Madagascar in detail


In the grand scheme of history, Madagascar is a baby: although the country has existed in its current form for nearly 100 million years, humans only set foot on the island a few thousand years ago, a marked difference to nearby East Africa, which is generally seen as the cradle of humanity. Like its neighbors on the mainland, however, its modern history has been shaped by colonialism, and the struggles to shake off its long shadow.

Arrivals from Asia & Europe

Considering that human beings evolved on the African continent just across the Mozambique Channel, their arrival in Madagascar was comparatively late (between 2500 and 4000 years ago) and by a rather circuitous route. Anthropological and ethnographical clues indicate that Indo-Malayan seafarers may have colonised the island after migrating in a single voyage, stopping en route at various points in the Indian Ocean. Their coastal craft possibly worked their way along the shores of India, Arabia and East Africa, trading as they went, before finally arriving in Madagascar. Linguistic clues also support this theory, as elements of Sanskrit have been identified in the Malagasy language.

This theory was challenged in 2018 however when scientists from the Zoological Society London found elephant bird fossilised bones with cut marks. The bones were dated to about 10,000 years ago, suggesting that humans were living on Madagascar much earlier than initially thought.

Asian settlers brought with them the food crops of their homelands, such as rice. This Asian influence was tempered over the years by contact with Arab and African traders, who plied the seas of the region with their cargoes of silk, spices and slaves. Gradually the Asian culture of the new settlers was subsumed into a series of geographically defined kingdoms, which in turn gave rise to many different Malagasy tribes.

Marco Polo was the first European to report the existence of a ‘great red island’, which he named Madagascar, after possibly having confused it with Mogadishu in Somalia. But Arab cartographers had long known the island as Gezirat Al-Komor, meaning ‘island of the moon’ (a name later transferred to the Comoros). It wasn’t until 1500 that the first Europeans set foot on Madagascar, when a fleet of Portuguese vessels arrived. The Dutch and British tried to establish permanent bases at various points around the coast, only to be defeated by disease and less-than-friendly locals.

More successful were the efforts of buccaneers from Britain, France and elsewhere, who, from the end of the 17th century onwards, made Madagascar a base from which they attacked merchant ships sailing between India and Europe.

‘No Frontier but the Sea’

As Malagasy trade with Europe grew during the 18th century, several rival kingdoms began to vie for dominance. The Menabe people under Andriamisara I founded a capital on the banks of the Sakalava River, from which the modern-day Sakalava tribe took its name. Meanwhile on the east coast, Ratsimilaho – the son of an English pirate and a Malagasy princess – succeeded in unifying rival tribes into a people that became known as the Betsimisaraka. In central Madagascar, a certain Chief Ramboasalama took the name Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (Andrianampoinimerina for short), meaning ‘Hope of Imerina’, and unified the Merina into a powerful kingdom that soon came to dominate much of Madagascar.

In 1810, Andrianampoinimerina was succeeded by his equally ambitious son Radama I, who organised a highly trained army that conquered Boina (the main Sakalava kingdom in northwestern Madagascar), the Betsimisaraka peoples to the east, the Betsileo to the south and the kingdom of Antakàrana in the far north, whose warrior princes preferred suicide or exile to surrender. Unable to take the Sakalava kingdom of Menabe by force, Radama prudently married Princess Rasalimo, daughter of the Menabe king, thereby fulfilling a vow made by his father that the Merina kingdom would have ‘no frontier but the sea’.

His empire building complete, Radama I set about courting European powers, especially Great Britain. The London Missionary Society (LMS) soon arrived with a contingent of Welsh missionaries who began converting the Merina court to Christianity and educating children in schools.

In 1828, Radama died at the tender age of 36. His successor was his widow Ranavalona I, who promptly set about reversing Radama’s policies. Ties with European powers were almost severed, and those who refused to abandon Christianity (a European import) were hurled over the cliffs outside the Rova in Antananarivo (Tana). During her 33 years in power, Ranavalona elevated torture and execution to new plateaus of inventiveness. She was said to be sexually insatiable and had a stream of lovers.

French Conquest & Colonialism

Ranavalona died in 1861, understandably unlamented by what remained of her subjects. Her son Radama II succeeded her. He was a reformer and he rescinded most of his mother’s policies and welcomed back the Europeans.

In May 1862, however, Radama II was assassinated. Rainilaiarivony, the king’s assassin, took the post of prime minister and married Radama’s widow, who took the title Rasoherina I. He quickly issued an edict stating that the queen could act only with the consent of her ministers – effectively leaving the real power to him, her husband.

Rasoherina survived until 1868 and was succeeded by Ranavalona II, who died in 1883 and was succeeded by Ranavalona III. Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony had married both queens and became the principal power behind the throne, building a magnificent residence in Antananarivo.

By the late 19th century, British interest in Madagascar had begun to wane, and French influence had increased. That influence turned into outright colonial aggression in 1883, when French warships occupied major ports and forced the Malagasy government to sign a treaty declaring the island a French protectorate. Further demands ensued, and in 1894 the French accused the Merina government of tyranny and demanded the capitulation of Queen Ranavalona III. When she rejected their demands, a French army marched on Antananarivo, taking the capital in September 1895.

On 6 August 1896, Madagascar was officially declared a French colony. A year later Queen Ranavalona III was sent into exile in Algeria and the Merina monarchy was abolished.

Malagasy Nationalism & Independence

In the early 20th century Madagascar’s new rulers abolished slavery, although it was replaced with an almost equally exploitative system of taxes. Land was expropriated by foreign settlers and a coffee-based import and export economy developed. With economic growth and an expanding education system, a new Malagasy elite began to emerge, and resentment of the colonial presence grew in all levels of society. Several nationalist movements evolved among the Merina and Betsileo tribes, and strikes and demonstrations became more frequent.

Nationalist leader Jean Ralaimongo began the Malagasy independence movement in the 1930s, but his campaign was cut short by the outbreak of WWII. During the first half of WWII, the French in Madagascar came under the authority of the pro-Nazi Vichy government. But the Allies, fearing the Japanese could use Madagascar as a base to attack shipping, launched a seaborne attack and captured the town of Diego Suarez. Antananarivo and other major towns also fell to the British after months of fighting, but were handed back to the Free French (those who fought on the side of the Allies in WWII) of General de Gaulle in 1943.

Postwar Madagascar experienced a nationalist backlash, with resentment towards the French culminating in a rebellion in March 1947. An estimated 90,000 Malagasy were killed in the rebellion. During the 1950s, nationalist political parties were formed, the most notable being the Parti Social Démocrate (PSD) of Philibert Tsiranana, and reforms paved the way to independence.

On 14 October 1958, the Malagasy Republic was proclaimed, becoming an autonomous state within the French Community. After a period of provisional government, a constitution was adopted in 1959 and full independence was achieved on 26 June 1960, with Tsiranana the country’s first president.

After the euphoria, however, discontent with the country’s ongoing ties with France and its poor economic performance grew. Following uprisings in 1971 and 1972, Tsiranana was forced to resign and hand over power to his army commander, General Gabriel Ramanantsoa.

The Third Republic

In February 1975, after several coup attempts, General Ramanantsoa stepped down and was replaced by Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, who was assassinated within a week of taking office. The rebel army officers who had announced the military takeover were quickly routed by officers loyal to Ramanantsoa, and a new government headed by Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, a former foreign minister, came to power.

Ratsiraka attempted radical political and social reforms in the late 1970s, severing all ties with France and courting favour with former Soviet-bloc nations.

In March 1989, Ratsiraka was returned for a third seven-year term in an election that some regarded as questionable. It sparked riots, and 1991 was marked by widespread demonstrations demanding the president’s resignation. The country ground to a halt as a result of general strikes and riots, and protests left dozens dead.

In late October 1991, an agreement was signed with opposition politicians in preparation for popular elections and the birth of the so-called ‘Third Republic’. However, Ratsiraka still refused to step down. In July 1992, there was an attempted civilian coup, but the rebels failed to gain popular support and were forced to surrender.

Elections were finally held in 1993 and resulted in victory for opposition candidate Professor Albert Zafy, ending Ratsiraka’s first 17 years in power. After trying to sack his prime minister, Zafy was unexpectedly impeached by his parliament in July 1996 for abuse of authority. New presidential elections were called in November 1996 and, to the surprise of everyone, including international monitors, Ratsiraka (who had been in exile in France for the previous 19 months) won.

Reform & New Optimism

Self-made millionaire Marc Ravalomanana began his path to success by pedalling around his home town on a bicycle selling pots of homemade yoghurt. By the time he became mayor of Antananarivo in 1999, his company, Tiko, was the biggest producer of dairy products in Madagascar.

Ravalomanana announced his candidacy for the presidency of Madagascar, under the banner of his TIM party (which stands in Malagasy for ‘I Love Madagascar’), in December 2001 and went head to head with Didier Ratsiraka. Upon hearing the results, both men insisted they had won, and a bitter six-month struggle for power ensued. As Ravalomanana swore himself in as president, Ratsiraka declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law.

The military eventually swung towards Ravalomanana, tipping the balance of power, and in April 2002 the Malagasy High Constitutional Court declared Ravalomanana the outright winner. By August Ravalomanana’s administration had received endorsement from the UN, then won a convincing majority in elections for the National Assembly. Ratsiraka refused to accept that the game was over, but left for exile in France anyway.

Ravalomanana quickly set about his reform agenda, introducing a new currency (the ariary). Foreign investors were cheered by a major hike in economic growth and wooed by laws that provided tax breaks and allowed foreigners to own land.

Ravalomanana comfortably won a second term in office in 2006. On the back of his electoral success, he organised a referendum to change the constitution, with many of the amendments conferring on him more power (notably the option of standing for two more terms). The referendum scraped by, but the opposition was outraged by what they saw as an increasingly autocratic government.

The Coup & the Long Transition

In 2008 Ravalomanana made three decisions that antagonised the last of his supporters. In July he signed a lease with Korean company Daewoo Logistics for 13,000 sq km of arable land for commercial farming, a sacrilege in a country where land is generally perceived as belonging to ancestors.

In October he bought a second presidential plane. Not only was this perceived as outlandish in a poor country such as Madagascar, but the source of the financing was obscure, which led a number of international donors to withhold their funding in protest.

And finally, in December, Ravalomanana closed the TV and radio station Viva, owned by the then mayor of Antananarivo and now president, Andry Rajoelina. Rajoelina rallied opponents under his new TGV party and mass demonstrations took place in December and January. On 7 February 2009, the army opened fire on protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace, killing 37 and injuring around 200. With international pressure mounting, Ravalomanana finally handed his resignation to the army on 17 March 2009 and fled to South Africa. Within a few hours, the army had swiftly passed all powers to Rajoelina, who was sworn in as president of the High Transitional Authority (Haute Autorité de Transition; HAT).

The events were widely condemned by the international community as a coup. They refused to recognise Rajoelina as Madagascar’s legitimate leader and turned off whatever international-aid taps were left.

This had devastating consequences for Madagascar: international aid represented 75% of public expenditure, so public services dwindled to the bare minimum. The expulsion of Madagascar from the US-sponsored African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) also led to the collapse of the textile and other export-oriented industries, with the loss of 100,000 jobs. Between 2009 and 2014, the proportion of people living on less than US$2 a day went from 60% to 90% of the population.

The HAT had initially promised elections within 24 months, but it took more than two years to just draft the road map meant to get Madagascar out of the crisis. At the center of the disagreement was who would be able to run for president (Rajoelina was keen, the international community wasn't) and the return of Ravalomanana from exile.

It took another two years to organise the polls (during which Rajoelina successively renounced, revived and finally withdrew his candidacy) and in December 2013, Hery Rajaonarimampianina was finally elected president.

Not Hery Good

The 2013 presidential elections were a necessary first step for Madagascar to turn the page of the transition, but they proved insufficient to get the country back to where it was in 2008. Rajaonarimampianina, or Hery as he was widely known, had been elected with little popular support and no party, and he struggled to get a majority in parliament and pass reforms. His tempestuous relationship with the legislative came to a head in 2015 when the national assembly tried to impeach him and organised a vote of no-confidence against the Prime Minister (both narrowly failed).

Hery's mandate was marked by a general increase in corruption, a sluggish return to form for the economy (it only hit the 5% GDP growth mark in 2018, a 'magic number' it had coveted since the return to democracy in 2013) and the adoption of controversial media and electoral laws, which respectively infringed on press freedom and failed to address issue of transparency in political financing.

Perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of his tenure was the signing in 2016 of an Extended Credit Facility with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which set the country on the path of essential structural reforms and brought in much-needed financing.

It wasn't enough to save him however: Hery got just 8.8% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections in October 2018, a record low for an incumbent president; the run-off was fought between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, the 2013 duel that had never happened. Rajoelina won and in January 2019 was sworn in.

Siebar: Underwater Treasure

In 2015 underwater explorers pulled an ingot from a shipwreck off the coast of Île Sainte Marie, claiming it was part of the long-lost treasure of infamous Scottish pirate Captain William Kidd. UN investigators quickly dismissed the claim, however: the ingot was a mere block of lead, not silver.