Posts tagged Political Revolution
One of my co-workers at my new school was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar in 2001. His time was cut short by a coup d’etat led by Marc Ravalomanana, who, coincidentally enough, was the same president to be ousted by the coup d’etat that led to my eventual departure from the island in February of 2009.
Hints of growing discontent
I began to hear word that the mayor of Antananarivo (the capital city, on the right) was holding “meetings” about democracy that were against the president of the country, Marc Ravalomanana (on the left). Although I had no prior knowledge of the political dynamics of Madagascar, I began to pick up on where the discontent spurred from by talking to the people I had met in the city. Ravalomanana, aka the Yogurt Tycoon, had monopolies on many products. Try buying yogurt that didn’t have the president’s brand name on it– it was impossible. Couple that with the fact that in the months prior to the revolution, he had purchased a $60 million “presidential airplane” while the rest of the country struggled with extreme poverty.
Interestingly enough, getting my news from the people rather than the television also gave me a different slant to the story. I learned very quickly that Madagascar’s elite class had drama that read like a cover of US Weekly, with history and personal vendettas that only intensified the rivalry. Andry Rajoelina (did I mention he was a 34-year-old ex-DJ?) had once been in a relationship with Ravalomanana’s daughter, but from what I’m guessing, it didn’t end well based on the residual conflict. Take that, and add to it the fact that Ravalomanana shut down Andry’s television station after it aired an unfavorable interview about the president, and you are starting to see how this conflict got real complicated, real fast.
Building the foundation for revolution
Intrigued by the idea of the “meetings” that Andry was holding downtown, I ventured down with my camera (and mace, just in case) to see if I couldn’t get a better sense of what was going on. The first large “meeting” I went to was absolutely packed with people. The fenced in park was full, with lines of people pressed against the fences and sitting on the surrounding hilltops and houses, all just to hear the mayor’s speeches about freedom and democracy.
Desperate attempts to rally support
In the face of Andry’s growing popularity, Ravalomanana made efforts to bolster his popular support. One afternoon, I noticed people lining the streets by my hostel holding signs for Ravalomanana’s political party. Apparently people were posted all along the road into town, awaiting the president’s procession to downtown that evening. I started filming from my window when I thought it was getting exciting and the president was going to come, but it wasn’t until the second video that he actually made an appearance (he liked to build a dramatic entrance, I guess). Both videos give an idea of the fanfare that the president tried to surround himself with amidst the growing support for the opposition. The guy that worked at my hostel was convinced that he had paid the people to make it look like he had more support than he did, but I have no idea what the true situation was.
January 26th, 2009- Lundi Noir (Black Monday)
The next day, on the day that went down in Madagascar’s history as Black Monday, Andry launched his first city wide march against the president. Starting from the Place de l’independence in the heart of downtown Antananarivo, thousands of Andry’s supporters went throughout the town, wearing the color orange as a mark of pacifism. (They were not looking to create a violent conflict). It was on this day that on a morning errand I spotted a huge group of people marching towards downtown. My Malagasy friend who had accompanied me explained what was going on, and I quickly ran back to my room to grab my camera and get a closer look.
I made it down to the Place de l’Independence to catch the march kicking off:
On a side note, Antananarivo is almost like San Francisco in terms of the hills and the view points. This made it easy for me to get high up and look down on the action without being right in it.
Here was more of the march from another part of the city, at a higher vantage point:
And a bit more before things started to get ugly:
A turn for the worse
The march turned chaotic rather quickly. I’m not sure what sparked it, but it wasn’t long before I started to see pillars of black smoke rising from the horizon and people charging through the streets screaming. As time went by more and more pillars rose out of the tree line and more unpredictable crowds were tearing through the city. From my hostel window, the employee speculated what was in that general direction of each pillar of smoke– the TV station, the president’s grocery store, the president’s warehouse, and it became obvious what the protestors were targetting.
We never quite determined exactly what people were running from because there wasn’t any gunfire or violence from police or military, but the tension was palpable.
There were people who lost their lives that day, but most were killed indirectly. One of the buildings that had been looted and torched collapsed before all of the looters had gotten out. There were also other incidents like that from the crowds and the chaos. The day after, I went to explore the damage, in particular the Radio and TV building that housed the station Ravalomanana had shut down.
Many people were walking around doing the same thing I was– trying to figure out if what we were looking at was a dream or not.
By African political upheaval standards, the conflict was relatively tame without street violence or firearms. Regardless, this unexpected turn to destruction and chaos put the entire city on caution mode. Stores and restaurants shut down, mostly to protect themselves from potential looting, and street vendors vanished. I was lucky that the day before I had run into other foreigners I knew and was able to stay at their house with them. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have even been able to buy food.
By virtue of the connections of my foreign friends, we had a safe place to stay outside the city. We all agreed it was best to get ourselves out of downtown and let things settle. We were graciously accepted as guests of an upper class Malagasy family who was (don’t ask me how I get myself into these situations) cousins of the mayor, Andry. Small world I guess? Anyway, we started to understand the political tensions from a more personal perspective through the voice of a family that had been intimately involved in Madagascar’s politics for years. Just when we thought the boat had been rocked enough, we got word (albeit a little early being that we were staying with direct family) that Andry had officially declared himself president and the “official” coup d’etat had begun.
The political situation kept us indoors for a while, and their home became somewhat of a safe house for people who had nowhere else to go. We had a hodge-podge mix of nationalities and situations who had in one way or another been connected to the family. It was through this group that I got connected to CNN and shared some of my footage. Click here to see my iReport for CNN!
The activity had calmed down in the city pretty quickly despite Andry’s declaration of power, and after a few days of playing Space Pinball on a laptop, cabin fever really started to kick in. Since things seemed relatively stable it wasn’t long before we were back downtown trying to restart our lives.
Life in Madagascar take 2
I resumed my life in Madagascar almost as if we hadn’t had that little blip of political turmoil. The only real reminder that we were technically still in a “coup d’etat” was the armor clad soldiers who now paraded the streets.
Despite all that, the city was almost back to normal, shops were opening again, and we all began to believe that maybe everything was going to be OK after all. Andry did nothing immediately after bold declaration and we all thought perhaps he had lost his momentum.
February 7, 2009: Samedi Rouge (Red Saturday)
With almost a week of calm back in Antananarivo, we didn’t think much of a march that Andry had planned for the coming weekend. Convinced he was on the outs, we went about our day as usual. I was sitting in the house with my foreign friends eating lunch that afternoon when out of nowhere our conversation was silenced by the sound of rapid gunfire. I remember us staring at each other with utter disbelief. I think we spent a few seconds in our heads trying to find some way to make the sounds be not what we thought they were, but the situation had obviously taken a turn for the worse. Our house was positioned behind the Presidential Palace, only a few minutes walk away, and from the balcony of the house we could hear the people yelling, see the military cars heading towards the palace, and hear the unnerving sound of guns. The video below was taken from our balcony a little later in the afternoon when the gunfire was more sporadic, but still chilling. The roof behind the tree line is the Presidential Palace:
As the day went on, we pieced together more and more of what had happened. Andry’s protest marched on the palace, but Ravalomanana had placed mercenaries in the palace with orders to shoot “anything that moves in a 360 degree radius”. The protesters were completely unarmed. The Malagasy people were outraged, as the overwhelmingly accepted code of conduct among the people was that “Malagasy’s don’t kill other Malagasy’s”, and any remaining support Ravalomanana had had among the people was immediately gone.
Needless to say, we made a rather unanimous decision to retreat back to our safehouse. Madagascar’s weak economy was tanking, suffering from the political instability that caused many foreigners to cancel tourist reservations and pull business investments. It was all too obvious that the situation was going to get a lot worse before it got better and I decided to leave to restart my fellowship adventure elsewhere (which ended up being Senegal). Despite what I witnessed in my turbulent month and a half in Madagascar, I still hope one day I will have the opportunity to go back.