May 29, 2014:
The island state of Madagascar is finally at peace, having managed to avoid a bloody civil war, but not years of economic disruption. Political unrest and terrorism have ruined Madagascar’s economy over the last decade and that led to a political stalemate for the last five years. All that political strife and violence seems to have finally come to an end. Elections in late 2013 and early 2014 have installed a new president (Hery Rajaonarimampianina) who appears acceptable to supporters of former president Marc Ravalomanana and those supporting Andry Rajoelina who ousted the elected president in a 2009 coup. In addition to most of the Madagascar population, international organizations and major donor nations also back Rajaonarimampianina.
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 recently ended "civil war". It was not anything like the Arab Spring uprisings or the civil wars so common in the rest of Africa. This one was more of a slow-motion battle waged with demonstrations and eventually (in 2013) a few terror attacks apparently intended to create noise but no casualties. The cause of it all was two popular politicians, former president Marc Ravalomanana, and temporary president (and former mayor the capital) Andry Rajoelina both insisting that they were the true leaders of the country. There were demonstrations, growing street violence and then in 2013 terrorism as efforts to decide the issue escalated. Not your normal type of civil war. Peace finally came through negotiations and compromise.
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 practices traditional (pagan) religions. About 45 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 calculation is about $400 in actual cash. 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 encouraging 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 in February 2009, 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 40 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 were 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 50 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 50 percent of the population to nearly 90 percent. The people were not happy with the political deadlock and violence was increasingly being used to try and settle the issue. But Madagascar is so unusual in so many ways that it was hard to predict how the situation would develop. Most people wanted more honest and efficient government, but were still believers in charismatic leaders, and two of those have created a deadlock. The eventual selection was new elections that neither Ravalomanana nor participated in as candidates. To everyone’s relief that worked, and everyone won.