Madagascar’s army on Tuesday gave the country’s president and opposition a 72-hour ultimatum to resolve a crisis that has cost at least 100 lives.
The Indian Ocean island has been racked by unrest since December, when Andry Rajoelina, then mayor of Antananarivo, the capital, channelled the dissatisfaction of a poor, hungry population into mass protests against Marc Ravalomanana’s presidency.
Months of tension, marked by violence and looting, escalated in February when Mr Rajoelina claimed power. Sacked as mayor, he appointed a rebel cabinet, even as his rival proclaimed that he was still in control.
With negotiations brokered by the island’s influential church apparently foundering, the military, which has faced mutinies by soldiers angered at a crackdown on demonstrators, stepped in.
“When the Malagasy army does things like that it’s the beginning of the end for the current government,” said a European diplomat in the region. “I’m pretty sure we are heading for a transitional government.”
It is unclear who would lead any unity administration, or whether Mr Rajoelina, a youthful former disc jockey, and Mr Ravalomanana, whose disputed victory in 2002 elections ended his predecessor’s 23-year rule, could reach a deal.
Despite Madagascar having avoided the civil wars that have stalked many of its neighbours, the army remains prime power broker.
“We promise to remain neutral. We implore all political players, civil society organisations and other parties to reunite immediately to find a solution within the next 72 hours to help the nation out of the current crisis,” General Edmond Rasolomahandry, army chief of staff, was quoted by agencies as telling reporters. “If no solution is found within this time, we, the armed forces, will fulfil our responsibilities in the greater interests of the nation.”
Madagascar has begun to attract its first big foreign investments in recent years, including Rio Tinto’s $800m (€630m, £580m) titanium dioxide mine on the island’s southern tip and Total’s development of a tar sand resource in the north-east. Both the mining giant and the French oil group said on Tuesday their operations were continuing as normal.
Gross national income per head is a mere $330 a year. Meanwhile, a well connected elite – to which the current president belongs – have amassed business fortunes.
Discontent among the poor majority was stoked by a spike in food prices last year.
The collapse of the vanilla market, Madagascar’s main export, and talks towards a deal to allow a Korean conglomerate to exploit half the country’s arable land did little to assuage their anger.