Madagascar Political History

I. Introduction

            Madagascar is an independent country, the fourth largest island in the world, and a few small islands, situated in the Indian Ocean and separated from mainland Africa by the Mozambique Channel. It has an area of 226,658 square miles, with a maximum length of 994 miles and a maximum width of 360 miles; the mean width is 279 miles. Its full name is the Democratic Republic of Madagascar. From 1958 to 1976 it was called the Malagasy Republic (Bird, 23-24).

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            The country’s population was about 19.1 million in 2007 but around July 2008 estimation, it reached to 20,042,551. In early 1980’s, 80 percent lived in rural areas. The largest city is Antananarivo, the national capital. Other major towns are Toamasina with 66,000, Mahajanga with 63,500, Fianarantsoa with 58,500, Antsiranana with 54,000, and Toliary with 41,000. Each of these towns is the capital of a province of the same name. Most of the country’s inhabitants are Malagasy, a culturally homogeneous people formed through the fusion of Indonesian, African, and Arab migrants to Madagascar. Besides the Malagasy, there are small but important groups of recent immigrant origin, including French, Indians, and Chinese (Bird, 23-24). Comorans were numerous, especially in the Mahajanga area, until late 1970’s, when thousands returned to the Comoros. Most of the Asians derive their livelihood from retail trade, most of the French from wholesale trade and administration. The Malagasy themselves make their living mostly from farming and herding. Madagascar was a French colonial possession from 1896 until it became independent on June 26, 1960.

            The economy is based on agriculture, and the island is largely self-sufficient in its output of food; however, to feed a growing population, the country has had to import some rice and other basic foodstuffs. On the other hand, fishing is largely restricted to the coastal lagoons. About 55,000 metric tons of fish and shellfish were caught annually. There is a little forestry, except to obtain timber for construction and wood for fuel. In addition, most of the manufacturing industries are concerned with the processing of agricultural products (Walsh, 51-56). There are also cement works, assembly plants for automobiles and transistor radios, and an oil-refinery.

            This essay scrutinizes the political history of Madagascar and be aware of its development of the political system.

II. Discussion

A. History

            The origins of the Malagasy people are not entirely clear. They certainly reflect the blending of Indonesian and African immigrants to Madagascar, beginning about 2,000 years ago, when Indonesian and Indian sailors began to settle on Madagascar. From around the ninth century onward the northwest and southwest coasts were by various groups from West Africa and the Comoro Islands.

            The first European to see Madagascar, so far as is known, was the Portuguese explorer Diogo Dias in 1500. The Portuguese, however, used the Mascarene Islands further east as their way-station on the route to India, and they expressed little interest in Madagascar in the 17th century. Between 1600 and 1619 the Portuguese Catholic missionaries tried and failed to convert the Malagasy on the southeast and west coasts. In the 1640’s both the French and the English made unsuccessful attempts to establish trading and transit posts on the island. The English withdrew after a year, but French efforts to secure permanent bases continued until the end of the 18th century, though by then their sole holding was Ile Sainte-Marie, off the northeast coast.

            Meanwhile, among the Malagasy a number of kingdoms developed, aided by the trade in arms and slaves. In the 17th century the Sakalava kingdom expanded over all of the western plains and then conquered the northwest and the far north, to rule half the island. It began to disintegrate in the 18th century. In the meantime, the Betsimisaraka kingdom emerged in the east in the early 18th century under a mulatto dynasty, the result of French traders and pirates from Sainte-Marie intermarrying with the Malagasy. It soon declined into oblivion (Sharp, 119-128). Near the end of the 18th century the hitherto fragmented Merina kingdoms of the central plateau were unified by King Andruanampoinimerina. He then subjected the Betsilo of the plateau and passed on to his son the goal of ruling the entire island.

            King Radama I welcomed European aid in modernizing and extending the kingdom. He made an agreement with Sir Robert Farquhar, the British governor of Mauritius, to abolish the export of slaves and, in return, received British officers to train his soldiers and an annual subsidy of weapons, munitions, and uniforms. The London Missionary Society introduced Protestant Christian education to the Merina of Tananarive and opened many schools. When Radama I died, the throne was assumed by his wife, Ranavalona I. Suspicious of European innovations and ideas, she declared Christianity illegal and persecuted the Malagasy Christians. Only a few Europeans, notably Jean Laborde, who advised the queen and started several industries, remained on the island (Sharp, 119-128). An Anglo-French attack on Tamatave in 1845 ended in failure. For a time foreign trade practically stopped. The kingdom was also weakened by revolts and wars.

            After Queen Ranavalona I died, her son and successor Radama II, reversed the anti-European policy and signed a concessionary agreement with a French company. However, Radama II was assassinated, and his widow and successor Rasoherina refused to ratify the agreement. Instead, she concluded treaties with the British, French, and U.S. governments. In addition to the London Missionary Society, she also permitted the Jesuits and other European Christians to enter Madagascar. From 1864 onward the effective ruler was Rainilaiarivony, premier and consort of Rasoherina and of her two successors. Rainilaiarivony’s efforts to maintain Malagasy independence were based on playing the British off against the French (Machado, 17-19). In 1882 France, by virtue of treaties made in 1849 had revived its claim to a protectorate over part of the Sakalava kingdom, and disputes over this claim and over French properties in Madagascar led to the French occupation of Tamatave in 1883.

            French colonial policies issued mainly from the principles of divide and rule. In addition to abolishing the Merina monarchy, the new regime encouraged the coastal peoples to free themselves from local Merina administrators. Efforts to raise the coastal economy to the level of that of the plateau were soon abandoned. The administration was centralized, and development was concentrated in Tananarive. The Merina continued to enjoy a relatively higher status than the coastal peoples, but they were subordinated to the French, who monopolized administrations and commerce.

            The imposition of French rule led to increasingly serious nationalist reactions among Merina nobles and among Hovas. French governors were sporadically preoccupied by Merina resistance, which burgeoned during World War I into a secret society of Merina youth, the VVS. In 1916 a plot was discovered and the VVS was suppressed. Merina dissatisfaction continued to express itself in occasional violence between the two world wars. After the fall of France and the entry of Japan in World War II, Madagascar was occupied by the British, who deposed the Vichy regime thee in May 1942 to preclude Japanese use of the island’s naval facilities. French control was restored in 1943 under the Free French government.

            Toward the end of the war, nationalist politics revived under the direction of the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Revival, primarily a party of Merina intellectuals and professional men who capitalized on general dissatisfaction with postwar recovery.  The MDRM swept every election held under the reformed French colonial system. In March 1947 a violent revolt, attributed to MDRM agitation for Malagasy self-government, broke out in several parts of months, at an officially estimated cost of 11,000 lives. The MDRM was dissolved and its leader jailed or exiled. However, the favored party of the colonial administration, the Party of the Underprivileged of Madagascar (PADESM), lacked popular support, and political life declined for almost a decade (Aiken, 23-28).

            After 1956, when a new basic law for the French colonies provided for the creation of substantially autonomous governments elected on a universal adult franchise, politics once more revived. French Catholic, Communist, and Socialist parties supported corresponding political groups in Madagascar. The French Socialists helped found the Social Democratic Party, based on an alliance of coastal people and pro-French plateau leaders.

            The Malagasy Republic became an independent on June 26, 1960. Tsiranana’s government continued to receive French economic, military, and political assistance. The main opposition to the PSD came from the Party of the Malagasy Independence Congress, a coalition of Merina nationalists and European-type radicals. The AKFM expressed a Merina-oriented antipathy to French influence (Aiken, 23-28). Tsiranana’s government, while broadening its base of support and expanding its relations with the Western world, continued to insist on the geopolitical and cultural uniqueness of Madagascar and on the convergence of its views with those of France.

            Dissatisfaction with economic stagnation, continued foreign domination of the economy and the educational system, and the government’s administrative incompetence grew during the last years of Tsiranana’s regime. His unpopular foreign policy, in particular the ties with South Africa, and his repeated and unfounded charges of plots against the government further weakened his position. In April 1971 the poverty-stricken southern province of Tulear burst into bloody revolt. In May 1972, beleaguered by rioting students and workers in the major cities, Tsiranana dissolved his government and placed full executive powers in the hands of General Gabriel Ramanantsoa. A referendum in October 1972 gave Ramanantsoa the power to rule for five years without parliament. Ramanantsoa broke off official relations with Communist countries, and took steps to reduce the country’s dependence on France. In February 1975, Ramanantsoa ceded power to Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava. Six days later, however, Ratsimandrava was assassinated. A military junta afterward named Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka as head of state.

            On December 30 the country’s names was changed from Malagasy Republic to Democratic Republic of Madagascar, and on January 4, 1976, Ratsiraka began a seven-year presidential term. He launched a program of massive government investment in development projects, which required large-scale borrowing from abroad.

B. Government and Politics

            From 1959 until 1972 Madagascar was governed under a constitution, adopted in 1959, that provided for a strong, directly elected president. The president was both head of state and head of the government. There was also an elected bicameral parliament.

            As mentioned earlier, in May 1972, President Philibert Tsiranana dissolved the government, recessed parliament, and gave full power to General Ramanantsoa, who took the titles of prime minister and head of state, ruled by decree. Parliament was replaced by a consultative body, the people’s national council for development.

            Government. A new constitution was approved by referendum on December 1975. Like that of 1959, it provided for a powerful president elected by universal suffrage for a seven year term. However, it provided for a prime minister, appointed by and responsible to the president, to head the government. Legislative power was vested in an elected people’s national assembly. The supreme council of the revolution was retained, with the president as chairman. The referendum also approved Ratsiraka’s accession to the presidency, which took effort on January 4, 1976.

            Madagascar is divided into 6 provinces, which are progressively subdivided into 18 prefectures, 92 subprefectures, and about 11,000 fokontany (traditional village communities). There are elected councils at every level, and each province is supervised by a military officer.

            Heading the judicial system are a supreme court, a court of appeals, and a constitutional high court.

            Political Parties. From 1960 to 1972 the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD) of Presidential Philibert Tsiranana was the ruling party. The leading opposition group was the leftist Party of the Malagasy Independence Congress (AKFM). The PSD lost power after Tsiranana’s fall in 1972. All parties were suspended when the military took power in 1975. In 1977 the surviving parties were grouped into a National Front for the Defense of the revolution (FNDR). The leading component of the FNDR was President Didier Ratsiraka’s leftist Vanguard of the Malagasy Revolution (AREMA). In the presidential election of 1982, Ratsiraka was nominated by AREMA and the other FNDR parties (Aiken, 23-28), except for the radical socialist National Movement for the Independence of Madagascar, which nominated Monja Jaona. Jaona agreed with much of Ratsiraka’s program but called for more nationalistic economic policies. Ratsiraka received 80 percent of the vote, while Jaona received 20 percent.

            Defense. During the Tsiranana regime, Madagascar maintained close military ties with its former colonial ruler, France. There was a major French naval base at Antsiranana and an air base near Antananarivo. Agreements were signed in 1973 providing for the withdrawal of French forces, and the last French military personnel withdrew by 1975.

            In 1982, Madagascar had an army of about 20,000 as well as small naval and air forces. The armed forces were equipped mostly by the Soviet Union and North Korea. There was also a gendarmerie of about 8,000 men (Aiken, 23-28).

            Foreign Policy. Madagascar’s foreign policy was strongly pro-French and anti-Communist under the Tsiranana regime, which frequently charged that Communist plots were undermining the country’s security. At that time, Madagascar received large amounts of aid from France. Tsirana also sought to expand economic relations with South Africa. After coming to power in 1972, the Ramanantsoa government established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist countries and broke all official ties with South Africa. In 1973, Madagascar began to reduce dependence on France by withdrawing from the franc zone and by renegotiating a series of agreements covering diplomatic, military, cultural, and technical relations. French aid was reduced (Cole, 32-36). The succeeding Ratsiraka government emphasized pan-Africanism and supported African nationalist struggles against colonial regimes. Good relations were pursued with the Communist and Arab countries, but relations with France improved about 1980, and French aid was increased.

            Madagascar is a member of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). It was a member of the Afro-Malagasy and Mauritius Common Organization, a grouping of French-oriented African states, nut withdrew in 1973. Madagascar had preferential trade and investment arrangements with the European Economic Community (EEC) as an associate member until 1975 and, after 1976, under the Lome treaties. It also received development aid from the EEC (Cole, 32-36).

III. Conclusion

            In conclusion, in spite of the different turmoil which Madagascar had been through from its invaders and colonizers yet it was able to rise up and surpassed its test through the helped of its own people. The politics in Madagascar is not much different from other countries’ politics. It also underwent some administrational amendments for the betterment of the nation. People are given the chance to express their rights by choosing their leaders through national elections.


Bird, Randall. Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery, and Diplomacy in Madagascar. African Arts, pp. 23-24, Vol. 36, 2003
Bird, Randall. The Merina Landscape in Early Nineteenth Century Highlands Madagascar. African Arts, pp. 16-21, Vol. 38, 2005.
Cole, Jennifer. Rethinking Ancestors and Colonial Power in Madagascar.  Africa, pp. 32-36, Vol. 71, 2001
Machado, Pedro. An Economic History of Imperial Madagascar, 1750-1895: The Rise and Fall of an Island Empire.  The Historian, pp. 17-19, Vol. 69, 2007
Sharp, Lesley A.  The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar. Pp. 119-128, University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. 2002.
Walsh, Andrew. Responsibility, Taboos and ‘The Freedom to Do Otherwise’ in Ankarana, Northern Madagascar. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, pp. 51-56, Vol. 8, 2002
Aiken, Robert. Isle of Fire: The Political Ecology of Landscape Burning in Madagascar. The Geographical Review, pp. 23-28, Vol. 96, 2006


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