JOHANNESBURG // No one knows exactly how many people have been killed in Madagascar over the past fortnight. Scores died when protests against the government turned into riots, and last weekend at least 28 demonstrators marching on the presidential palace were shot dead. Ecologically, the Indian Ocean island is like nowhere else on Earth: separated from other continents for tens of millions of years, 90 per cent of its plants are found nowhere else and it is home to an extraordinary range of unique animal species.
Politically, though, it has much in common with mainland Africa. Madagascar has seen more military coups and non-constitutional changes of power than democratic elections since it won independence from France in 1960, and appears set for yet another period of extended turmoil. The protesters are led by Andry Rajoelina, 34, a wealthy businessman with interests in media, advertising and event management, and the mayor of the highland capital, Antananarivo, until he was stripped of his position there by the government last week.
He is constitutionally too young to become president, but his motormouth style - a former radio disc jockey, he is nicknamed TGV, after France's high-speed trains - has seen him capitalise on discontent with the authorities to bring tens of thousands of people on to the streets. The incumbent leader, Marc Ravalomanana, came to power by a similar route. A self-made multimillionaire, he started out selling yogurt from the back of a bicycle and built up a dairy and food conglomerate, Tiko, that has become one of the country's biggest companies.
As the then mayor of Antananarivo himself, he stood for president against the head of state at the time, Adm Didier Ratsiraka, a former military dictator, in polls in Dec 2001, with his organisation TIM, or I Love Madagascar, described by the Australian psephologist Adam Carr as "a populist party with no definable ideology". Most observers believe Mr Ravalomanana won that election, but the result was disputed by Adm Ratsiraka whose supporters blockaded the capital, leading to six months of unrest and the formation of two rival governments. Adm Ratsiraka ultimately fled to exile in France, where he remains.
Mr Ravalomanana, 59, brought hopes of reform and progress, but, although growth has averaged five per cent a year and tourism and foreign investment, particularly in natural resources, has boomed, analysts say ordinary people - the vast majority of whom still live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) a day - have seen few benefits as a result. Instead they have been confined to a small elite, and the president is reaping the reward of dashed expectations. Many demonstrators have targeted companies linked to Mr Ravalomanana.
"The ordinary protesters are fed up with and disappointed with the promises of Ravalomanana," said David Zounmenou, of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria. "Since he came to power he has transformed Madagascar into his business entity to the extent that people will call Madagascar Tikoland - it belongs to him. "The perception that has become very prominent is that you can co-opt the state to defend your business interests - there has not been a clear gap between private business interests and political interests in Madagascar."
Rising food prices and reports of a vast land deal, leasing half the country's arable terrain to a Korean firm, Daewoo Logistics, have done nothing to dissipate that impression. But at the same time, Mr Zounmenou warned that a Rajoelina administration was unlikely to bring change either, and the dispute was largely a contest between two rival political and business elites, with the ordinary Malagasy caught in the middle.
Both men are from the Merina ethnic group, he said, and while Mr Rajoelina is a Catholic and Mr Ravalomanana a Protestant and the vice president of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, the unrest is not religiously driven. "Rajoelina is not much different from Ravalomanana," he said. "None of them is capable of responding to the needs of the people. "Those supporting the young mayor, they may be disappointed after a few months. The people are caught in the crossfire and have to bear the brunt of this conflict."
Looming over it all is the spectre of Adm Ratsiraka, who ran a despotic one-party state for more than 15 years from 1975. His nephew Roland, a former mayor of the coastal city of Toamasina, his uncle's old power base, has been blamed for the violence by the president, who has demanded his arrest. The army, which has supposedly agreed to stay out of politics, is said to be divided, with many officers still loyal to the "ancien régime" despite Mr Ravalomanana's attempts to build up a patronage network in the military since he came to power.
"There are a lot of folks wondering who is behind the mayor," said Doug Tilton, the southern Africa liaison for the Presbyterian Church of the United States who has just returned from a two-week trip to Madagascar. "Some people feel he is being manipulated by the old guard. He's riding a tiger." The protests were not going to die down, he said. "Madagascar has not had a very good record in peaceful transitions of power.
"I worry about the precedent that's set by people figuring the only way they can change leadership is by this kind of mass action." email@example.com