Page last updated at 17:35 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Life on hold in Madagascar

Ransacked warehouse in Antananarivo
Many shops and warehouses in the capital have been looted

By Christina Corbett
BBC News, Antananarivo

There has been an uneasy sense of calm in the Madagascar capital on a day that the mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, had called for a "ville morte".

Literally translated as "dead city", the mayor's demand effectively means a complete shutdown of all shops and services.

Amidst the uncertainty, some people are trying to return to normal. Cars move around the city centre and the street hawkers are still trying to ply their wares.

This is a poor country and we should be moving forward, but instead we are going backwards
Taxi driver, Antananarivo
One important person who has defied the ville morte is President Marc Ravalomanana, whose car was seen leaving the the Presidential residence Thursday morning.

Although the streets are calm, the lawlessness and looting has come at a high price.

In Antananarivo that price is being measured in the charred remains of bodies discovered in the aftermath of violent anti-government demonstrations.

At least 43 corpses have been found, most burned beyond recognition, as firemen have started to clear the streets of the debris of two days of theft and pillaging in the city.

According to French government officials, the nationwide body count has risen above 80.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina
Andry Rajoelina's TV network was closed last month

"It's serious now," says a taxi driver who wished to remain anonymous, "and it is bad for Madagascar. This is a poor country and we should be moving forward, but instead we are going backwards."

His concern echoes that of the many people here who fear a return to the violence and political deadlock that bought the country, rich in natural resources and an increasingly popular tourist destination, to a standstill following disputed presidential elections held in 2001.

Now, President Ravalomanana and Mr Rajoelina are locked in a power-struggle that is playing itself out on the streets of the capital.
On Wednesday, Mr Ravalomanana toured the capital to assess the damage caused by Monday's protests, including the comprehensive looting of the state-owned television and radio station where buildings were set alight before the offices were ransacked.


Outside tangled reels of film lie in the gutter - one of the few things left behind by looters.

Shattered glass and splintered wood litter the pavements where before street hawkers sold peanuts and cigarettes.

Rajoelina is too young and not competent enough to lead the country
Law graduate
"The priority is to re-establish order by any means," says Mr Ravalomanana, calling on everyone, including the mayor, to work together to stabilise the situation.

The mayor has made attempts to distance himself from the anarchy that has followed his calls for the government to stand down.

Both men have urged the public to remain calm.

But it took convoys of menacing security forces dressed in black firing shots into the air from pick-up trucks to begin to disperse crowds on Tuesday.

Negotiations between the warring parties have not started, and there seems to be little room left for political dialogue between two men whose relationship has always been strained.

"We are going to have a big confrontation," says a law graduate, who wants to remain anonymous.

Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana
President Marc Ravalomanana wants to reestablish order
"Rajoelina has called for a transitional government, but Ravalomanana won't accept that. Rajoelina is too young and not competent enough to lead the country. He is being used by the old dinosaurs of Malagasy politics, who want to gain more power."

Mr Rajoelina, a former disc jockey and television presenter famed for his good looks has become a symbol of youth and success in Madagascar.

As one of the government's most vociferous critics, he has tapped into a rich vein of anti-government sentiment, accusing the president of mis-spending public funds and clamping down on press freedoms.

He has also denounced controversial plans to lease agricultural land in Madagascar to an overseas investor.

Mr Rajoelina's supporters believe that he will bring democracy to Madagascar - a democracy they say has been absent since the country gained independence from France.

"We have had independence in Madagascar for 49 years but democracy has not existed here," says one military veteran who has put his faith in the charismatic mayor.

"Now we want Rajoelina to be our democratically elected president. He is young, he is well educated and he is intelligent. And he is a businessman."

In short, he is everything that Mr Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy tycoon, was when voters here chose him to lead their country in 2001.

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