Hidden from the world’s view or interest, a titanic battle for democracy and human rights over greed and self-interest is being waged in little-noticed Madagascar. 

Still suffering the after-effects of a violent 2009 coup d'etat that plunged the country into crisis, Madagascar heads back to the presidential polls in just three weeks, with 36 hopefuls vying for election.

They are headed by a raft of former presidents led by Marc Ravalomanana, president from 2002 until he was deposed by the 2009 coup. He will square off against coup leader Andry Rajoelina, whose candidacy has been accepted despite his being disqualified by international protocols against unconstitutional changes of government, including those of the AU.

Also in the running is immediate past president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a former finance minister in Rajoelina's transitional authority who became president in 2013 when both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina were prevented from running by Southern Africa Development Community negotiators. Former president Didier Ratsiraka (1975-1993 and 1997-2002), who will celebrate his 83rd birthday four days before polling and who was also deeply enmeshed in the coup, is the fourth and final former president contesting the election.

Marc Ravalomanana is one of several former Malagasy presidents contesting the presidential election next month. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Marc Ravalomanana is one of several former Malagasy presidents contesting the presidential election next month. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Unless one of the 36 secures an outright win on November 7 (50% plus one vote), the two candidates who receive the highest share of the vote — widely predicted to be Ravalomanana and Rajoelina — will contest a run-off on December 19.

The presidential elections will bring to an end — or will restart — a decade of turmoil in Madagascar caused by the coup. It plunged Madagascar, already the 10th-poorest country in the world, into depression and despair. The Malagasy people are poorer now than ever. Some 92% live on less than $2 a day; 80% go to bed hungry or thirsty every night; one in every two children suffers from malnutrition and stunting; school enrolment has fallen dramatically, with more than 600,000 children who should be in school not attending classes; and infrastructure — roads, hospitals, clinics and schools — is falling into disrepair. Security, both physical and food, is under threat, and Madagascar experienced epidemics of the plague during 2017 and 2018.

International agency statistics show Madagascar going backwards on every developmental index in the world. Corruption is endemic, with the country at 155 of 175 countries measured by Corruption Watch. Lack of government control by the Rajoelina and Rajaonarimampianina administrations led to widespread plundering of natural resources and damage to Madagascar’s fragile ecosystem.

A 2017 European Parliament resolution reported that “a large, unexplained stash of rosewood logs was discovered at the presidential palace after the end of Rajoelina’s term in office”. It also noted that “accelerating deforestation and [a] spike in bush meat consumption linked to deepening poverty” meant 90% of the island’s lemurs were threatened with extinction during Rajoelina’s tenure.

Ravalomanana is widely regarded as the most successful president in Madagascar’s history and is running on a platform that aims to restore democracy, growth and the rule of law.

Before he was deposed the country had a 7%-plus growth rate. This plunged to just 2% as the international community imposed post-coup sanctions. Madagascar descended into poverty and banditry, with some warning it was in danger of losing its sovereignty. The economy slowly began to recover after the 2013 elections, but Rajaonarimampianina’s term was characterised by widespread corruption and attempts to impeach him. He lost control of parliament and there were four prime ministers in the same number of years.

Add to this a complex dose of geopolitics. Madagascar is a former French colony and the French cultural network in Madagascar is particularly strong. France remains a major economic player. It is the largest trading partner with trade worth €974m in 2017; it is Madagascar’s leading customer, absorbing 22% of its exports in 2017; and was its fourth-largest supplier behind China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Madagascar is geographically the African country closest to China, with direct sea lanes across the Indian Ocean, and is being billed as a natural extension of the 21st century Silk Road.

France is also Madagascar’s leading bilateral donor (€77.3m in 2017) and its leading source of tourists at close to 150,000 visitors in 2016, or almost one in every two tourists. EU trade is led by France, but including Germany and the Netherlands amounts to almost 35% of the trade with Madagascar’s top 15 trading partners.

In the aftermath of 2009 and beyond, countries such as China and Russia are circling Madagascar. They are aligned to powerful forces in the country, both in government and individuals, as they seek advantage and the ability to exploit Madagascar’s natural resources.

China is now Madagascar’s primary source of imports and is the island’s fifth-largest destination for exports. It has become Madagascar’s most important commercial partner in volume and value of investments, with the largest investment deal in Madagascar to date for mining rights to an iron ore project, an investment made when foreign investors and western donors were pulling out of the country.

China is set to construct a deep-water port on Madagascar’s north-western coast facing Mozambique, where China has made massive rail investments linking up across Africa. Madagascar is geographically the African country closest to China, with direct sea lanes across the Indian Ocean, and is being billed as a natural extension of the 21st century Silk Road.

Russia hopes to sign an investment guarantee agreement with Madagascar before the end of 2018. It says co-operation with Russian companies and the use of Russian technologies could allow Madagascar to become a grain hub for the African continent. Madagascar’s ambassador to Russia says: “It would be too bad if Russian companies do not have an opportunity to work in Madagascar. Oil and gas reserves have been found in the Mozambique Channel. These reserves are bigger than those in the North Sea. We want all our partners, including Russians, to partake in oil production."

In 2015 Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Madagascar's then foreign minister agreed to deepen co-operation in geological exploration, tourism, banking, personnel training and military-technical co-operation. Bilateral trade rose 12% in 2014. In September, allegations were made in Africa Confidential of “secret Kremlin funding of the so-called 'little' candidates in the election campaign".

It is against this background that the 36 candidates square off.  Already there are ominous signs. Deadly foes Ravalomanana and Rajoelina found common ground when they faced down an attempt by Rajaonarimampianina to exclude them from the election, taking their protest to the streets. Now they are campaigning hard against each other.

Rajoelina has seemingly fallen out with his former finance minister and the man he made president, Rajaonarimampianina, who this week had a number of campaign rallies disrupted by “agitators “ and “disruptive elements”, allegedly from Rajoelina’s party. Some individuals confessed to having been paid to disrupt his meeting, while on a third occasion a herd of zebu (oxen) were let loose in the crowd.

Madagascar’s election is taking place well away from the eyes of the world, with little media scrutiny. As an island with no neighbours there is little interest in what happens. Why should the world care? Because the poverty and lack of development and fundamental human rights in Madagascar are an affront to all of us and hidden from view or interest is a titanic battle between those who seek power only for their own ends, and those who want to restore democracy and develop the 25-million people on the so-called Big Island.

• Mann is a long-standing consultant to former president and presidential candidate Marc Ravalomanana. He is in Madagascar working on the election campaign.