Counter-Terrorism: Madagascar Is So Very Different

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September 26, 2013: On September 16th a bomb went off in the capital of the island nation of Madagascar. When police investigated they found one man dead in the house where the bomb exploded. He was apparently building the bomb. Also found in the house were an assault rifle and bomb making materials. The bomb debris was similar to two other bombs that had gone off in the capital in the previous week. Supporters of former president Marc Ravalomanana are suspected, because a new group took responsibility for the first two bombs and said they were protests against local and foreign groups trying to keep Marc Ravalomanana from regaining power. Political unrest and terrorism have ruined Madagascar’s economy over the last decade and have led to a political stalemate for the last four years.

The island of Madagascar is off the southeast coast of Africa and is unique in many ways. But one of the strangest things about the place is the current "civil war" it is undergoing. It is not anything like the Arab Spring uprisings or the civil wars so common in the rest of Africa. This one is more of a slow-motion battle waged with demonstrations and, recently, terror attacks apparently intended to create noise but no casualties. The cause of it all is two popular politicians, former president Marc Ravalomanana and temporary president (and former mayor of the capital) Andry Rajoelina, both insisting that they are the true leaders of the country. There are demonstrations, growing street violence, and now terrorism as efforts to decide the issue escalate. Not your normal type of civil war.

Madagascar's population (22 million) is about half African (Bantu) and half Malay/Polynesian. The Africans are predominant along the coasts, the Malay/Polynesians (the first settlers) in the interior. Nearly half the population still practice traditional (pagan) religions. About forty-five percent are Christians (several sects, many of whom still use some traditional practices). About seven percent of the population is Moslem (descended from Arab traders moving down the coast of Africa). The country is poor, with per capita GDP of $1,000 (including goods consumed by producers, like subsistence farmers). The more conventional GDP is about $400. The armed forces contain about 13,000 personnel, including national police and presidential security troops. France has run the island as a colony from 1896 until 1960 and is still influential. The French occupation was notable for ending slavery (500,000 were freed) and economic growth. French is still a common second language.

Ravalomanana was elected president in 2002, and proceeded to institute popular economic reforms. He was reelected in September, 2007. One of Ravalomanana's main political critics, media entrepreneur Andry Rajoelina, was elected mayor of the capital city three months later. Rajoelina defeated an ally of the president and proceeded to use his TV station, and media skills, to go after what he saw as authoritarian methods of president Ravalomanana. In response the government closed down Rajoelina's TV station in December, 2008. Rajoelina responded by declaring himself the true ruler of Madagascar and accusing Ravalomanana of corruption and trying to set himself up as a dictator. Many people believed Rajoelina, who also headed the powerful TGV party. Rajoelina promptly put thousands of demonstrators into the streets. President Ravalomanana didn't want a civil war, he didn't want chaos in the capital, and mainly he didn't want to back down from Rajoelina. Things turned nasty on February 7th, when over 10,000 demonstrators marched on the presidential palace in downtown Antananarivo (the capital). When the demonstrators tried to enter the palace grounds, the police opened fire, killing at least forty people, and wounding many more. In two months of demonstrations and political violence, about a hundred people died.

After this violence, and growing unrest throughout the island (as partisans of the two men fought each other), Christian church leaders arranged for Ravalomanana and Rajoelina to meet and try to work out their differences. The meetings were held in the presence of church leaders, and some progress has been made. Things quieted down but the dispute was not settled and Rajoelina partisans took to the streets again.

Finally, in March 2009, the military stepped in and backed the removal of Ravalomanana and, on March 21st, Rajoelina was sworn in as president. Ravalomanana supporters kept demonstrating while Rajoelina promised new elections. But first he proposed a new constitution, which was passed in 2010, and elections were planned for 2013, but have been delayed three times, largely because of unrest fomented by Ravalomanana supporters who see all this as a conspiracy to keep Ravalomanana (who moved to South Africa) from regaining power.

Even before 2009, international financial institutions had halted aid to the country because of suspected corruption on the part of Ravalomanana. While there has been a lot of new construction (especially on infrastructure) since Ravalomanana took power, the poverty rate (about fifty percent) had not gone down much at all. Rajoelina’s campaign was more about honest government (corruption has long been a problem) than anything else.

Since 2009, the economy has shrunk because foreign firms and tourists are reluctant to come as long as there is all that unrest and political uncertainty. As a result the poverty rate went from fifty percent of the population to nearly ninety percent. The people are not happy with the political deadlock and violence is increasingly being used to try and settle the issue. But Madagascar is so unusual in so many ways that it’s hard to predict how the situation will develop. Most people want more honest and efficient government but are still believers in charismatic leaders and two of those have created a deadlock.

 


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