mardi 10 février 2009

Analysts: Madagascar crisis driven by poverty

Madagascar's latest crisis, including rioting that has killed 68 people, has been driven more by economic concerns than political grievances, unlike past protest movements, analysts say.

Opposition rallies against the regime that have jolted the African country in recent weeks had a familiar appearance, most of them taking place on Antananarivo's May 13 square, like many protests over the years.

But while previous revolts were organised political endeavours to demand democratic reforms or contest the regime's policies, the latest uprising was a more spontaneous manifestation of anger from hungry citizens, observers say.

The vast and mainly rural Indian Ocean island is one of the world's poorest countries where an estimated three quarters of the population lives on two dollars a day or less.

Thousands took to the streets of Antananarivo on January 26 when the city's feisty and now deposed mayor, Andry Rajoelina, called for protests against President Marc Ravalomanana's regime.

Ensuing riots and looting left at least 68 dead, many of whom were killed when stores they were ransacking collapsed.

"The doors were broken open by organised gangs, but the majority of the people who entered was because of poverty, which has never been this high," said Serge Zafimahova, head of the Development and Ethic Committee think-tank.

He noted that previous upheaval in Madagascar -- in 1972, 1991 and 2002 -- coincided with periods of economic growth.

Government figures put the island's growth at a whopping 7,1% last year and forecast the economy will further expand by 7,5% in 2009.

But observers argue the wealth is poorly distributed and that any economic growth benefiting the elite has bypassed the masses.

"The people are famished," said Desire Ramakavelo, a political scientist, predicting the "middle class will disappear".

He also argued that while previous crises in the country had revolved around demands for political change and more civil liberties, the current unrest is fuelled chiefly by poverty.

"In 1972 it was a question of national identity and in 1991 it was about democracy," Ramakavelo said.

In 1972, the country's first president Philibert Tsiranana faced intense popular discontent over his perceived subservience to former colonial power France.

In 1991 trouble erupted after 16 years of iron-fisted rule by former president Didier Ratsiraka and again in 2002, when he eventually stepped down following a protracted electoral dispute with Ravalomanana.

Analysts argue that the desperation of part of the population accounts for the speed at which the situation evolved in Madagascar.

Within a few weeks, Rajoelina has gone from being a dynamic 34-year-old former DJ and up-and-coming political player to establishing himself as the undisputed leader of the nation's opposition.

In January, he proclaimed himself in charge of the country's affairs but was subsequently sacked by the regime from his post as mayor of the capital.

"This time around what is surprising is the speed of the movement. It is such that one can ask whether it isn't happening too fast and whether he [Rajoelina] isn't being been overtaken by events," said Ambroise Ravonison, a local analyst.

"The movement is more spontaneous, less organised than in the previous crises when political parties played a major role," said Jean-Eric Rakotoharisoa, vice-president of Antananarivo University.

He said the youthful mayor should buttress his support before launching a nationwide drive to remove the president.

Foreign powers have appealed for calm and local observers also pointed out that the impoverished country could not survive any prolonged political turmoil.

"That would be death for Madagascar. We cannot allow ourselves to undergo this situation for more than a few weeks," Rakotoharisoa said.

Rajoelina has called for a mass rally on Saturday during which he plans to unveil a transitional government. -- Sapa-AFP


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