Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madagascar on my mind...

A Black Day for the Island Nation

While few of the big-name news networks have felt it necessary to mention my first love in foreign countries, the island that I called home for four years has been experiencing a political charade of almost comical proportions that has sent the country into a tailspin towards tragedy.

To keep a tangled, convoluted mess as simple as possible, the general summary is this: back at the end of 2008, the young, media prodigy mayor of Antananarivo started gathering protesters to voice their discontent with decisions made by the current president, Marc Ravalomanana, including to sell a large chunk of Madagascar's countryside to South Korea as agricultural land. This is a controversial decision on the global level - can developing countries create long-term economic stability by selling/leasing large amounts of "unused" land to developed countries that don't have the physical space to grow food to support themselves.

But that's already a tangent. The point is, Andry, mayor of Antananarivo, was seriously upset about this decision and a series of others and started calling regular demonstrations in the center of the city. Suddenly, the whole exercise in democracy took a shocking and violent turn when he declared himself the defacto president of the country and ordered his supporters to claim his "throne" by tearing down the empire of Marc, Madagascar's "Yogurt King."

So the first violent protests resulted in the looting and burning of any shop or store that might sell the President's products and many other "foreign" stores, regardless of what they might sell.

The violence briefly spread around the country, leaving all cities in turmoil and foreigners in a state of intense uncertainty. Where is this going? Is it going to get worse? Will things settle down? Stay? Leave?

A short lull hosted peace negotiations between the sides interrupted by weekends of tandem protests of both party's supporters in different parts of the city. Regularly these protests turned to looting, occasionally violent.

Then, in a twist of logic that could only make sense in Madagascar, Andry ordered his supporters to march on the Presidential Mansion so as to claim his right by force. They were met by armed guards and several supporters shot. There was a big political scandal of the guards must've been mercenaries because Malagasy would never fire on Malagasy.

So Andry decided to march on the ministries in order to gain control of the government by squeezing the head from the body. The ministries evacuated and locked the doors and left the military guarding it. Twice. Maybe three times? Anyway, Andry's supporters had no idea what to do when they go there, so they left.

Meanwhile, life has almost returned to normal except for some inconvenience and interruption in the capital city. A political stalemate ruled. Marc refused to give up his presidency, Andry refused to be refused, both refused to negotiate or compromise or admit wrong-doing of any kind. The UN was called in. Then Marc and Andry stopped showing up to the meetings.

Things suddenly went down the toilet last week as the military threw their hands up, not wanting to fight their own people any longer, even if it was to maintain the peace. It's still not entirely clear what happened, but it appears the military has split into two as well, and the end result is that the US Ambassador has called for the closing down of the US Mission in Madagascar (including the Embassy, USAID and Peace Corps), and is encouraging all US citizens to leave the country. My friends are buying tickets out this week.

The US Mission in Madagascar also evacuated all of their US staff and citizens in 2002. Now, seven years later in 2009, this makes Madagascar officially an "African country with a history of unstable politics." Describing this as "Madagascar's latest crisis" almost creates an expectation that there will be more and greater crises in the future - it is only a matter of time. What began as a revolution of democracy at the turn of the century is now a typical African conundrum of stubbornness and name-calling. (The only upside being that it is not a typical conundrum of machetes and rampant life-taking.) At a time of global economic crisis, the island is doing itself no favors by creating political turmoil on top of economic uncertainty.

It is painful to watch my American friends that have built relations and lives within the community be forced to sever them at a moment's notice. But it is even worse to be abandoning those Malagasy who have worked by our sides and have taught us so many things about their country. We are leaving them powerless and without an organization to support them as we pull away, yet again, as uncertainty reigns.

And so they will leave Madagascar on the brink of civil war and many lives interrupted. Again.

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