the baggage it has.
Q: The Dakar agreement signed by both men in April sounded like a perfect end to a four-month political crisis, but no sooner had the men signed did the accord come under fire from non-governmental organisations and the media in the country? The main criticism was that it was vague and left many questions unanswered. Ravalomanana refused to dissolve his government while Ratsiraka reneged on his promise to dismantle the blockade? Was Dakar, a missed opportunity for both rivals and diplomats to resolve this issue?
A: People who followed the Dakar negotiations say Ratsiraka is tired and would probably like to retire if he can save face.
But a lot of his supporters of course have no such idea in mind. France, the former colonial power was in fact the real power behind the agreement. I think a lot of people had hoped that the French would help to diffuse the situation, however the Dakar meeting coincided with the lead up to the French elections and and in a way the situation in Madagascar didn't get the necessary attention it deserved.
Q: The OAU has recommended a referendum be held to choose between the candidates. Some critics say that a referendum is a luxury a country as poor as Madagascar cannot afford. Could a referendum break the deadlock?
A: Clearly Madagascar is a poor country and the events of the last six months has only made it poorer. If figures show that it would be too costly to hold a referendum then an international donor would have to step in to assist. A referendum however is perhaps not the only solution. It may be part of a broader solution. The two men need to come up with an agreement that sticks with their supporters.
Q: After several attempts to unseat him, Ratsiraka still manages to command considerable support in the country, especially in the provinces. What appeal does Ratsiraka still hold?
A: Ratsiraka has some support largely through the bits of the government machine that he still manages. I don't think there is much attachment to him as an individual, and has not been for many years. He has had many years to appoint his own people to all state positions.
Q: Some of these people are the highly influential provincial governors who according to the local media are becoming increasingly belligerent about future negotiations. Before Ratsiraka returned from Dakar, four of the six regional governors issued a communiqué refusing to lift the blockade until Ravalomanana dissolved his government. This decision flew in the face of the accord and at the time there was speculation that Ratsiraka was losing control of the governors.
A: How autonomous provincial governors are is hard to say, but they probably have considerable room for manoeuvre in current circumstances. Like many leaders, Ratsiraka may be as much pushed by his constituency as leading it.
Ratsiraka since the 90s has been aggressively promoting a federalist agenda which would give the provinces greater autonomy. This is an attractive option especially for the relatively young and ambitious governors. As soon as Ravalomanana's position is secured as president many of these governors will not have their jobs for very long. It is in their best interest to support Ratsiraka.
Q: More recently reports coming out of the east of the country have suggested that the conflict is taking on particularly nasty face, that certain ethnic groups associated with Ravalomanana were being attacked by Ratsiraka supporters.
A: Ethnic differences exist, as a result of history. There is no doubt that they are periodically manipulated for political purposes. In recent years that has become a standard Ratsiraka technique. This definitely favours Ratsiraka rather than Ravalomanana. Manipulating ethnicity would be at the advantage of pro-Ratsiraka elements, who are trying to depict Ravalomanana as a man from the capital Antananarivo and brought to power by the Merina.
Ravalomanana is on the contrary trying to present himself as everyone's candidate for change, he would not really benefit from ethnic tension at a time when he's trying to establish his appointees in the provinces. However you cannot rule out that some Merina extremists will not try to exploit the current situation and manipulate ethnic tensions and try to influence Ravalomanana Q: Ravalomanana has indeed tried to present himself as the people's hero and apart from the self-made man story, very little is known about his political persuasion?
A: There is a feeling that Ravalomanana is a straw man for the power elite in the country, particularly in the capital. Most of these families are relatively wealthy and socially well connected. If this is indeed the case, Ravalomanana will continue to satisfy the needs of this power elite. This includes a fair segment of the Tananarive intelligentsia. Ratsiraka on the other hand was very popular when he came into power and introduced a radical Marxist programme. But over the years he has run out of ideas. The veteran leader does not offer intellectuals anything new, least of all resources. It is not surprising then that a significant number of Malagasy people support Ravalomanana Q: Apart from a few references to running Madagascar like he does his business, he has yet to make clear what he intends to do to overhaul a battered economy.
A: It is not unusual that Ravalomanana has not unveiled an economic programme. Madagascar like many African and other developing countries has very little scope to manoevre economically. Ravalomanana will do exactly what the World Bank asks him to do.
Q: It is remarkable though that despite a decade of growing dissent amongst the Malagasy people with the Ratsiraka regime, there still is a certain reverence for one of Africa's oldest rulers. Why is that?
A: It is a combination of two factors. Firstly, the weakness of opposition politics in the country. Also, Ravalomanana has presented the Ratsiraka regime perhaps for the first time with an opponent with real resources.
There isn't a great tradition in the country of political infighting and in many ways the Malagasy people have great respect for the government.
Irrespective of popular dissatification, the government remains the government. Ratsiraka has benefited from this over the years.
Q: Ravalomanana last week issued a serious threat of war if the blockades around the country are not lifted. The army has remained largely neutral in the conflict although reports suggest that Ravalomanana now enjoys most of its support. What are the implication if Ravalomanana goes ahead with his threat ?
A: It is a very serious threat. Whether or not he will go through with it remains to be seen. The Malagasy army is not very big and have not in the last 20 years fought any real war. As time goes by, Ravalomanana is benefiting from the impasse. If he does go ahead with military action, he may break the resistance but on the otherhand it may just spark a very ugly ethnic civil war. Of course both men should return to dialogue, and if they were to do so then a peaceful solution is quite feasible. A war would be disastrous from most points of view.
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