Madagascar: Route to Democracy Needs Revision

As people clamor for democracy across North Africa, the United States has an opportunity to support a return to democracy in Madagascar.  The United States can do this by calling on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to revise the current roadmap for the island nation prior to their meeting scheduled for March 31, 2011.

In March 2009, a coup d’état enabled Andry Rajoelina, the former mayor of the nation’s capital, Antananarivo, to topple the island’s democratically elected president, Marc Ravalomanana.  Prior to the coup, Madagascar was showing progress in many sectors.  In 2008, the U.S. Ambassador to Madagascar said, “It’s hard to point to another country in Africa where so much is changing for the better.”  Since the coup the United States has pursued a dual policy on Madagascar.  On one hand, it has condemned the unconstitutional power grab as a military coup d’état; on the other, it has echoed the putchists’ claims that Ravalomanana resigned the presidency, omitting to mention that he was forced out by threats and military action.

In many ways the United States has commendably supported the efforts of the African Union (AU) and SADC to negotiate a resolution to Madagascar’s political crisis. However, Washington did not endorse the targeted economic and travel sanctions on key officials advocated by the AU, despite a willingness to restrict other forms of assistance to the Rajoelina regime.  A firmer international response in the early days of the crisis might have helped to restore constitutional democracy. Now, the United States must decide whether to support a SADC-brokered roadmap that gives Rajoelina dictatorial power and enables him to run for president despite not meeting the age requirements established by Madagascar’s pre-coup constitution.

Untold suffering

Few, including the United States, dispute the urgent need to end Madagascar’s political crisis, which has brought untold additional suffering to the people of a nation already among the most impoverished in the world. In July 2010, Mr. Bruno Maes, the UNICEF representative in Madagascar, described many of the challenges faced by the people after the coup.

“Many families are having problems keeping children in school, and there are daily difficulties finding enough food. But the biggest challenge for children in Madagascar is access to healthcare. A quarter of health centers have closed, and the whole system of the purchasing and distribution of essential drugs is currently collapsing across the country.”

Recent statistics indicate that since the coup d’état poverty has increased by about 9 percent, meaning that roughly 1.8 million people are newly poor.  Government funding for health dropped from $8 per person in 2008 to $2 per person in 2010.  Greatly diminished government funding in the education sector has effectively meant the demise of free primary school education.

The Rajoelina regime has suppressed a wide range of freedoms, including the rights of free expression and assembly.  According to the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, and various press accounts, it has forcibly dispersed public demonstrations, shot peaceful protesters, shut down dozens of independent radio stations, tampered with the independence of the judiciary and harassed and detained advocates of constitutional democracy. The longer Rajoelina and his administration remain at Madagascar’s helm, the deeper the island’s economic, humanitarian, and environmental disaster could become.

Unilateral Actions

The AU, SADC, and the international community recognized these dangers early on. They condemned the coup and helped chart a path for return to constitutional normalcy.  At first, this concerted response seemed likely to succeed.  By August 2009, SADC negotiators had brought together Madagascar’s four major political factions – represented by Rajoelina’s acting government, the deposed president, and two former heads of state – and had secured agreement in Maputo on a plan to establish a multilateral transitional government in preparation for new elections.  Unfortunately, the Rajoelina regime repudiated the Maputo Accord and subsequent Addis Ababa Agreement and before the end of the year unilaterally declared new leadership and its own electoral timetable. 

In November 2010, Rajoelina held a unilateral referendum on a new constitution, despite protest from the U.S. State Department that “the political structures and processes created by the de-facto government remain insufficiently democratic and consensual.”  In the run-up to the election, opposition leaders were jailed for daring to challenge Rajoelina’s ban on public demonstrations for a boycott.  SADC decided not to recognize the results of the referendum.

Rewarding Rajoelina

Instead, SADC launched a fresh round of mediation to establish a new transitional government mandated to hold legislative and presidential elections. A third version of this “roadmap” was signed by parties mostly loyal to Rajoelina on March 9, 2011, but was boycotted by the three main opposition factions who rejected the sweeping powers it would grant to Rajoelina.

The SADC roadmap confers international legitimacy on Rajoelina and empowers him to appoint the prime minister, other government ministers (from candidates nominated by the prime minister), the members of Parliament, and the members of the electoral commission.  The only stipulations are that the prime minister not be from Rajoelina’s province or political platform, that the people appointed be from lists presented by the various groups that signed the roadmap, and that there be equitable distribution according to political affiliation, geography, and gender.  The roadmap validates Rajoelina’s replacement of the democratic Parliament with appointed bodies.

Moreover, in violation of the pre-coup constitution, the plan paves the way for Rajoelina to consolidate his power by explicitly permitting him to run for president in upcoming elections, provided he resigns as president 60 days before the election. At the same time, it imposes travel restrictions on the country’s democratically-elected president, Marc Ravalomanana, prohibiting him from returning to his homeland.

As the Economist noted, the roadmap demonstrates that “Coups obviously pay.”

Rajoelina did not wait for the SADC mediation team to submit the roadmap to the international community before beginning implementation.  He immediately reappointed Camille Vital as prime minister on March 16, despite the objections of the three main opposition political factions who said that as Rajoelina’s “closest political ally” Vital did not meet the roadmap’s criteria for a “consensus” candidate.   However, the chief SADC mediator, Leonardo Simao, voiced support for the appointment, calling it “consistent with the roadmap.” On March 15, 2011, in a move many see as a violation of the roadmap, Rajoelina’s secret police, the Direction de la Sécurité du Territoire (DST) arrested Mamy Rakotoarivelo, the chief negotiator for the roadmap from Ravalomanana’s political faction.

A Terrible Precedent

An unreserved endorsement of the current SADC roadmap would set a terrible precedent.  In an interview earlier this month, Tanzanian Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Bernard Membe remarked, “When you attempt to dislodge an elected government from power through undemocratic procedures you should be aware that the world will not stand aside and watch, it will also remove you from power because free and fair election is one of the internationally recognized criterion for assessing the country’s democracy.”  As an example, he referred to the response of the international community to Rajoelina’s coup: “After toppling President Ravalomanana, Rajoelina sought recognition of the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU) and South African Development Community (SADC) but none of them endorsed him and that was a big blow for him (Rajoelina).”

The SADC roadmap legitimizes Rajoelina’s presidency and therefore the coup that brought him to power.  Indeed, the roadmap as it now stands represents a victory for military might over constitutional rule and for unilateral action over multilateral negotiation. If the roadmap is to have any chance of helping the Malagasy people find their way back to stable democracy and the steady pace of economic development they enjoyed prior to 2009, substantial revisions are needed.

For the sake of the people of Madagascar and to prevent Rajoelina’s coup from becoming a further source of encouragement to other prospective dictators, the United States and the international community must encourage SADC to engage in a further and more inclusive round of negotiations to ensure a truly consensual transition.

Mark Koenig


Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations

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