Underlying conflicts continue to unsettle Madagascar – An interview with Adrien M. Ratsimbaharison

After Madagascar was diplomatically isolated following a 2009 coup d’état, normalcy seemed to have been restored to the island with the installation in 2014 of the government of Hery Rajaonarimampianina, which was elected in 2013 with 54% of the vote. However, the underlying causes for political instability remain, including long-held rivalries between major political leaders. IOA discussed these issues with Adrien M. Ratsimbaharison, Professor of Political Science at Benedict College in the US, author of the ‘The Failure of the United Nations Development Programs for Africa’ and long-time commentator on his native Madgascar.

Destruction in Antananarivo following Madagascar’s 2009 coup. Photo courtesy fanalana_azy/Flickr
Destruction in Antananarivo following Madagascar’s 2009 coup. Photo courtesy fanalana_azy/Flickr

Professor Ratsimbaharison, has political stability returned to the island?

The short answer to this question is that political stability has not returned to the island, despite the signing of the Roadmap for Ending the Crisis document in September 2011, the holding of the presidential and legislative elections in 2013, and the inauguration of the new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, in January 2014.

The long answer is that the Roadmap for Ending the Crisis signed by the major political parties in September 2011, which allowed the holding of the presidential and legislative elections in 2013, did not resolve the conflicts between the major political actors, particularly between former President Marc Ravalomanana and former Mayor Andry Rajoelina. In this sense, I totally agree with the assessment of the International Crisis Group (ICG) that the Roadmap and the ensuing elections were just a “cosmetic end to the crisis,” given the fact that the conflicts between these major political actors were deliberately swept under the rug through this agreement. What the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the international community tried to achieve through the Roadmap was just the establishment of a so-called “consensual transition,” and the holding of the presidential and legislative elections. That was what was celebrated as being the “return to a constitutional order” after the so-called ‘coup d’état’ in 2009. As a result, the conflicts and their underlying causes remain untouched. In fact, the same underlying causes are now starting to create new instability and most likely, a new crisis sooner or later.

While Madagascar’s coups d’état seem to hit unexpectedly, what warning signs might we be on the lookout for that signal instability or threats to the political order?

If we define coup d’état as “the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group” (following Encyclopædia Britannica, for instance), then there was never a successful coup in Madagascar since independence in 1960. However, if we define it as “every street protest, with or without military intervention, leading to the overthrow of a president and his government,” then we can say that there were successful coups in Madagascar in 1972, 1992, 2002 and 2009. Having said that, I do not think that we can just dismiss each and every popular uprising or protest leading to the overthrow of the government in Madagascar and everywhere in Africa as a coup d’état. In fact, international politics dictate the labelling of what a coup is and what it is not. I wrote a paper on that issue. (1) Consequently, I prefer to go back to the first definition and accept its ramification that there was never a successful coup in Madagascar.

Now, to address the question concerning the warning signs of political instability that may lead people to protest on the streets and overthrow their government. I am currently working on a book on the last instability and crisis of 2008 to 2009, (2) and my main argument in this book is that the condition or context of instability and crisis, in this case, was characterised by the slight improvement of the national economy from 2003 to 2008 and the failure of the political leaders to consolidate democracy and address poverty and social inequality. This context became explosive when the government at the same time denied freedom of press and expression to some powerful political actors (i.e. the shutting down of Rajoelina’s VIVA Television). In other words, in this particular case of instability and crisis, I think that we can go back to the theory of rising expectation, which was restated by James C. Davies in his theory of revolution and the ‘J-curve’. Nevertheless, I am not yet sure whether we can find the same pattern of “rising expectation followed by sharp reversal” in the previous instabilities and crises (1972, 1992 and 2002). There is still some work to be done there.

SADC expelled Madagascar after the 2009 coup and made re-entry to the regional body conditional to the restoration of a credible democratic government. How effective was international pressure on the resolution of the crisis? Was this testimony to SADC’s collective power when the body chooses to act?

Regarding the effectiveness of the international pressure and the role of SADC in the establishment of the so-called “consensual transition” in Madagascar, I agree with Gavin Cawthra who evaluates the SADC mediation in his study, The Role of SADC in Managing Political Crisis and Conflict. According to this author, the international community sanctions and the SADC mediation were successful in the case of Madagascar in getting the Roadmap signed in September 2011, for several reasons. First, the total dependency of Madagascar on foreign aid allowed the international community and SADC to constrain Andry Rajoelina and his supporters to negotiate and make meaningful compromises. Second, the lack of economic interests of most SADC member states in Madagascar gave them a free hand to make any decision they wanted without any fear of unintended consequences for their countries. The case of Madagascar was compared in this study with that of Zimbabwe, where SADC had to move very cautiously and ultimately failed in its attempt to mediate the conflicts between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition. So, if we go back to the question of whether SADC’s success in Madagascar was a testimony of its collective power, I would say that this success was relative, and depended on the particular situation of Madagascar.

What are the political issues that may lead to conflict in Madagascar?

The major political issues that may lead to new conflicts sooner or later in Madagascar are the repeated violations of the laws (including the constitution) and the instrumentalisation of all government institutions (particularly the justice system) by the current government. Indeed, the current government is just following the same path established by previous governments in their unlawful ways of governing the country and their instrumentalisation of government institutions to consolidate their power and silence the opposition. We just need to refer to a few examples as evidence. For instance, in the appointment of prime ministers, most observers agree that the president repeatedly violated Article 54 of the Constitution in the appointment of the three prime ministers who have served so far under his presidency. In addition, the government is always fabricating new laws that specifically target the opposition. For example, it is now adopting a new law on communication which is restricting the freedom of press and expression of the citizens (and particularly the opposition), and a new law to indict specifically the former government officials who served the country between 2002 and 2009. Can you imagine any government in the world (democratic or not) crafting laws targeting a specific group of people who served their country during a specific period of time? If the government persists in these ways of governing the country, the people will no longer trust the government and its institutions, and they will have no choice but to take justice into their own hands to survive; which will inevitably lead to new instability, crisis and probably civil war.

What are the social issues that may also lead to conflict?

The main social issues that may lead to conflict remain the poverty of the great majority of the Malagasy people and the increasing social inequality among them. In the same way as the instrumentalisation of the government institutions, if the current government fails to address these issues quickly, the people will no longer trust it. They will find their own ways to survive and in doing so, will clash with the government. Once again, that will lead to new instability and crisis.

Could you discuss the importance of democratic consolidation to achieve stability in Madagascar?

I am now more and more convinced of the validity of the so-called ‘democratic civil peace’ theory or hypothesis, which has been developed in recent years by many scholars, including Havard Hegre and his associates. According to this theory, which is also rooted in the widely accepted ‘democratic peace theory’, semi-democratic regimes or ‘partly free countries’ like Madagascar and many other African countries are inherently unstable because of the internal contradictions in these countries. Therefore, if we want to achieve stability through the type of regime we choose for the country, we only have two options: either to establish a true, liberal democracy (as in the US and all Western European countries), or to impose an entrenched autocracy (as in North Korea or in China). However, this last option is no longer possible in Madagascar unless we want to kill millions of people who would die for democracy, like in 1992. Therefore, the only viable option for Madagascar is the establishment of a true, liberal democracy. I just completed a book chapter developing these ideas in the case of Madagascar. (3) Hopefully, this book will be published by the end of the year, and will be widely disseminated.


(1) Ratsimbaharison, Adrien M., 2015. The Politics of Labeling in International Politics: The Case of the So-Called ‘Coup d’état of March 2009’ in Madagascar.
(2) Ratsimbaharison, Adrien M. (Forthcoming, 2017). The Political Crisis of March 2009 in Madagascar: A Case Study of Conflict and Conflict Mediation. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland.
(3) Ratsimbaharison, Adrien M. (Forthcoming, 2016). “From the Failure to Consolidate Democracy to the Recurrence of Political Crises: The Case of Madagascar during the Third Republic (1992-2009),” in Civil Wars: Causal Factors, Conflict Resolution and Global Consequences, New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.