Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Malagasy (official), French (official).
Main religions: indigenous beliefs (52 per cent), Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant) (41 per cent), Islam (7 per cent) (1993 census).
The largest ethnic group are Merina, a Malayo-Indonesian community, followed by Côtier (a collective term for coastal communities, predominantly of mixed African, Malayo-Indonesian and Arab descent), Betsileo (like Merina, a highland-dwelling Malayo-Indonesian group), with smaller minorities of Comorans, Creole, French and Indians. The Karana minority, with historic roots in India, number at least 20,000: many of them are not recognized as Malagasy citizens and are therefore stateless.
Exact demographic data on ethnic and religious groups in Madagascar is unavailable: the last full census was conducted in 1993, with an attempted 2009 census disrupted by political insecurity, and so most estimates on issues such as religious denomination are extrapolated from the 1993 figures.
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 peoples, 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-Malagasy 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 South Asian origin (about 10,000) and Chinese origin (about 10,000), operate small shops and other businesses, both registered and ‘parallel market’. Many South Asians, known as Karana, have been denied citizenship and are effectively stateless. They have met popular animosity and have been targets of boycotts. Karana need to seek residency permits. Previously, the nationality law required that children born in Madagascar needed to have at least one Malagasy parent, but Malagasy women married to foreigners could not pass on their nationality to their children. Now they can, according to legislative changes introduced in 2016 which should hopefully reduce statelessness among Karana and other affected communities, such as Comorans.
Updated April 2018.
The largest ethnic group, comprising about a quarter of the population, is the historically dominant Merina. They are a more urbanized community, traditionally from the central highlands, descended from people of somewhat more marked Indonesian, rather than African, origins. Coastal peoples, traditionally located in the island’s surrounding coastal areas, are known collectively as Côtier. Since independence, governments have largely tended to comprise members of Côtier communities.
The class divide between elite Merina and generally poorer Côtier peoples has 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. Smaller ethnic groups also face a range of issues such as environmental degradation and a high risk of statelessness.
Madagascar is one of the countries most been deeply affected by agri-development and extractive industries, as some of the world’s wealthiest countries, notably the Gulf States and China, have purchased or leased land in Africa for the cultivation of food and bio-fuels in what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has described as the ‘new scramble for Africa’. It is arguable that such practices disproportionately impact on land held by minority or indigenous communities, largely because these groups own land under tenure arrangements that are not sufficiently protected by national legal systems. This situation is more serious for women and children among vulnerable minority groups, who must provide for families using land-based resources, from medicinal plants to wood fuel.
Rio Tinto’s Canadian subsidiary, QIT-Fer et Titane, which controls the ilmenite mine project on the east coast of Madagascar, reportedly broke promises with local forest communities about employment and training, and instead hiring skilled workers from outside the region. The Anosy region, where the development is located, is home to indigenous Antanosy people, and many of them lived and farmed in surrounding villages displaced by the mine, by some reports without full, prior and informed consent and with insufficient compensation. Antanosy farming and fishing livelihoods, environmental and land rights, and community life have been negatively impacted by the mine, firstly through the mine’s disruption of their traditional access to land and ocean resources for subsistence and secondly through the company’s creation of prohibited ‘conservation zones’, purportedly to offset the environmental impact of the project. In 2013 protestors blocked road access to the mine, leading security forces to use tear gas to disperse them. Since then, reports have continued to emerge of land dispossession, environmental contamination and livelihood loss among local farming and fishing communities affected by the mine.
Illegal logging, particularly of endangered hardwoods such as rosewood, is prevalent, with severe ramifications for Madagascar’s diversity and environmental heritage: 80 per cent of its plant and animal species are believed to be unique, found nowhere else on earth. Illegal logging is reported to be centred around the northeastern Massoala and Marojejy National Parks, ostensibly protected areas of great biodiversity. A detained environmental activist, Clovis Razafimalala, working on these issues was declared a prisoner of conscience in 2017 by Amnesty International.
Meanwhile, the impact of climate change as well as El Niño continued to be manifest in recurring flooding and drought, particularly in coastal areas. In 2016, after three years of crop failure, the UN expressed alarm at high rates of food insecurity in the southern Anosy, Androy and Atsimo-Andrefana regions in particular, home to Antanosy, Antandroy and other minority and indigenous communities. By 2017, sporadic rains as well as projects to improve access to water had led to some improvement. According to a report issued by UNICEF in June 2017, there were 189,000 children in need of humanitarian assistance compared with 391,000 the previous year.
Madagascar took some steps via a 2016 update of the nationality law to address the relatively high levels of statelessness among its inhabitants, due to blockages to mothers passing on citizenship rights to their children in certain circumstances or, according to some reports, a degree of discretion allowed to officials in deciding nationality cases. The Karana minority, 20th-century immigrants who were present in the country pre-independence and who come from families with South Asian roots, and those of Comoran origin are reportedly most affected. Despite having lived in the country often for generations, Karana and Comorans have needed to obtain residency permits. The new law grants equal rights to pass on citizenship rights to children; it also ensures that spouses and children retain their nationality if a partner or a parent loses his or hers. The actual impact of the new law remains to be seen.
Updated April 2018.
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 extractive and large-scale logging industries, driven by mismanagement and corruption; the island’s prospects for further development of eco-tourism is also threatened.
Competing hypotheses about the origins of the population concern when and how, some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, Malay and Indonesian immigrants arrived on the island of Madagscar, along with later African, Arab and Indian settlers. 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 coastal 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.
These issues continued to manifest after the formal end of the Cold War. In disputed 2001 elections, Marc Ravalomanana, a Merina, claimed victory but was not declared the winner until May 2002. Violence between his supporters and those of former President Didier Ratsirika, a Côtier, ensued and Madagascar and its security forces essentially divided between two competing governments, headquartered in different cities, until Ratsiraka fled to France in July 2002.
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 Ravalomanana’s stated intent to tackle the issue, corruption persisted. A thwarted coup attempt by a renegade general in November 2006 received the backing of several presidential contenders. Nevertheless, Ravalomanana won re-election in December 2006.
However, in January 2009 a Merina, Andry Rajoelina, a popular and young new mayor of the capital Antananarivo, announced that he intended to take charge of ‘all national affairs’. According to media reports, protests against the government and police shootings followed, with violent clashes between the police and the Rajoelina’s supporters, ‘the orange movement’, resulting in many deaths. After Ravalomanana was forced into resigning in March, Rajoelina was sworn into office. In the meantime, Madagascar was suspended from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). A major factor attributed to the 2009 coup was the perception within the military that Merina received preferential treatment over Côtier in promotion and career progression.
A roadmap for elections brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) derailed in 2011. Moreover the country was beset by poverty, environmental crises like locust swarms, droughts and floods, as well as violence and other criminality such as cattle rustling, while the political wrangling continued. Both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana reneged on a January 2013 commitment not to stand in the post-coup elections, only to be eventually excluded by the electoral court from the polls, which were eventually held in October 2013.
These presidential elections were declared largely free and fair, with the second round won by Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who was sworn in as president in January 2014 but impeached in May 2015. The impeachment was later thrown out by the Constitutional Court. In December 2015 a new Senate – dissolved after the 2009 coup – was elected and senators took up their posts in February 2016.
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’.
Following the events of 2009, Madagascar has recently witnessed increased political stability. The current government is led by President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who assumed office in 2014 following elections in 2013.While Rajaonarimampianina received the majority of his support from Côtier peoples, he has emphasized in media interviews that he seeks to move away from the tribalism of the past.
Madagascar is one of the world’s least developed countries, and the poorest Malagasy are particularly vulnerable to storms and drought, and frequently must rely on international food aid. Madagascar also has a reputation for official corruption. While recently discovered oil and gas reserves in Madagascar could bring new wealth to the island, environmental groups have warned that these resources would only serve to alleviate poverty if measures were put in place to ensure accountability and transparency in the handling of petroleum revenue.
Updated April 2018.
Ligue Malgache des droits de l’homme
Ligue Africaine des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples