Madagascar’s Army Puts Opposition in Charge

Daily News Article   —   Posted on March 18, 2009

(by Sarah Childress, – Madagascar’s opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina, took control of the country Tuesday, ending his protracted campaign to unseat President Marc Ravalomanana but raising questions about the nation’s fate and its government.

In a ceremony broadcast from a military camp in the capital, Antananarivo, Vice Admiral Hyppolite Rarison Ramaroson said he and two other generals rejected a move by the ousted president to transfer power to a military directorate. Instead, he said, the military was installing Mr. Rajoelina as the country’s leader.

Andry Rajoelina paraded through the streets of Madagascar’s capital Tuesday.

Norbert Lala Ratsirahonana, a former chief of staff and former chief of the constitutional court, acted as master of ceremonies for the military announcement, lending the move legitimacy.

Madagascar’s constitution recognizes only elected governments. If the president is unable to govern, the president of the Senate is supposed to take his place. The constitution requires presidents to be at least 40 years old. Mr. Rajoelina, who has agitated since January for Mr. Ravalomanana to step down, is 34.

Mr. Ravalomanana resigned earlier Tuesday, signing an order transferring power to the military after soldiers stormed a ceremonial presidential palace in the capital Monday night. The building was unoccupied; Mr. Ravalomanana was in another palace.

The military at the last minute played kingmaker after remaining neutral for the past two months, while Mr. Rajoelina repeatedly called on Mr. Ravalomanana to resign. Without the army’s backing, Mr. Ravalomanana, who held office since 2002, had little choice but to step aside.

The new regime’s biggest challenge may be legitimacy. The African Union, which has been reluctant to criticize member nations, condemned Mr. Rajoelina’s move as a coup d’état.

In a radio address, Mr. Ravalomanana, 59, said he made his decision “after deep reflection,” according to the Associated Press. “This decision was very difficult … but it had to be made,” he said. “We need calm and peace to develop our country.”

The United Nations had been trying to mediate between the president and the opposition, and didn’t comment on Monday’s storming of the palace. About 24 hours after the event, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement taking “note” of the resignation. Mr. Ban didn’t judge the actions of Mr. Rajoelina and his military backers and urged “all parties concerned to act responsibly to ensure stability and a smooth transition through democratic means.”

Libya holds the African Union chair and is president of the Security Council this month. Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., Ibrahim Dabbashi, said the Security Council had no plans to meet on Madagascar. “If the AU asks us to discuss the matter,” he said, “certainly we would discuss it.”

U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert of France, Madagascar’s former colonial power, said, “We have to see what happens. We are of course looking to a constitutional form of transition once the president has departed. We hope there will be no bloodshed.”

Mr. Rajoelina marshaled support for regime change from people discontented with life under Mr. Ravalomanana. In this impoverished Indian Ocean island nation of nearly 20 million, most people live on less than $2 a day.

Under Mr. Ravalomanana, the economy grew at an annual rate of between 5% and 6% over the past several years, bolstered by tourism and a nascent mining sector. It may be difficult to quickly improve living conditions, particularly during the global economic downturn. Madagascar’s mining sector already has been slowed by falling demand for metals.

The political instability could discourage foreign investors, and scare off donors.

The clash between the two men is largely personal. Mr. Rajoelina, who made his name as a disc jockey, used the television station he owned to blast the president on allegedly misusing government funds and stifling dissent. Mr. Ravalomanana shut down the station shortly afterward, sparking violent clashes.

-Joe Lauria at the United Nations and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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(from a 3/18/09 DailyTelegraph article):

  • Madagascar, which has a population of 20 million and is the world's biggest vanilla producer, has been the scene of increasing violence in recent weeks.
  • More than 100 people have died in clashes with the security forces. Weeks of turmoil and street protests have crippled the £275 million-a-year tourism industry and worried foreign investors in the important mining and oil exploration sectors.
  • [President] Ravalomanana, 59, has been accused of running the country as a private business for his own benefit and that of his cronies - claims he denies. But the allegations were given added weight when reports emerged of a deal to lease most of the country's arable land to a South Korean company. Earlier, [President] Ravalomanana had promised to fight on after receiving phone calls of support from other African leaders.
  • The opposition insisted that the [34 year old Andry] Rajoelina, a telecommunications businessman who is constitutionally too young to become president himself, would head a "transitional authority" ahead of elections within two years.

(from the CIA World FactBook):

  • Formerly an independent kingdom, Madagascar became a French colony in 1896 but regained independence in 1960.
  • During 1992-93, free presidential and National Assembly elections were held ending 17 years of single-party rule.
  • In 1997, in the second presidential race, Didier Ratsiraka, the leader during the 1970s and 1980s, was returned to the presidency.
  • The 2001 presidential election was contested between the followers of Didier Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana, nearly causing secession of half of the country.
  • In April 2002, the High Constitutional Court announced Ravalomanana the winner. Ravalomanana is now in his second term following a landslide victory in the generally free and fair presidential elections of 2006.