Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 28 February 2009

Fears of anarchy in Madagascar

The recent outbreak of political violence has left the people of Madagascar traumatised, as Christina Corbett discovered.

Andry Rajoelina and President Marc Ravalomanana
Andry Rajoelina (L) wants president Marc Ravalomanana (R) removed

The taxi swerved into the middle of the road as my animated driver twisted in his seat to look me in the eye.

"What do I think of what's happening here?" he cried, repeating my question.

It was a question I was now beginning to regret asking, as the tiny Renault 4 narrowly avoided a collision with an ancient lorry, growling through the chaos of Antananarivo's rush hour.

"I think it is madness," he answered glancing, for a brief moment, at the road ahead.

"People want life to return to normal and all these problems are making things more difficult for us."

The taxi skidded to a stop in the torrential rain. I watched it shudder back into the stream of traffic and bought a couple of wet newspapers from a street seller.

A curtain of water poured from the brim of his straw hat. It was not a hat designed to keep a man dry in a storm brought by the tail end of Madagascar's most recent cyclone.

Frog smuggler

It does not always rain in Antananarivo, this country's dramatic capital.

A soldier descends from a truck near the office of the president in Antananarivo on 9 February 2009
Malagasy politics have spilled onto the streets of Antananarivo - and turned deadly - claiming the lives of more than 100 people since late January

Up on the high plateau the views stretch across vibrant green paddy fields to distant mountains.

Houses tumble down hillsides with a Mediterranean flamboyancy and evening skies bring sunsets of extraordinary beauty.

I used to have time to admire the view. Work was sporadic. Hot days were spent hanging out at the court rooms, just to see if there might be an interesting story to cover.

Like the one about the man who tried to smuggle frogs and lizards out of the country by stuffing them in his coat pockets.

And there was always a spare five minutes to watch the sun slip behind the mountains at the end of the day.

But recently all that has changed. Times here are tense, as Malagasy politics have spilled onto the streets of Antananarivo - and turned deadly - claiming the lives of more than 100 people since late January.

'Rabble rousing'

Madagascar is no stranger to political upheaval. Since the Indian Ocean island gained independence from France in 1960, several bitter power struggles have punctuated the country's history.

Madagascar

The rioting and looting that has come with the latest outbreak has left most people shocked.

And many say no good can come of a popular movement that has disintegrated into a bungled coup attempt that could unleash anarchy on the streets of the capital.

"The street is alright for expressing ideas," an Antananarivan resident tells me, as we stand watching a mob throw bricks at security forces protecting government offices, "but not for action. That's not democracy," he nods towards the crowd. "We might need change, but not like this."

Several explosions signal the release of more tear gas and a volley of warning shots is fired into the air.

Now, almost every day thousands of anti-government protestors gather to demand the removal of president Marc Ravalomanana.

They are led by firebrand opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina. He addresses his supporters from behind the immense hulks of his bodyguards.

But while the man himself is hardly visible, his carefully chosen words have bought the complex politics of this island nation to boiling point.

Accusations

Mr Rajoelina, a former DJ who made his money in advertising, knows how to agitate a crowd.

"We won't accept any more misery and poverty," he cries, as he denounces the president and his extensive commercial interests... a popular refrain.

"There is one man with all the business interests in this country," he continues, "and no one else can profit."

Mr Rajoelina, nicknamed TGV after France's high speed train, accuses Mr Ravalomanana of frittering away public funds and striking a controversial land deal with a foreign investor, a deal that has not been completed.

"Rajoelina he is only the tip of the iceberg," sighs one government official close to the presidency.

Street rally in Madagascar
Madagascar is no stranger to political disturbance since independence

"He is just a spokesman, and everyone with a grievance against the president has got behind him. But this is really the politics of manipulation and revenge."

Revenge or not, some people believe the young opposition leader may offer them their only chance to make life better. And if that means bringing Antananarivo to a standstill with riots and strikes, so be it.

'Deepening crisis'

"This is our way," exclaims one opposition supporter. "In fact, this is the only way."

But others are not so sure. "I've lived through two of these upheavals and this is the worst yet," a friend tells me as we rush to finish our drinks before curfew sets in.

"I don't know what's happening here. All I know is that it's bad for my country. Who is really going to benefit from all this?" he asks.

The damp heap of newspapers on the table catches my eye.

Sadly, I suspect the man who sold them to me, and the thousands like him, will not be among the real beneficiaries of Madagascar's troubles.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 February, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO
In pictures: Madagascar violence
07 Feb 09 |  In Pictures

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