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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

The red moon

The rosy halo encircling a red moon made the blood of the inhabitants of Antananarivo run cold on the evening of 7 November. They just stood looking at the sky and the charred remains of the Queen's Palace, the jewel of Malagasy culture, which had burned down the day before. The Palace of Manjakamiadana, and the surrounding estate of Anatirova, with its dominant position on one of the 12 hills which surround the lower part of the city, holds a particular significance for the people - the repository of their traditions and their 'holy of holies'. The situation could hardly have been worse.

The palace went up in flames, just as it was about to be classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Worse still, the sacred remains of the Imerina sovereigns had been touched by sacrilegious flames, not to mention the 'unworthy' hands of those who braved the fire to save the country's historical artefacts (including the savereigns' corpses). Hundreds of youths took part in the rescue operation, including many homeless people, and at least four volunteers perished in the fire.

Those who assembled the next evening to view the scene - in a gathering that was something between a vigil and a 'society' event-could feel the bad omens. 'That red moon is still there', observed one participant. There was a palpable sense of foreboding. Was Tana, as the inhabitants of the capital affectionately term their city, about to suffer further disasters? Was the country on the brink of something far worse?

A lost heritage

It is said that on the morning of 6 November, the day the fire broke out, the Queen's Palace was surrounded by a halo - which could not just have come from the mist which often swirls around the city's hills, or from pollution. The gentle tears that marred the make-up of some of the women present, and the hoarse, husky voices of the men, demonstrated to the visitor, arriving 24 hours after the disaster, that this was a unique episode in the country's history. The foreign press likened it to the destruction of the Louvre, or Buckingham Palace. But these attempted analogies do not even come close. For the people of Tana and Madagascar, and particularly for the Merina population, the burning of the Palace was a far more profound event. For a civilisation built around the sanctity of death, it was as if the essence of culture itself had been consumed. This helps to explain why foreign residents of the city were unable to conceal their confusion.

The red moon which persisted long after the flames were extinguishad may have bean a portent. In the days that followed, the rumours that this was an arson attack would be confirmed. An act of sacrilege had been committed and the result was a resurgence of 'tribal' mistrust echo of ancient hatreds which the country thought now lay in the past. Suspicions began to grow among the different groups of the population, and politicians began to make accusations. Each implied that others could have profited from the crime. The red moon might also have been symbolic of the current state of the country: its state of penury, the failures of the authorities and the weaknesses of the political class which often becomes enmeshed in byzantine quarrelling.

Although the capital has more than a million inhabitants, there is no fire-fighting service worthy of the name capable of protecting the country's finest jewel. When the conflagration began, the little equipment available was already deployed tackling another fire. And parked cars hampered the firefighters' movements when they finally did arrive. Low water pressure, and the poor state of the hoses, made it impossible to use the little water that was available. This was despite reports by both domestic and foreign experts highlighting the vulnerability of palaces constructed mainly from wood, and calling for a fire station to be built nearby. These reports had also condemned the 'lax' attitude of the authorities in tolerating the existence of scrubland close to the site.

That very morning, just a few hundred metres away, the Finance Ministry had gone up in flames, although this event did not generate a great deal of emotion. The rumour, later confirmed, was that the fire had been started deliberately, the aim reportedly being to destroy tax information concerning a number of highly-placed people. Such events are not unprecedented in Madagascar. In 1976, the Prime Minister's palace was gutted in similar circumstances. This has still not been rebuilt. Ironically, the area around it, which has just been tidied up, will be used as an operational 'command post' and workshop for the reconstruction of the Queen's Palace and the royal estates. Just a stone's throw away is the City Palace, which also fell prey to arson in 1972.

The aftermath

A collection was organised on the night of the fire during spontaneaus vigil around the remains of one of the sovereigns which had been hastily carried to a nearby sports field. But no one knows who was handling the funds and the money has not been seen since.

Two hundred suspects were arrested in subsequent weeks but it will be difficult to pinpoint those who were responsible Throughout the evening of the fire, firefighters were unable to prevent the curious from walking all over the site. Looters blended in with rescuers. In the days that followed, newspapers carried an announcement, appealing to the people's conscience: 'Anyone in possession of items from the Rova collection are asked to return them to the National Library'. In the ensuing period, the police were conspicuous only by their absence. By the time cordons were finally set up to bar entry to journalists and other spectators, any physical evidence that might have existed had almost certainly been trodden underfoot by the crowds.

Rumours attributing blame to one or other politician or group spread rapidly. There was a risk that these might spark off an ethnic confrontation. The capital is inhabited mainly by the Merina people and the burnt-out palace has long been regarded by some as the symbol of this group's domination. On the other hand, the President and Prime Minister originally come from the coast. Despite the risks, the authorities did not appear seized by any sense of urgency. They could, for example, have sought assistance from European experts to determine the actual cause of the fire, the number of places where it broke out and so on. But any suggestion of this was met with the reply: 'This is a Malagasy matter'. Nor did those levelling accusations seem in any hurry to find out whether the fire was actually arson.

A foreign diplomat summed it up: 'The European approach is probably to want to find out whether or not the fire was started deliberately. What is important here is its meaning.' He pointed out that at the trial which followed the death of President Ratsimandrave in 1975, dozens of accused and witnesses appeared in court over a three-month period. 'But there were no convictions. The important thing was the psychological drama of the trial itself. No one knows who assassinated Ratsimandrave. Indeed, no-one knows how the 1947 revolution began even though historical evidence of what actually happened exists.'

The ethnic question

In Madagascar, the only person who is unaware of whether he is speaking to a Betsileo noble, a Merina hova or a descendent of a slave, is the foreigner. No matter how much a product of mixed race someone is, he has his place in a community or an ethnic group, and often within a clan or even a caste. But one must take care. To all intents and purposes, these words are taboo, and they can only be used when speaking in historical terms. For those who are sensitive to such problems, geography comes to the rescue. The expressions, 'people from the high plateaus' and 'people from the coast' can be used although they conceal great complexity. A Malagasy journalist explained to us how under the Second Republic, at the time of Ratsiraka, 'a skilful regional balance was struck in which the word ethnic was not used'. In times of peace at least, the sense of unity of the Malagasy nation is very strong indeed. But after the Palace fire, the headline" in three of the capital's dailies were particularly revealing. They spoke of the'jewel of the Merina culture', and denounced those responsible. There was no explicit reference to who these people were, but the implication that other communities were involved was difficult to escape. The following quotations illustrate this. 'The initial reaction of the population was to incriminate those who have long striven to humble Merina pride ' 'The fear was that there would be an impulsive reaction, with matters getting out of hand and vengeance being sought /n the end, this didn't happen because the inhabitants of . In kept their coal. ' 'Politicians call for calm but, in the streets, the mood is one of vengeance'. In short, according to Pastor Richard Andriamanjato, President of the National Assembly, there were people who wanted 'to provoke tribal warfare.'

It is clear that the threats were there, under the surface, even if not carried out. The insistence on the wisdom of the inhabitants of Antananarivo carried the implication that the Merina people could have instigated a pogrom against other communities living in the capital - whose origin could be identified from their features.

But to be fair, Malagasy restraint and wisdom must exist in good measure. While there was an outbreak of violence in 1977 in Mahajanga, the brunt of which was borne by the Comorans who were recent immigrants, such events have rarely occurred in the country's history. The kabary culture (the art of discourse) seems to have played an important part in exorcising demons and preventing bloodshed.


The fire at the Queen's Palace was obviously a great shock and it prompted people to turn their thoughts to more practical considerations such as the issue of administrative negligence, poor upkeep of infrastructures, corruption and unhappy practices such as the 'culture of fire'. The latter expression may seem somewhat 'over the top' but it reflects a sad reality in the country. Wherever one walks, one can see flames or smoke somewhere. On an island of almost 600 000 square kilometres, with a population of just 13 million, it comes a surprise to discover that most of the forest has bean burned down. This is generally done so that rice can be planted. The plot will be cultivated for two or three years before being abandoned. Another area of land will then be put to the torch. At least four hectares of forest are burnt for every hectare of rice planted.

Burning is also a way of demonstrating discontent - a form of 'suicidal' revolt which has always existed. The green island has become red (and black) but the authorities have never banned or regulated the growing of crops on patches of burnt land. Indeed, erudite studies published by foreign development organisations sometimes include this entrenched practice of setting fire to the land as a 'normal' parameter.

Since independence, there has only once been a major effort to improve public infrastructures. This was during the early years of the Ratsiraka government. Four universities were established to supplement the only one which then existed. Although decay set in towards the end of Ratsiraka's long term in office, the Malagasies still remember the time as a period of relative opulence. With the passage of the years, they have tended to forget his government's stranglehold on all aspects of life, and the disadvantages of living under dictatorship. It is no coincidence that, at the most recent local elections, the results of which sent a shockwave across the nation, many of the former dictator's close associates were returned as local government leaders. This is not to mention all those who switched allegiance and adopted his nationalist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is fashionable nowadays with many people opposing negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF. Among their number are some highly influential people in President Zafy's entourage, including, it is said, the aforementioned National Assembly President, Richard Andriamanjato, who is a former member of President Ratsiraka's Higher Revolutionary Council.

Administrative problems

Entrepreneur Walter Bordese is a man whose Italian accent can be cut with a knife and whose sincerity is clear. He has a passion for business dealings which mingles with a more generalised passion about life. He is clearly very fond of the countries of the South where he has worked and wants to make a success of his stake in Madagascar. When The Courier spoke to him, however, there was no escaping the sense of discouragement in his voice. Mr Bordese manages the abattoir in Mahajanga, one of the country's three main slaughterhouses. It was built some few years ago with EDF support.

Under the Lomeef Protocol, Madagascar is allowed to export some 7500 tonnes of beef annually to the EU on highly preferential terms. But the three abattoirs are not capable of meeting the quota. Indeed, in 1994, they barely achieved a third of this figure. The European Commission therefore reduced the quota by 2000 tonnes, with a promise that it would be restored once the country was able to fulfil its commitments.

This is the background against which Walter Bordese is operating - and he has an eventful life which reflects what might politely be termed the dichotomous attitude of the administration. After going bankrupt, the abattoir was offered recently on a lease management basis to a group of financiers whose main shareholder was a German consortium. TIVIAM (Malagasy Industrial Meat Processing), the company set up to manage the Mahajanga plant, decided to invest approximately ECU 1.7 million in upgrading the facility, enabling it to supply half the EU quota on its own. At full output, the abattoir will employ 200 people and bring almost half a million ECUs a month into the country. This has not prevented the authorities from issuing an expulsion order against Walter Bordese, allegedly to placate the former manager who is said to owe considerable sums to the state. He has been allowed to stay but the threat of expulsion still hangs like the sword of Damocles over foreign investors. Moreover, no legal proceedings have ever been taken against intermediaries who are believed to have diverted money intended for purchasing livestock on behalf of the TIVIAM. Despite this, Mr Bordese manages to be positive. 'This country abounds with opportunities and could be the Taiwan of Africa', he stresses.

A young entrepreneur in the capital whom we spoke to, and who studied business abroad, criticised the division which he said exists between entrepreneurs who benefited from Ratsiraka's protectionism and those of his own generation. According to him, there are two types of business; those which import (and do not have to worry unduly about customs control), and those which produce. The latter, he argues are exposed to unfair competition from the former. He also claims that similar companies receive different treatment. Some obtain exemptions and others do not, he says, and this happens on an apparently random basis. He goes on to cite other 'imbalances' such as variations in the price of electricity. This can apparently vary by as much as 100% between one part of the country and another. He concludes with a complaint that there have been no successful enquiries into corruption, despite the laudable intentions of successive governments.

The fiscal situation is not the only thing on trial. Justice in the more traditional sense is woefully inadequate. Faced with a high crime rate, the population often has recourse to self-help remedies. Organised bands of criminals (the Dahalos), cattle rustlers and bandits are said not to remain in prison, returning to mock their victims, sometimes the day after their arrest, having allegedly bought their liberty. The trend now is for them to be Iynched upon capture, which does nothing to improve the image of justice.

It is difficult, however, to blame officials who receive very low salaries and are faced with ever-rising living costs. Many civil servants have a second job, a fact they do not conceal. The administration, perhaps understandably, tends to turn a blind eye to this. After 20 years of good and loyal service, a high-ranking executive will receive a salary of between 300 000 to 400 000 Malagasy francs a month.

This is much less than the income of a locally engaged secretary in a foreign embassy. It is barely sufficient to pay a modest rent, or put one's children (who are likely to be numerous) through school in a country where inadequacies in the state education system are forcing people to look elsewhere.

Two of the essential moral virtues in Madagascar are moderation and patience. There is a proverb which says, 'I can wait for God'. But when one hears the criticism being voiced throughout Malagasy society today, as the people await the changes promised by those in power, one wonders whether their reserves of patience may be runing out. H.G.