Madagascar: At the Bottom of the Capitalist Abyss

Madagascar is a country still too little known today and yet, in many ways, it is an emblematic victim of contemporary capitalist pillage. Set in the Indian Ocean, the size of France, with a population of more than 20 million people, Madagascar shows symptoms of advanced general degradation. It is a true catastrophe, including an Ubuesque political situation, a disintegrating state apparatus, the unhinged looting of both raw materials and the overwhelming majority of the population, environmental devastation (deforestation, for local reasons as well as for trafficking in rare woods, confiscation of land and the toxic extraction of minerals); rampant insecurity in the capital, with an unprecedented explosion of a particularly bloody and previously unknown criminality, and finally massive poverty. In short, Madagascar is an island plummeting to the bottom of the capitalist abyss, ranking today as the poorest country on the planet. Per capita economic growth of the past forty years has been negative, and more than 92 percent of the population today lives below the poverty level.

The so-called “red island,” nonetheless, has exceptional potential: colossal natural resources, an extraordinary biological and mineral diversity, a refined and very composite culture, and a young and dynamic population.

But in this upside-down world, Madagascar is poor, due to its wealth!

In effect, in a context of exacerbated international competition, further intensified as the older world powers are squeezed by emerging countries, and also because the capitalist mode of production cannot transform its fossil fuel–based energy system, the access to raw materials has become, for states as well as for transnational companies, a crucial point of conflict. As a result, the “great island,” weakened by decades of social and political crisis, is an unprotected jewel, beset by a crowd of gangsters.

The political swamp into which Madagascar has been sinking since 2009 is the latest in a long history of suffering and setbacks inflicted on its population by local elites and foreign powers. Becoming independent in 1960 after 64 years of French domination (a period marked by the terrible repression of 1947 and its 89,000 dead), Madagascar lived through fifteen years of political instability before being pulled into the orbit of the former eastern bloc in 1975. The local Stalinist regime, led by Didier Ratsiraka, quickly broke off diplomatic relations with France. Ratsiraka, a naval officer, then established an economic dirigisme, propped up by Third Worldist nationalism. Most contracts with foreign multinationals were terminated. But economic difficulties piled up, and they eventually forced Madagascar to turn to the IMF and to renegotiate its debt with the Club of Rome in the mid-1980s. In 1992, the “socialist” experiment was officially abandoned. The dictator gave up power a year later. Two years earlier, we might recall, his troops, using bullets and grenades, had killed several dozen demonstrators in an enormous crowd demanding his resignation. This was hardly the first incident: in July 1985, Ratsiraka, using assault tanks and flame throwers, had razed a Kung-fu temple whose members had stood up to government militias spreading terror in the capital. In 1996, riding the popular discontent fueled by rampant poverty and by the disappearance of the IMF loans into the pockets of corrupt politicians, Ratsiraka, supported by one-time enemy France, regained the presidency. Six years of stability and economic growth followed. Nonetheless, inequality, already enormous, continued to deepen, and the people sank irremediably into poverty. In 2002, against the backdrop of a struggle for influence between France and the United States, Ravalomanana, the American candidate, managed to push Ratsiraka aside following several months of conflict, including military skirmishes between the two camps. This “Malagasy Berlusconi,” as he is called, progressively took over the most lucrative markets in the most diverse economic sectors. The regime slipped rapidly into autarchy and dispensed with the secular nature of the state, tilting to the Reformed Church of Madagascar. English was promoted as a public language. The personalization of power was relentless. Ravalomanana, at the end of 2008, ceded half of Madagascar’s arable land, or 1.3 million hectares, to Daewoo Logistics, a South Korean company, to produce corn for South Korea. This agreement (canceled a few months later) greatly angered the islanders, and became a major basis for a popularly supported uprising. Andry Rajoelina, helped by mutinous elements in the military, overthrew Ravalomanana in March 2009 with a coup in which 28 civilians were killed by government forces. While France, along with the international community, condemned the “putsch,” it actually orchestrated the operation to preserve its local interests. Rajoelina, age 34, a former master of ceremonies at evening dances for the gilded youth of Tananarive (the capital), had worked for a time in advertising and then became mayor of the capital, albeit with the political stature of a straw man. He was immediately pronounced “President of the High Authority of the Transition,” an entity replacing the President of the Republic and supposedly established to organize presidential elections…which are still awaited!

Thus for nearly five years, Madagascar has been “in transition.” In reality, the political clique, rotten to the core with wheeling and dealing, pretends to be scandalized by this situation, one amounting to a real political impasse. The chaotic machinations of private interests feed off an alarming decomposition of the state apparatus, whose down-sizing of public policy and endemic corruption are the most manifest signs. This disorder creates ideal conditions for the feeding frenzy of the transnationals.

As is customary with IMF austerity policies and deregulation, as well as its structural adjustments from the 1990s onward, the Malagasy state, during the recent period of political crisis, has made efforts to lower its public debt (accounting for about 6 percent of GDP, from western sources). The budget deficit was held to 3.1 percent of GDP in 2012. As a result, drastic restrictions hit public budgets in vital sectors such as health (many clinics have closed), social supports (malnutrition has exploded), education (more than 900,000 children have been left without schools over the past five years). The general decay of roads, buildings and public transportation is the direct result of a total absence of investment. At the same time, to make the economy “attractive” to foreign investors, tax-free zones have mushroomed and labor laws have been shredded. Corruption, meanwhile, has proliferated, and is now part and parcel of the functioning of institutions. According to a survey of Malagasy by the NGO Transparency, published in its 2013 World Corruption Barometer, the “judiciary, the police, public authorities and civil servants are the three sectors most often perceived as being part of corrupt organizations.” Bribes paid to public employees are very common, and people prefer to use personal connections in these institutions to carry on ordinary business. Machinations and seedy transactions at the highest levels of the state are legion, showing the hold of various mafias over the public sector. The latest affair was the (quite probable) murder of the governor of the Central Bank of Madagascar, who had intervened in the troubled waters surrounding the handover of the most important bank in the country, the Banque BNI Madagascar to a Malagasy, Mauritian and Indian consortium (Ciel, Bank One, Hiridee). The Crédit Agricole, a French establishment owning 51 percent of the bank’s capital, wanted to sell its share. The Malagasy state, owning 34 percent, was supposed to supervise the transaction in the general interest, i.e., by guaranteeing that the new owners were sound banks. But nothing was farther from the truth, since the interested buyers had placed most of their funds in fiscal havens, notably the Virgin Islands. The late governor of the Central Bank, himself hardly above reproach in conflicts of interest, could no longer express his dissent from the project, which of course was finally approved by the authorities.

Administered as it is by a state totally under the thumb of private interests (which of course makes it a paragon of “governance”), Madagascar, bursting with natural and mineral resources, is therefore easy prey, one which mafias at the highest levels of power hand over, without scruples, to voracious foreign companies. The High Transition Authority (HTA) has thus made multiple concessions of land to transnational companies, despite the illegality of these actions, since the HTA is normally supposed to restrict itself to managing matters of a smaller scope. For its part, the UN Council on Human Rights last year fell all over itself to obfuscate this unbelievable scandal: “Most transnational firms in Madagascar have obtained their operating permits from either the putschists or from the transition regime. For this reason, their operations there have neither legality nor legitimacy. Moreover, these permits were obtained through the serious corruption of these same political leaders.” The list of abuses is endless. We might mention the trafficking in rosewood, whose main clients are Europe and especially China, a practice which progressively wipes the remaining primary and secondary forests, as well as their local animal and plant species, off the map.

We might also mention the expropriation of the lands of thousands of small peasants lacking in property titles, by groups such as the VARUN Energy Corporation (from India), which has moved into agribusiness. But the real plum, the true bonanza, lies underground and offshore, along the west coast. Current extraction includes, among other things, ilmenite (in which Madagascar is the leading world producer), nickel (in which it is second), coal, cobalt (second in the world), chrome, graphite, marble, mica, copper, uranium, platinum, gold and sapphire (the world’s largest mine). Next up for development are bauxite, iron, oil, rare earths, valadium and tantalum. According to estimates, reserves (not including oil) in the large Malagasy mines have an estimated value of $300 billion. Further, what we might call the assault on Madagascar’s petroleum El Dorado has begun, as both western and Asian majors (Total, Shell, Chevron, Petrochina…) regularly announce the discovery of new drilling sites. There are currently about twenty onshore and eight offshore projects.

Such operations will obviously be of no positive economic benefit to the Malagasy population. Quite the contrary, Madagascar’s people are already suffering the downsides produced by these companies. On one hand they see the island’s patrimony being looted, with no financial benefit to themselves. The taxes paid by those transnationals operating on the island are ridiculously low. Following on the liberalization measures imposed by the World Bank in the 1990s, current regulation only underwrites the gigantic contracts between the state and the transnationals, since only 1 percent of revenues are owed to the public purse. With the usual obfuscation of reality taking care of the rest, Malagasy pockets remain desperately empty. On the other hand, transnational industrial companies impose real damage on the environment and on the locals. There is no shortage of examples: water shortages and radioactivity near the Ranobe mine, operated by the Australian company Toliara Sands SARL and by the Chinese firm Lomon Titanium, ruining the lives of those living downstream. By the same token, a local ecological catastrophe has already been unleashed by what amounts to nothing less than pure and simple vacuuming of the soil by the Dynatec Company, for the extraction of cobalt and nickel. The imminent operations of the oil wells of Belomanga and Tsimororo, by a subsidiary of the French giant TOTAL, will follow this same fatal logic. “Heavy oil” will be extracted first, to be followed if necessary by fracking. These two forms of extracting “unconventional oil,” particularly the latter, have already acquired a terrible reputation, especially in Alberta (Canada) where they first began. The ecological, health and climatic ravages set in motion (contamination of the air, the soil and water, devastation of the landscape, a proliferation of cancers due to exposure to toxic substances, urban explosion, increased cost of living, the destruction of traditional ways of life) are there for all to see. Equally abetting this ongoing generalized tragedy, the state does not merely support capital with helpful legislation stemming from systematic corruption. Since the end of 2012, it has been running a military operation which, on the pretext of tracking down bandit groups, is in reality intended to force the evacuation of the rural population of a large part of the country’s south, since the latter inhabit the surface of a considerable mining bonanza, which several large companies want to seize as soon as possible. Armed attacks have been carried out on villages, twenty of them have been burned to the ground, and dozens of people have been killed.

A fragmentation of the country for confiscation by private interests, the use of the state to this end, the looting of the natural and human environment, opaque operations and transactions: these are the key realities of the current feeding frenzy orchestrated by the transnationals.

Nothing, moreover, is going to be reversed, because the incredible geopolitical and geostrategic pressures under which this looting is carried out will be intensified by the position Madagascar is acquiring in the worldwide great game. At least four major geopolitical powers, already present on the island and in its environs, are redoubling their aggression in pursuit of huge industrial and commercial projects. As the only rich country sharing a border with Madagascar (Reunion Island, a French department, is an hour’s flight from Tananarive), France also benefits from the vestiges of its colonial power, still very much alive in Malagasy culture and in the economy. But if the French have been very keen, since the end of the 2000s, to have the inside track in Madagascar, while reviving the old expeditious methods of their former African empire, it is neither because of the 650 local French firms nor because of 25,500 French resident nationals, nor, finally, in the name of the old Franco-Malagasy friendship. In reality, this enthusiasm is based on the discovery of a remarkable hydrocarbon field (gas and oil) in the Mozambique Channel, which specialists are comparing to the North Sea in the mid-1960s, when the latter’s potential was first revealed. Five tiny islets in this channel along the Malagasy coast, called the “scattered islands,” remained French territory after Madagascar’s independence, despite repeated protests from the international community. Nevertheless, current international regulations allow France, according to the terms (1982) Montego Bay Convention, to consider these islets a “Zone of Economic Exclusivity” (ZEE) and thus authorize it to control the resources within 200 nautical miles of its territorial waters. France thus has control of 425,000 square kilometers, or two-thirds of the Mozambique canal. Sitting on such a fortune, French diplomacy has been bent on maintaining the docility of the Malagasy authorities on this issue, despite Anglo-Saxon pressure and even that of the European Union, which does not look kindly on this solitary imperialist posturing by French capital in the region. In light of these facts, we can thus better understand the open support of the United States and South Africa for the camp of Marc Ravalomanan, the former president overthrown by France’s man, Andry Rajoelina. The confrontation is only beginning, because the Ravalomanana camp is running a candidate in the presidential elections.

On the other hand, an “eastern push” is very much in evidence, in particular from China, but also from India and Thailand. China, the number one exporter to the red island, has a growing position in the mining sector (coal and oil), one complemented by its strong influence with the current Malagasy head of state. The Chinese would like to control the ports of Madagascar’s south, which are important way stations on the maritime commercial route to South America, particularly to Brazil, itself another emerging country. To counter this project, the French have been planning to open a land route through the two Lusophone nations (from Portuguese influence) on the east and west coasts of Africa, Mozambique and Angola, thereby linking up with Brazil’s ports through the Atlantic. Chavez’s Venezuela was prepared to launch a development partnership with Madagascar, in exchange for various raw materials. But it seems that these projects have remained a dead letter.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, opulent countries facing the depletion of their old reserves in the near future, consider Madagascar (a l’image d’une kyrielle d’autres pays) as a good investment for their policy of shoring up their financial resources. In this case as well, Qatar is living up to its reputation as an imperialist micro-power, and is trying to have direct influence at the highest levels of the Malagasy state. It is thus actively supporting, above all financially, the Muslim community, while supporting Rado Rafalimanana, a candidate in the future elections, who conducts his campaign sending around cargo planes filled with prime necessities.

Confronted with this sinister festival of vultures, the exploited classes of Madagascar, relegated to a life of misery with no other rights except that of remaining silent, have not yet, for the moment, demonstrated en masse and in their own interests the deep revolt that is brewing. Aside from a few associations of small peasants struggling against the transnational expropriation of their lands to force recognition of their property rights, and from a few sporadic strike movements in certain public sectors (teachers, customs officials), the Malagasy are still too harassed, divided and inundated with religious propaganda (especially Catholic and evangelical, even if Islam is currently making spectacular inroads) to rise up and to imagine valid emancipatory perspectives. The multiple reschedulings of presidential elections over the past five years have amounted to a permanent provocation for the lingering vestiges of democracy there. But one senses a strange resignation, completely mixed up with a visceral anger. Perhaps this potentially explosive cocktail will finally shake up the agendas of the decidedly overconfident capitalist looters. We certainly hope so, and our revolutionary solidarity will support any attempt in that direction.

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