Madagascar needs to change the plot

Improving the country’s dire socio-economic situation requires political stability rather than another attempted coup.

It started ‘like a bad spy novel’ – as one Malagasy commentator put it. In July, an amateurish coup plot was hatched by a seemingly Walter Mitty-like ex-soldier to assassinate Madagascar’s President Andry Rajoelina and several top leaders around him.

But this poor script has now led to the arrests of 21 people, including five generals, two captains and five non-commissioned officers. Four retired national and foreign police and military personnel and five civilians were also detained. They plotted to assassinate Rajoelina and other leaders and topple the government, Attorney-General Berthine Razafiarivony told a news briefing on Sunday. On 20 July she announced that the first six people had been arrested.

One of the many questions about these puzzling developments is why all those top soldiers and police would fall for what looks like a B-grade movie plot?

The person who seems to have hatched it is Paul Rafanoharana, a dual Malagasy-French national, former French gendarme captain and currently a consultant to the Singapore-based Benchmark Advantage Group. This is the major shareholder in Madagascar Oil, which is developing the Tsimiroro onshore heavy oil field about 275 km west of the capital Antananarivo.

Why would top professional soldiers and police fall for what looks like a B-grade movie plot?

Local media report that police have recovered deleted email messages to Madagascar Oil executives on Rafanoharana’s computer. In them, he appeals to the company for at least €10 million to finance the coup. Justifying the insurrection, Rafanoharana wrote that Rajoelina’s government had sent Madagascar into a ‘hellish spiral,’ citing, among other missteps, the president’s advocacy of a local herbal beverage as a cure for COVID-19.

He tells Madagascar Oil that as payback for helping financially, the new government would clear the bureaucratic obstacles the company faced in getting its concessions cleared. Madagascar Oil has denied any involvement in the plans.

What do we make of this? Local website Madagate said it seemed implausible that Rafanoharana could have been so imprudent and amateurish as to solicit financing for a coup plot by email, which is so easy to detect.

A prominent local businessman who requested anonymity told ISS Today, ‘My first reaction was, “This can’t be serious.”’ He at first suspected that Rajoelina had invented the plot to get at his political enemies or distract the public from the hardships of COVID-19. But when the authorities began arresting senior military people, he started thinking there might be more to it.

Malagasy politics have been of considerable interest to many foreign powers

A diplomat in Antananarivo who requested anonymity told ISS Today that the coup plot was not so implausible, given the military’s history of meddling in politics. Rajoelina himself came to power through a coup in 2009 when he ousted president Marc Ravalomanana with the military’s help.

After standing down under regional pressure, Rajoelina returned to office by beating his arch-enemy Ravalomanana in the 2018 elections, which Ravalomanana insisted were rigged. The diplomat said politics remained unstable, aggravated by rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

And Malagasy politics have also been of considerable interest to many foreign powers. The diplomat noted that these include France, the United States, Russia, and China, partly because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

Back in 2009, Ravalomanana accused France of backing Rajoelina. After the 2018 elections the BBC reported that Russia had offered financial support to the election campaigns of at least six presidential candidates, including Rajoelina. The fact that Rafanoharana and another former French soldier and dual French-Malagasy national – Philippe Francois – were arrested in the latest incident has raised some speculative eyebrows.

To tackle its massive socio-economic problems, Madagascar must consolidate its political foundations

But the diplomat believes that local circumstances would be enough to explain a coup attempt if indeed there was one. Madagascar has muddled along under generally poor governance since 2018. This has aggravated the effects of locust plagues, cyclones and another drought in the south which is threatening famine there. The COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns have also hit the country hard, he said.

According to the World Food Programme, chronic malnutrition afflicts almost half of all children under five – the world’s 10th highest rate. In recent decades the country has experienced a stagnation in per capita income and a rise in absolute poverty, it says.

‘The Grand Sud region has been struck by back-to-back droughts during the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 rainy seasons. This has had a disastrous impact on agriculture and forced people to resort to desperate survival measures, such as eating locusts, raw red cactus fruits or wild leaves,’ it says. 

The food security analysis conducted in April revealed that 1.14 million people in the region need urgent assistance and 14 000 of these are critically food insecure. And the situation could worsen from October to December this year, raising the number of people needing help to 1.31 million, the World Food Programme says.

‘Political instability undermines government institutional capacity, economic growth and development efforts. It also reduces people’s access to basic services and their ability to prevent and recover from frequent shocks such as climate-related disasters.’

Even so, a coup would hardly be the answer to the country’s ills. ‘It’s not good for Madagascar’s image … the island has been burdened with a negative image over decades with constant political instability, coups etc.,’ said former South African ambassador to Madagascar Gert Grobler.

Madagascar clearly needs to change its tired plot. Its still shaky political foundations must be consolidated so that the country’s massive socio-economic problems can be tackled with purpose and vigour.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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