"Madagascar's back!" -- president makes his pitch

Reuters 12.06.2003

By Manoah Esipisu and Nicholas Kotch

DURBAN, South Africa, June 12 (Reuters) - Madagascar's year-long political isolation in Africa will end at a summit next month, President Marc Ravalomanana said on Thursday.

He said in an interview the annual summit of the African Union, to be held in Mozambique in early July, would mark the end of the country's suspension from the pan-African body.

"We are invited to attend the summit and it is certain that Madagascar will retake its place as a member of the African Union. The formalities are being sorted out now," he told Reuters in Durban, South Africa.

The AU's campaign to improve democracy and governance in Africa led to sanctions against Ravalomanana's government in 2002 despite its huge levels of popular support on the impoverished Indian Ocean island of 17 million people.

AU suspension increased Madagascar's isolation from the continent and barred it from certain regional meetings. While reinstatement will not necessarily mean huge new inflows of aid, it is an important symbolic step toward regional integration.

Ravalomanana, a 53-year-old businessman, took power last July after a long and sporadically violent stand-off between his supporters and those of former President Didier Ratsiraka.

Elections in December 2001 ended with Ratsiraka being declared the victor -- an outcome dismissed as fraudulent by Ravalomanana and overturned by massive street protests.

After 23 years in power, Ratsiraka took exile in France but the technically undemocratic nature of his ousting left Ravalomanana out of favour in the AU. His visit to Durban, for the World Economic Forum's African summit, was one of his rare sorties of the past 11 months.

He said he was not bitter.

"It's normal that the African Union wants to wait a while before deciding," he said.

The same issue is likely to surface in Maputo in July concerning the Central African Republic, albeit in more clear-cut terms. Diplomats expect a problem over the country's seat after President Ange-Felix Patasse was toppled this year in a coup by General Francois Bozize.


Ravalomanana is under pressure from some quarters, including former colonial power France, to show a greater sense of reconciliation to the former regime. But he is not ready to end his predecessor's exile.

"It is not the time for him to return home to Madagascar. We are running the country now, improving the welfare of our people. It is not time for him," he said.

Ravalomanana has been accused of singling out Ratsiraka loyalists, such as a former secretary of state for security, as part of a witch-hunt against those close to the former leader.

His human rights record has also come under scrutiny with reports of firearms and tear gas being used to crush rallies held by opposition demonstrators.

He came to his first African Economic Summit flanked by a posse of ministers on a drive to attract interest and investment in Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries.

"The statistics say we are the fourth poorest country. I don't know, but half our children are barefoot," said Foreign Minister Marcel Ranjeva.

"The potential is huge," Ravalomanana said, pointing to Madagascar's 5,000-km (3,100 mile) coastline, fisheries, varied agriculture and mineral resources.

"We already have the support of the World Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund -- we have nearly a billion dollars to rebuild infrastructure," he said.

Roads and ports are priorities and there were foreign funds to help finance governance and anti-corruption projects, he said.

"Privatisation is the key. We are looking to privatise the oil refinery, mining (companies), seaport and airport. For investors, this is the best time to come to Madagascar," he said.