In Madagascar, “all the alternations took place outside the rules”

Solofo Randrianja is professor of history at the University of Tamatave (Toamasina)

In Madagascar, “all the alternations took place outside the rules”

Solofo Randrianja is professor of history at the University of Tamatave (Toamasina). A specialist in contemporary political life, he deciphers the causes of the new electoral crisis that Madagascar is experiencing one month before the first round of the presidential election, the date of which has been postponed to November 16. If the manipulation of institutions and the violation of laws by outgoing president Andry Rajoelina are the triggers of this crisis, it also has its roots, according to the historian, in the existence of a dysfunctional state. Between the system of royalty which prevailed before colonization and that of the Republic subsequently imported, “hybridization did not work,” he notes.

No. For the first time, we are not facing a crisis caused by opponents who demand power and are ready to go beyond the constitutional framework to do so. It is the regime in place which has deviated from legality by flouting the laws and manipulating institutions. There is of course the question of the French nationality of President Andry Rajoelina [revealed in June by the publication of his naturalization decree] and also, directly linked to the holding of the election, the lack of transparency on the number of voters , the submission of the Electoral Commission to power, the withdrawal of the President of the Senate under pressure to make way for a collegial government, responsible for organizing the elections... So many reasons to think that these elections are a fool's game.

Early in Andry Rajoelina's mandate, there were signs of this desire to use institutions to consolidate his power. I can cite as an example the appointment by the president of regional governors even though the law provides for them to be elected. In the same vein, in December 2022, more than two thirds of the deputies of the National Assembly including a large majority of the coalition supporting the regime tabled a motion of censure against the government led by Prime Minister Christian Ntsay. They were called to order within a few days and withdrew the motion. This illustrates the legislative power being brought into line.

Madagascar is schizophrenic like many African countries. The local political culture has failed to integrate, for the good of the entire population, the elements of governance imported with colonization then through the Constitutions – four in total – adopted since independence.

The Malagasy live in a cosmogony, in a way of conceiving the universe which is not necessarily in phase with Roman law, the separation of powers, etc. I am not idealizing the modes of organization prior to colonization, I am simply making this observation: hybridization did not work... or, more precisely, it was controlled by political elites according to their interests .

The royalty that prevailed before colonization remains – invisibly – very significant. All the presidents who have succeeded one another since 1960 have had in common the ability to capture his legacy, one of the characteristics of which is a very strong personalization of power. (…) In Malagasy, “fanjakana” translated as State is a close cousin of “mpanjaka” which means king. The Malagasy believe somewhere in the sacredness of the State embodied by the king. It is through this representation that citizenship and living together are built.

But, in my opinion, the contradiction between a secularized king who hides behind the sacred state is one of the sources of chronic political instability. It is interesting to note that if the adoption of a republican model allowed the democratization of the recruitment of the “king”, a strong limit was set. The assassination of Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava in 1975, explained in the popular imagination as the refusal of God and the ancestors to see a descendant of a slave be head of state, indeed suggests that no descendant of a slave will be able to perform this function.

There are of course more or less megalomaniacal personalities. Didier Ratsiraka was enthroned on the sacred stone of Mahamasina which is a symbol of royalty. Rajoelina's dress code, like that of many of his supporters, refers to the pre-colonial 19th century. We thus speak of providential men, but this is covered with unsaid words which refer to a mode of government governed by a rereading of royalty by the elites. This remains a reality at the local level where “kings” and traditional leaders persist. (…) It is a part of politics which is not formal on which any candidate for the presidency must tune in to be elected and especially to govern. He will need it if only to maintain order because the authority of the State is not effective over the entire territory.

All the alternations were made outside the rules. Both at the time of royalty when it came to deciding on successions and after independence, when Madagascar became a Republic. The first Malagasy president, Philibert Tsiranana, who ruled the country until 1972, was appointed by an assembly of provincial elected officials installed during the colonial period.

The Second Republic was born in 1975 from a coup d’état perpetrated by factions of the army. In 1993, Albert Zafy, who proclaimed himself "father of democracy", was first brought to power from the streets before being legitimized by elections. These alternations outside formal institutions recall how commoner groups – Manantany among the Sakalava, Hova among the Merinas, for example – chose kings and queens, using armed forces and money. The order of succession was then “regularized” by official historiography.

In such contexts, it is rather a sort of “palace revolution” which causes the collapse of a regime, favored by popular movements which constitute its spark. Elections confirm a choice resulting from power struggles within the elites. There are never major social debates during electoral campaigns. Imprisoned in this system, hopeful personalities always end up at one point or another disappointing all voters.

Madagascar is a hierarchical and profoundly unequal society. The monopolization of wealth by the ruling class is a constant: look for example at Antalaha, the world capital of vanilla. The urban infrastructure is as terrible as elsewhere, the majority of the population does not have access to drinking water, the farmers who plant vanilla are still in poverty.

Taboo social fact, the descendants of slaves, the “subalterns”. It’s a subject we don’t want to talk about. At the time of independence, the census indicates 2.5 million Malagasy people, including 500,000 “dependents”. The population has multiplied by more than ten since then, the number of subordinates who have become people without recognized status has increased in the same proportion. Entire groups are stigmatized like the Antevolo of Vohipeno, the Andevo of Imerina and elsewhere, the Makoa. Legally, they are citizens but, in reality, they remain prisoners of their condition of descendants of slaves and, in the Republic, the rituals which would have freed them from this status no longer officially exist... In Madagascar, citizens do not are not equal to each other, it is a view of the mind, a legal fiction.

The Malagasy people need a real debate on the nation they want to build. Since independence, it has never taken place. A large part of the political class was decimated following the repression of the 1947 insurrection against the colonial power. This is not without consequences on the lack of reflection and on the situation which prevails today. The country must give itself a direction, a horizon towards which to move, taking into account its history and its identity. Because the idea that Madagascar could one day operate on the model of a Western liberal democracy seems to me completely improbable.