Madagascar caught in France’s web of political control

Tuesday September 18 2018

Madagascar protest

Supporters of Madagascar opposition demonstrate on a fifth straight day of anti-government protests on April 25, 2018 in Antananarivo, calling for the president to step down. Former presidents Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina are both candidates for the presidential elections on November 7. PHOTO | AFP  

MARTIN RUPIYA
By MARTIN RUPIYA
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As the term of Madagascar's current president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, draws to a close and the island approaches national elections next month, questions abound as to whether peace and stability will be sustained in the crisis-ridden nation.

The chain of events that led to this state of affairs started almost 10 years ago, with the forced removal of Marc Ravalomanana. He was replaced by Andry Rajoelina, the leader of civil society protest group, propped up by the army.

Both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina will be contesting in these elections, despite Rajaonarimampianina's attempts to stop them.

But while the jostling for presidency steals the limelight, my paper, which uses intelligence data including Wikileaks, reveals the underlying dominant French and military interests in Madagascar, whose influence remains unchanged since the coup.

If these are not correctly addressed, Madagascar will continue to find itself in a cyclical political crisis. One where organs like the Southern African Development Community — charged with supporting economic development, peace and security within southern African states — are being continuously undermined and unable to find a solution to the country's crisis.

French interests

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Madagascar is a former French colony and France has always been willing to go the extra mile when it comes to retaining control or asserting influence over it. This includes foreign policy, economic policy and minerals, culture and defence and security.

France had designated the country's capital, Antananarivo, as one of eight key centres for investment — on par with Berlin, Rabat, London, Rome, Washington, Dakar and Madrid. It has made major investments in the airport and the only deep-sea harbour capable of taking in submarine vessels.

French citizens have also been encouraged to invest, leading to over 140 major monopoly cartels and more than 5,000 small- to medium-scale businesses.

With all these interests to nurture, France's power extends to the country's politics. It had a role to play in the coup that Marc Ravalomanana's government in 2009, because he was trying to break France's grip on the country.

After France initially refused to recognise Ravalomanana's win against Didier Ratsiraka, he joined the SADC to place a buffer between his regime and Paris. English was introduced in the school curriculum, downgrading French. The French business community encountered difficulties in renewing visas and work permits. And in 2008, Ravalomanana shut down the French embassy and expelled the ambassador.

France's influence

Diplomatic cables indicate that it was around this time that France's Africa presidential advisor decided to back Andry Rajoelina — the mayor of Antananarivo and a popular opposition figure. When he was threatened with arrest by the government, he was given refuge in the French embassy from where he continued to issue calls for Ravalomanana's removal from office.

Rajoelina's position, supported by the French government, brought people onto the streets in protests. The armed forces responded with live fire.

The deaths of civilians were the final straw for some of the military, who were already on the verge of mutiny. As read in another cable sent to the US embassy, senior generals ordered Ravalomanana, at gun point, to hand over power. He then fled to South Africa.

Following the coup, the SADC imposed sanctions on Madagascar and called for a return to constitutional rule.

But France had a different agenda. Diplomatic cables speak of: “An active and aggressive continuation of France’s Francophonie policy that appeared to have successfully undermined the Southern African Development Community's intervention initiative.

“When internationally meditated talks in Maputo, Mozambique, were taking place, France deliberately broadened the players by flying in former leaders, Albert Zafy and Didier Ratsiraka. France’s aimed to make reinstatement of Ravalomanana impossible and dissuade military intervention to restore constitutional order.”

France's influence continued until 2013, when the next presidential election was taking place. At the behest of the African Union and SADC, Rajoelina and Ravalomanana were not allowed to contest for the presidency. Instead, both were forced to put forward proxies. In the poll, Rajoelina’s ally, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, garnered 53.5 per cent against Ravalomanana’s candidate, Jean Louis Robinson, who only polled 46.5 per cent.

The upcoming election could be a repetition of the past — should Ravalomanana or Rajoelina win.

Ravalomanana will not be accepted by France, while Rajoelina has already shown himself to be a French pawn. When he took power after the coup, he immediately re-established diplomatic ties with Paris, and restored French as the first language of instruction in schools.

But another factor is the military who need to respect democratic transitions of power.

Military role

The history of power transfers in Madagascar reveals a pattern in which the military plays a prominent role, diminishing the potential of free and fair elections.

The track record is striking. The military has had a hand in almost all of the government's change of power, propping up leaders like General Gilles Andriamahazo and Andry Rajoelina.

Aside from this influence on presidents, the military also intervene in government appointments as was seen when they vetoed Rajoelina's choice of generals.

There is thus little optimism the the forthcoming elections will offer a reconfiguration of power relations in Madagascar.

Prof Martin Rupiya is an academic with the Institute for African Renaissance Studies, University of South Africa and executive director of the African Public Policy & Research Institute based in Pretoria.

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