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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Chasing shadows in Madagascar
"Mis vo-vo?" It's a phrase you get used in Madagascar - it means "what news?" and etiquette provides an answer: "Tsi-mis vo-vo," no news - whether you have any or not.
And news is something Malagasy people aren't short of at the moment. The problem is picking out the absolute fact from the total rumour, often so inaccurate it is almost believable.
In an isolated place like Tamatave, it is easy to see how the rumour mill runs on perpetual motion.
My phone rang and it was a concerned friend from the capital asking if I was okay.
"Yes, fine," I replied - they caught me tucking into a large plate of crevettes - the prawns so delicious in this sleepy little port. They were especially tasty after being in Antananarivo which has been starved of seafood along with fuel and everything else imported since the incumbent president's blockades began two months ago.
"But what about the violence in the streets?" they asked.
It couldn't have been quieter.
Radio and television stations say different things in different parts of the country - biased often by the owner's political leanings.
But then information isn't easy to get hold of - especially from President Ratsiraka's Government.
Government in exile
After being ejected from their offices by an astonishing display of peaceful mass protest in the capital they are now a government in exile.
Unlike most of the other endangered species in Madagascar, they are not difficult to find - the first sign you are close is the "quatres-quatres" the four-by-four vehicles - usually seen grazing in herds outside expensive restaurants.
Once on the scent, the ministers don't exactly blend in to their new habitat with holiday-style shorts and T-shirts, huddled together and doing their bit to reduce Tamatave's crevette mountain.
When approached, the standard answer to why they are here is: "Just taking a break with the family".
The only man who could comment, they say, was Tantely Andrianarive - the prime minister.
But this was the day Marc Ravalomanana had been declared president after a vote recount - Mr Tantely was a man trapped in his hotel by a BBC journalist and without his boss to refer to he emerged with eyes caught in the headlights.
It was fight or flight, and he made a run for it. "But Mr Prime Minister, do you accept Mr Ravalomanana as your new president?"
He broke into a canter and then a gallop - his bodyguards stuck the elbow in, but thanks to the slightness of the Malagasy people and those crevettes I had been consuming, it didn't deter me.
"That'll be a no comment then?" I said, as his speedy departure was delayed by a stalled quatres-quatres amid frantic "get a move on" hand signals.
But this crazy and complicated country, with its two presidents, two governments, two capital cities, and four of its provinces saying they will secede and model their new republic on the former Czechoslovakia, does not limit its un-statesmanlike behaviour to one side.
I asked the "new President" Marc Ravalomanana how he was going to remove the well armed blockades which are destroying the economy and isolating him in the capital.
"Er... well... erm... what do you think?" he answered. And when I explained that President Ratsiraka was not going to accept the result of the ballot recount he sounded genuinely surprised.
"But we agreed... he said he'd... he can't not... you must tell the international community."
The difference I suppose between a businessman turned politician and an old, intelligent, highly experienced head of state who has spent years mastering the dark arts of "keeping power" in a country like Madagascar.
And President Ratsiraka is not an easy man to get hold of - his protocol people are full of promises, but the only way to speak to him was to do what journalists call "door stepping" him at the airport.
'Living in poverty'
I have spent days in Tamatave airport waiting for politicians and it is a good insight into the dodgy dealings that make a few hundred Malagasy very rich while the majority of the population live in abject poverty.
It is also strangely entertaining. The sign in the departure hall speaks volumes - "passengers are requested not to carry petrol in their hand luggage" - it's no joke either.
My driver excused himself for a few minutes to run an errand for his friend - an air steward.
He went to fill up a series of plastic bottles and jerry cans carefully selected for the way they neatly slot together into a suitcase.
Petrol is a rare commodity in Antananarivo and worth a lot of money. I got my interview - this is a president not likely to run away, in fact determined to stand his ground.
And what did he say? - that he wouldn't accept Ravalomanana as president.
"Tsi-mis vo-vo" - it wasn't real news - just the latest move in a political game locked in a stalemate nobody wants to back down from, while the country collapses around them.
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