“This is Madagascar,” said Marc Ravalomanana, wistfully, pointing out the window of the flight intended to take the deposed president of Madagascar back home after three years of exile in South Africa.
Below were the brown sand and green hills of the Indian Ocean island’s shoreline. Or was it Mozambique? Such was the theatre of the absurd unfolding on Saturday morning’s South African Airlink flight 8252 to Antananarivo that nothing was certain.
At around noon, Ravalomanana was informed by the airline’s security chief, who was on board the flight and identified only as Heinrich, that the plane had turned around and was now heading back to Johannesburg. But information was scarce — unlike the anger and disappointment welling up inside Ravalomanana and his entourage, or the general chaos in midair.
Ravalomanana’s attempt to set foot on Malagasy soil was thwarted an hour before it was due to happen. According to the airline’s security chief, the pilot had been informed by ground control at Ivato International Airport that it had been closed due to “security concerns”.
News filtering through suggested that large crowds — estimated between 20 000 and 30 000 — had gathered at Ivato in expectation of Ravalomanana. No one would say who had given the order to close the airport down, but Ravalomanana’s aides suggested that it must have been an executive order from someone in the government of Andry Rajoelina (who had deposed Ravalomanana’s democratically elected government in a 2009 coup).
Lockdown in paradise
Ivato would be closed for “between five to six hours”, apparently. Enquiries about landing at another airport on the island drew a response from the captain that suggested lockdown in paradise: all the airports in Madagascar were closed down.
Onboard, arguments ensued: Ravalomanana’s aides questioned why the plane could not land in Mauritius or Mozambique and didn’t receive a satisfactory answer — allegations of collusion between the airline and Malagasy government swirled at 30 000 feet in the air.
One Ravalomanana aide confided that they had been approached by the SA Airlink brass at midnight on Friday in an attempt to convince Ravalomanana not to board the flight. “So when they boarded this flight, they knew they were going to turn back,” she said, outraged.
Ravalomanana was palpably disappointed: “This is proof that the Rajoelina government doesn’t respect the road map … it is now up to the African Union and [the] SADC [Southern African Development Community] troika to take action. They must work this out,” he said, referring to the SADC roadmap finalised in September last year.
The roadmap had outlined a path towards democratic elections within a year and also allowed for the unconditional return of exiles, including Ravalomanana.
Betrayal of agreement
That Rajoelina was refusing him entry to Madagascar was a betrayal of this agreement, said Ravalomanana, urging the AU and SADC to show strength of leadership and decisiveness in responding to the incident.
Sending a message to the Malagasy people, Ravalomanana, said he was “saddened and disappointed” by the turn of events.
It was not the first time that the exiled president had suffered such ignominy: embolded by the Arab Spring early last year, he had tried to return to Madagascar, only to be prohibited from boarding his plane by SA Airlink.
By 2pm on Saturday, SA Airlink Flight 8252 had touched back down at OR Tambo International airport. The ride had been rockier than Def Leppard in their crotch-guitaring prime.
The initial banality of checking in, boarding and buckling up, had, after an hour, given way to an increasing excitement and anticipation on board. Ravalomanana aides walked along the aisles giving the thumbs-up signal to journalists and ordinary travellers onboard. There were smiles and breezy political chats — until the pilot’s hand-brake turn.
At OR Tambo, Ravalomanana and his aides were adamant — they were “in transit” and would not leave the plane until they were headed back to Madagascar’s capital. Meanwhile, SA Airlink had cancelled the flight and according to the security officer, they would fly out again on Sunday. He said that Ravalomanana was welcome, but on one condition: they wanted “a written guarantee that they would be allowed to land” by the authorities in Madagascar.
Ravalomanana was by then getting word about what was happening back home: “The people in Madagascar have gathered all over there in their thousands and are not going anywhere, so we stay too,” he said.
There were huddles and phonecalls, while strategising took place and confidential whispers filled the air. One aide could be heard on the phone to a South African government official: “I can’t stay in South Africa, I have rented my house out and I do not have South African rands, all I have are Madagascar dreams.”
Airport security came on board, wandered around and then walked off again. State protocol and the department of international relations tried to intervene. The SA Airlink security threatened to call in the police, telling Ravalomanana he had “overstayed your welcome”. The police came to the plane, hung around outside and started shooting … the breeze, that is.
It became evident that Ravalomanana and his people were now convinced that the SADC mediation was “contaminated”; that Rajoelina had been acting in bad faith throughout negotiations and that there was a lack of will from South Africa and her fellow SADC members to rein in Rajoelina.
No closer to returning home
Finally, deputy minister for international relations, Marius Fransman, stepped in and after a lengthy discussion, reached a compromise. Fransman agreed to meet Ravalomanana on Sunday to further discuss the issue of his return to Madagascar, while the SADC would begin increasing pressure on Rajoelina and his government to follow the troika road map.
After a four-hour joyride around the Indian Ocean and some squatting on OR Tambo tarmac, Ravalomanana was no closer to returning home.
Spokesperson for the department of international relations, Clayson Monyela told the Mail & Guardian he was unsure why Ravalomanana decided to return to Madagascar on Saturday but said that the SADC “would take the lead once the entire roadmap has been agreed to”, including his security and return to Madagascar.
Zanele Mngadi, a spokesperson in the presidency, said the department of international relations and cooperation would be handling all communication with Ravalomanana’s office on the matter.
The department has put Ravalomanana and his aides up at the Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, where negotiations are set to continue later tonight. Sapa reported late on Saturday that President Jacob Zuma was also involved in discussions with Ravalomanana.
Ravalomanana is expected to make a statement once current discussions with Zuma and Fransman are clearer, said his spokesperson Patrick Gearing.
String of mediation talks
In February 2011, Ravalomanana was blocked from leaving South Africa after an airline refused to give him a boarding pass, citing a letter from the Madagascan civil aviation authority.
Fransman led a delegation of the SADC policy, defence and security organ to the island, where the regional bloc was calling for Ravalomanana,who was ousted in a 2009 army-backed coup, to be allowed to return to participate in elections, and adopted a roadmap initialled by eight political parties in March.
In May, Madagascar’s feuding political leaders met in Botswana for talks that were dubbed, “the last chance to resolve the crisis sparked by Andry Rajoelina’s takeover of the island two years ago”.
A string of mediation talks in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, ended in a power-sharing deal between the two rival leaders and former presidents Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy, but Rajoelina later dismissed the deal, sending mediators back to the drawing board.
In September, Southern African mediators urged Rajoelina to agree to the return of exiled Ravalomanana ahead of new polls.