Madagascar: The return of the impatient exile


Marc Ravalomanana has reluctantly spent the last five years in South Africa. All the while, he’s been pining for home – and political power – in Madagascar. But his unexpected and unsanctioned return on October 13 did not go quite according to plan, and he now finds himself locked up as a guest of the country’s new president in a remote military facility. Nonetheless, his impatience might just force Madagascar to finally confront its demons.

It’s easy to understand Marc Ravalomanana’s impatience. It has been a long five years of exile in South Africa for the former Prime Minister of Madagascar, and he’s clearly been itching to return the whole time. He’s tried, too, purchasing tickets home on more than one occasion. In 2012, he was actually in mid-air when his plane – a regularly scheduled SAA flight – was forced to turn around after being denied landing permission from the Malagasy authorities.

This time, however, he made it. While the details of his journey are unclear, it must have been quite some adventure. Apparently, a private plane was hired to take him to an unofficial airport in Madagascar, where there were no authorities to turn him away.

 Or to ask to see his passport, which – according to Peter Fabricius in the Cape Times – is still supposed to be in the possession of the North Gauteng High Court, where he faces charges relating to the killing of protestors while still in power.

But his joyous homecoming was short-lived. He just about had enough time to hold a press conference on October 13 – he railed against the new president, and the 2013 elections which were supposed to have solved his country’s political crisis – before being seized by a heavily-armed, balaclava-wearing special forces unit, and whisked off to a detention facility at a remote northern military base.

Suddenly, Madagascar looks like it’s in deep trouble once again.

The new president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, insists that Ravalomanana had not been arrested or abducted, but simply detained for the good of himself and the country. “Mr Marc Ravalomanana has not been arrested. 

He has not been imprisoned. He has been taken to safety against all kinds of threats,” the president told reporters, somehow keeping a straight face.

Truth is, Ravalomanana’s detention is undoubtedly a carefully calculated political move – but one that is sure to infuriate his still substantial support base, and provide plenty of ammunition to Rajaonarimampianina’s critics. 

This is a price the president is prepared to pay to keep Ravalomanana out of circulation, where he could rally his constituency and put even more pressure on what is already a fragile governing coalition.

Fault lies on both sides, however. Ravalomanana knew he was taking a big risk in coming home without permission, and without clearing it with the SADC mediation team that is overseeing implementation of the Madagascar’s “roadmap” to peace.

 The African Union is livid, telling Ravalomanana that he was out of line to sneak back. In a statement, the AU also condemned the sentiments expressed at Ravalomanana’s press conference, while praising President Rajaonarimampianina for “his commitment to national reconciliation”.

SADC deserves some of the blame too. Ravalomanana’s return was part of the peace deal agreed last year, to much fanfare, and an important element of the reconciliation process. As long as he was excluded, his support base feels excluded too. But SADC has been lax in implementing this particular provision, and has failed to exert any real pressure on the new president to allow the old one back in. In the end, its inaction forced Ravalomanana to take matters into his own hands.

Now Madagascar must deal with him – and the issues that the roadmap has yet to meaningfully resolve.

“Madagascar is mired in a vicious cycle of crises, lurching from political standoffs to coups d’état,” said Brian Klaas, a researcher at the University of Oxford specialising in Madagascar politics. “Too many people believed that the 2013 elections would be a silver bullet solution to Madagascar’s flawed political institutions; they were not. Instead, the same issues that catapulted Madagascar toward a coup d’état in 2009 still exist. Ravalomanana’s return to the island will, at least to some extent, force Madagascar to confront its lingering political demons, which were buried so long as Ravalomanana was just a bogeyman in South Africa.”

Unfortunately, this is more likely to spark conflict rather than catharsis. “If both presidents, past and present, want to show that they are true statesmen, each will set their political interest aside and use Ravalomanana’s return as a foil to secure genuine national reconciliation,” said Klaas. “Ravalomanana should recognise the legitimacy of President Rajaonarimampianina’s regime and offer to work with him to solve Madagascar’s long list of devastating problems.

 If that happens, Rajaonarimampianina should pardon Ravalomanana and allow him a clean slate. Unfortunately, principle rarely trumps politics in Madagascar, so this scenario currently seems unlikely.”‑ Daily Maverick

October 2014
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