Madagascar is the world’s fourth largest island, and lies some 350 kilometres off of the coast of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean. The island is renowned for its diversity of terrain, climate, and ecology, as well as being subject to occasional severe tropical storms. In recent years large oil and gas reserves have been discovered in Madagascar and its territorial waters. Madagascar’s ecologically unique forests face widespread pressure from poverty, mismanagement and corruption that also threatens the island’s prospects for further development of eco-tourism.

Competing hypotheses about the origins of the population concern when and how, some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, Malay and Indonesian immigrants mixed with African immigrants, with some Arab and Indian admixtures. These hypotheses have gained and lost prominence depending on new discoveries and political circumstances. Hypotheses emphasizing the unity of the population have been salient for nationalist purposes, while those emphasizing diversity have been elaborated to suit specific group interests.

An 18th century Merina kingdom came to dominate the Côtier peoples. The French colonial administration favoured the Côtier, and a Côtier government led the country into independence in 1960. Tensions persisted between the pro-French Côtier government, and a Merina-dominated, Soviet backed opposition. The class divide between elite Merina and generally poorer Côtier people gradually subsided with urbanization and emergence of elites among the latter on the basis of education, trade, and government position. Use of the Malagasy language, the standard medium of instruction in lower primary schools, and an emphasis on Malagasy culture since 1972, has aimed at transcending inter-ethnic divisions. Nevertheless, fault lines in Malagasy politics have frequently continued to follow a general Merina-Côtier divide.


Main Languages: Malagasy (official), French (official)

Main religions: indigenous beliefs (52%), Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant) (41%), Islam (7%), (CIA World Factbook 2007)

Minority groups include Comorans 20,000 (0.1%) (Ethnologue 2001) and French 18,000 (0.1%) (Ethnologue 1993).

Madagascar’s population is 19.4 million (CIA World Factbook 2007).

Despite a single national language, strong traditions of self-organization and indigenous forms of conflict resolution exist, and there have long been tensions between the two largest groups of Malagasy: Merina and Côtier.

Census data divide the population into eighteen official ethnic groups. The largest, with about a quarter of the population, is Merina, descendants of people of somewhat more marked Indonesian origins, who have traditionally lived in Madagascar’s highlands. Groups on the periphery of the Merina, and in some cases dominated by them, are commonly termed Côtier people, as some of them inhabited coastal zones. African origins are rather more marked among them. The distinction between Merina and Côtier coincides to some extent with urban-rural distinctions, as Merina are disproportionately urbanized.

Most groups, including Merina, were stratified by castes. Descendants of slaves are usually distinguished from ‘freemen and women’, who may be further divided (as with Merina) between descendants of nobles and commoners. These patterns have interacted with schooling and other stratifying institutions in complex ways. However, the distinction between slave and non-slave has carried over into socio-economic status today. Declining purchasing power and joblessness are reviving ethnic animosities, but more so animosity towards those identifiable as ‘strangers’.

Muslim people of the Comoros Islands were once the second largest non-Malagsy minority. After the majority returned to Comoros Islands in the 1970s, there remained some 20,000 who had opted for Madagascar citizenship, mostly living in the capital city.

Immigrants in the twentieth century, people of both Indo-Pakistani origin (about 10,000) and Chinese origin (about 10,000), operate small shops and other businesses, both registered and ‘parallel market’. Many Indo-Pakistanis, known as Karana, have been denied citizenship, which must be obtained through a Malagasy mother, and are effectively stateless. They have met popular animosity and have been targets of boycotts.


Madagascar’s constitution forbids associations that ‘call into question the unity of the nation, and those that advocate totalitarianism or ethnic, tribal, or religious segregation’.
In disputed 2001 elections, Marc Ravalomanana, a Merina, claimed victory, but wasn’t declared the winner until May 2002. Violence between his supporters and those of former President Didier Ratsirika, a Côtier Madagascar and its security forces essentially divided between two competing governments, headquartered in different cities, until Ratsiraka fled to France in July 2002.

President Ravalomanana embraced market reforms, which led to an increase in foreign aid and a cancellation of the country’s debt, but also to increased prices for food staples. Despite President Ravalomanana’s stated intent to tackle corruption, Transparency International still ranks Madagascar as 84th among 163 countries in its 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. The President controls state-run media and owns various other significant media outlets, although there are also many that operate independently.

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries, with the World Bank estimating that 70 per cent of the population survives on less than one USD per day. The poorest Malagasy are particularly vulnerable to storms and drought, and frequently must rely on international food aid. In 2006-2007 the country suffered a multitude of natural disasters with three consecutive cyclones that left 78000 people homeless and affected more than 200 000 people, according to figures of the Madagascan authorities. Crops of rice and vanilla, the country’s main export products, were seriously damaged causing serious food shortages. The economy has long been driven primarily by farming, with few opportunities for concentration of wealth. This has not spared Madagascar from a reputation for official corruption.

Recently discovered oil and gas reserves in Madagascar could bring new wealth to the island. The government has estimated offshore oil reserves at five million barrels, and in 2006 the energy minister stated that the petroleum industry could constitute 15 per cent of GDP within five years. In August 2006 resource watchdog Global Witness warned that the oil and gas would only serve to alleviate poverty if measures were put in place to ensure accountability and transparency in the handling of petroleum revenue.

A thwarted coup attempt by a renegade general in November 2006 received the backing of several presidential contenders. President Ravalomanana won re-election in December 2006, and in January 2007, appointed former military Chief of Staff and Interior Minister Charles Rabemananjara as prime minister.

After his landslide victory in the 2007 December local elections, the popular and young new mayor of the capital Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina (34) announced in January 2009 that he intended to take charge of ‘all national affairs’. According to media reports, protests against the government and police shootings followed, and violence escalated after Rajoelina was sacked as a mayor following his announcement that he had created a ‘supreme transitional authority’ to replace Ravalomanana’s government. Rajoelina then appointed Roindefo Monja as prime minister and called on the crowd to march on the presidency and protest against corruption and rising living costs. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that amid demonstrations, occasional violence, looting, burning and shootings were the norm and these have left scores of people dead and injured. Violent clashes between the police and the Rajoelina’s supporters, ‘the orange movement’ have resulted in at least 135 deaths since demonstrations started on 24 January. The economy and tourist industry has suffered enormously amid this political turmoil. In February 2009, Amnesty International called on the Malagasy authorities to open an independent and impartial investigation into the use of excessive force by the Presidential Guard against unarmed demonstrators during the protests.

On 14 March Andry Rajoelina declared himself the new president and head of a transitional government after disintegrating and securing the backing of the nation’s army and taking over the major ministries. He urged Ravalomanana to quit. After initially vowing to fight to the end and calling for a referendum on his rule, he finally resigned as president on 17 March and tried to hand power to loyalists in the military to stop the opposition taking charge. But the head of the military said the move by Ravalomanana was a “ploy”, and that the army would back the opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina, against the call of Jean Ping, the African Union commission chairman, who reiterated that handing over to the opposition would be ”unconstitutional”.

Rajoelina moved into the presidential office and was sworn in on 21 March 2009. After pledging to hold election within two years of his rise to power, Rajoelina announced on 3 April 2009 to hold presidential election in October 2010. According to the agreed plan, changes to the country’s constitution and electoral code is envisaged for 2009 followed by a parliamentary election in March 2010 and the presidential vote in October the same year.

Madagascar has been suspended from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Main donors, amongst them France, the country’s biggest bilateral donor however has not suspended foreign aid but urged a return to constitutional rule.


Minority based and advocacy organisations

Ligue Malgache des droits de l’homme
Tel: +261 2 244 03

Ligue Africaine des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples
Tel: +261 20 22 415 62
Email: msvi@simicro.mg

Sources and further reading

Allen, Philip M. (Ed.), Historical Dictionary of Madagascar (Historical Dictionaries of Africa), Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Amnesty International, Madagascar: Selective Justice, December 2002.

Astuti, Rita, People of the Sea: Identity and Descent Among the Vezo of Madagascar, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Solofo Randrianja, Ethnies et ethnicité, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, Dakar, 2004.

Schlemmer, B., ‘Crise et recomposition des identités à Madagascar’, Revue tiers monde, vol. 36, no. 141, Jan.-Mar., 1995.

Sharp, Lesley A., The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar, Berkley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.

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