Saturday, March 14, 2009

Madagascar - The Unanimated Version

Once upon a time it was just a big-ass island sitting off the coast of Africa, home to 10,000 plant species, of which 90% are found nowhere else in the world, but Madagascar has been buzzing for the past few months. No, I'm not talking about another DreamWorks sequel, but political strife which has the 4th largest island in the world on the cusp of a civil war. While the movies were box office smashes, mounting protests in the island nation seem to be spiraling out of control. In yet another textbook example of the rich raping the poor, many have turned to a 34-year-old former DJ to protect them from the onslaught of neo-liberalism gone awry.

Madagascar is a dirt poor country (209 of 229 on the CIA factbook in GNP per capita). The economy is so small that when Coca-Cola changed formula to New Coke back in the 80's switching from vanilla to vanillin, it shook the economy of the world's largest vanilla exporter to the core. French colonialism gave way to independence in 1960, then military rule in the 70's. The military junta attempted to establish a socialist paradise, but it never materialized, eventually forcing the country to go hat in hand to the IMF in 1982. Of course the IMF's help comes with a price; in order to secure World Bank financing Madagascar had to submit to the dreaded structural adjustment programme.

Enter Marc Ravalomanana, winner of the highly disputed presidential election of December 2001 which wasn't decided until a recount in April the following year, he also won re-election in 2006. The former mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo is also the founder of the Tiako I Madagasikara party (I Love Madagascar, TIM) currently the largest party in parliament. His daughter runs MBS media group which controls the second largest radio and television network in the country. Ravalomanana has also been outspoken about his Christian faith and in 2005 he said that he "dream[s] of a Christian nation"; critics called this a violation of the constitution, which described the state as secular until a 2007 constitutional referendum removed that, along with other changes. In addition to World Bank money, foreign investment has begun pouring in, most notably a Rio Tinto project to develop an ilmenite mine in the south of the island and the massive project to lease vast swathes of farmland to South Korean industrial giant Daewoo and Sherritt International nickel digging/lemur killing billions. All this work in the name of reducing poverty. Funny thing happened on the way to the bank though, none of it reached the people, yet the president could still buy a new jet.

The opposition in the current battle is led by Andry Rajoelina, a former DJ turned entrepreneur, turned politician who was mayor of the capital city until his dismissal last month. His movement is called TGV - Tanora malaGasy Vonona (translation: Determined Malagasy Youth), from which his nickname comes - TGV also stands for the French high-speed train - many say he is similar in style. Less than a month after his election as mayor in December 2007, the state-run company Jirama cut off water and electricity, ostensibly for bad debts, though it was clearly a retaliation for loss of the mayoral race by the president's party. The latest trouble began when the government closed down Rajoelina's TV station, Viva, for airing an interview with the former former head of state Didier Ratsiraka - the opponent in the controversial 2001 presidential election - which was deemed "likely to disturb the peace and security". Rajoelina's call for protest led to huge demonstrations late in January, some peaceful, some not, with the army unsure of whose side to join resulting in some violence and looting. By the end of the month he proclaimed, "Since the president and the government have not taken their responsibilities, I proclaim I will now rule Madagascar and set up a transitional government".

More than a month has past, with intermittent protests and violence over a hundred dead and little dialogue between the two sides, the army has begun to show signs it's ready to take over. Last week a military committee forced the resignation of Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo for ordering to fire on protesters. With over 100 deaths so far, the situation seems to be becoming more and more chaotic, to the point that the whereabouts of Rajoelina were in doubt as he had been in hiding since security forces tried to arrest him last week. Reports the UN and then the French embassy were sheltering him led to counter demonstration outside their buildings by pro-government supporters and inevitable clashes. While the French speaking organization Francophonie has claimed to have sent Togo's former prime minister Edem Kodjo to Madagascar to help "seek a lasting solution to the crisis", the army chief Chief of staff Edmond Rasolofomahandry had called for a solution by yesterday - without which he said the military would take control. With reports of mutiny by some units, the military police no longer taking orders from the government, mutineers moving tanks into the capital and mercenaries being hired, the stage seems to be set for civil war.

Rajoelina came out of hiding today for a rally in the capital following the president's call for the people to rally to his defense yesterday, a call that brought out only 500 supporters. Today, 5,000 of Rajoelina's supporters, clad in orange T-shirts and hats, gathered as he reappeared to speak at Antananarivo's 13 May Plaza, scene of popular revolts since 1960. He said, "There is only one demand, that's the departure of Ravalomanana...We will wait four hours. I, Andry Rajoelina, am ready to carry out the democratic handover of power...I am going to go to Iavoloha (presidential palace) to say goodbye to him." With the presidential palace surrounded by hundreds of loyal supporters and still no indication on which side the army will support, the powder keg is waiting to be lit.

In typical style the UN and US state department have been of little help, continuously calling for 'more dialogue' between the two sides when clearly the root cause of the crisis is financial and environmental. The majority of the population still lives on a dollar a day while the IMF clamours for tougher deficit fighting measures, loosening and tightening the economic choke chain. Together with the World Bank, they reward countries which violate internationally recognized labor standards and encourage economic policies that have led to disaster after disaster. The people of Madagascar are watching their land being stolen and poisoned as part of a new wave of neo-colonialism as rich nations try to secure arable farm land from poor countries. Daewoo's 99-year lease of 1.3m hectares, an area half the size of Belgium and half the country's arable soil, is a deal that even the Financial Times calls neocolonialism. The fickleness of foreign investors is exemplified by Canada's Sherritt International as falling nickel prices have suddenly forced them to need to restructure the nearly $4 billion deal to rape and pillage the land, including, surprise, lower labour rates. Today, we may finally see this slow motion coup come to a head, let's hope the penguins don't take control.

Update #1 - March 15th
President Ravalomanana called the opposition bluff and refused to step down, sensing that Rajoelina and the opposition don't have the stomach for a violent confrontation. The president seems to have raised the ante as well by offering to hold a referendum to end the stand off.

Update #2 - March 16th
Well, the army has taken the presidential palace and the central bank following moves by Rajoelina to set up a parallel government in which he installed his own man in the prime minister's office. While it's still not clear who will ultimately be in control, the military chief of staff, Col Andre Ndriarijaona, was quoted as saying "If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him...I would say 99% of the forces are behind him."

Update #3 - March 17th
It's official, Ravalomanana has ceded power to the military who have in turn handed power over to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina. Vice-admiral Hyppolite Rarison Ramaroson made the announcement in a radio broadcast from the capital of Antananarivo, he also claims to have rejected a move by the president to transfer his power to a military directorate. The African Union is up in arms at the non-democratic tranfer of power and are calling it a coup d'etat. It seems an election will be organized within two years.

Update #4 - March 20th
International pressure is growing against the new government. The AU has suspended Madagascar's membership for an "unconstitutional change of government", while the US has condemned the change as a coup as well. Non-humanitarian aid has been stopped while sanctions are being considered. Could it have something to do with Rajoelina declaring the contract with Daewoo to lease half the country's arable land null and void?

Update #5 - March 22nd
Rajoelina was officially sworn in as the new President of Madagascar at a ceremony held in a stadium in the capital, Antananarivo. Reportedly there were no foreign dignitaries in attendance. On Wednesday, Madagascar's Constitutional Court issued a statement endorsing the takeover but provided no reasons. It simply said Rajoelina could serve as president and that Ravalomanana had vacated his presidential post.

Update #6 - March 28th
Seems as though this story won't go away quietly. Supporters of ousted leader Ravalomanana have protested for the sixth continuous day in Antananarivo with security forces using tear gas and 30 people being injured, some from gunshot wounds. Remember that it was just such a trigger, security forces firing on crowds of protesters, which really brought about Ravalomanana's removal. A general strike is being called for Monday.

Update #7 - April 20th
Well, it seems the unrest will continue unabated. The international community has unanimously condemned Rojoelina's assumption of power as a coup and he seems to be showing all the signs of a tyrant. Radio stations have been closed down and now protesters are being killed. Add the fact that Ravolomanana has vowed to return to the island nation in the coming weeks and more violences seems assured.

Update #8 - June 3rd
It seems that Madagascar's court has sentenced Ravalomanana to four years in jail for abuse. Justice Minister Christine Razanamahasoa announced Ravalomanana, who is currently in South Africa had been sentenced in absentia for buying a a presidential jet - there was als a $70 million fine attached to the finding.