Africa, Politics

SA’s feeble diplomacy trips up over Madagascar – again

By Simon Allison 23 January 2012

Madagascar’s exiled president tried to go home on Saturday, only for his plane to be dramatically turned back to OR Tambo in mid-air. Bad news for Madagascar’s fragile peace process, and even worse news for SADC and South African diplomacy, which needs peace in Madagascar to vindicate its repeatedly failed softly-softly approach to conflict resolution. By SIMON ALLISON.

Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar’s president-in-exile, was visibly excited on Friday morning as he announced his plan to return to his big island country the next day. Ravalomanana’s been in South Africa for three years since ousted in a coup by current President Andriy Rajoelina and, as much as he professed to enjoy his life in Johannesburg, he was ready to go home. He held up his SA Airlink tickets with a huge grin on his strangely triangular face, and at one point squeezed his wife’s arm.
His optimism was infectious, if misplaced. The current Malagasy administration, ostensibly a transitional government as brokered by SADC, is still controlled by Rajoelina. It’s made it almost impossible for Ravalomanana to return. It has refused to even temporarily suspend the criminal conviction handed to Ravalomanana in absentia. He was convicted of ordering the killing of protesters ahead of the coup, and sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. It also refused permission for his aircraft to land the last time he tried to make a grand return. So what had changed? Why did the former president think that this time would be any different?

Whatever his reasons – and he skirted around direct answers on the issue – they were wrong. Nothing has changed. On Saturday, Ravalomanana, with his family and aides, boarded a scheduled flight Antananarivo. In mid-air, the pilots were told that all airports in Madagascar had been closed to incoming traffic. The reason for this abrupt closure was unstated, but obvious nonetheless: Ravalomanana was still not welcome in Madagascar. So the plane turned round and made its way back to OR Tambo International, much to the chagrin of the ordinary passengers who had boarded with no idea that they were to be involved in high-altitude diplomatic manoeuvres.

But despite the drama, the fragile status quo in Madagascar remains largely unchanged. Ravalomanana and most of his family are still in exile. Andriy Rajoelina, the former radio DJ-turned-coup-leader-turned-president, is still in charge of Madagascar, despite the introduction of a unified transitional government, which includes a number of representatives from Ravalomanana’s political faction. And SADC, through its inability to guarantee its provisions, is still an ineffectual guarantor of the roadmap to peace it so proudly proclaimed.

One of the key provisions of this roadmap, agreed in September, was that Ravalomanana be allowed to return to Madagascar. It is not an ambiguous provision: “The high transition authorities shall allow all Malagasy citizens in exile for political reasons to return to the country unconditionally, including Marc Ravalomanana.” By closing the country’s airports, Rajoelina is in direct contravention of this roadmap, raising two further questions: what other provisions is he likely to ignore, and what exactly is SADC planning to do about it?

So far, the answer to the second question is not much. Ravalomanana is in talks with deputy minister for international relations and cooperation Marius Fransman, who led the negotiations. Given their history, these are unlikely to produce anything more than perhaps a verbal dressing-down of Rajoelina: neither SADC nor South Africa is known for aggressive foreign policy. Ravalomana,  meanwhile, has withdrawn his party’s participation from the transitional unity government until his return can be effected, leaving the roadmap to peace looking more fragile than ever.

But this might be the perfect occasion to show that they are not as toothless as they’re perceived to be. After all, the agreement of the roadmap was a high point in South African diplomacy last year. There’s a lot riding on it because it embodies the South African approach to international conflict resolution: slow, gentle and non-confrontational, refusing to take sides. If it can work in Madagascar, then South Africa can legitimately argue that it can work elsewhere – and could have worked in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, if given the chance. But if it fails, then it’s just another entry in the litany of countries where South African involvement has failed.

So far, Rajoelina has shown himself to be contemptuous of the roadmap’s key provisions, and dismissive of the diplomatic efforts of South Africa and SADC. It’s a good time to show Madagascar – and the world –the roadmap is worth more than the paper it is printed on, and that southern African diplomacy can bite when necessary. Ensuring Ravalomanana’s return to Madagascar would be a good place to start. DM

Read more:

  • Ravalomanana’s return to Madagascar up in the air, in the Mail & Guardian;
  • AU, SA desperate for vindication in Madagascar, in Daily Maverick.

Photo: Former Madagascar leader Marc Ravalomanana speaks to journalists at the O.R Tambo airport in Johannesburg January 21, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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