Here’s how Madagascar’s leaders could end their country’s long history of civil conflict

Madagascar‘s citizens face poverty, unemployment, inadequate health care, food insecurity, scanty economic resources, banditry, and power and water outages that have led to riots.

The country’s governments have not responded effectively. Corrupt politicians sometimes plunder the island’s natural resources and take possession of the lands of the poor rather than improving the population’s condition. It is no surprise that Madagascar has endured nine episodes of civil conflict since 1947.

But conditions do not have to be this way, my research finds. Leaders could use what political scientists call “accommodation policies” to improve conditions and prevent conflict. Let me explain.

What kind of conflicts has Madagascar faced?

Since 1947, when an uprising against French colonial rule pitted two ethnic communities — the Merina and Côtiers — against each other, Madagascar has endured internal conflicts once every 10 to 20 years. Those violent disputes have been about dire economic conditions, state corruption, ethnic discrimination, lack of access to basic services such as education and demands for democracy. Most recently, in 2009, a military coup overthrew a government accused of corruption while leaving the population in poverty. People died in pillaging, riots, criminal arsons and shooting.

What kinds of solutions have been implemented?

Madagascar’s political establishment has tried various solutions to these episodes of conflict. In some cases, the government negotiated directly with local protesters, responding to their demands. For instance, in 1972, the government eliminated much-hated poll and cattle taxes, and recorded and broadcast locals’ complaints, enabling rural peasants to feel that their voices mattered. Further, in 1972, politicians from the opposition trained protesters in basic rights such as obtaining jobs — a path that led to employment and even government positions. In 1975, the government nationalized previously French-owned firms to reduce French influence in the country.

And in 1991, the government and the opposition signed the Convention de Panorama, which many believe to be the best Malagasy peace deal. The Christian churches, which had been in opposition to the government, gathered ideas from all regions to help draft a new constitution. A Committee for Social and Economic Recovery was set up, involving 130 members representing social, cultural, economic and professional groups, to make recommendations on social and economic policies. These were all carried out.

At other times, the state used heavy-handed military interventions to end the conflict. For instance, after an uprising in 1971, it sent the gendarmerie to crush the “rebellion,” killing more than a thousand people — and creating popular resentment.

In 2002, the government tried a different approach, accepting international help to impose peace agreements. The Organization of African Unity and the United Nations helped negotiate the Dakar I and II peace agreements. Dakar I proposed a referendum and a government of national unity. Dakar II suggested a legislative election. Despite these, fighting continued.

Similarly, in 2009, outside forces that included France, the United States and Senegal organized lengthy negotiations that produced nine documents, which included peace agreements, a political agreement, charters of transition and values, and a road map for ending the crisis. Particularly controversial in these agreements were amnesties for political detainees and exiles.

Only a few of these tried to ameliorate ordinary citizens’ socioeconomic problems. Some of these deals were not even implemented because signatories would not respect their clauses. These negotiations had been concluded among factions of the political elites focused on political fights, leaving Madagascar in socioeconomic crisis.

What worked and what didn’t? Here’s how I did my research

To understand what policies most effectively prevented a relapse into conflict, I analyzed a variety of sources. Those included local and international news sources between 1960 and 2016; discussions from online and social media forums of Malagasy people, living in Madagascar and residing, abroad between 2009 and 2016; as well as government and international reports and policy documents. I followed up by conducting Skype and in-depth in-person interviews with 44 people in Madagascar, Paris and Geneva between 2014 and 2016.

Not every one of these policies helped prevent further conflict. Some broke down quickly into more conflict. Solutions were more likely to succeed when they met five criteria.

First, they must be solutions arrived at within Madagascar, not imposed by outsiders. In 1971, 1972 and 1991, the approach responded to the demands and needs of the protesting population. But when outsiders imposed the Dakar agreements in 2002, they were never implemented, and signatories failed to abide by them.

Second, Malagasy elites had to negotiate the policies collaboratively. The Convention de Panorama came from a collaboration between the then-president and his opponents, allowing for a smooth transfer of power and the creation of democratic institutions. Again, this didn’t happen with the Dakar agreements; some members of the opposition delegation told me they had no choice but to conclude an agreement.

Third, these solutions must become regular policies of the state, as happened in 2001. Implementing regular policies allows time for them to address the root problems.

Fourth, the policies must be implemented in a timely manner with the support of ordinary people. That happened in 1991, when the ideas collected for the constitution were taken into consideration when it was written, and in 1972, when solutions to the peasants’ demands were quickly put in place.

Fifth, the policies must enable small successes to build on one another. Between 1972 and 1975, regular policies addressed a variety of problems, with some succeeding and others failing — but collectively, changing the conditions of ordinary citizens steadily over time.

Getting fighters to lay down their arms is not enough. If policymakers want to prevent conflicts from recurring, they would do well to consider how they can address socioeconomic challenges, work collaboratively, in a timely manner, and address problems on multiple fronts.

Velomahanina Tahinjanahary Razakamaharavo is a scientific collaborator at Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium. The opinions in this post are solely the author’s.

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