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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Power woes spark Madagascar tension
By Jonny Hogg
BBC News, Antananarivo, Madagascar

A violent protest over the lack of electricity in Tulear, south-western Madagascar, has highlighted the ethnic tensions that exist on this Indian Ocean island.

Street vendors in Tulear
Many Tulear residents resent the highlanders' wealth
Mistrust between the coastal residents of Tulear and "migrants" from the highlands exploded into violence, with shops ransacked, police opening fire on protestors and two local politicians arrested.

After two weeks with no electricity - it is now over a month since the city last had a regular supply - the students took to the streets.

They claim that the president's senior official in the city, Colonel Randrianamampionona, threatened to throw a grenade at them when they complained about the electricity situation - a charge he strenuously denies.

By the next day, the protest had spread and there was widespread violence and looting.

Five people were injured by bullets when police opened fire on the demonstrators and local senator Robert Razaka was arrested, along with 30 others.

Two weeks later, militias still roam the city's streets at night, supposedly protecting their neighbourhood - in reality threatening and extorting money from passers-by.

Although electricity was the flashpoint, it was highland people, rather than the authorities, who felt the full force of local anger.

'Angry'

Many of the 80 businesses targeted belonged to the Merina people, originally from the highlands around the capital, Antananarivo.

Max is a driver in Tulear and is from a coastal group.

map
This is a creation of opposition politicians. Look at me, I am from the coast and my wife is a Merina
Colonel Randrianamampionona
He sums up the feelings of many coastal people towards their highland neighbours.

"The political system favours the Merina. That is why people are angry. This electricity situation would never happen in the capital," he said.

For the first time in Madagascar's post-colonial history, both the President, Marc Ravalomanana, and the Prime Minister, Charles Rabemananjara, are highlanders.

The situation is making coastal people, known as "Cotiers", believe that political influence is loaded against them.

Dielibou Youssouf Somano, one of Tulear's most prominent citizens, is doing his best to minimise ethnic tensions in Tulear.

This lawyer, former kick-boxing champion and bar owner organised protection for a local hotel that he thought might be attacked.

He does however, understand the frustration.

"This ethnic tension between coastal people and highlanders has always been there. There is big resentment here because a lot of the best jobs seem to go to people from the highlands," he said.

"Many highland people have been here for generations and we know them, they are our friends. But it is between neighbourhoods that the problems are getting worse."

Colonial role

The authorities are less convinced that there is a real problem. The president's senior official in the region claims that relations are good.

"This is a creation of opposition politicians. Look at me, I am from the coast and my wife is a Merina," said Colonel Randrianamampionona.

Even though it is not our neighbours' fault, we will still attack them to show how angry we feel
Max - driver

"Lots of coastal and highland people get married. Objectively there are no ethnic tensions in Tulear."

He denied media reports that over 200 ethnic Merinas had taken refuge in a local army base for fear of being attacked.

"Plenty of Merina people work here in my office. If they were so scared, why haven't they left?"

He claims that in colonial times tension did exist but he says it is no more than history now.

The Merina were the first group to unite Madagascar under King Andrianampoinimerina and his son, Radama, at the beginning of the 19th Century.

When the French finally took the island as a colony in 1896 they dealt largely with the Merina.

The concentration of power and educational opportunities in the capital, Antananarivo, increased the perceived Merina superiority.

Tulear itself did not have a university until the 1970s.

Threats

Highland people make up less than 5% of the 400,000 people who live in Tulear.

One highland woman, who was too afraid to be named, told the BBC that they had been threatened.

Flooded streets
For days after it rains whole sections of Tulear's streets remain flooded
"When the protests started over electricity we were told by the coastal people that they would steal our property and we would be killed. They threw stones at our shop," she said.

She lives in one room with 18 members of her family. She denies that the highland people are favoured, but she knows that is what coastal people think.

"We have come here and we've been successful with our business."

Mr Somano says the resentment has both political and economic roots.

"The reason ethnic tensions are getting worse is because people here feel politically disenfranchised. When they arrested Senator Razaka after the protests, it was like they cut out our tongues."

"The electricity is a problem, the roads are terrible and life is very expensive here," he said.

"Even the price of charcoal, which we use for all our cooking, has doubled in price in the last few months. Until the government really listen to what coastal people are saying then ethnic tensions are just going to get worse."

Max puts it more bluntly.

"We do not hate the Merina but we think the political system favours them.

"Even though it is not our neighbours' fault, we will still attack them to show how angry we feel."




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