Madagascar: island even more isolated after coup

The crisis not only threatens to make the island's poverty worse, it might also lead to the extinction of rare lemur species.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    AFRICA'S YOUNGEST LEADER: Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey, was installed as Madagascar's president Saturday.
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Protests and tumult continue to disrupt this island nation following the forced resignation last week of President Marc Ravalomanana. The crisis has prompted foreign aid groups to freeze their spending and prompted many donors to flee the island, developments that could exacerbate already profound discontent in this impoverished country.

Andry Rajoelina, a youthful former disc jockey and mayor of Antananarivo, was sworn in Saturday as leader of a transitional government. Most diplomats, however, boycotted the event, saying Mr. Rajoelina took office illegally in a coup d'état.

Supporters of deposed president Ravalomanana have filled the streets in recent days, demanding his restoration. Many of the protesters are civil service workers or citizens who come from the country's tiny middle class.

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"We want our father back," declared Raharinaivo Randrianatoandro, spokesman of the political party founded by Ravalomanana.

On Wednesday, amid growing international condemnation, the Army-backed leader offered to hold talks next week with allies of the deposed president. Ravalomanana's supporters have not yet indicated if they would participate, according to media reports.

The United States has condemned the change of government and suspended all assistance to the country. Last week, it ordered nonessential embassy employees to depart the island.

Benja Razafimahaleo, the new minister of budget and finance, is now suggesting that the country may not have enough funds to pay civil servants at the end of the month. Government employees are already working only half days.

With money running out and the stalemate lingering, there's growing pressure for the factions to work out a deal, says Madeleine Ramaholimiaso, member of a prominent civil society organization.

"Madagascar is facing a recurrent crisis, which can be avoided. We want to call upon political leaders form different parties to discuss on the matters," she says.

Until recently, the whereabouts of the deposed president were unknown. On Tuesday, he was reported to be in Swaziland meeting with that country's king. Swaziland is expected to hold a summit of regional nations next week to discuss possible sanctions against Madagascar. Last week, the African Union suspended Madagascar's membership in the organization.

Madagascar has been split by political infighting for years, but the crisis has worsened in recent months, with violent protests and at least 135 people killed since the start of the year.

Ravalomanana turned over power last week to top military officers, who then offered their support to Rajoelina. The country's Army chief, Col. Andre Ndriarijaona, told reporters recently that the military was united in its support for Rajoelina.

"It's not true that some regiments are against the current regime," he insisted, adding that he would take actions against people spreading rumors about alleged divisions within the military.

Rajoelina has accused the deposed leader of squandering funds and undermining democracy. He has promised to hold elections within two years. He has also vowed to rewrite the Constitution: The current document forbids people under 40 from serving as president. Rajoelina is 34.

At his swearing-in ceremony Saturday in front of an estimated 40,000 people, Rajoelina promised to improve Malagasy life and pledged to follow "the principles and rules of good governance."

Despite being home to some of the planet's most unique creatures – including thousands of plant and animal species found nowhere else – the majority of people here subsist on less than $2 a day.

Many shops, after weeks of being closed, have reopened in recent days. Food remains relatively abundant in markets, except for a noticeable lack of dairy products – the deposed president owned a major dairy business, which has been looted.

"Local yogurt, cheese, butter have completely disappeared," says a shopkeeper in a pavilion in Analakely, the center of the capital.

Government ministries remain beset by instability and have not resumed providing services, though, says Angeline Ranivosoa, an engineer employed at the Ministry of Agriculture. "Up to now, we haven't seen any concrete decision taken by this new government."

Looting and unrest has spread beyond the capital, with problems being reported in even the most remote corners of the island.

According to National Geographic News, forest rangers are now abandoning their posts and the country's prized national parks are being invaded by loggers, who seek rare rosewood and ebony trees. Primatologist Mireya Mayor told the magazine that the world's rarest primate species – including two endangered species of lemur – could be wiped out because of habitat loss caused by the illegal logging.

"I'm ... at a loss to describe how bad this situation is," she said. "Thirty years of successful conservation initiatives are now at risk of being totally destroyed."

Pedro Opeka, a Roman Catholic priest and prominent antipoverty activist, says that all of the island's inhabitants, human or animal, are being hurt by the power struggle.

"This situation will be hard for Madagascar," he says. "The poor will suffer the most."

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