For nearly two months
government supporters and soldiers have blockaded the only road
between the port of Toamasina and Antananarivo, the nation's
capital and stronghold of opposition leader and self-proclaimed
president Marc Ravalomanana.
The country has, for the past
few months, had rival presidents, governments and capitals.
Normally 1,450 tons of cargo passes through the Toamasina port a
month, most of it headed to Antananarivo. A refinery located at
the coast also supplies almost all of the country's fuel.
Much of the food production is done around the capital and this,
too, cannot reach the people living along the road to Toamasina.
Currently, traffic to the capital cannot go further than the
village of Brickaville, a 90-minute drive south of Toamasina,
where the bridge spanning a 30m-wide gully has been partially
dismantled and blocked off with barbed wire and an empty cargo
The blockade is guarded by a contingent of paratroopers, loyal
to incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka, who has ordered the
capital be cut off until Ravalomanana renounces his claim to the
The dispute began after official results from a flawed December
16 election showed no candidate had won more than half the vote,
forcing a runoff between Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana.
Ravalomanana said the election was rigged, and declared himself
the outright winner. He claimed to have won 52 percent of the
vote - more than 50 percent obviates the need for a runoff-but
the official tally was 46 percent. No
international observers were
present at the elections.
Ravalomanana had himself sworn in as president and named
alternative ministers, who were installed in government
buildings by supporters.
Ratsiraka and his party moved their headquarters to the coastal
city, his constituency, and has continued to insist that he
remains the incumbent president. Shortly before the elections,
he elected a new Senate, appointed new High Court judges and
appointed six new provincial governors who now support his
Ravalomanana is the former mayor of Antananarivo who was hailed
for his work in developing the city's infrastructure. "In
one year he changed the whole city," said a Malagasy
official who did not want to be named
A successful businessman with no
political constituency, Ravalomanana is said to be very outward
looking in terms of trade and foreign policy, corn pared
to the inward, conservative
The opening session was broadcast live on state
stance of Ratsiraka who has been
reluctant to become part of the Southern African Development
Ratsiraka served as the
country's military ruler for 17 years before being elected in
Madagascar has had a positive
growth rate for several years,
including growth of 6.5 percent last year. It has moved quickly
to capitalise on the African Growth and Opportunity Act and has
attracted a number of big Mauritian textile companies to the
Around 80 percent of all income comes from the capital and the
majority of the population lives there.
However, the current impasse has the potential to undo all the
economic gains of the past year or two.
The assault on the economy has not only come from the
government. On January 28, the opposition called a crippling
general strike aimed at forcing Ratsiraka to resign. The strike
was eventually abandoned.
The blockade has made raw materials ,carce and exports
impossible. As a
result many businesses in the capital
have closed or are on the verge of
bankruptcy. About 20,000 jobs in this impoverished country
have been lost and a further 80,000 are threatened.
A shortage of fuel has brought
a lot of the remaining economy activity to a standstill. In
addition, the central bank, closed for the election and has yet
to open because of
subsequent events, thus paralysing the banking system.
Ratsiraka, who has kept his own counsel through much of the
dispute, recently broke his long-held silence and rejected
flatly an opposition demand that he step down.
"I don't want my name to be soiled," he said in an
interview with Radio France Internationale. "I don't want
people to say that Ratsiraka is a deserter, that he is the one
who allowed a horde of neo-fascists and nazis, as they are often
called, to vassalise our children and children's children".
His speech followed clashes in the central city of Fianarantsoa,
in which several of Ravalomanana's supporters were killed by
forces loyal to Ratsiraka - a new development in a battle fought
mostly on the economic front so far.
Ratsiraka, who described himself as a national saviour, spoke of
the dangers of ethnic strife in Madagascar and accused
Ravalomanana and his supporters of pushing the country into
Concern about a possible civil war along ethnic lines has also
been expressed by Abdoulaye Bathily, a
former Senegalese government minister
and member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Contact
Group for Madagascar. There are some 18 major ethnic groups in
Malayo-Indonesian, African, Arab, French, Indian, Creole
Bathily commended the army for
having stayed "largely" neutral, but conceded the
OAU's mediation had failed and blamed both Ratsrika and
for the current quandary.
Ravalomanana's efforts to extend his support base beyond his
stronghold of Antanananarivo have not proved to be very
successful. Ratsiraka's supporters have erected roadblocks in
various provinces, but especially around the capital, to
starve it of fuel and other vital supplies. Ravalomanana's Prime
Minister, Jacques Sylla, denounced those roadblocks, saying
they are manned not by soldiers but by "mafiosi
militias". Ratsiraka has rejected that charge, saying the
roadblocks "are a lesser evil designed to ward off an
ethnic conflagration and a civil war because they separate the
Meanwhile, Ravalomanana's government has continued with the
business of state. Syllae recently opened parliament and
outlined plans to improve services, boost the economy and
promote peace and stability.
The opposition government also announced a commitment to free
trade and maintaining ties with France, the former colonial
About 60 of the National
Assembly's 150 members attended the session, which Ratsiraka's
government declared illegal. Before the election dispute, 87 MPs
backed Ratsiraka, but it is unclear how many have switched
allegiance to Ravalomanana.
The World Bank estimates that the dispute is costing the poor
island nation $12 million a day - a huge chunk of its gross
International investors are already
looking for other places to invest their capital, while many
businesses are losing export orders.