Paradise island in throes of political crisis

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

MADAGASCAR LETTER:The people of Madagascar have a neat way of expressing their hope for the election due to be held in May next; “ni…ni”, from the French for neither…nor. The neither is President Andry Rajoelin; the nor is former president Marc Ravalomananan.

President Rajoelin, a former mayor of capital Antananarivo, came to power in 2009 in a coup, ousting Ravalomananan, beginning what Malagasys always refer to as “the crisis”.

Ravalomananan has since been living in exile, under a threat of imprisonment if he returns. He was given a life sentence in his absence, charged with responsibility for the killing of demonstrators by soldiers in the run-up to the coup.

He had intended to fight the election, but recently, in a major political development, announced his withdrawal, following the intervention of leaders of countries within the Southern African Development Community. Rajoelin, a former disc jockey and radio presenter, who has business interests in radio stations, still intends to stand.

For Madagascar, the 2013 election will be one of the most important since independence from France in 1960. The second round is expected to take place in or around July. No one is holding their breath as the election was promised for May 2012 but failed to materialise.

The paradise island, as the tourist authorities like it referred to, is far from that for most of its inhabitants, with levels of poverty so extreme it is one of the world’s poorest countries. It need not be.

Driving from the capital, Antananarivo, to Antsirabe, it is so clear that parts of the country are highly fertile, with a huge ranges of produce, especially rice growing. In other parts of the country are significant mineral resources, off the coast are fishing rights, and now oil has been brought ashore and there is huge optimism that commercial quantities will be found. But for the ordinary Malagasy none of this makes any difference. Since Rajoelin seized power, international aid and investment more or less stopped, and the economy took a giant step backwards.

The political crisis in Madagascar has driven away tourists as well as foreign companies that might have invested in its oil, gold, chrome and nickel reserves.

The UN children’s fund, Unicef, reports chronic malnutrition which means 50 per cent of all children under the age of five have stunted growth, and maternal mortality is 498 per 100,000 live births. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is poor. Some 50 per cent of the people live on less than $1 a day. Advances that had been taking place before 2009 have been eroded.

However, you do not need to read the statistics to understand the level of poverty. It is evident everywhere. In the markets of Antananarivo children beg, families can be seen washing clothes in water culverts, where the rain water rushes past. Beside the rain water escaping are what appear to be open sewers where rats are feeding on the waste. In a busy traffic tunnel children live on the narrow footpath as people step over them. They beg from the cars halted by chaotic traffic.

With nearly 80 per cent of the people living in rural areas, it is in the countryside where the worst poverty will be found, with families living by subsistence farming, trying to feed families by farming, mainly rice, on small parcels of land.

Meanwhile, the populist Rajoelina, who builds stadiums and organises colourful firework displays, has ridden roughshod over the Malagasy constitution. The former parliament beside the capital’s botanical and zoological gardens now hosts an unelected assembly and even that does not meet too often. The constitution was virtually suspended and judicial independence ended.

During the period of the “crisis” divisions between people and groups have been exacerbated. There are tensions between religious groups, mainly between the large Catholic and Protestant communities, between those living on the coast and those more inland. There has been a growth in the exploitation of children, both sexual exploitation and exploitation of child labour in areas such as the important vanilla-producing industry. The university system is under strain with professors and students on strike for months on end. The semester system has broken down as classes are only offered whenever possible.

For the media, the political crisis has meant violence and danger. One journalist was killed and opposition media outlets closed. The major problems appear to be government censorship, self-censorship and a highly partisan media. In the context of an election, which could be very bitter, despite the withdrawal of the former president, some observers fear Rajoelina will use his influence with radio, the most popular media in the country, to secure a victory.

The problem might then be a refusal by the international community to aid a country that has failed to produce a free and fair election.

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