Hidden from the world’s view or interest a Titanic battle for democracy and human rights over greed and self interest is being waged in little-known Madagascar.
Still suffering the after-effects of a violent 2009 coup d état which plunged the country into crisis, Madagascar returns to the presidential polls in just three weeks – with 36 hopefuls vying for election.
They are headed by a raft of former presidents, led by Marc Ravalomanana, president from 2002 until he was deposed by the 2009 coup. He will square off against coup leader, Andry Rajoelina, whose candidacy has been accepted despite him being disqualified by international protocols against unconstitutional changes of Government, including those of the African Union.
Also in the running is immediate past-president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister in Rajoelina’s High Transitional Authority, who became president in 2013, when both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were prevented from running by Southern Africa development Community (SADC) negotiators.
Former President Didier Ratsiraka (1975 – 1993 and1997 – 2002) who will celebrate his 83rd birthday four days before polling and who, too was deeply enmeshed in the coup, is the fourth and final former president contesting the election.
Unless one of the 36 secures an outright win (50%+1 vote) on 7 November, the two candidates who receive the highest share of the November 7 vote – widely predicted to be Ravalomanana and Rajoelina – will contest a run-off on 19 December.
The presidential elections will bring to an end – or restart – a decade of turmoil in Madagascar caused by the coup. It plunged Madagascar, already the 10th poorest country in the world, into depression and despair.
The Malagasy people are poorer than ever: 92% now live on less than $2 per day; 80% go to bed hungry or thirsty every night; one in every two children suffers from malnutrition and stunting; school enrolment has fallen dramatically with more than 600,000 children who should be in school not attending classes; and infrastructure – roads, hospitals, clinics and schools — falling into disrepair. Security – both physical and food – is under threat, and Madagascar experienced epidemics of the plague during 2017 and 2018.
International agency statistics show the country is going backwards on every developmental index in the world. Corruption is endemic with the country at 155 of 175 countries measured by Corruption Watch.
Lack of Government control by the Rajoelina and Rajaonarimampianina administrations led to widespread plundering of natural resources and damage to Madagascar’s fragile ecosystem.
A 2017 European Parliament resolution reported that: “a large, unexplained stash of rosewood logs was discovered at the presidential palace after the end of Rajoelina’s term in office”.
It also noted that “accelerating deforestation and (a) spike in bush meat consumption linked to deepening poverty”, meant that 90% of the island’s lemurs were threatened with extinction during Rajoelina’s tenure.
Ravalomanana is widely regarded as the most successful president in Madagascar’s history and is running on a platform which aims to restore democracy, growth and the rule of law. Before he was deposed the country had a 7% + growth rate. This plunged to just 2% as the international community imposed post-coup sanctions. Madagascar descended into poverty and banditry with some warning it was in danger of losing its sovereignty.
The economy slowly began to recover after the 2013 elections, but Rajaonarimampianina’s term was characterised by widespread corruption and attempts to impeach him. He lost control of Parliament and there were four Prime Ministers in the same number of years.
Add to this the complex geopolitics. Madagascar is a former French colony and the French cultural network in Madagascar is particularly strong. France remains a major economic player. It is the largest trading partner with trade worth €974 million in 2017; it is Madagascar’s leading customer, absorbing 22% of Madagascar’s exports in 2017; and was its fourth-largest supplier behind China, India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It is also Madagascar’s leading bilateral donor (€77.3-million in 2017) and its leading source of tourists with close to 150,000 visitors in 2016 – or almost one in every two tourists.
EU trade is led by France, but including Germany and the Netherlands, amounts to almost 35% of the trade done by Madagascar’s top 15 trading partners.
In the aftermath of 2009 and beyond, countries such as China and Russia are circling Madagascar. They are aligned to powerful forces in the country, both in government and individuals, as they seek advantage and the ability to exploit Madagascar’s natural resources.
China is now Madagascar’s primary source of imports, and is currently the island’s fifth-largest destination for exports. It has become Madagascar’s most important commercial partner in volume and value of investments; with the largest investment deal in Madagascar to date for mining rights to an iron-ore project – making this investment when foreign investors and Western donors were pulling out of the country. China is to construct a deep-water port on Madagascar’s north-western coast facing Mozambique – where China has made massive rail investments across Africa.
Madagascar has direct sea lanes across the Indian Ocean to China and is being billed as a natural extension of China’s 21st Century Silk Road.
Russia hopes to sign an investment-guarantee agreement with Madagascar before the end of 2018. It says cooperation with Russian companies and the use of Russian technologies could allow Madagascar to become a grain hub for the African continent.
Madagascar’s Ambassador to Russia says: “It would be too bad if Russian companies do not have an opportunity to work in Madagascar. Oil and gas reserves have been found in the Mozambique Channel. These reserves are bigger than those in the North Sea. We want all our partners, including Russians, to partake in oil production.”
In 2015 Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, agreed with Madagascar’s then Foreign Minister that they would deepen co-operation in geological exploration, tourism, banking, personnel training, and military-technical co-operation.
Bilateral trade rose 12% in 2014. In September, allegations were made in Africa Confidential of “secret Kremlin funding of the so-called little” candidates in the election campaign.
It is against this background that the 36 candidates square off.
Already there are ominous signs. Deadly foes, Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, found common ground when they faced down an attempt by Rajaonarimampianina to exclude them from the election – taking their protest to the streets. Now they are campaigning hard against each other. Rajoelina has seemingly fallen out with his former Finance Minister and the man he made president, Rajaonarimampianina, who this week had a number of campaign rallies disrupted by “agitators “ and “disruptive elements” – allegedly from Rajoelina’s party. Some individuals confessed to having been paid to disrupt his meeting, while on a third occasion a herd of zebu (oxen) were let loose on the crowd.
Madagascar’s election is taking place well away from the eyes of the world with little media scrutiny. As an island with no neighbours there is little interest in what happens.
Why should the world care?
Because the poverty and lack of development and fundamental human rights in Madagascar are an affront to all of us — and hidden from view or interest is a Titanic battle between those who seek power only for their own ends; and those who want to restore democracy and develop the 25-million people on the so-called Big Island. DM
Peter Mann is a long-standing communications consultant to former president and presidential candidate, Marc Ravalomanana. He is in Madagascar working on the election campaign.