current affairs development politics

Has Madagascar hit the self destruct button (again)?


When I was about ten years old, my mother took my brothers and sisters and me to the protest rallies in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city. A million people were said to be in attendance, sitting out on the road and dusty gardens of the Avenue de l’Independence, the boulevard in the centre of town. There was music, speeches, and a parade with delegations from each Malagasy tribe in their traditional dress. As the last delegation went by, my mother gathered us up and we joined the parade, so that the expatriate community could stand with the Malagasy people in calling for democracy.

On that particular occasion the democratic processes were slow, but the dictator Ratsiraka was eventually removed from power, leaving a legacy of violence and corruption. That was 1991.

By 1996 he was back in power, after his successor proved a weak and equally corrupt leader, albeit a democratically elected one. Then history repeated itself in 2001, when Ratsiraka stole the election and refused to honour the nation’s choice of Marc Ravalomanana. After a six month stand-off between the two governments, Ratsiraka went into exile in France, and Madagascar enjoyed six years of growth.

With tragic inevitability, patience with Ravalomanana has worn thin, and Madagascar finds itself on the edge of a political coup. The current economic downturn is easily used as political capital in a poorly-educated country so distant from international affairs. Andry Rajoelina (pictured above), a former DJ and mayor of Antananarivo has gained the support of the army, who now have the president essentially hostage in his palace. Ravalomanana has offered a referendum on his presidency, but this has been turned down.

Every ten years or so, Madagascar seems to hit the reset button on its political processes. This also hits economic development very hard. In 2002 the ports were blockaded, exports stalled, and thousands of jobs were lost in textile manufacturing zones. Foreign money flees the country as instability puts investments at risk.


Here are Madagascar’s growth rates, from a transition out of failed socialist policies in the late seventies to today. 2009 will be another serious low point, as the economy takes three steps forward and one step back. As always, it is the poor who suffer most, because GDP is not just numbers. Each dip in the chart above represents unbuilt schools, clinics, wells and sewers, roads and bridges, and thousands of preventable deaths.

If the opposition took the referendum, if the processes of democracy were honoured, all this could be avoided. But, Madagascar is on the other side of the world, and we only ever hear about its lemurs. There is little support for democracy in the far-flung reaches of Africa, and the international community regularly backs the wrong side.

In time, we’ll learn how support African democracies. I’m an optimist. I believe that through closer ties between African countries, international response units, and tying aid to good governance, these kinds of agitations could become unacceptable and impossible. But, it may be too late for Madagascar this time around.

More on Africa and development:

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