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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Ratsiraka: 'Big man' cut to size
Former President Didier Ratsiraka
Ratsiraka has bounced back in the past
Madagascar's former President, Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, has flown to Seychelles with his family after his forces suffered a series of military defeats.

This could be the end of the political road for a man who has been president of Madagascar for 23 of the last 26 years.

He was one of the last remaining African presidents refusing to hand over power in the face of a new challenge.

There was a time when Mr Ratsiraka, 65, was known by the people of the Red Island as "Deba", meaning the big man.

It was a fond term of respect for a leader who for years represented the only credible claim to the presidency in Madagascar.

But Mr Ratsiraka's dominance looks like it is at an end now that the recently inaugurated president, Marc Ravalomanana, has control of most the island and has been recognised as president by France and the United States.

Military beginnings

Didier Ratsiraka's career, like so many of his political contemporaries, began in the military.

He was one of a handful of people from the underdeveloped areas of coastal Madagascar who gained government sponsorship to study at the famous naval academy in Brest, in western France.

He trained as a naval engineer.

Mr Ratsiraka was known as a brilliant and resourceful officer, who was described as the best student from amongst his predominantly aristocratic French contemporaries.

On his return to Madagascar, he was appointed minister of foreign affairs under the transitional government of General Ramantsoa, at a time when Madagascar's nationalist movement was rapidly gaining momentum.

Ratsiraka supporters
Ratsiraka enjoyed support in rural areas
But it was in 1972, when Mr Ratsiraka successfully re-negotiated Madagascar's position as a French protectorate, that people began to look at him as the country's next leader.

His initial popularity, resulting from his socialist policies quickly earned him the image of the champion of the masses.

A man of considerable charm, fluent in French and English, he had a deep understanding of the island's traditions, so important in dealings with Madagascar's predominantly rural population.

However, his public appeal could not conceal his political failings.

By the late 1980s, Mr Ratsiraka's brand of socialism had made the country desperately poor.

Political downfall

The admiral's regime started to buckle under the weight of growing opposition.

Unforgettable evidence of his stubborn resistance to change was seen in 1991 when 130 people were killed by the presidential security forces.

Mr Ratsiraka had ordered them to open fire on crowds demanding his resignation.

Later that year he was voted out of office and went into self-imposed exile.


But in 1994, Mr Ratsiraka was re-elected. He promised increased co-operation with the international community and liberalisation of the economy.

But his attempt to seek another term in office ran into strong opposition from Marc Ravalomanana, the mayor of Antananarivo.

Marc Ravalomanana
Ravalomanana position now looks secure

His challenger generated substantial support and the result of the election gave him the lead but not a conclusive victory.

Mr Ratsiraka was prepared to go to a second round of elections but his opponent accused him of rigging the first vote.

A violent conflict ensued with Didier Ratsiraka setting up his headquarters in Tamatave, while Marc Ravalomanana controlled Antananarivo.

After months of stalemate, a recount was held and the High Constitutional Court declared Mr Ravalomanana the winner.

Having lost the election, Mr Ratsiraka then lost the military struggle.

Although Mr Ratsiraka has bounced back from defeat once before, his chances of regaining power this time look very poor indeed.

Key stories


See also:

05 Jul 02 | Africa
03 Jul 02 | Africa
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27 Jun 02 | Africa
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