/ 22 March 2009

Madagascar leader installed, envoys miss bash

Jubilant supporters cheered the installation on Saturday of Madagascar’s army-backed new leader Andry Rajoelina — but foreign ambassadors did not attend due to world condemnation of his takeover.

Music blasted and military marksmen stood on rooftops at the ceremony attended by 40 000 people in the main sports stadium of the Indian Ocean island’s sweltering capital Antananarivo.

Envoys had intended to snub the event, to underline global disapproval of the manner of Rajoelina’s rise, but his new foreign minister said they were not invited anyway.

”The government is going to try and negotiate with them,” minister Nyhasina Andriamanjato told reporters afterwards.

Rajoelina (34) took over after leading months of opposition protests against President Marc Ravalomanana. That unrest killed at least 135 people, scared away tourists and unsettled investors in the fast-developing mining and oil sectors.

Ravalomanana (59) handed over to the military, who in turn conferred power on Rajoelina to be president.

After being introduced to the crowd by Madagascar’s Constitutional Court’s top judge, Rajoelina said his priorities were to combat poverty and ensure security. ”My first priority is to improve people’s lives,” he told the crowd.

In the strongest show of displeasure from abroad, the African Union has suspended Madagascar, which lies off the continent’s east coast and has a history of volatile politics.

Major Western powers including the United States and the European Union have termed Rajoelina’s rise a coup d’état and called for early elections. Several nations have suspended aid.

”To the leaders of all our foreign partners, please know that Madagascar is the friend of all nations,” Rajoelina said, adding he would not change Madagascar’s free-market economics.

”We aspire to new hope for liberty. We seek a new direction for our country … [But] we will respect financial orthodoxy.”

Africa’s youngest and newest president is carefully calling himself ”president of the transitional authority” because of the questions over the legality of his rise to power.

Rajoelina is six years too young to be president, according to Madagascar’s Constitution, and is taking the presidency without any form of popular vote. The Constitutional Court, however, has endorsed him as national leader.

He has promised elections within two years, and the new government very deliberately termed Saturday’s ceremony an ”installation” rather than a ”swearing-in”.

Foreign Minister Andriamanjato said Madagascar would soon be sending a delegation to talk with AU head and Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi to try to salvage a planned summit of the pan-African body on the island later this year.

‘The party won’t last’
Washington has suspended all non-humanitarian aid to Madagascar, whose budget is 70% funded from abroad.

”As long as Madagascar remains in an unconstitutional situation and … there prevails a climate of threats, intimidation and violence, the capacity for the international community to help the country will be reduced,” US envoy Niels Marquardt told the local Midi Madagascar newspaper.

Stung by international reaction, Rajoelina’s camp says it is unfair to criticise a movement that fought for liberty on behalf of Madagascar’s 20-million people. As well as the crucial military backing, Rajoelina has widespread popular support.

Ravalomanana had faced increasing discontent over high poverty levels and his own enormous business empire.

Several thousand of his supporters held a counter-rally at Antananarivo’s Democracy Square on Saturday. They denounced Rajoelina as a puppet for former president, Didier Ratsiraka, now living in exile in France.

”We are ashamed of Rajoelina. Malagasy will never accept this,” said one demonstrator, Annie Rasolofo.

Around Antananarivo, a city of faded French colonial grandeur, the new leader’s early promises to lower the price of essential food, scrap South Korean firm Daewoo’s land-lease deal and sell the presidential jet have gone down fairly well.

”Andry Rajoelina will bring democracy to Madagascar and he will help the poor,” said retired teacher Tina Rassoamalala.

Some, however, are cynical. ”The people will get their slice of the cake at first. But that slice will get smaller and smaller until it is just Rajoelina and his closest people benefiting,” said restaurant worker Michel.

Analysts say Rajoelina must quickly shore up his legitimacy.

”He will have to come up with a broad-based government and a credible timetable with regard to elections that is acceptable to the Malagasy and international community,” said Lydie Boka at the France-based risk consultancy StrategiCo.

”I fear … the party won’t last long.” – Reuters