Despite the return to political legitimacy following the 2013 legislative and presidential elections, Madagascar has struggled to regain the development oomph it had garnered in the mid-naughties. Political instability remains high, reforms are lagging, donors and investors are keeping their distance and Madagascar’s fabulous potential remains mostly untapped. Malagasies are incredibly weary of their country’s underperformance, but the mood is one of wilful optimism, not defeat.

No Panacea

The 2013 presidential elections were a necessary first step for Madagascar to turn the page of the transition, but they have proved insufficient to solve the country’s chronic political instability. President Hery Rajaonarimampianina was elected with little popular support and no party and he has struggled to get a majority in parliament and pass reforms.

Hery, as he is popularly known, has found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place with mostly hostile opposition parties (coup leader Andry Rajoelina’s MAPAR and ousted president Marc Ravalomanana’s TIM) and a large group of flip-flopping independent members of parliament.

The tempestuous relationship between the executive and legislative came to a head in May 2015 when, sensing that attack was its best defence, the national assembly impeached the president before he could dissolve it.

Hery was saved by the Constitutional Court, which threw out the impeachment procedure, but a month later the assembly put forward a motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Jean Ravelonarivo. The motion failed, but only just.

International Wariness

These political quarrels have slowed Madagascar’s return to ‘business as usual’. It’s taken 18 months for the National Development Plan to be approved and the municipal elections to take place, and two years for the senate to be installed.

Vital economic reforms are lagging. Madagascar notably needs to crack down on corruption, fraud and tax evasion, clean up its enormous civil-service payroll and radically reform loss-making state companies Jirama (the national water and electricity utility) and Air Madagascar (a month-long strike in June 2015 brought the country to a standstill and severely affected the tourism season). Acknowledging that progress was happening (albeit very slowly), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) decided to grant Madagascar a major budgetary loan in July 2016. The loan also paved the way for a major international donor conference in December 2016, where donors made new commitments to finance the country's National Development Plan.

Foreign investors have shunned Madagascar, too. Despite the return to political legitimacy and the country’s reintegration into the African Growth Opportunity Act (a trade agreement facilitating access to the US market), many are wary of the ongoing political instability and baulk at the numerous obstacles to doing business there (crippling lack of energy, widespread corruption, poor infrastructure etc).

International observers also bemoan the scale of wildlife trafficking, which carries on unabated. Containers of precious rosewood have been exported continuously and with complete impunity since the elections. Animal poaching has become so bad that conservationists have had to resort to desperate measures, including defacing the shell of every remaining ploughshare tortoise.

Tremendous Potential

This state of affairs is all the more damning since Madagascar has, at least on paper, so much going for it. The economy grew just 3% in 2014 and 2015, whereas most economists agree it could easily reach 5% or 6% given its wealth.

It has large coal, uranium, bauxite and rare-earth mineral deposits, as well as potential gas and oil reserves (exploration is ongoing). Around 70% of its land is arable and productivity gains could be easily achieved with simple measures such as the use of (organic) fertilisers, modern agricultural techniques and better land tenure.

Madagascar's wonderful natural heritage also forms the backbone of the tourism industry, which is begging to get back to its pre-coup heyday (365,000 visitors came to the island in 2008, but only 220,000 in 2014). Tourism holds an important place in Madagascar because it is seen as a good way to combine sustainable economic growth with environmental conservation. The Malagasy are anxious to see the proceeds of their mineral wealth trickle through for instance, but they are concerned about the social and environmental impacts of such projects.

What is certain is that in a country where half the population is under the age of 20, the sense of expectation and the desire for change is palpable.