(photo by avylavitra).
The death toll is rising on the African Indian Ocean island of Madagascar after clashes between government and opposition supporters went into a third day. Yesterday the BBC reported 34 deaths after two days of rioting and looting in the capital Antananarivo. However this morning French website Liberation.fr reported there have been between 68 to 80 deaths since Monday. 37 of them, all suspected looters, were found dead in a shopping centre after they were trapped inside when it burnt down.
The Government and opposition factions have blamed each other for the growing violence. Opposition leader and Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina accuses President Marc Ravalomanana's government of misspending funds and threatening democracy. Meanwhile the president accuses the mayor of trying to stir up a revolt. The worst of the violence occurred on Monday and Tuesday when rioters targeted state owned media and shops owned by President Ravalomanana after the president shut down the Mayor’s independent radio station. The President visited his own damaged state radio station where he called Rajoelina "the initiator of these disturbances.” The trigger for the violence was Rajoelina’s address to a crowd of 20,000 in the capital in Saturday where he called for a “dead city” to "reclaim democracy." Yesterday, another 40,000 protesters answered Rajoelina’s general strike call.
Rajoelina has been adept at using his radio and television stations to foment unrest. His TV station Viva was temporarily closed down by the government in December after it broadcast an interview with former president Didier Ratsiraka. Ratsiraka ruled Madagascar for 25 years but lost a disputed election to Ravalomanana in 2001. The two forces fought a short and brutal war before Ratsiraka was forced to flee to France where he still remains. The Viva interview (in Malagasy) shows Ratsiraka harshly criticizing Ravalomanana.
The 60 year old Ravalomanana has been president for seven years and has won two terms of office. He is also one of the richest men in Madagascar as the owner of Tiko. Tiko is the country's leading dairy firm, as well as a food, construction and media conglomerate. Many in the country see this as disproportionate power in the hands of one man. However he remains popular and was comfortably re-elected in 2006. Ravalomanana’s political and financial pre-eminence seemed assured until Rajoelina arrived on the scene.
The 34 year old Andry Rajoelina is a youthful contrast to the president but shares many of his entrepreneurial qualities. He was given the nickname TGV for his quick fire personality and he turned the initials into his movement’s name: Tanora Gasy Vonona, or Young Dynamic Madagascan. He ran for the Antananarivo mayoralty in the 2007 municipal elections against Ravalomanana's party as an independent candidate. Rajoelina easily won with 63 percent of the vote. The Antananarivo mayoral seat has always been a politically defining post and it is where Ravalomanana rose to become president. Since taking office Rajoelina has fitted the mould and grown into the regime's most vocal opponent. He condemned what he says are shrinking freedoms in Madagascar and called for a transitional government. He has also fiercely criticised a massive project to lease vast swathes of farmland to South Korean industrial giant Daewoo.
In November the president announced he had leased 1.3 million hectares to Daewoo for 99 years for an undisclosed price. Daewoo will grow palm oil and maize on the island in an effort to sharply reduce Korean reliance on US imports. The leased property is half the size of Belgium and represents about half of Madagascar’s arable land. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned this year that the race by Madagascar and other African countries to lease farmland to overseas investors risked creating a “neo-colonial” system. And while Madagascar becomes a breadbasket for Korea, 70 percent of the island nation’s population suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. As Glenn Ashton observed at allafrica.com, the benefits of Daewoo’s land grab to the Malagasy people “appear chimeral at best”.