Potential Hot Spots: Madagascar Simmers

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February 24, 2009: 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. Two popular politicians, president Marc Ravalomanana, and mayor the capital Andry Rajoelina, are both insisting that they are the true leaders of the country, and are using growing street violence to decide the issue. Not your normal type of civil war.

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 the president. In December, 2008, the government closed down Rajoelina's TV station, and 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, but he didn't want chaos in the capital, and 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 40 people, and wounding many more. In two months of demonstrations and political violence, about a hundred people have 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 have quieted down, but the dispute is not settled and Rajoelina seems inclined to take to the streets again.

International financial institutions have 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) has not gone down much at all. Rajoelina calls for more honest government (corruption has long been a problem) and less of Rajoelina's authoritarian ways.

Madagascar's population (20 million) is about half African (Bantu) and half Malay/Polynesian. The Africans are predominant along the coasts, the Malay/Polynesians in the interior. Nearly half the population still practice 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. The country is poor, with per capita GDP of $1,000 (including good 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.

 

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