Most Americans know about Madagascar, located in the Indian ocean off the coast of Africa, from the eponymous Disney animal movie featuring the feuding lemurs and fossas. Indeed, the fauna of the world's 4th-largest island is spectacular. The human side of Madagascar, on the other hand, is not such a fun place these days.
In what is amounting to a blood feud in which over 100 people have died, President Marc Ravalomanana refuses to cede power to Andry Rajoelina, the upstart former mayor of Antananarivo, the island's capital. (Rajoelina is also a former DJ and media owner.) For the moment, the military has been trying to stay somewhat fair and balanced. But should the conflict linger, the general staff is likely to divide into factions, with growing support for the overthrow efforts by Rajoelina.
By African standards, this is a pretty tame affair. But for Madagascar, a place of recent political instability but decent economic growth, the conflict is a disaster. Looming near the bottom of the world's poverty tables, Madagascar has recently been benefiting from major investments from mining giant Rio Tinto and energy behemoth Exxon Mobil. In addition, in a move that has sparked some of the protests, the government of Ravalomanana has leased 3 million acres of prime farmland -- about half the size of Belgium -- to Korean super-conglomerate Daewoo.
The Rio Tinto Mineral Sands project is the largest foreign investment in the island's history. It has, however, come under a withering attack by environmental group Friends of the Earth and London-based Panos. Exxon Mobil also came under some heat from Greenpeace last year for allegedly killing melon-headed whales with its advanced echo sounding equipment and will surely face more environmental challenges once it begins drilling in earnest.
The feud between the president and the upstart mayor seems to be more about personal egos and power needs than anything else. The basis for the criticism of the president seems to surround his lavish life style and "lack of caring" for the island's almost 20 million poor. Depending upon which way the army swings, the mayor could find himself assuming power in the coming weeks or be forced into exile.
As in so many poor African countries, power is a zero-sum game about control of the country's riches. No matter who comes out on top, it is not likely to affect the lives of Madagascar's poor. The only real effect will be to slow down investments, and to drive away the tourists who would like to see the lemurs and fossas in person but who will now have to content themselves with the Disney version.
(First published in World Politics Review March 16, 2009)