Madagascar – Between the Mayor and the President

February 11, 2009
5 mins read

Late in January, anti-government demonstrations broke out in the Malagasy capital of Antananarivo. The demonstrations had been called by the mayor of the capital, a 34 year old politician, Andry Rajoelina, who accused the government of stifling democracy as well as clamping down on press freedom. The main demand was for the president to step down so that a transitional government, which the mayor will head, can then be put in place. On the fourth day of protests, the 27th of January, the police opened fire to disperse looters, who had broken into the city’s main food and electric stores, while also setting many premises on fire. In a report on the crisis, The United Nations country team in Madagascar, talked of significant material damage having been done to shops, markets and other businesses in the capital city. The Red Cross also reported that on that fourth day of demonstrations, two people were killed and 17 wounded. The death toll will eventually reach 82 killed and over 320 people injured.

The political temperature rose when the authorities closed the VIVA television network controlled by the young mayor, in December 2008. On January 25, VIVA’s radio broadcasting arm was also closed down, sparking the demonstrations. The demonstrators attacked the government-owned broadcasting complex, as well as a broadcasting station personally owned by President Ravalomanana. Offices and ware house complexes associated with the president’s business interests were broken into, looted and burned, according to Rajoelina accused the president of becoming a dictator and proclaimed himself the head of the country.

The international community was sufficiently worried about the developing crisis and calls were made for the two men, the president and mayor, to negotiate. It was also indicative of the seriousness of the situation that President Ravalomanana, had to cut short a trip to a regional meeting in South Africa, to be able to respond to the emerging situation in the country. Madagascar has a long history of political upheavals and people became worried that the situation might further deteriorate, recalling the disputed presidential elections in 2001 and the widespread violence in its wake. Supporters of former president Didier Ratsiraka and the incumbent president Ravalomanana held the country in a deadlock for six months, which eventually ended in the validation of the electoral victory of President ravalomanana.

Some political observers believe that the young mayor, Rajoelina, cannot be the leader of the transition government that he was calling for, because he was too inexperienced and not competent enough to lead the country. Some even believe he is merely a proxy in the hands of the “political dinosaurs” of Malagasy politics. This was underscored, when his broadcasting outfit aired a statement by the former president, Didier Ratsiraka. As the political crisis deepened, leading to the death of over 80 people and the wounding of over 300, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, voiced his concern over the deteriorating situation, while addressing the last gathering of African leaders in Addis Ababa, during the AU summit. He urged the parties on the two sides of the divide to address the issues peacefully and utilize constitutional mechanisms. It was obviously a very serious crisis, which in many ways, came to overshadow the AU gatherings.

By February 3rd, President Marc Ravalomanana announced the sacking of Andry Rajoelina as the Mayor of the capital city, hoping to bring an end to the very violent political events of the previous days. Rajoelina, a good-looking and very charismatic man, was an ex-disc jockey who took the Malagasy political scene literally by storm. Many people, especially young voters and females saw him as a symbol of youth and success. His election campaign had reached out to the most disillusioned segments of Malagasy society; those who have lost trust in the traditional political elite. He mobilized the young people to speak out and reclaim their political voice.

Rajoelina is also a very successful entrepreneur and reports that, as the head of INJET, an advertising company, Andry Rajoelina could win instant appeal, amongst the electorate. This was rather like President Ravalomanana himself, was able to project as a self-made millionaire on his route to power in 2001. As the head of a Young Malagasy’s determined movement (with the TGV acronym like the very fast French railway system), the young mayor tried to earn his nickname, and attempted to move as fast as the French train, in the political terrain. He positioned himself as the government’s main critic, tapping into a very rich vein of anti-government sentiments, after his election as mayor of Antarianarivo on December 12, 2007, with 63 percent of the vote. He denounced government’s misapplication of funds, the clamping down on press freedoms and he also denounced a controversial plan to lease agricultural land to the south Korean company, DAEWOO.

The closure of his VIVA television, after it carried an address by former president Didier Ratsiraka, led to the rapid decline in the relationship between the mayor and the president. These protests eventually led to violence, deaths, destructions and looting of shops, warehouses, media and government premises. Rajoelina then demanded the resignation of President Ravalomanana and on the 31st of January declared that he was in control of the country. The move was swiftly denounced by the African Union, which had seen coups in Mauritania and guinea in recent months. While Rajoelina seems to be very popular in the capital city, Antarianarivo, he is not well known in the provincial areas of the country. On the other hand, people in the capital seemed genuinely attracted to the alternative that he represents, but they have also become appalled by the wide spread violence and killings which came in the wake of the demonstrations. The luke warm response to the general strike called for February 2, seemed to have underlined the confusion that trailed the demonstrations and large scale killings, injuries, looting and destructions of property. It was also this background of confusion, which the president exploited to shore up his position as well as remove Rajoelina as mayor of the capital city.

Last weekend, the violence reached a new height when at least 25 people were killed and dozens were injured. The killings led to the resignation of the Defence Minister, Cecile Manorohanta, who said she could not accept that the blood of her compatriots be spilled. “As a mother, I do not tolerate this violence. It was agreed at government level that the security forces were meant to protect the population and its property.” The killings had taken place when anti-governmental demonstrations erupted outside the presidential palace in Antananarivo. One of those killed was a 25 year old reporter for a privately owned radio and television group. Again, the UN secretary General condemned the violence, while urging the parties in Madagascar to resolve their differences peacefully.

The situation in Madagascar is clearly taking a turn for the worst, and the BBC even reported that the minister’s resignation is being interpreted by some observers as an indication of loss of confidence in the president by the security forces. It is very clear that the political process in Madagascar has alienated a very significant section of the country, especially in the main city, Antarianarivo, which has a population of over 1.68million people. It is in the capital that the supporters of the anti-government message of mayor Rajoelina reside and they are the people who see the corruption in government every day.

Madagascar is the third largest island in the world, and has a population of over twenty million people. It is a very significant African country that has battled a very unstable political history in its past. Today, its people are caught between the idealism of a young mayor and the fading glory of a president who also came to power on the crest of a wave of popular support, not too long ago. He seems to have lost the sheen which attracted the people to vote for him in 2001 and 2005. What will happen next in the duel between the mayor and the president is anybody’s guess. All is still up for grabs in Madagascar; in the meantime, those who have been at the receiving end of the violence of recent weeks will continue to count their losses. Of course, those are the poor people of the island republic.


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