Madagascar 'coup' riles African, international allies

New leader Andry Rajoelina has asserted control as the South African Development Community threatens to suspend Madagascar.

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A regional body may suspend Madagascar's membership following the ousting of former President Marc Ravalomanana by troops loyal to Andry Rajoelina, who was installed Wednesday as the country's acting president.

The military-backed takeover in Madagascar has raised fears of a return to military rule across Africa, following recent coups in Guinea, Mauritania, and Guinea-Bissau. The United States and European Union have threatened to cut off aid to Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries. Zambia, a key member of the 15-nation South African Development Community (SADC), has called for the immediate suspension of Madagascar from the grouping and from the larger African Union. SADC leaders are meeting Thursday in the capital of Swaziland to consider the call.

Voice Of America News reports that the group's executive secretary, Tomaz Salmomao, said such violations of constitutional rule break the rules of the both groupings and should not be condoned.

"You are aware that the president of the republic resigned yesterday and he hand over the power to a military directory themselves also transferred the power to the former mayor of Antananavivo," [said Mr. Salmomao.] "So in practical terms we have a military coup. In view of that and because Madagascar is a SADC member state, SADC has to take a position."

The US State Department has evacuated most embassy staff, suspended the Peace Corps program, and warned Americans against travel to Madagascar.

State Department officials have used Twitter feeds to refute rumors that Mr. Ravalomanana, a twice-elected president, was hiding in the US Embassy in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, the Associated Press reports. Twitter feeds from the capital had claimed that the deposed leader had sought refuge in the embassy, potentially making the compound a target of opposition attacks. US officials sent Twitter messages denying the claims.

Madagascar is the world's fourth-largest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique. (See a map of the region here.)

Mr. Rajoelina, the former mayor of Antananarivo, assumed power after troops stormed the presidential palace on Tuesday. The following day, he told supporters that he would overturn the policies of his predecessor and hold elections within two years, Al Jazeera reports. The French government has criticized this timetable as too long, however, and said the international community wants a "quick return to democracy."

The former opposition leader promised to bring food prices down on the island, where three-quarters of the population live on less than $2 a day.
He also said he would sell a plane that Ravalomanana recently bought for $60m, and use the money "to establish a hospital for the people's health, which is a higher priority".
Rajoelina also cancelled an agreement to lease South Korean corporation Daewoo more than a million hectares of land in Madagascar to grow food crops, a deal for which Ravalomanana was heavily criticised.

Madagascar's constitutional court has confirmed Rajoelina, 34, as acting president, even though the Constitution states a minimum age of 40 for the president, the Irish Times reports. After his offices were stormed by troops, Ravalomanana said that he was handing over power to the military, but that was overturned by the court.

National Public Radio reports that Rajoelina's youth is an asset in a country where half the population is under 18. Known for his energetic style, his nickname is TGV, the name of France's high-speed train system. One reason for the long wait for fresh elections seems to be that Rajoelina must amend the constitutional age limit to legitimize his presidency.

Ravalomanana's whereabouts are unknown. A dairy-company executive, he came to power after a disputed election victory in 2001 over incumbent Didier Ratsiraka, reports Reuters. Mr. Ratsiraka refused to step down for several months, leading to administrative chaos, before eventually going into exile in France.

The current crisis began in December when Rajoelina's TV station aired an interview with Ratsiraka, whom the president accused of backing the opposition leader. The government shut down the station. A series of strikes and protests led by Rajoelina turned violent in January, with looting in the capital and a deadly military crackdown.

The Associated Press says the rival leaders belong to a wealthy elite that has long dominated Madagascar. Rajoelina is believed to draw support from Ratsiraka, a socialist who first took power in 1975 and ruled for 16 years, before losing power. After a second term, he fled in 2002.

The people of Madagascar, meanwhile, will be watching to see whether Rajoelina keeps his populist promises of putting their welfare first.
Already there is concern he is not up to the job of governing and that his power grab has isolated a country in need of help from its neighbors.
"I'm not sure it's really over," Emeline Raharinandrasana, a retired office worker in the capital, said Tuesday. "Is this new authority legal? If not, will the international community continue to help us? That worries me the most."
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