Madagascar Deals With A Leadership Crisis

Supporters greet Madagascar leader Andry Rajoelina i i

hide captionSupporters greet Madagascar opposition leader Andry Rajoelina in the capital city, Antananarivo, on March 18, a day after the army installed him as president.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters greet Madagascar leader Andry Rajoelina

Supporters greet Madagascar opposition leader Andry Rajoelina in the capital city, Antananarivo, on March 18, a day after the army installed him as president.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Unrest continues in Madagascar, a week after the island nation's elected president resigned and the military handed power to an opposition leader.

Police in the capital city, Antananarivo, fired into the air on Thursday to disperse thousands of demonstrators calling for the return of the former president, who stepped down after weeks of violent confrontations that left more than 100 people dead.

Here's a look at some of the people and the issues involved.

The Personalities

Madagascar opposition leader Andry Rajoelina
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Andry Rajoelina, a 34-year-old businessman, took control of the Indian Ocean island nation on Tuesday. Madagascar's military leaders declared him the interim president after more than two months of political turmoil that forced the resignation of the elected president, Marc Ravalomanana.

Rajoelina is a former disc jockey who made his fortune in billboard advertising and broadcasting in Madagascar's capital city, Antananarivo. Known for his energy and dynamic style, Rajoelina is nicknamed "TGV," after the high-speed rail system in France. TGV is also an abbreviation for his political movement, which translates as "Young Malagasies Determined."

Rajoelina's youth is part of his appeal in a country where half the population is under the age of 18, but it also poses significant problems. Madagascar's Constitution says the president must be at least 40.

The constitution also says that the leader of the upper house of Parliament must call elections within two months if something happens to the president. Rajoelina has promised that "free and fair" elections will be held within 18 to 24 months, and he indicated that part of the reason for the delay is so the government can consider changes to the constitution.

Richard Marcus, a Madagascar scholar at California State University, Long Beach, says the situation on the island is "fragile," because Rajoelina has limited experience in government and a fairly narrow following among the public.


"Madagascar politics are based on networks," Marcus says, "and [Rajoelina] doesn't have them.


Marcus also says that Rajoelina's support from the Army is tenuous, and that there's the danger of a power vacuum at the head of the government.


Rajoelina began his climb to political power in December 2007, when he was elected mayor of Antananarivo. He was a sharp critic of then-President Ravalomanana, using his privately owned TV station, Viva, to accuse the president of corruption and dictatorial acts. The government shut down the station in December of last year.

Former Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Ravalomanana, 59, was in his second term as president of Madagascar when he was forced out of office. Ravalomanana says he got his start in business selling yogurt from a bicycle cart on the streets of Antananarivo and went on to build a business and media empire. Like Rajoelina, he is a former mayor of the capital city who built a base of opposition to a sitting president.

Ravalomanana accused then-President Didier Ratsiraka of corruption and ran against him in a 2001 election. Ravalomanana won that election, but Ratsiraka disputed the results and left office only after fighting drove him into exile.

As president, Ravalomanana was credited with encouraging foreign investment and improving Madagascar's infrastructure. He was re-elected in 2006. Critics charged that Ravalomanana grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power. They said the most egregious example of his abuses of power was the purchase of a $60 million presidential airplane when most of his constituents live below the poverty line.

Ravalomanana was also accused of using his political power to advance his business interests and those of his family. In December 2008, the World Bank and the European Union fired a warning shot by suspending programs that provided budgetary support to Madagascar's government, alleging fiscal misconduct by the president.

The suspended programs amounted to around $100 million, significant to Ravalomanana's government, but only around 10 percent of the World Bank and European Union's aid to Madagascar. Richard Marcus says the current government crisis is "a very difficult predicament" for the country's major donors. If they suspend more aid programs, they risk destabilizing the country even more, but if they continue, they may seem to be condoning an undemocratic power grab, he says.

Ravalomanana's problems came to the boiling point in January, when protests over rising food prices erupted in several major cities. Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina called the president a scoundrel and thief and demanded that he resign. Ravalomanana responded by firing the mayor. The protests turned violent, with rioting and looting in the capital.

More than 100 people were reported killed in the weeks of fighting. Ravalomanana's presidential guard is accused of opening fire on protesters attempting to break into the presidential palace, killing at least 30. Many more people reportedly died when looters were trapped in a burning building.

Ravalomanana insisted for weeks that he would not resign, but on Tuesday, he did just that — announcing that he was turning power over to the nation's military. Later that day, a trio of top military officials said they were installing Ravalomanana's main rival, Rajoelina, as "transitional president."

The Prize

Madagascar may be best known to Americans as the setting for a 2003 Dreamworks animated movie, but it's a real place, prized for its natural beauty, biodiversity and resources.

Richard Marcus says the current crisis shows the underlying resilience of Madagascar society.

"How many countries could withstand this much political tumult and not see death on a massive scale and an unraveling of both the economic system and the fabric of society?" he asks. "The economy has taken a hit, but businesses are running, schools are running, churches are running. People are saying 'we want a resolution that lets us continue our lives.'"
Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world, slightly bigger than its former colonial ruler, France. More than 1,000 miles long, the island is sometimes called "the eighth continent," with distinct ecosystems that range from dense rain forests to mountains and deserts.

Because it was isolated from east Africa, Madagascar has evolved many plant and animal species that exist nowhere else, including endangered lemurs, birds and several species of baobab trees.

Several major conservation groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, are leading efforts to protect the island's animal and plant habitats. Ecotourism is a big part of Madagascar's $390 million-a-year tourist business.

The violence over the past two months has been bad for tourism. The U.S. State Department has warned Americans against traveling there, and tour operators have been reporting a high rate of cancellations.

Although 80 percent of Madagascar's people live on less than $2 a day, the island is rich in natural resources including oil and minerals such as cobalt, nickel, gold and uranium. Madagascar produces most of the world's vanilla, along with coffee and rice.

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