Ousted Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana gambled big when he flew home under the political – and also, presumably, the military – radar on Sunday.
For a moment it looked like his gamble had backfired badly when he was detained within hours of arrival. And the success of his brinkmanship still hangs in the balance. But it just may turn out to have been an inspired gambit which will both end his five years in exile and also free the continuing logjam in Madagascar’s messy politics.
Quite how he did it is not yet clear. His passport is being held by South African authorities on the orders of the North Gauteng High Court because the National Prosecuting Authority has been asked to investigate whether he should be charged under South Africa’s International Criminal Court Act for alleged complicity in the shooting of demonstrators against his regime just before he was ousted in a coup in March 2009. So it seems he did not pass through any immigration.
He was also supposed to be under surveillance by South African intelligence. But he somehow gave them the slip, in circumstances which have aroused some suspicion of complicity by the authorities, which they deny. A private intelligence source said he travelled to Pietermaritzburg to visit his son at school there; drove to Durban’s King Shaka airport; flew to Lanseria airport, and from there to Skukuza airport in Kruger National Park. After that a private charter ferried him to a disused military airstrip south of Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo.
It was ‘out of the question’ and would be ‘counter-productive’ to send him back to South Africa
South Africa’s ambassador Gert Grobler was surprised to receive a call from Ravalomanana on Monday morning, announcing his return and thanking President Jacob Zuma and the government for hosting him for five years.
He then materialised in public, calling a press conference to announce that he had come home to seek peace and democracy and to fight poverty.
But within a few hours, heavily armed, balaclava-clad, special forces shot and smashed their way into his home and carried him away to a secret destination. For two days his family heard nothing from or about him and fretted over rumours that he was hurt or that he had been bundled into an aircraft and deported, possibly back to South Africa.
Grobler, though, was later personally reassured by President Hery Rajaonarimampianina that Ravalomanana had not been arrested but was being held in ‘protective custody’ to forestall suspected efforts by his enemies to harm him. According to some diplomatic sources, the likely suspect in this was Andry Rajoelina, the former DJ and Antananarivo mayor, and some of his military cronies, who had toppled Ravalomanana in a military coup back in 2009.
Eventually on Wednesday the government told the family that Ravalomanana was being held in the town of Antsiranana at the northern tip of Madagascar (and close to the French military base, as his supporters pointed out, recalling the strong animosity between him and Paris). What would happen next to Ravalomanana was the critical question. Ambassadors of key countries represented in Madagascar, including South Africa, the European Union, France and the US met on Tuesday to discuss the repercussions of Ravalomanana gate-crashing the party.
Most, if not all, conveyed the message to Rajaonarimampianina that although Ravalomanana’s return was an ‘unfortunate event’ and potentially destabilising, it was also a fait accompli. And so he should ‘turn this misfortune into an opportunity’ by drawing Ravalomanana into the national dialogue of reconciliation which the president had already launched.
It was ‘out of the question’ and would be ‘counter-productive’ to send him back to South Africa, Rajaonarimampianina was apparently told. The president said he would ponder this advice. It was no doubt quite a lot of advice to swallow. Whether or not he did so would be a revealing test of the president’s real motives.
Rajaonarimampianina won last December’s elections very much as Rajoelina’s proxy. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) which was supervising the transition from the coup to the restoration of democracy, had barred both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana from standing in those elections to try to cleanse the body politic of their toxic rivalry.
Once in office, though, Rajaonarimampianina cut the puppet strings and became his own man, falling out with Rajoelina over the latter’s attempts to dictate positions and decisions by the new government.
Ravalomanana’s actions after his return did not suggest anything like a revolutionary strategy
Rajaonarimampianina also insisted he did not share Rajoelina’s evidently pathological hatred of Ravalomanana and was not opposed in principle to his return to Madagascar. Ravalomanana certainly believed that with Rajoelina no longer in charge, he would be home soon. As he kept reminding anyone who would listen, SADC leaders had made a decision in 2011 that he should be allowed to return to Madagascar ‘unconditionally’.
But then Rajaonarimampianina began dragging his feet, explaining that Ravalomanana’s return would have to be carefully timed and managed to avoid destabilising Madagascar’s fragile politics.
SADC apparently agreed. Although it engaged in a dialogue with Rajaonarimampianina about Ravalomanana’s return, it did so with no evident sense of urgency.
Last month, though, Rajaonarimampianina invited Roelf Meyer, who was the National Party’s chief negotiator with the African National Congress (ANC) in the early 1990s, and former international relations minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, to come to Madagascar to advise him on the national reconciliation he was undertaking.
At Rajaonarimampianina’s request, they met Ravalomanana on their return to South Africa and he agreed he would give them a letter, to be conveyed to Rajaonarimampianina, setting out what he would contribute to national reconciliation if he returned. They never got the letter.
It seems Ravalomanana, tired of his more than five years in exile and despairing of an effective intervention on his behalf by SADC or anyone else, took matters into his own hands on Sunday and flew home solo, so to speak.
It is not clear what his game plan was, or is. Did he hope his arrival would spark a popular uprising? After all, he had originally come to power in 2001 through an element of popular force majeure, by simply forming a government after the incumbent Didier Ratsiraka tried to deny him overall victory in the first round of the elections.
On the other hand Ravalomanana’s actions after his return this week did not suggest anything like a revolutionary strategy. He conducted a public media conference at his home in the capital where he said he had returned ‘to support peace and democracy’ and to fight poverty. And he was having lunch there when the special forces burst in and took him away.
Maybe he just wanted to come home to participate in normal politics.
Now the ball is very much in Rajaonarimampianina’s court, to prove that he is sincere about national reconciliation. That was never going to happen without Ravalomanana’s return.
Ravalomanana may have acted impulsively, which is his sometimes irritating habit. But, as the ambassadors told the president, he is home now. Keeping him in ‘protective custody’, formally arresting him on the old and dubious charges of having ordered the shooting of demonstrators, or deporting him are going to be much worse for national reconciliation than simply wiping the slate clean and leaving him be.
It's time for Madagascar to move on.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa