madagascar riots, madagascar unrest, madagascar protests
Jerome Delay/AP
Former Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina

State Department Asks Americans to Leave Madagascar

March 12, 2009 12:00 PM
by Emily Coakley
Media reports indicate that Madagascar's military is being led by opposition supporters; this is the latest blow to President Marc Ravalomanana as he struggles to keep control amid growing unrest.

Intervention Follows Partial Mutiny

Soldiers who support Andry Rajoelina, the head of Madagascar's opposition movement, have forced Gen. Edmond Rasolomahandry to resign. Over the weekend a group of soldiers approached another official, the minister of defense, and announced they would be supporting Rajoelina. That minister also later resigned.

On Tuesday, Rasolomahandry had intervened in the political struggle between President Marc Ravalomanana by telling both sides they had 72 hours to solve their problems, pledging the military would remain neutral in the dispute.

The Guardian reports that the manner in which Rasolomahandry resigned suggests that the president “is no longer in control of the armed forces.”

With the conflict escalating, the U.S. State Department has suggested that Americans leave the island. Reuters quoted a message from the American embassy in Madagascar: “We encourage all Americans in Madagascar to monitor the situation closely and consider departing the country while commercial air is still operating normally.”

The United States’ diplomat there, Niels Marquardt, took the warnings a step further: “I note with a great deal of concern and a great deal of sadness that Madagascar is nearly on the verge of civil war,” The Guardian quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile, thousands of people protested in Antananarivo today, Agence France-Presse reported.

Rajoelina remains in hiding. According to the BBC, after he walked out on negotiations with Ravalomanana, “security forces” tried to arrest him. It was thought that he was at the French embassy, though officials there have denied that. 

He has also refused to attend negotiations mediated by United Nations officials.
On Tuesday Reuters predicted that the mutiny could be a bad sign for Ravalomanana. Throughout past episodes of civil unrest, the military was neutral, the news service said. 

“The army’s stance is seen as pivotal ... If they back Rajoelina, Ravalomanana will be left exposed as his political support base erodes,” Reuters said.

Background: Political climate in Madagascar

Rajoelina was fired as mayor of Antananarivo in February after leading repeated anti-government demonstrations and even declaring himself in charge of the country.

Rajoelina, who has called Ravalomanana's government a threat to democracy, started protests at the end of January in the capital. Broadcasting in the island nation even briefly ceased after political opposition set fire to the country’s official broadcasting complex. 

Rajoelina halted the protests at that point, after what the Mail and Guardian called the worst instance of street violence the country had seen in years. The calm that followed didn't last. At a later protest, security forces fired on protesters, killing several. In all, more than 100 people have died since the unrest started.

The January protests were a response to Ravalomanana’s decision to shut down Rajoelina’s TV station, Viva, after Rajoelina broadcast an interview with an old political rival of the President’s, Didier Ratsiraka.

In 2002, Ravalomanana declared himself the country’s leader after what he claimed was a corrupt election denied him victory. Ratsiraka, the then-incumbent president, had agreed to a second round of voting. The government refused to validate the declaration, and Ravalomanana faced the threat of becoming an international criminal.

However, after months of violence and economic instability, Ratsiraka fled to France. Ravalomanana began an era of reform and has consistently attempted to decentralize government and empower leaders in smaller provinces.

Poverty is widespread in the world's fourth largest island, and some have blamed the president for not doing more to alleviate it. These protests may not help their cause, either. The country's tourism sector has been hit hard by the unrest. Some tour companies have, “reported close to 100 percent cancellation rates for early 2009,” according to Reuters.

If the political turmoil doesn't settle down soon, these companies have warned, “the entire year will be a write-off,” Reuters said.

Key Players: Andry Rajoelina, Marc Ravalomanana

Andry Rajoelina, 34, was elected mayor of Antananarivo in 2007. He is a former disc jockey and advertising entrepreneur who now leads the Tanora malaGasy Vonona movement. He has the nickname TGV—the movement’s initials. It’s also a reference to high-speed French trains, which are like Rajoelina’s “rapid-fire personality,” the BBC said. 

According to the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks, Rajoelina is well known in the capital, but not the rest of the country, and that may have contributed to his failure to seize control of the national government.

He ran as an independent against the current president’s party during the 2007 race for mayor. Since taking office in Antananarivo, he has become an outspoken opponent of the regime. He has called the current government a “dictatorship,” the AFP reports, and has led a number of protests against it.

Marc Ravalomanana is in the middle of his second term as president, having been reelected in 2006. He is independently wealthy, and the company he ran before taking office is the country’s largest domestically owned business. His fortune is self-made, according to the BBC; he grew up in poverty and started by selling yogurt from the back of his bicycle. Ravalomanana started his political career as mayor of Antananarivo in 1999.

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