Madagascar has now returned to its customary place in the world’s media. The looting, shooting and killing has largely ceased, and there is no more news to tell; and the brief story of the fall of the democratically elected President Ravalomanana is consigned to the space accessed by the ‘search’ button. Life moves on. We turn our attention elsewhere – but for the Malagasy people a momentous change has taken place, and the fall-out of the events of the past few months will blight their lives for years to come.
There is no doubt that Ravalomanana, though democratically returned to power in 2006, had made himself obnoxious to large sections of Malagasy society. He had repeatedly been seen to snub the political establishment, even alienating close and loyal friends. His vast business empire appeared to profit hugely while competitors were crushed. Viewed as increasingly corrupt, detached and autocratic in his style he also seemed unaware of the rising tide of anger and frustration amongst the populace. It was this surge of discontent that Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital city, was able to exploit, riding into power with the very visible support of a group of army officers and their men, in March of this year.
If Ravalomanana’s activities bordered on the illegitimate then Rajoelina’s actions were blatantly so. His seizure of power has been widely condemned by the international community. Much of the aid, on which Madagascar is heavily dependent, has been cut off. Investors and industrialists have pulled out. Unemployment has soared, bringing renewed destitution to countless thousands of families. As always, it is the poor and marginalised, those living on the edge of subsistence, who suffer most. That covers the majority of Madagascar’s population.
Some, however, are doing very well from the current turmoil. Confusion over where authority lies leads to paralysis in government institutions, and the corrupt and the lawless profit from it. Though listed as being amongst the poorest nations on earth Madagascar is very rich in natural and mineral resources, and these risk being pillaged without let or hindrance. Small airstrips in remote areas receive a regular flow of light aircraft from the African mainland, which leave again loaded with Madagascar’s mineral wealth. Areas of prime forest are being systematically plundered, particularly in the north of the island. It is reported that the stunningly beautiful Marojejy National Park in the northeast has been almost completely logged out in the past four months, by illegal Chinese loggers. Twenty years of conservation effort has been tragically lost in a matter of weeks.
It would take centuries for the forest to re-grow. Long before then the naked topsoil will have washed through the river system, leaving bare rocks behind, and cast a deep bloodstain of precious silt far into the Indian Ocean. Maybe decades will pass before Malagasy people can hope to claw their way back to a reasonable level of prosperity. How long will Rajoelina’s ragtag military-backed alliance last? Informed observers do not give it long. Too many deeply-vested interests vie for too few places. Rajoelina is widely expected to be pushed aside by men even more ambitious than himself. And so the life-blood of a nation haemorrhages as a few squabble for power.
Cathy Williams, 17/5/09
What happens to a country after a coup? Madagascar has vanished off the news as quickly as it arrived. I asked my mum, who lived in the country for 17 years and follows local news, to comment on the latest events.