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March 17, 2009
Military takes over as Madagascar’s political crisis churns

Opposition protesters in Madagascar. Photo: IRIN

On Tuesday, Marc Ravalomanana resigned as Madagascar’s president after troops loyal to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina entered his office by force. The resignation comes following weeks of political turmoil and protests, which have damaged tourism and investment prospects.

The armed forces assumed power and Rajoelina, who is favored by the military’s chief of staff, is expected to lead the transitional government.

Michael Keating is the senior fellow and associate director at the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He writes at World Politics Review to provide a background of Madagascar’s political upheaval.

Madagascar’s Real-Life Blood Feud

Most Americans know about Madagascar, located in the Indian ocean off the coast of Africa, from the eponymous Disney animal movie featuring the feuding lemurs and fossas. Indeed, the fauna of the world’s 4th-largest island is spectacular. The human side of Madagascar, on the other hand, is not such a fun place these days.

[…]By African standards, this is a pretty tame affair. But for Madagascar, a place of recent political instability but decent economic growth, the conflict is a disaster. Looming near the bottom of the world’s poverty tables, Madagascar has recently been benefiting from major investments from mining giant Rio Tinto and energy behemoth Exxon Mobil. In addition, in a move that has sparked some of the protests, the government of Ravalomanana has leased 3 million acres of prime farmland — about half the size of Belgium — to Korean super-conglomerate Daewoo.

The Rio Tinto Mineral Sands project is the largest foreign investment in the island’s history. It has, however, come under a withering attack by environmental group Friends of the Earth and London-based Panos. Exxon Mobil also came under some heat from Greenpeace last year for allegedly killing melon-headed whales with its advanced echo sounding equipment and will surely face more environmental challenges once it begins drilling in earnest.

The feud between the president and the upstart mayor seems to be more about personal egos and power needs than anything else. The basis for the criticism of the president seems to surround his lavish life style and “lack of caring” for the island’s almost 20 million poor. Depending upon which way the army swings, the mayor could find himself assuming power in the coming weeks or be forced into exile.

As in so many poor African countries, power is a zero-sum game about control of the country’s riches. No matter who comes out on top, it is not likely to affect the lives of Madagascar’s poor. The only real effect will be to slow down investments, and to drive away the tourists who would like to see the lemurs and fossas in person but who will now have to content themselves with the Disney version.

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