At last, a real breakthrough in Madagascar. The country has been in limbo since 2009, when a brash young radio DJ named Andry Rajoelina seized power in a military coup, sending elected president Marc Ravalomanana into unhappy exile in South Africa. And attempts to resolve the dispute, largely led by South Africa, have foundered on the personal animosity between the two leaders.
Though they still don’t like each other much, both men have finally agreed to put their political ambitions behind them (for now). Given the weakness of his position, it was no surprise that Ravalomanana cracked first. He’s been desperate to return home with his family, but Rajoelina has blocked him at every turn – even, on more than one occasion, in mid-air, denying permission to land to the commercial airliner with Ravalomanana on board. Most recently, Ravalomanana’s wife’s plane was actually allowed to touch down in the Malagasy capital Antananarivo, but she was bundled on the next available plane out.
Ravalomanana hasn’t been very happy in South Africa. Authorities here have taken his passport and restricted his movement within the country. This is because he’s being investigated for human rights violations related to his alleged role in the shooting of protestors in 2009, shortly before the coup (he was tried and convicted in absentia in Madagascar for these crimes, and sentenced to life imprisonment, another major stumbling block to his return home). But he hasn’t been charged with anything, and he’s asked the Constitutional Court to determine whether the restrictions on his movement are actually constitutional. It’s hard to escape the irony of this; it was, after all, his supposed disregard of the Malagasy constitution which got him booted out in the first place.
All this might explain why, in December, Ravalomanana threw in the towel, saying that he would not attempt to run in this year’s nervously anticipated presidential elections. In theory, this paves the way for him to return home, tail between his legs and political career temporarily over.
More unexpected was that Rajoelina, sitting pretty on the island with the support of the military, would follow suit. The news was released on Monday, and represents a coup (the good kind) for the SADC mediating team that has been working patiently on a solution for three years. “I will not stand in the presidential elections. I prefer to sacrifice myself rather than sacrifice 22 million Malagasy people. We want peace,” Rajoelina said in a speech. The boy-faced leader declined to explain why he couldn’t have made this sacrifice a few years earlier and saved his country a whole lot of trouble.
The political crisis has damaged the country terribly. The economy in particular has taken a beating, crippled by international sanctions. Unemployment has rocketed, as has the price of basic goods. Foreign investment has slowed to a trickle. Since 2009, the number of people living beneath the poverty line has risen from 68% to an astonishing 75%.
Whoever does win this year’s presidential elections, scheduled for May, will therefore have plenty of work to do. But that there are presidential elections at all, and that neither Rajoelina nor Ravalomanana will be directly involved to disrupt proceedings, is a victory for the SADC’s much-maligned “quiet diplomacy”.
The regional body’s efforts have been very quiet – so quiet that sometimes it was hard to tell if anything was happening at all. Negotiations were led by South Africa’s deputy minister for international relations Marius Fransman, and bolstered by the personal involvement of Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who is said to have talked Ravalomanana into conceding. The mediators received plenty of criticism for not being harder on Rajoelina, especially when it seemed he was willfully breaking promises made and obstructing progress. Aside from the economic sanctions, there was very little in the way of targeted repercussions or even public condemnation of Rajoelina.
This was carefully considered, however, and it has paid off; better to keep Rajoelina onside than to alienate him completely. And in this time, it must be noted that the political situation merely stagnated rather than deteriorating, which in a continent famous for its civil wars and insurrections is an achievement in itself.
For the SADC, and particularly for South Africa which took the lead role in the mediation, the Madagascar case was unique in two respects, even though the general “quiet diplomacy” approach was similar to that tried in other countries such as Zimbabwe. First, there was the fact the Ravalomanana, a main protagonist, was actually in South Africa, meaning that contact with him was frequent and easy. “When we got home [from formal negotiations with Rajoelina] we were able to nudge the former president in a direction we think will resolve the situation,” international relations spokesperson Clayson Monyela told the Daily Maverick.
Second, and most unusually, was the free reign given to South Africa to resolve the situation. “SADC gave South Africa a free mandate,” said Monyela. “This gave us more flexibility in terms of being creative in how we resolve the issue. For example the idea of having both presidents not run in the election came from us.” It’s also worth noting that Madagascar was never really on the radar of any of the big international powers, such as France, the UK, or US, which often take the lead even in African mediation efforts.
Of course, Madagascar’s not fixed yet. The presidential election will still be contentious, as will the parliamentary polls which come before it. Rajoelina has reneged on his promises before, and Ravalomanana might just be saying whatever he thinks necessary to get back to the island. Still, Madagascar’s road to recovery has to start somewhere, and as starting points go this is a very good one. DM
Photo: Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina sits next to his wife Mialy during the ANC’s centenary celebration in Bloemfontein January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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