Madagascar, a tourist paradise of beaches and exotic animals, is home to one of the most uninterrupted cycles of coups and crises in Africa.

Democracy hasn’t settled easily on the world’s fourth largest island. Like so many other African nations still struggling still with their colonial past, Madagascar was left by France in 1960 ill-equipped for free and fair elections. It experienced political upheaval for much of the post-colonial period. In 2002, the United States recognized the current president — the country’s sixth — after he grabbed power in a coup that left dozens of Malagasy dead. That coup, and the creation of Marc Ravalomanana’s government, was the fifth political crisis to successfully unseat a president in 30 years.

On January 26, this cycle of political upheaval began again. Andry Rajoelina, the ousted mayor of the capital city, accused Ravalomanana of leading a dictatorship. Soon after that came protests, marches, and bloodshed. On March 17, days after Rajoelina burst into the unoccupied presidential palace with gunshots and mortar fire, Ravalomanana handed power over to the military.

With any luck, the prediction of U.S. Ambassador Niels Marquardt that the country is heading to civil war won’t come to pass. But in this precipitous moment, anything seems likely. Non-emergency U.S. residents, including those working with Peace Corps and USAID, are leaving the country. As gunfire escalates in the capital city of Antananarivo, the U.S. State Department is advising against all but the most essential travel. These warnings have decimated the tourism industry and put a damper on international investments in extracting the country’s oil, precious gems, and titanium dioxide (a raw material used in plastics).

As investors flee and developed nations withdraw aid, Madagascar is clearly in trouble. The African Union has suspended Madagascar following the coup, the reform process has ground to a halt, and the country appears to be slipping backwards into endemic crisis. Off the island, the impact will be felt soonest in conservation circles, where Ravalomanana was one of the Third World’s strongest leaders in sustainable development. Rajoelina, whose own environmental leanings remain unknown, must act quickly if he is to continue Ravalomanana’s work with environmental conservation. Already militia-loggers have returned to the country’s northeast forests to cut down precious and protected ebony and rosewood trees. Africa’s crown jewel of environmental protection is now at risk.

Power Struggle

Opposition leader Rajoelina is no stranger to political confrontation, and his escalating challenges to Ravalomanana are well documented. But the protests he has unleashed, with thousands gathering in public squares and stadiums in Antananarivo, may be more than the swaggering new president can handle.

On February 7, members of the military killed 26 protesters at the presidential palace. Malagasy newspapers called it the “most tragic political atrocity since the country’s independence in 1960,” naming the day “Black Monday. ” Rajoelina offered sharp criticism of the president. “I condemn you, Mr. Marc Ravalomanana — was there a life to protect in this palace? Did defending an office require blood flow?” Rajoelina said in a statement on his television network. He then vowed to fight “until the final victory.”

Just over a month later it was Ravalomanana who vowed to fight to the death. He was camped out at his home on the outskirts of sprawling Antananarivo, surrounded by a rag-tag group of body guards armed with tree branches while Rajoelina ordered military tanks to drive around the city.

As one African columnist wrote of Ravalomanana’s future: “His best bet will be to heed the call of the Americans — leave now that you have the chance.” He did just that by handing over the government to the military, which in turn installed Rajoelina as the new president.

Rising food prices contributed to Ravalomanana’s unpopularity. In a country where 71% of the population lives under the poverty line and 59% are chronically malnourished, Ravalomanana also incurred public outrage by indulging in several expensive habits, including the purchase of a presidential jet, and making some bizarre executive decisions.

In October 2008, for instance, Ravalomanana signed over half of Madagascar’s arable land in a 99-year lease to the South Korean corporation Daewoo. Daewoo has plans to develop the land with corn and palm oil, a plan opposed by Rajoelina.

As a result of the current political crisis, Daewoo is hesitating on moving forward. “Political instability in the country has also reduced its merit,” Shin Dong-hyun, who is in charge of the project at Daewoo, told the BBC. “We have done everything we are obliged to do under the contract and are awaiting a response from the Madagascar government to take the next step.”

U.S. Silence

Strangely silent in this imbroglio are the Americans. After the 2002 election, Washington boosted Ravalomanana with a congratulatory letter on his “win” and unfroze the country’s assets — even while the regional leadership group, the Organization of African Union, refused to seat him at their table.

”The bottom line is we’ve begun doing business with the government of President Ravalomanana. We accept his administration as the government of Madagascar,” said Richard A. Boucher, a State Department spokesman, at that time. ”We believe that accepting Mr. Ravalomanana as president will now prevent additional violence, will speed an end to Madagascar’s political crisis and help the government of Madagascar get back on its feet.”

By helping the Malagasy government get back on its feet, the United States developed a close relationship with Ravalomanana and provided him with large gifts of development aid. The American mission in Madagascar is a primarily humanitarian one, focused on environmental preservation, health education and access, and the promotion of democracy. Beginning in 2002, the United States launched an economic recovery effort to help the more than 80,000 workers left unemployed in the nine-month coup Ravalomanana used to seize power.

Shortly after, Madagascar received a Millennium Challenge grant worth $110 million to create small businesses, improve the banking system, and formalize property rights and responsibilities. The United States chose Madagascar as one of the first 16 recipients because of its history of “good governance,” overlooking Ravalomanana’s rise to power as well as the four successive power grabs before him.

These programs have shown considerable success. Exports from Madagascar have more than doubled in the past three years while imports have remained nearly steady. Rural health education and care has resulted in more couples using family planning, and environmental tourism has both protected rare biospheres and created local jobs. Despite these gains, USAID officials warned in 2005 that the public would soon “grow impatient with the pace of reform under the weight of grinding poverty and rising food prices.”

American officials classify relationships with the Ravalomanana’s government as friendly, and spend around $250,000 a year on International Military Education and Training, approximately 18% of the U.S. budget for all of Africa. The United States has also hosted counterterrorism training in Madagascar, through international maritime conferences and the Rewards for Justice Program.

In January, Army Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, director of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), met with Ravalomanana. “I am very, very grateful you are here. Madagascar is a very important country. I need your help. I need your support,” Ravalomanana told Ward, who replied, “I want to assure you that we will do our best [to work] with you.”

Now Ravalomanana appears to be ousted and alone. In what was hardly an affirmation of Ravalomanana’s presidency, Marquardt said, “the time is ripe to listen to what the people are saying. And the response should be better governance. The United States was among several nations and organizations, including the African Union, that urged a mitigated constitutional resolution to the crisis. In March, the United States called the “extra-legal assumption of power by civilians or the military…unacceptable.”

Western diplomats boycotted Rajoelina’s swearing in on March 22. Given Madagascar’s political history, the boycott could amount to nothing more than a time-out for Rajoelina as he waits for international acceptance and greater domestic support.

Madagascar’s Future

Madagascar’s new leader, the 34-year-old Rajoelina, has promised to reduce food prices and improve health care. Beyond that, his program is sketchy. “Rajoelina is young, lacks a significant enough base in the capital, lacks virtually any base outside the capital, doesn’t have the resources Ravalomanana had in 2002, and lacks the experience to lead a movement,” says Stephen Ellis, a senior researcher at the Africa Study Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Jean-Eric Rakotoharisoa, a law professor at the University of Antananarivo, says that the crisis allows an opportunity for the establishment of “a neutral governing body that is neither with the president or the opposition, but made up of technocrats who return stability to the country.”

Others are looking at a more comprehensive transformation of Malagasy politics. “The current crisis provides a unique opportunity to revisit the principals of democracy, citizenship and human rights in Madagascar,” Zo Randriamaro, a human rights and gender activist, says. “Women’s organizations have realized this and have demanded a general conference of Malagasy society and a constitutional referendum, as well as equal participation in all political processes. There are positive signs that indicate a willingness of women to actively work to resolve the crisis, rather than settle for a negotiated democracy.”

This time around, the United States needs to looks to voices like these. With educated activists thinking about the government they want to see created from the dust of the Ravolamanana-Rajoelina showdown, there may be a chance for democracy here after all. But the United States must stay out. No congratulatory letters, no unfreezing of accounts, and no grants for good governance. Washington should not give Rajoelina the same carte blanche it handed Ravolamanana.

The leader of a coup, regardless of the quality of the government he puts in place, must be held accountable for acting outside the legal realm of democracy. If not, Madagascar’s cycle of coups and crises will remain in place.

Laura Norton, a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, is a journalist in northern California. She has lived and worked in Madagascar and South Africa.

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