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Focus on: Marc Ravalomanana, former President of Madagascar

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Thursday, 1 March 2012 11:26

The South African passenger jet swooped over the Indian Ocean archipelago on a clear day in late January. Watching nervously from the cabin, former president Marc Ravalomanana saw his plans for return fall apart once again.

The pilot was getting instructions from the control tower at Antananarivo International Airport.

Suddenly, the message came through that all of Madagascar’s airports were to be closed for the day. Frustrated, the pilot told Ravalomanana that they would have to turn around and head for South Africa.

This was the latest episode in Madagascar’s compulsive political drama. Replete with egotistical politicians, billions of dollars of minerals and great power rivalries, it may be heading for denouement this year.

Elections are due in November under a new plan backed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The script is dominated by ousted leader and yoghurt magnate Marc Ravalomanana, now exiled in South Africa, and youthful media tycoon Andry Rajoelina, who rose to power on the back of the army in March 2009.

Ravalomanana built a fortune from selling yoghurt on the streets of Antananarivo and is now one of Madagascar’s richest businessmen.

Brusque and businesslike, he was an athema to the old guard in Madagascar’s quasi-socialist politics. He enjoyed shocking the foreign establishment, too, addressing investment conferences in English and extolling the virtues of Anglo-American capitalism.

Rajoelina had no problems with Ravalomanana’s presidency until the two men clashed personally.

Rajoelina, at the time mayor of Antananarivo, had sought permission to marry Ravalomanana’s daughter, but the latter dismissed Rajoelina’s entreaties, calling him “an ignorant nincompoop”.

Aslighted Rajoelinawent on the offensive, using his mayoral position to launch attacks on what he called the “creeping corruption” of the Ravalomanana presidency.

He got his Viva Television station to run critical stories, then broadcast an interview with exiled former president Didier Ratsiraka, who detested Ravalomanana’s “hyper-capitalism.” Almost immediately, Ravalomanana closed down Rajoelina’s television station.

A veteran Malagasy political fixer and former prime minster, Norbert Ratsirahonana, quietly suggested to Rajoelina that some dissident soldiers could help him seize power.

A month later, Rajoelina was addressing crowds in the capital in the popular argot he had used as a DJ in his youth.

Then he declared himself the new president. Ravalomanana’s subsequent dismissal of Rajoelina as mayor of Antananarivo merely prompted more protests and clashes on the streets.

After Ravalomanana’s presidential guard was outgunned by the regular army (his bodyguards were said to have fired into a crowd of demonstrators), a deal was struck for a three-man military directorate to take over.

Within hours the top military men brought in Rajoelina as head of state, and Ravalomanana fled in March 2009.

Since then, the island state has been in crisis. International sanctions have weakened the economy, compelling Rajoelina to negotiate an election plan with SADC.

Ravalomanana wants to stand in the polls and agreed to back national reconciliation that would include a vaguely worded amnesty.

President Jacob Zuma and his colleagues offered to recognise Rajoelina’s Haute Autorité de la Transition and lobby to lift sanctions if Rajeolina agreed to step down from power six months before elections.

Rajoelina may try to draw out the election preparations as long as possible, while raising cash by selling exploration and production licences to Chinese companies eager to buy into the island’s oil and mineral reserves.

Ravalomanana hopes the Southern African leaders can nudge Rajoelina into sticking to the plan for holding independently supervised elections.

But first he has to land his plane on Madagascar’s rich red earth.

This article was first published in the 2012 March edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands,
via our print subscription or our digital edition.

Also Read:

– Madagascar barred from African Union polls

– Madagascar: Looking for a way forward

– Military rules: Marching back to the future

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