If you ask most Africa watchers what is the most urgent crisis on the continent, you’ll likely get answers ranging from Sudan to Somalia or even Congo. It is not likely that Madagascar will rise to the top of the list even though there is a perfect storm of calamity there due to the March 2009 military-backed coup.
Efforts to negotiate a political solution have thus far failed, but the regime of former Antananarivo mayor Andre Rajoelina has alienated the international community and the country’s political community. Donor nations, including the United States, have cut off all but humanitarian assistance, which is particularly damaging to Madagascar since the country’s budget was dependent for more than half its revenue from donors. The cutoff of foreign aid has caused health clinics to shut down. A quarter of the country’s health clinics have shut down, and the distribution of essential drugs has collapsed.
More than half the country’s children are considered malnourished. UNICEF resumed funding of centers with severe acute malnutrition in June, but other donors are unlikely to resume their total foreign aid funding.
The economy also has been heavily impaired by the reaction to the coup. The United States suspended Madagascar from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade process. Madagascar had been one of AGOA’s success stories, earning US$600 million annually and accounting for 60% of the country’s exports. The closure of factories servicing the U.S. market has caused 50,000 to lose their jobs, exacerbating an already problematic economic picture.
Another level of damage has been largely unseen by the outside world, except for environmental groups monitoring the devastation of Madagascar’s biodiversity. “Paradise Lost?” a U.S. Agency for International Development report states that Madagascar’s unique biodiversity could be lost, possible forever, and will harm not only Madagascar, but also the world at large. The report, written by the International Resources Group, estimates that the country’s flora and fauna, 80% of which is found nowhere else on earth, is seeing the loss of rare lemurs and tortoises. These animals are either being captured for export and for food at rates seen as ensuring their extinction.
“Slash and burn” agriculture is being practiced by poor farmers oppose a significant threat to Madagascar’s forests, but the report says the forests likely can’t be protected without addressing “fundamental economic issues that maintain rural people in abject poverty.” Over the 25 years covered by the report, Madagascar has seen its forest shrink from 11 million hectares to 9 million hectares and its population grow from 11 million to 20 million.
“Environmental preservation is hostage to economic development, and economic development is hostage to good governance,” the IRG report states.
Systemic corruption has become part of the normal landscape, benefitting transient leaders but not the population as a whole. It is this corruption that the deadlock is maintaining and which donors point to as their rationale for ending all but emergency aid to Madagascar.
The prospects for a resolution of the current political crisis may have waned because Rajoelina seems to have overestimated his leverage. He set this past August as the month in which a constitutional referendum would be held with the presidential election in November. However, the main opposition parties refused to take part in the elections, which have now been reset, with presidential election in the middle of the year and the constitutional referendum on November 17. Even those dates are in doubt, though, because the main opposition parties still refuse to participate in any election not organized by all major parties. Thus far, the
interim government has reached agreement only with minor political parties.
Meanwhile, a Madagasque court has sentenced former President Marc Ravalomanana and two others to life imprisonment with hard labor for the part they played in the deaths of about 30 protesters before he was forced from office last year. This is Ravalomanana’s third conviction by the country’s courts, which are considered not to be independent. The convictions are seen as preventing his return to the country to run for office. But they also represent yet another sign that dialogue on resolving the political crisis is going nowhere.
In scanning the continent, we must not forget the spots not at the top of the news because they have their significance as well. This crisis is having a long-term environmental, economic and humanitarian impact that will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome without a more attentive response.