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close this bookThe Courier N 156 - March - April 1996 - Dossier: Trade in Services - Country Report : Madagascar (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderMadagascar: A history of the unknown
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe red moon
View the documentProfile
View the documentPresident Albert Zafy's priorities
View the documentGuy Razanamasy, Mayor of Antananarivo
View the documentAn economy on the rocks
View the documentExaltation of the senses in Madagascar
View the documentEven the Malagasies have the blues
View the documentCulture and tradition in Madagascar


Madagascar could be described as a country with a strange history, a land of unanswered questions. If you ask a Malagasy about his country's history, or if you refer to scholarly texts, and come away buzzing with questions, then perhaps you may begin to understand just how strange this land is. Only scant records remain of events in the country before the 19th century although going further back, there is one reference by a classical Greek author to an island which could well be this largest member of the Mascarene group. Scientists are also convinced that, millions of years ago, the break up of the single 'continent' of Gondwana resulted in the formation of Madagascar alongside the major continents that are familiar to us today. This may be a simple fact of geography, but there are few places where geography has been so important in shaping history.

Madagascar's history can be read more in people's faces than in written works. If one were to rely only on the fragments of text which have survived, one would be left with more questions than answers about the origins of the island's inhabitants. No one disputes that they are the result of interbreeding between Asians and Africans but very little is known about when and how this happened. Was it in ancient times, for example, or more recently? There are as many different faces as there are Malagasies, and each has its own story of racial blending. In a single face, one may see traces of Indonesia or Malaysia, Africa, India and China.

Isolated from the rest of the global landmass millions of years ago, Madagascar today has its own unique flora and fauna - living species which have either evolved along different lines or have disappeared elsewhere. The island's relatively small size may have something to do with this. The 1938 discovery in its waters, of that veritable 'living fossil', the coelacanth, increased research interest in this area. Closer to Man, the lemur provides another intriguing insight into the history of the origin of species. It is not in fact the missing link between ape and Man, as is often thought, but a third line of evolution. In the 1 8th century, European travellers often spoke of Lemuria when referring to the country.

The earliest texts, which tell of the existence of a 'happy island' which might be the Malagasy Republic, date from pre-Christian times and are the work of Greek and Roman writers, (Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy), who recount stories brought back by travellers. However, these descriptions and the locations given for the wondrous island are too vague for us to state unequivocally that they refer to Madagascar. Later, texts describing African islands under Indian control were a little more precise. The word 'Madagascar' is itself the result of uncertainty, stemming from a mix-up on the part of Marco Polo between this particular land and the Mogadishu Peninsula.

White pygmies: fact or fantasy?

The local belief is that the country had been populated since ancient times. More scholarly hypotheses suggest that it was inhabited, at the beginning of the Christian era by one or more races of pygmies. One of these, the Vazimba, are still the subject of local mythology. Some believe that they were white pygmies, others that they came from nearby Africa and still others that they were the result of early interbreeding between African populations and immigrants from Asia. What is beyond dispute is that pygmy skeletons have been discovered at many sites. It is also probable that fire, which has been a recurring feature in the island's internal conflicts, was used as a weapon between the ethnic groups who first inhabited the island. The remains of charred tress discovered in rivers are evidence of this. However, although scientific opinion is divided over the origins of the people, popular belief in the supernatural is imbued with stories about the Vazimba. From the cradle, Malagasies are told their story and they live in fear of inadvertently treading on Vazimba graves. These sly and vindictive spirits, it is said, would not hesitate to punish such impudence. There is also a belief that the vengeance of the Vazimba, who were wiped out by foreign conquerors, lies behind the country's ill fortune. At the end of the 1 6th century, the descendants of these pygmies, after interbreeding, about which little is known, formed a number of relatively organised kingdoms, one of which managed to unite a sizeable part of the country.

Uncertainty also surrounds the order of arrival of the various settlers who were to forge the Malagasy population. There was probably a component from the Malaysia/lndonesia region, an African element, and a Semite group. An Indian contingent is known to have arrived later. Each group initially installed itself in a well-defined area, but later, they expanded their territory, defeating the indigenous Vazimba people in the process. They then began to move closer to one another, waging war and mixing physically and culturally. When the first European travellers arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, they found a patchwork of kingdoms with completely interbred populations, although there were a number of nuances. Asiatic features tended to dominate among people living on the high plateaus while African features were more common in the coastal populations. The language was also unified by this time. Linguists can do little more than conjecture about this subject. Some say the language is a branch of Sanskrit, with strong similarities to the Indonesian tongue, but there are also important African linguistic influences and a considerable amount of Arabic vocabulary. The first transcription of the Malagasy language appears to have been a variant of Arabic script.

Four of the early kingdoms,including that of the Sakalava, are known to have been important. The Sakalava, who were by far the most powerful group, first occupied the coastal regions but with successive conquests they began to take over the higher altitudes inland. In their expansion, they held an important trump card in the form of firearms purchased from Arab slave traders. They also derived considerable revenue from their forays on to African soil in search of slaves. Slavery was a constant feature of Malagasy society until late in the 19th century.

A queen to confront France

The group that came to dominate over the last two centuries were the Merina, who were among those living on the high plateaus. These people tended to be equated with the country as a whole, although this was no more than a reflection of the colonists' view. Early European 'visitors' preferred to deal with this population, which they regarded as more 'civilised'. When the first immigrants from Europe arrived, the Merina kingdom (the 'Imerina') was at the height of its powers, having been unified at the end of the 18th century.

Around the same time, the coastal kingdoms were beginning to fall apart. According to anecdotal evidence, Maurice-Auguste Comte, a French slave trader who lived on a minute scrap of land on the east coast, was the first to proclaim himself emperor of the island. His tenure, if it can be described as such, did not last long, and he was killed shortly afterwards by his own compatriots. By around 1810, the Merina administration extended over half the country and a new king, Radama I, had just ascended the throne. 17 years later, just before his death, he was in a position to declare: 'I have fulfilled my father's wishes. My kingdom's only border is the sea'. To achieve this goal he used every means available to him: war, diplomacy and even love. Unable, for example, to conquer a Sakalava kingdom, he married the princess next in line to the Sakalava throne.

He was succeeded by one of his wives (Queen Ranavalona I) who was to gain a place in the annals of Malagasy history by confronting the Europeans. The latter had taken increasingly to pillaging the island, using missionaries as a Trojan horse. The queen dared to extend Malagasy laws, applying them to European residents. In so doing, she incurred the wrath of France which sent its navy to bombard one of the island's small coastal kingdoms. After several attacks, and three years of harassment, France secured the surrender of its king. This signalled the start of colonisation, and the first Malagasy war against the European powers in 1832. The confrontation dragged on for a long time without a decisive outcome. In 1845, for example, the Malagasy army defeated a coalition of French and British forces. Queen Ranavalona became the symbol of the struggle against the 'Vazaha' (the foreigners). Her methods were severe and the Malagasy Christians, whom she regarded as a fifth column, bore the brunt. By way of atonement, her son who succeeded her, and who is reputed to have been a low-calibre monarch with a penchant for orgies, gave the Europeans the run of his country. This move prompted the government-employee class, who were not of noble blood but were increasingly rich and powerful, to rise in revolt. The king was assessinated in 1863. This coup d't proved to be much more than a simple palace affair. It firmly established the caste of high-ranking government employees as masters of the country. From that time on, they would hold the reins of power, operating behind figurehead monarchs.

Having failed to conquer the country, France tried a policy of 'divide and rule', playing on ancient clan and group rivalries. Subsequently, it decided to mount a full-scale attack. Although France initially demanded sovereignty over the entire territory, it ended by claiming only a protectorate on Malagasy soil. This was reflected in the 1885 treaty which gave it only limited authority - the right to appoint the country's representatives in international affairs and the right of French citizens, if not to acquire property, then at least to rent it for an unlimited term. French forces were also allowed to occupy the Bay of Diego Suarez in the north of the country. France used this bridgehead to fulfil its wider ambitions a decade later. In 1895, an expeditionary force of 12 000 men - the first of many - disembarked in the bay. Under the command of General Galli, these forces rapidly went on to occupy Madagascar and the Prime Minister was sent into exile. This time, both the monarchy and the administration had been defeated. A popular uprising ensued, not only against the occupying forces of France, but also against the symbols of the two power centres which the rebels believed had lost the wer through not having respected ancestral precepts. General Galli's repression was merciless. Not even the Queen was spared being exiled to Rion and later to Algiers. The country had been pacified.

It was to take more than two decades before popular demands, initially in the modest form of pressure for cultural rights, began to be heard again. This coincided with the ending of the First World War, which had seen Malagasy soldiers being used as cannon fodder. Nationalist feeling grew further following the first democratic elections, the growth of of trade unionism at the end of the 1930s and, most notably, the occupation of the island by British forces towards the end of the Second World War. A popular revolt broke out in 1947, heralding the 21 month-long war of independence. Order was then restored although 100 000 Malagasies had died in the meantime.

Third-World revolution

Process towards self-determination was inexorable, however. In a process which some have dubbed 'balkanisation', France undertook a lengthy attempt to divide the country into self governing provinces. In 1958 Madagascar became an 'autonomous republic' of the French community following a referendum which gave only a narrow victory to the 'yes' side. Two years later, it declared its full independence. The prized unity of those activists who had worked for independence proved to be short-lived, however. Even before independence, the movement was somewhat divided with competing groups advancing different sectional interests. Paradoxically perhaps, the country's first president, Philibert Tsiranana, came from the camp that was sceptical about independence. He was chosen by the Congress of the provincial assemblies and skilfully negotiated to maintain privileged links with France including, above all, an amnesty for opponents imprisoned in France. He was re-elected twice. His hard-line opposition to a popular uprising in 1972 hardened his opponents' determination and the army imposed a referendum which led to the resignation of the President barely months after his re-election. It was effectively a 'coup d't by referendum'.

General Ramanantsoa then took over as leader. He succeeded in putting an end to what the Malagasies termed the 'slavery accords', which gave France the right to two military bases. A central bank was then set up and the country left the franc zone. The Foreign Minister, at this time, who has come to be viewed as the man who brought total independence to Madagascar, was Didier Ratsiraka. He is recognised as a key figure in what was one of the most significant Third-Worid revolutions of the 1970s. A populist wind of reform swept through the country. Palace disputes lead to the resignation of General Ramanantsoa in 1975. His Interior Minister succeeded him but was assassinated within a week of assuming office. 200 people were tried for the crime, but none was convicted.

Commander Ratsiraka seized power in June 1975, and was nominated to lead a 'Higher Revolutionary Council'. He also staged a referendum which brought him popular backing (the Malagasy Republic has never yet voted 'no' in this type of consultation). Thus, the 'Second Republic' was proclaimed. Paradoxically, it was Ratsakira, the person who decreed that his country should be for the Malagasies alone, who began to borrow the vocabulary of the former colonial power during his time in office. Through his Higher Revolutionary Council, he succeeded in forming a federation of all the country's major parties with his own movement, AREMA, being the mainspring. This was a rather neat way of setting up a form of single-party regime. Years were to pass before the emergence of a true opposition. He won election after election, apparently democratically, the last one being in 1989. However, the tide began to turn against him and he increasingly resorted to stringent controls over the population, particularly in the major towns and cities.

An ongoing transition

A period of transition then began, heralding the end of the revolutionary era. Democratic reforms were introduced in 1990, with the legalising of all political parties, followed swiftly by economic liberalisation. The Third Republic was proclaimed and elections were held in February 1993 resulting in defeat for Commander Ratsiraka. The victor was Professor Albert Zafy who had, for some years, been consolidating his position as genuine opposition leader. The legislative elections which followed confirmed the new president's victory. Under the roles in force at that time, Parliament appointed the Prime Minister, in the shape of Francisque Ravony, who was regarded by the international institutions as the guarantor of economic liberalisation. A split soon emerged between the Prime Minister and the President, each of whom had an electoral mandate. The upshot of this was a further referendum, held last year, from which the President emerged triumphant, with the power to appoint the Prime Minister in future. However, the aftershocks of this conflict are still being felt. The new Prime Minister, Emmanuel Rakotovahiny, who was appointed in November 1995, had problems forming a government. The difficulties were exacerbated by the disaster of the Queen's Palace fire on 6 November - an event which appears to have upset Madagascar's political apple cart. Just two weeks after the appointment of the ministerial team, the government found itself undermined by three resignations from the cabinet. In addition, the new government could not credibly claim to be offering a 'fresh start'. Most of the key ministers in the previous administration had been reinstated. The Prime Minister himself acknowledged, in his interview with The Courier, that it was now incumbent on him to achieve concrete results within three months. But the signs are not encouraging. On the contrary, the government appears increasingly unstable and struggling with internal conflicts. Thus, for example, the agreement with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which most of Madagascar's foreign partners appear to be waiting for, has been repeatedly put off with various delaying tactics. The Prime Minister's three months expired in February 1996 and his position now looks increasingly vulnerable. H.G.