Rats, locusts and hungry children: Can elections save Madagascar from the abyss?


Red locusts swarm 20 kilometers north of Sakaraha, a town in southwest Madagascar, on April 27, 2013. According to studies, there were around 500 billion locusts in the country at the time, eating around 100,000 metric tons of vegetation per day.



JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With swarms of hungry locusts destroying crops, and rats spreading bubonic plague, the crisis in Madagascar is becoming almost biblical in its devastation.

In the nearly five years since 34-year-old former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina took power in a coup d’etat, the collapsing state and slumping economy have dramatically worsened the fragile humanitarian situation in the impoverished country.

Foreign donors suspended aid to Madagascar, and foreign investors were scared off during the protracted political crisis that followed the 2009 coup. Madagascar has deteriorated more than any other African country in terms of governance, according to this year’s Ibrahim Index, an independent ranking of African states. The country had a particularly large drop in the category that measures protection of human rights, civil and political participation, and gender issues.

But with voters scheduled to go to the polls Friday in the first presidential elections since Rajoelina’s takeover, there may at last be a path forward.

At a briefing Monday in Johannesburg, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said the election could be a chance for Madagascar, an island nation of about 22 million people, to start over. If the new government is seen as legitimate and democratic, it could finally bring donors and investment back to the capital-starved country.

For some Malagasy, as the people of Madagascar are known, it might be too late. Some 1.5 million children are not attending primary school, according to UNICEF representative Steven Lauwerier, who lamented a “lost generation.” More than half of children under age five are chronically malnourished.

Elections have been delayed repeatedly by political impasses and disputes; this time, however, they look set to go ahead after the electoral court broke the latest deadlock with help from international mediators.

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There are 33 presidential candidates on the ballot, but the country’s former leaders are not among them. Madagascar’s electoral court has controversially used technical grounds to exclude Rajoelina and his two main rivals: former president Marc Ravalomanana — who has been living in exile in South Africa — and another former president, Didier Ratsiraka. Rajoelina has said he respects the decision and will step down after the polls.

The big loser is Ravalomanana, who had been forced from power yet also won't be allowed to run. For voters, it means the most popular presidential candidates will not be on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority, a second round of voting would take place before Christmas.

According to Brian Klaas and Piers Pigou from the International Crisis Group, a free and fair election is crucial to “ending Madagascar’s isolation, bringing back foreign investment and aid, and offering a pathway out of the current economic abyss.”

Some 800 international observers will be deployed to polls around the country, along with an estimated 5,000 Malagasy observers.

If the elections are peaceful, and the outcome credible, then Madagascar may have some hope for recovery, Klaas and Pigou wrote in an opinion piece.

“Madagascar’s politicians need to stop playing games and focus on national interests,” they wrote. “Only then can the crisis end and the real work of dealing with locusts, bandits and crippling poverty begin.”

According to UNICEF, an estimated 92 percent of the country’s population lives on less than $2 a day.

Madagascar’s food shortage is a particularly pressing issue. Up to four million people lack adequate food supplies following this year’s poor harvest. A further 9.6 million people are at risk of food insecurity, United Nations agencies warned this month.

“Production of rice — the Indian Ocean island’s staple — and maize has been badly hit by erratic weather and a locust invasion,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program said in a joint statement.

Rice production declined by 21 percent this year due to unpredictable weather conditions, cyclones and associated flooding, poor rains and the locust plague, the statement said.

A three-year locust control program began in late September, with aerial surveys to map out locust populations. The locust swarms can range up to a whopping 5,000 hectares in size, according to the UNFAO.

Pesticide spraying will begin by the end of this month under a joint program between the UNFAO and Malagasy authorities.

“The current plight of the island reflects years of economic decline, deepening poverty, limited public services and a series of natural disasters that have eroded livelihoods and coping strategies,” the UN agencies said.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that Madagascar faces a bubonic plague epidemic unless steps are taken to slow the disease’s spread.

In 2012, Madagascar had 256 reported cases of the plague and 60 deaths from the disease, making it the most severely affected country in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

The Red Cross and prison authorities have launched a campaign to exterminate rats at Antanimora Prison in Antananarivo, the capital, where 3,000 inmates are held.