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Madagascar: the accidental coup

At first sight, the recent events in Madagascar seem like just another military seizure of power in Africa, another bloody alternation of one manifestation of greed for another. The familiar landscape of a ravaged economy, riven by ethnic and cultural divides, bearing the scars of a colonial past and the tumult of its ongoing exploitation by governments and conglomerates, finally falling victim to the rapacious desires that sprout in that dirt.

But on closer inspection, Madagascar’s turns out to be a strange, cautionary tale. There is something of the surreal about it, not least the bizarre decisions taken by President Marc Ravalomanana that got him booted out of his country and replaced by a former disc jockey who according to the constitution isn’t even old enough to be in charge. This is the story that Africa expert Stephen Ellis told last night at the Frontline Club in Paddington. The event follows the publication of his latest book, Madagascar: A Short History (Hurst & Co.), co-authored with Solofo Randrianja.


Precipitous times to be launching a book about the country. Ellis (who happens to be a CTlab member and contributor) is clearly the go-to guy on this part of the world: a former journalist and editor of Africa Confidential, he's written several important books on crime, religion and power in Africa, penned an authoritative account of the Liberian Civil War, spent a sabbatical year working for the International Crisis Group on the continent,  and lived in Madagascar for several years.

The audience are a pretty clued-up bunch. I've been following recent events fairly closely, but as usual there's someone present who's dredged up some of the murkier details around the edge of the story. She tells us about the armed gangs, with links to China, that have been taking advantage of the turmoil to plunder Madagascar’s national parks of their resources (you can read about it here). She also has a few, potentially slanderous, accusations to level at foreign oil companies. All illustrative of the nasty side-effects that accompany even relatively peaceful coups.

But for the most part, what was interesting about the evening was the opportunity to hear the idiosyncratic tale of this island nation. Madagascar, already designated as such an anomaly by nature, sees that distinctiveness mirrored in its politics. As Ellis points out, the recent crisis is coloured by the legacy of Madagascar's key role in the colonial slave trade (the division between those descended from slaves and those not is apparently a highly delicate but crucial ingredient in society). The country is also run through with ethnic and tribal divisions which Ellis believes may play an increasingly important role as the crisis continues.

And it will continue, he tells us, since the current leader, 34-year-old former DJ Andry Rajoelina, is propped up by only a section of the capital’s population and probably very few outside, with only part of the army behind him, and a bunch of scheming old political snakes milling around waiting to grab their own slice of power (not least Roland Ratsiraka, cousin of former president Didier Ratsiraka).

And while military coups, ethnic divisions and civil war are hardly novelties in African politics, the way in which they have panned out in Madagascar is rather unique. This is, after all, a country that once had uprisings launched by kung fu clubs.

The impression that Ellis leaves me with is of a country that fell rather unexpectedly into this coup, driven by the occasional outright stupidity of its president, Marc Ravalomanana: the dismissal of the French ambassador on Bastille Day ("about the most offensive thing you can do to the French foreign office"); buying a presidential plane out of the public purse when 70% of the country live in poverty; doing shady land deals with the South Koreans that look more designed to profit your personal business empire than the country as a whole.

And then, spectacularly, failing to reign in the army when three months of protests had all but petered out, thus re-igniting the problem and getting yourself ejected from the palace.

The whole thing sounds so ad hoc, so accidental. There's something very alien about that, and listening to Stephen talk about it, as well as those in the crowd who are also clearly familiar with the place, it takes on a sense of old-school reportage - less about issues and theories; more about odd tales from a colourful and often tragic corner of the world that I'm now desperate to visit.

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