Friday, March 13, 2009

Madagascar News Bulletin: Opposition Threatens to Topple Government of Marc Ravalomanana

Madagascar tensions mounts as rivals dig in heels

ANTANANARIVO (AFP) - - Madagascar's opposition said Friday it was close to toppling a government which in turn called on its poverty-stricken population to protect the presidential palace.

Followers of President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina took to the streets to press their campaigns after weeks of mounting tensions in which dozens of people have been killed.

The military on the vast Indian Ocean island remained on standby, vowing it would seek to maintain order without any political agenda.

In the capital, Antananarivo, some Ravalomanana supporters answered a call by a pro-government radio to "defend strategic sites such as ministries and the presidential palace."

An AFP reporter said some 500 pro-government demonstrators had gathered outside the presidential palace on the outskirts of Antananarivo.

On Thursday, hundreds of opposition supporters demonstrated outside Ravalomanana's office, but were held back by security forces.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on one of Ravalomanana's offices, killing 28 and wounding some 200. The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the country's security establishment.

On Friday, some 2,000 protesters gathered at Antananarivo's May 13 square -- the centre of the opposition's street movement -- for a new rally in support of the 34-year-old Rajoelina's bid to unseat Ravalomanana.

"It has been poverty for seven years," said Roland Ratsiraka, who is a senior opposition official as well as the nephew of exiled former president and bitter Ravalomanana rival Didier Ratsiraka.

"The transitional government is going to change all that," added Ratsiraka, referring to the parallel administration Rajoelina set up last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government.

Rajoelina, under UN protection since evading arrest last week, is demanding Ravalomanana's resignation and the formation of a full transitional government.

"The army is with us now. Ravalomanana is now packing his bags, and his ministers as well," said Augustin Andriamananoro, another opposition official.

On Tuesday, the army chief of staff issued an ultimatum giving the feuding politicians three days to resolve their differences or face a military takeover.

But in a surprise move, military leaders replaced General Edmond Rasolofomahandry with a colonel, Andre Andriarijaona, who took a tough stance against Ravalomanana.

"He should step aside because there is no point now in persisting," the new chief of staff Andre Andriarijaona said.

The military stepped in as the crisis plunged Madagascar and its 20 million population into deeper uncertainty.

"We are not here for a coup d'etat or to install a military administration. Politicians are the ones with the responsibility to solve the problems," Andriarijaona told AFP.

In a statement Friday, the president urged the army to "remain united and fulfil their duties by being neutral" after meeting with a members of a church council spearheading crisis talks.

"We reiterate the preconditions: stop all forms of terrorism, provocation, occupying of ministries and all arrests," said Odon Razanakolona, who heads the council.

Talks that were due Thursday between the rivals were postponed after Rajoelina said he would not attend.

Ravalomanana acknowledged this week he had made mistakes in a crisis which has left around 100 dead since the start of the year and remained open to negotiations.

Crowd rallies to Madagascar head

Around 500 people have gathered in the capital of Madagascar in response to an appeal by President Marc Ravalomanana to help defend his palace.

The military police and some army units have refused to take orders from the government amid a spreading mutiny.

But there is a low military presence on Antananarivo's streets, despite earlier reports the army had deployed tanks.

President Ravalomanana has been in a power struggle for weeks with former city mayor Andy Rajoelina.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in the capital says residents have told him they have come to the presidential palace to protect democracy.

'Secret location'

Mr Ravalomanana issued a radio appeal urging civilians to intervene.

According to AFP news agency, about 2,000 opposition protestors also gathered on Friday at the city's May 13 Square for a new rally in support of Mr Rajoelina.

Negotiations between the president and Mr Rajoelina planned for Thursday and Friday were called off.

The opposition leader has been attempting to establish a parallel government by naming an alternative cabinet.

Correspondents say that as the country sinks into political chaos it is not clear who has the upper hand, and exactly what role the mutinous soldiers intend to play.

Earlier Col Noel Rakotonandrasa, a spokesman for the mutinous soldiers, said tanks had been deployed to a secret location in Antananarivo, as a precaution to intercept any mercenaries hired by the government.

Opposition supporters have said they fear the president might bring in mercenaries to counter mutinous troops.

Col Rakotonandrasa was also quoted as denying rumours the dissident troops were planning to march on the palace.

At least 100 people have died during opposition protests that began in late January.

Growing resentment

The US ambassador to Madagascar warned on Wednesday that the Indian Ocean island nation was on the verge of civil war.

8 March: Section of the army joins opposition
9 March: Rajoelina goes into hiding
10 March: Defence minster ousted
11 March: Army chief of staff forced out
12 March: Military police chief joins dissidents
Mr Rajoelina is a 34-year-old former DJ and businessman who was sacked as mayor of the capital last month.

He went into hiding last week after the security forces tried to arrest him.

On Thursday, military police leader Gen Pily Gilbain said his forces were backing the new head of the army, Col Andre Andriarijaona, who earlier in the week ousted his predecessor appointed by the president.

Under President Ravalomanana, Madagascar's economy has opened to foreign investment, particularly in the mining sector, BBC World Affairs correspondent Adam Mynott reports.

But he says little of this has tricked down to the 70% of Madagascar's 20 million population who live on incomes of less than $2 (£1.40) a day, and the opposition has tapped into growing resentment.

Meanwhile, foreign governments are advising people not to travel to Madagascar and the tourist industry, a vital source of revenue, is reeling. More than 95% of foreign bookings have been cancelled.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/03/13 15:42:34 GMT

Q&A: Madagascar in crisis

Mutinying troops in Madagascar say they have moved tanks into the capital amid a continuing power struggle between President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina.

The turmoil has triggered waves of violent protests and looting that have left at least 100 people dead since January on this Indian Ocean island.

So what is the dispute all about?

It is basically a stand-off between two fierce political rivals.

Mr Rajoelina says President Ravalomanana is a tyrant who misspends public money.

After Mr Rajoelina was elected as mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, he tried to use this power base to propel him to the country's top job.

It is exactly the same trajectory as his rival Mr Ravalomanana. The government sacked Mr Rajoelina from his job at city hall in February.

Why the army mutiny?

There have been increasingly impatient calls in recent weeks from leaders within Madagascar's military for the political rivals to resolve the crisis.

The army's support for the president began to waver in February after security forces opened fire and killed at least 25 pro-Rajoelina demonstrators in the capital.

In March, a faction of the army mutinied and its leader named himself chief-of-staff, ousting the country's top general. Then the military police said they would no longer take orders from the government.

Is this a coup?

While the mutineers have rejected Mr Ravalomanana, they have not explicitly backed Mr Rajoelina.

The dissidents said their priority was keeping order while the politicians worked out their differences.

A spokesman for the army mutineers said they had no plans to attack the presidential palace or the presidential guard, who remain loyal to Mr Ravalomanana.

Why the popular discontent with President Ravalomanana?

Under President Ravalomanana, the country had been taking its first tentative steps into the global market after decades of socialism.

Multinational corporations including Rio Tinto and Exxon Mobil have arrived, pouring millions of dollars into government coffers.

The president himself has seen his own business interests - which range from dairy products to cooking oil - rise and rise.

But food and fuel have become more expensive while the foreign funds have not improved the quality of life for most people.

Some 70% of Madagascar's 20 million population live on incomes of less than $2 (£1.40) a day, and the opposition has tapped into growing resentment.

The final straw for many was the mooted plan to lease one million acres in the south of the country to the Korean firm Daewoo for intensive farming.

Malagasy people have deep ties with their land and this was seen by many as a betrayal by their president.

What is Andry Rajoelina's background?

Mr Rajoelina - now in hiding - is a baby-faced 34-year-old former DJ and businessman with media interests, including ownership of a TV and radio station.

The opposition leader is trying to set up his own alternative government, but has not gone into much detail about what he would do differently from Mr Ravalomanana.

Some say Mr Rajoelina is being supported by political heavyweights from the country's past - allies of long-time leader Didier Ratsiraka, who lost an equally bitter and power divisive power struggle against Mr Ravalomanana in 2002, following disputed elections.

What happens next?

All eyes are on the army.

If the mutineers stick to their pledge not to attack the presidential palace and topple Mr Ravalomanana at gunpoint, the stand-off is likely to continue.

The president says he wants to stay in power until his mandate runs out in 2011.

The United Nations has sent an envoy to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement and former colonial power France has also been trying to use its influence.

In the meantime, those foreign investors who have put money into the country - often aiming to take advantage of the potential for eco-tourism in this bio-diverse island - are starting to have second thoughts.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/03/13 12:38:32 GMT

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