By JUSTIN HANSON (@HunterHanson1)
On May 25, I flew from Atlanta to Paris to Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. I’ll be here for three weeks working on clean water systems in rural communities. In honor of traveling to the political capital, here is a brief walk through the turbulent political history of the island nation.
First thing first: Yes, Madagascar has more than just lemurs. They have approximately 24 million people. And no, there are no penguins, giraffes, lions, hippos, or lions. But the lemurs are pretty cool.
Ring-tailed lemurs. Photo credit goes to climatereporters.com.
The island’s population, called the Malagasy, is made up of 13 main tribes. Some are of mostly Indonesian descent and live in the center of the country -- like the Merina tribe – while those of mostly East African descent live in the coastal areas.
Each tribe had their own kingdom, and over time they would rise and fall in relative power. Eventually, the Merina kingdom grew strong and powerful. Under King Radama I, who reigned from 1810-1828, they gained control over the majority of the island. When the British came to the island, they recognized Radama as the king of the land as a result of the vast empire’s control over most of the island.
The majority of the next 75 years involved a power struggle between the British, French and Malagasy. The Malagasy were, for the most part, in charge but were faced with increasing influences from Europeans in the culture and economics of the island. One interesting part of the progression of their leaders came after a coup.
The main leader of the coup, Prime Minister Rainivoninahitriniony, married the woman who had been queen prior to the coup in an effort to appease fans of the prior leadership. She quickly got rid of Rainivoninahitriniony, though, and married his brother Rainilaiarivony. That leader went on to marry two of that queen’s cousins after she passed. Rainilaiarivony entered into an alliance with the British, who trained his military. This allowed him to hold off several attempts from the French to colonize by force.
But the French persisted.
In December of 1894 and January of 1895 the French used their massive naval force to bombard the island’s major ports, Toamasina in the east (that’s where most of my trip will be) and Mahajanga in the west. Then, a band of French infantry marched to Antananarivo and bombarded it with artillery until the monarchs surrendered to French control. Malagasy resistance continued until 1897.
A genuine French poster made after capturing Antananarivo, called Tananarive in French. Photo credit goes to Musse de l'Armee.
When France was occupied by Germany in World War II, it damaged the prestige and powerful image of the colonial administration in Madagascar, and in 1947 the Malagasy staged an uprising. Over the next decade, colonization around the world was winding down. Independence through peaceful means was granted to the island nation in 1958, though they were still in the French Community until they gained full independence on June 26, 1960.
After the island’s grapple for independence, it went through a long period of unrest that many consider to still be occurring today. The first president of Madagascar was Philibert Tsiranana, who basically kept the status quo of very strong ties to and reliance upon the French. This neo-colonial rule was highly unpopular among the Malagasy, and his government was overthrown in 1972.
Installed in his place was an interim president named General Ramanantsoa. He was not well liked and as a result was forced to step down in 1975. His replacement, a colonel, was assassinated only six days later. Another general was put in charge, but he was replaced after four months by another military man, Didier Ratsiraka, who brought in Marxist principles not too different from the Eastern Bloc countries of Europe.
Four years into Ratsiraka’s run in 1979, his policies brought about the utter collapse of the economy. Madagascar was bailed out by numerous donators and the International Monetary Fund on the condition that Ratsiraka’s regime would vastly change to adopt more free market principles and root out the rampant corruption many socialist or Marxist countries struggle with.
His reign was greatly extended as a result of these changes, but he became increasingly unpopular in the 1980s, and during a protest rally in 1991, his guards opened fire on unarmed citizens. This quickly brought about his demise and a new provisional regime under Albert Zafy, who went on to win the right to be the full leader of the country by winning the election of 1992.
Under this government the third constitution for the country was put into place and was somewhat successful, but Zafy was plagued by a poor economy, rumors of corruption and unpopular legislation that attempted to give him more authority. Ratsiraka was impeached in 1996 and replaced by an interim leader. But get this: Four months later, he won the election. What?...
I mean, that kind of encapsulates this whole thing if you ask me. Leader gets in trouble for corruption and power grabbing, there is enough political pressure to get rid of him and then a new, equally bad leader rises -- only this time the new leader was the same dude, Ratsiraka. Again.
Then, in the 2001 elections, Ratsiraka lost a hotly contested election to the mayor of Antananarivo, Marc Ravalomanana. He was a pretty decent president until he was ousted in a coup in 2009, and ironically, replaced by the man who had replaced him as mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina. Craziest thing yet, though: Ravalomanana was convicted of murder charges in 2010 and is now serving a life sentence. Yeah.
But yeah, that happened. So in 2010, Madagascar ratified the current constitution, the fourth for the country. Since then, the democratic elections have been much more transparent. And the international community has been pretty satisfied with the processes in place. The current president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, won the 2013 election and has been working on international trade recently with Singapore.