Thursday, April 2, 2009

Six weeks of violent protests in which Madagascar‘s elected president, Marc Ravalomanana, was forced to resign have pushed the huge island nation to the brink of civil war.

Daily protests to support or oppose the coup in what was a functioning democracy have grown and the number of people killed is nearing 100.

Alarmed by the deteriorating situation, leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) this week suspended Madagascar’s membership in the regional bloc and threatened military action against the new leader, Andry Rajoelina, unless Mr. Ravalomanana is reinstated.

The broader African Union had taken similar action.

In Washington, the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC) announced Tuesday that it is placing a hold on a $110 million poverty reduction grant to Madagascar.

“This decision is made with deep regret,” said Rodney G. Bent, MCC’s acting chief executive.

Madagascar is the first country with which the MCC signed a compact after it was created by Congress in 2004. MCC is an agency designed to work with countries that are committed to good governance, the rule of law and democratic principles.

The SADC summit was held in Mbabane, the capital of nearby Swaziland, where the deposed president fled.

Mr. Ravalomanana’s presence in Swaziland drew crowds of protesters condemning the sanctuary provided to him. The United States and the European Union called the transfer of power a coup.

Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa, a Washington-based trade group, likened the unraveling of the rule of Mr. Ravalomanana to a Greek tragedy, beginning as a hopeful era of democratic elections and descending to autocracy.

“There was the president-king who became blind to the hopes of his people and deaf to those who tried to tell him that the people were restive and he was in trouble,” Mr. Hayes wrote recently.

Mr. Hayes tried to warn the president during a visit to Antananarivo, the capital, but “he would not listen.”

Mr. Hayes, more in lamentation than in condemnation, noted that the president consolidated his monopoly over the dairy industry, the lifeblood of the rural nation, and was building “an empire of tourism.”

“The tipping point, however, was likely his plans to virtually give a massive amount of land to a foreign company” to grow food for export, he said.

Most of the Madagascar people depend on agriculture for their existence, Mr. Hayes said.

Mr. Rajoelina, 34, was sworn in as president last month, even though the nation’s constitution says he is too young to hold the office.

He was a media mogul, disc jockey, talk show host and elected mayor of the capital city, a post from which he was dismissed - before the coup - for advocating the overthrow of Mr. Ravalomanana.

Now Mr. Rajoelina appears to have alienated much of Africa, Europe and the United States.

Madagascar, one of the world’s largest islands, contains a treasure trove of animal and plant life. A variety of species exist there and nowhere else. Scientists study the unique nature of Madagascar as they do the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, which were visited by Charles Darwin.

Geological theories abound on the reason for this uniqueness. Some say it once was part of a submerged continent named Gondwanaland. Others theorize that it was once a part of the African mainland, fitting neatly as it does into the shoreline of Mozambique.

Madagascar’s earliest known inhabitants were Austronesians, who originated in Southeast Asia, possibly Taiwan, and migrated as far west as Madagascar and throughout the Pacific as far east as Easter Island. Much later, Bantu people from the nearby African coast arrived and intermingled with the Austronesians.

Now, the dominant ethnic group is the Merina group of highlanders. They established a powerful kingdom in the early 19th century only to be brushed aside by the French later in the century as part of the wave of colonialism that gobbled up much of Africa in just two decades.

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