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More rough waters for Madagascar

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History has an interesting but often sad way of repeating itself. It was seven years ago in April that the now ousted Malagasy president, Marc Ravalomanana, was celebrating the contested presidential election, where he claimed to have received the majority vote over the incumbent leader, Didier Ratsiraka. In a similar fashion, the new self-proclaimed president, Andry Rajoelina, has been rejoicing his surge to power throughout the last month. However, the fiasco of Madagascar’s sort-of-coup d’état is anything but joyous for the impoverished nation and changing leaders in such a hasty and highly unpopular manner is likely to worsen the grim conditions on the island.

Just like Mr. Rajoelina, Marc Ravalomanana traded in his mayoral office for the presidential palace in 2002, under circumstances of general public discontent. He gained strong support in the capital from the disillusioned Malagasy community fed up with rampant corruption that characterised Mr. Ratsiraka’s 25 years of rule. His ability to stand firmly by his claim to have won majority in the first round of elections was partly due to the support he received from army officers, which caused a rift in the military and spread fears of a possible civil war. Many were attracted to Mr. Ravalomanana for his rags-to-riches profile, having become a successful entrepreneur after turning his homemade yogurt- which he sold on the street of Antananarivo- into a booming business with the help of a World Bank loan. As a result, he gained a monopoly on the island’s dairy industry and a self-made millionaire.

Although Andry Rajoelina had no rags to shed by being born into a wealthy family, his success as a disc jockey and a media mogul have at least given him the confidence and charisma to start a revolt among the yet again disillusioned public. He has found a platform on which to build his claims of change for Madagascar given the inability of his predecessor to improve conditions for the majority of the 20 million residents.

While the deposed president may be credited with the development of Madagascar’s infrastructure – especially the construction and maintenance of roads – as well as improvements in health care and education, he has failed miserably in alleviating poverty, which affects the majority of the population. About 70% of Malagasies live below the poverty line, on less than $1 per day, despite the investments and foreign aid Mr. Ravalomanana has been able to secure for his country. The two biggest donors in terms of infrastructure projects, the World Bank and the European Union, have provided close to $400 million to upgrade the network of roads. However, the ex-president’s personal business interests have often clashed with those of the state, provoking the IMF, World Bank, European Union and the African Development Bank to suspend their disbursement of direct budget support for the nation in December 2008. Whilst so many Malagasy struggle below the poverty line and most people depend on agriculture for their existence, Mr. Ravalomanana sought to lease a massive amount of land to a South Korean company that would grow food for export. This was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back and permitted Mr. Rajoelina to gain the support of the masses and overthrow his rival.
His rise to power, however, doesn’t seem to be getting off to a good start. Not only is he too young to become president at 34 – according to the nation’s constitution – he is also inexperienced and has no support from any of the African leaders, with the exception of Coronel Gaddafi, that is. However good his intentions may be, at the moment he seems more like another disgruntled protester who happens to be riding high on a wave of civil unrest than an authentic leader.

More importantly, his coming to power in a coup-like fashion has severed practically all international ties and the aid that is channelled through them. Norway, which contributes about $14 million a year in aid, has frozen its funding. Similarly, the United States has suspended all non-humanitarian assistance to the country. Essentially all the best “clubs” have chastised Madagascar by suspending its membership, that includes the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and even France’s International Francophone Organization (OIF). On top of that, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has placed a hold on the $110 million poverty grant to Madagascar, hardly a step in the right direction to alleviating poverty.

In addition to being expulsed from essentially all regional bodies and crossed off various aid lists, Madagascar’s booming tourist industry has collapsed due to the political mayhem. An estimated 70% of hotels have stopped awaiting guests, leaving thousands of workers unemployed. As the crisis continues to destabilize the capital – now with protests organized by the supporters of Mr. Ravalomanana, who has sought refuge in Swaziland – the rural areas are also being affected by the chaos. The island’s vast forests and national parks – home to one of the world’s most unique biological zones – are being exploited by loggers and animal traders. These foreigners come willingly, intent on smuggling rosewood, ebony and rare animals, and in the process destroying the habitat of many endangered species. Undeterred by easily paid-off customs and port authorities, these pillagers and their locally recruited militias are no match for forest rangers. They have conscripted workers through radio commercials and organized themselves so well that they even managed to build a 6km road in one of the most remote parts of the northern forest in order to facilitate the removal of logs.

Judging by the sequence of events so far, the future of Madagascar in Mr. Rajoelina’s hands does not look very hopeful. It is one thing to abolish an autocratic leader, but to actually alter the destructive course the country has taken requires sound strategy and regional, even international support, none of which the current head of state possesses. It seems, however, that Mr. Ravalomanana has exactly what his opponent lacks. While in exile, he has been feverishly lobbying African leaders for support as he plans his return and a possible election by the end of the year. Until then Mr. Rajoelina is in charge; but with so many odds against him, the island is likely to remain in rough waters, at least for a while longer.

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