Madagascar: Land and people

Extracted from: Lucien Toulou 2009 "Chapter 6: Madagascar" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg,193-194.

Madagascar is also known as the "Great Island" for being the world's fourth-largest island after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. It lies in the Indian Ocean about 390 km off the southeast coast of Africa opposite Mozambique, and is 1,600 km from north to south, and 580 km from east to west. The total size of the island is 587 040 km² including 581 540 km² of land and 5 500 km² of water. Madagascar is also dubbed the "Great Red Island" owing to the predominance of red soils in its central highlands. Its biodiversity is among the richest in the world and has been described by ecologists as an "alternate world" or a "world apart", because of the uniqueness and rarity of many of its plants and animal species. Of its 12 000 plant species, 85 per cent are found nowhere else in the world. Madagascar's bio-diversity is believed to reflect the island's origins as a part of Gondwanaland and its many millions of years of virtually total isolation following the breakup of the landmass (Brown 1995, 334).

Neither African nor Asian, Madagascar has a population estimated at around 18 million in 2006. The country was uninhabited until Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century AD, probably by way of southern India and East Africa, where they acquired African wives and slaves. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific and Africa further consolidated the original mixture of the island, and 18 separate ethnic groups emerged. The main Malagasy ethnic groups are the Merina, forming about 25 per cent of the population, the Betsileo, about 12 per cent, and the Càtiers. The Merina and the Betsileo, inhabiting the most densely populated central provinces of Antananarivo and Fianarantsoa, are of Asian-Pacific origin, whereas ethnic groups of African descent collectively known as Càtiers inhabit the coastal areas. These groups include the Betsimisaraka, the Tsimihety, the Sakalawa, and the Antandroy. Small groups of Comorans, French, Indians, and Chinese are also found on the island.

The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally spoken throughout the island. The April 2007 revised constitution formally added English to French and Malagasy as one of the three official languages of the island. Most people in Madagascar practise traditional religions. About 45 per cent of the Malagasy are Christian, divided almost evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant. Muslims constitute a significant minority. They are divided between those of Malagasy ethnicity, Indo-Pakistanis, and Comorians.

Thanks to continuous migration and a sense of national unity forged throughout the years, there has been no open ethnic or racially based conflict in Madagascar since independence. However, regionalist and ethnic sentiments affect the relations between the island's two main groups. The Merina established the Malagasy kingdom and forcibly incorporated the Càtiers over the nineteenth century (Raison-Jourde 1983). Through military conquest and political dominance, the former enjoyed a social status that has been perceived to be higher than that of the latter. This has been increasingly regarded as a potential source of discrimination. The ethnic rivalry between the Merina and the Càtiers shaped the political system from the time of decolonisation politics when they found themselves on opposing sides as they worked against the colonial master. While the 'nationalists' had their stronghold among the Merina, the more moderate 'provincialists' favoured by the French were on the coast. Concomitantly, two opposing parties emerged: the Mouvement Démocratique pour la Renovation Malgache, predominantly Merina and championing immediate independence, and the Parti des Déshérités de Madagascar, dominated by the Càtiers and opposing rapid decolonisation. In addition, the election of Merina's Marc Ravalomanana over the càtiers Didier Ratsiraka sparked violence between the two groups in 2001-2002, further highlighting the Merina/Càtier polarisation, which has been a defining force in the post-independence era.

After being one of the better-off African countries in the 1960s, Madagascar lost this position due to several decades of economic mismanagement. The 2002 political crisis stemming from the electoral dispute between Didier Ratsiraka and Marc Ravalomanana devastated the economy and disrupted already weak healthcare and education systems. While 50 per cent of Madagascar's land is arable, less than 10 per cent is cultivated due to lack of roads, irrigation infrastructure, farming equipment and credit facilities. Poverty and competition for agricultural land have put pressure on the island's dwindling forests, threatening its unique flora and fauna. As a result, Madagascar is one of poorest countries in the world. In the 2007/2008 United Nation Development Programme's (UNDP's) Human Development Index, an indicator that measures achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income, Madagascar was given the rank of 143rd out of 177 countries.

While the country is heavily dependent on donor funding, abundant natural resources and the existence of political will appear to offer real potential for growth and sustained economic development. Since 2002, the Ravalomanana's government has embarked on an ambitious transformation path that has brought improvements in some socio-economic indicators. These positive developments and the smooth December 2006 presidential contest that saw Marc Ravalomanana re-elected have provided for the adoption of a new participatory development strategy for 2007-2012 known as the Madagascar Action Plan (MAP). The MAP envisages accelerated and better-coordinated reforms and outlines the "strategies and actions that will ignite rapid growth, lead to the reduction of poverty, and ensure that the country develops in response to the challenges of globalization".


BROWN, M 1995 A History of Madagascar, London, Damien Tunnacliffe.

RAISON-JOURDE, F (ed) 1983 Les Souverains de Madagascar: L'Histoire Royale et ses Résurgences Contemporaines, Paris, Karthala.