Madagascar: Diplomats confused over who wields power

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The crisis in Madagascar has escalated after both the president and the opposition leader claimed to be in power. Between 40 and 100 people have died since anti-government protests descended into looting in Antananarivo, the capital, before spreading across the Indian Ocean island, last week, according to police and diplomats.

By Tom Burgis in Johannesburg

”We don’t know who has power,” Fanja Ratsimbazafy, secretary general of the Madagascar Red Cross, told the Financial Times from Antananarivo. ”We don’t understand what’s happening.”

He added: ”It comes from the financial crisis: so many people can’t afford food. Some people profit [politically] from this crisis.”

Marc Ravalomanana, the embattled president, insisted his administration was in charge. ”I remain president,” he was quoted as telling reporters. ”The country is calm.”

He was responding to Andry Rajoelina, the capital’s youthful mayor who has channelled anger among a poor and hungry population into demonstrations.

On Saturday Mr Rajoelina was quoted by news agencies telling supporters: ”Until a transitional government is in place, it is I who gives the orders for the running of national affairs and to all ministries.”

One European diplomat in the region said the country of some 20m people was ”on the edge”. He said the opposition’s tactic of calling a general strike until ministers abandoned their posts followed the pattern of action that had overthrown three governments in recent years.

”The political situation in Madagascar is deteriorating day-by-day,” said Jean Ping, the African Union’s top diplomat. He urged all parties to show respect for ”constitutional order and legality”.

Investors were last night on tenterhooks. More often known for its teeming forests and copious lemurs – as well as the occasional volatility of its politics – Madagascar has begun of late to attract large foreign investments.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto, the mining giant whose $800m titanium dioxide mine on the island’s southern tip is the biggest investment in the country’s history, said: ”We are most concerned for the safety of our people and the operation of the mine. We are monitoring the situation closely.”

Total said it was ”in touch with the authorities”. The French oil major is developing the Bemolanga tar sands in the north east, thought to be one of the largest untapped bitumen reserves in the world.

Residents said the capital was quiet but unease prevailed. A police spokesman told news agencies families were trying to identify 25 charred bodies recovered from a department store torched by rioters.

Mr Rajoelina accuses the president, who has ruled since winning a protracted legal battle following 2001’s disputed elections, of dictatorial tendencies and curbing media freedom – notably by closing the mayor’s own television station in December.

But popular outrage seems to stem primarily from grim living conditions compounded by rising food prices and a sense that wealth is concentrated among a handful of tycoons, including the dairy magnate president.

The anger was compounded when a putative deal emerged to allow Daewoo to cultivate crops for the South Korean market by leasing about half the island’s arable land.

Financial Times

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