BACKGROUND NOTES: MADAGASCAR
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Official Name: Republic of Madagascar
Area: 592,800 sq. km. (228,880 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Antananarivo (pop. about 850,000). Other cities--
Antsirabe (about 120,000), Mahajanga (about 150,000), Toamasina (about
Terrain: Mountainous central plateau, coastal plain.
Climate: Moderate interior, tropical coasts.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Malagasy.
Population (1993 est.): 12 million.
Annual growth rate (1993 est.): 3.2%.
Ethnic groups: 18 Malagasy tribes; small groups of Comorians, French,
Indians, and Chinese.
Religions: Traditional beliefs 55%, Christian 40%, Muslim 5%.
Languages: Malagasy (official), French.
Education: Years compulsory--5. Attendance--83%. Literacy--53%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--120/1,000. Life expectancy--51 yrs.
Work force (1992): 5.8 million. Agriculture--88%. Industry--7%.
Independence: June 26, 1960.
Constitution: Entered into force on September 21, 1992.
Branches: Executive--president, prime minister, cabinet. Legislative--
National Assembly and Senate. Judicial--Supreme Court, High Court of
Justice, Constitutional High Court.
Subdivisions: Six provinces (faritany).
Political parties: Several dozen, including Active Forces Cartel,
Militants for the Development of Madagascar, People United Party,
National Union for Development and Democracy, Social Democrat Party,
Study and Action Group for Development in Madagascar, Rally for Social
Democracy, Liberal Economic and Democratic Action Party, Independence
and Renewal Party of Madagascar, The Equal Regional Development Party.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National holiday: June 26.
Flag: Vertical white band on staff side; horizontal red and green
GDP (1993 est.): $1 billion at current prices; $2 billion at constant
Per capita GDP (1993 est.): $135.
Natural resources: Graphite, chrome, coal, bauxite, ilmenite, tar
sands, semiprecious stones, hard wood.
Agriculture (29% of GDP): Products--rice, livestock, seafood, coffee,
vanilla, sugar, cloves, cotton, sisal, peanuts, tobacco.
Industry (14% of GDP): Types--processed food, clothing, textiles,
mining, paper, refined petroleum products, glassware, construction,
soap, cement, tanning.
Trade: Exports (1992)--$328 million: vanilla, sugar, cloves, shrimp,
chromite, graphite. Major export markets--France, U.S., Germany, Japan,
Singapore, Italy. Imports (1992)--$547 million: consumer goods,
foodstuffs, crude oil, machinery and vehicles, iron and steel. Major
suppliers--France, Iran, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong..
Exchange rate (April 1994): 1,900 FMG=US$1. (###)
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Madagascar's population is predominantly of mixed Asian and African
origin. Recent research suggests that the island was uninhabited until
Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century A.D.,
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 this original mixture, and 18 separate
tribal groups emerged. Asian features are most predominant in the
central highlands people, the Merina (2 million) and the Betsileo (1
million); the coastal people are of African origin. The largest coastal
groups are the Betsimisaraka (1 million) and the Tsimihety and Sakalava
The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally
spoken throughout the island. French also is spoken among the
educated of this former French colony.
Most people practice traditional religions, which tend to emphasize
links between the living and the dead. They believe that the dead join
their ancestors in the ranks of divinity and that ancestors are
intensely concerned with the fate of their living descendants. This
spiritual communion is celebrated by the Merina and Betsileo reburial
practice of famadihana, or "turning over the dead." In this ritual,
relatives' remains are exhumed, rewrapped in new silk shrouds, and
reburied following festive ceremonies in their honor.
About 40% of the Malagasy are Christian, divided almost evenly between
Roman Catholic and Protestant. Many incorporate the cult of the dead
with their religious beliefs and bless their dead at church before
proceeding with the traditional burial rites. They also may invite a
pastor to attend a famadihana.
An historical rivalry exists between the predominantly Catholic coastal
people (cotiers), considered to be underprivileged, and the
predominantly Protestant Merina, who tend to prevail in the civil
service, business, and professions. A new policy of decentralizing
resources and authority is intended to enhance the development potential
of all Madagascar's provinces.
The written history of Madagascar began in the seventh century A.D.,
when Arabs established trading posts along the northwest coast.
European contact began in the 1500s, when Portuguese sea captain Diego
Dias sighted the island after his ship became separated from a fleet
bound for India. In the late 17th century, the French established
trading posts along the east coast. From about 1774 to 1824, it was a
favorite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought
Malagasy rice to South Carolina.
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony
over the major part of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the
Merina ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty
abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's
economy. In return, the island received British military and financial
assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades,
during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism,
Congregationalism, and Anglicanism.
The British accepted the imposition of a French protectorate over
Madagascar in 1885 in return for eventual control over Zanzibar (now
part of Tanzania) and as part of an overall definition of spheres of
influence in the area. Absolute French control over Madagascar was
established by military force in 1895-96, and the Merina monarchy was
Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria during World War I.
After France fell to the Germans in 1942, Madagascar was administered
first by the Vichy Government and then by the British, whose troops
occupied the strategic island to preclude its seizure by the Japanese.
The Free French received the island from the United Kingdom in 1943.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, a nationalist uprising was
suppressed only after several months of bitter fighting. The French
subsequently established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi
Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully toward
The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an
autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional
government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full
independence on June 26, 1960.
In August 1992, Malagasy voters overwhelmingly approved a new,
democratic constitution to replace the socialist-oriented 1975 charter.
According to the new constitution, the principal institutions of the
Republic of Madagascar are a presidency, a parliament (National Assembly
and Senate), a prime ministry and government, and an independent
judiciary. The president is elected by direct universal suffrage for a
five-year term, renewable only once, and is primarily responsible for
Madagascar's defense and foreign policy.
The National Assembly consists of 138 representatives elected by direct
vote every four years. The selection of the Senate must await the
formation of local governments, since two-thirds of the Senate will be
elected by local legislatures and one-third appointed by the president,
all for four-year terms. Day-to-day management of government is carried
out by a prime minister and a council of ministers. A prime minister is
elected every four years by a new National Assembly.
In reaction to the concentration of power in the hands of the president
during the previous regime, the new constitution contains a number of
checks and balances. The prime minister, not the president, initiates
and executes legislation. The government and the president, provided
they act in concert, can dissolve the National Assembly. For its part,
the National Assembly can pass a motion of censure and require the prime
minister and council of ministers to step down. The Constitutional
Court approves the constitutionality of new laws.
Territorial administration is to be determined by legislation. In an
effort to decentralize administration, the current structure of six
regions (faritany) are likely to be broken up into more numerous
districts, each with increased autonomy. The constitution only provides
for the perpetuation of rural village and clan-level entities known as
fokonolona, which are accorded the right to protect their traditional
fields, pasture lands, and sacred sites.
Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister, Minister of Defense--Francisque Ravony
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Jacques Sylla
Ambassador to the U.S--Pierrot Jocelyn Rajaonarivelo
Ambassador to the UN--Blaise Rabetafika
Madagascar maintains an embassy in the United States at 2374
Massachusetts Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20008
Madagascar's first President, Philibert Tsiranana, was elected when his
Social Democratic Party gained power at independence in 1960 and was
reelected without opposition in March 1972. However, he resigned only
two months later in response to massive anti-government demonstrations.
The unrest continued, and Tsiranana's successor, General Gabriel
Ramanantsoa, resigned on February 5, 1975, handing over executive power
to Lt. Col. Richard Ratsimandrava, who was assassinated six days later.
A provisional military directorate then ruled until a new government was
formed in June 1975, under Admiral Didier Ratsiraka.
During the 16 subsequent years of President Ratsiraka's rule, Madagascar
continued under a government committed to revolutionary socialism based
on the 1975 constitution establishing a highly centralized state.
National elections in 1982 and 1989 returned Ratsiraka for a second and
third seven-year presidential term. For much of this period, only
limited and restrained political opposition was tolerated, with no
direct criticism of the president permitted in the press.
With an easing of restrictions on political expression, beginning in the
late 1980s, the Ratsiraka regime came under increasing pressure for
fundamental change. In response to a deteriorating economy, Ratsiraka
had begun relaxing socialist dogma to institute some liberal, private-
sector reforms. But these and other political reforms--like the
elimination of press censorship in 1989 and the formation of more
political parties in 1990--were insufficient to placate a growing
opposition force known as Hery Velona or "active forces," centered in
the capital city and the surrounding high plateau.
In response to largely peaceful mass demonstrations and crippling
general strikes, Ratsiraka replaced his prime minister in August 1991
but suffered an irreparable setback soon thereafter when his troops
fired on peaceful demonstrators marching on his suburban palace, killing
more than 30.
In an increasingly weakened position, Ratsiraka acceded to negotiations
on the formation of a transitional government. The resulting "Panorama
Convention" of October 31, 1991, stripped Ratsiraka of nearly all of his
powers, created interim institutions, and set an 18-month timetable for
completing a transition to a new form of constitutional government. The
High Constitutional Court was retained as the ultimate judicial arbiter
of the process.
In March 1992, a new constitution was drafted by a widely representative
National Forum organized by the Malagasy Christian Council of Churches.
Troops guarding the proceedings killed several pro-Ratsiraka
"federalists" who tried to disrupt the forum in protest of draft
constitutional provisions preventing the incumbent president from
running again. The text of the new constitution was put to a nationwide
referendum in August 1992 and approved by a wide margin, despite efforts
by federalists to disrupt balloting in several coastal areas.
Presidential elections were held on November 25, 1992, after the High
Constitutional Court had ruled, over active forces objections, that
Ratsiraka could become a candidate. A runoff election was held in
February 1993, and active forces leader Albert Zafy defeated Ratsiraka.
He was sworn in as President on March 27, 1993.
A nationwide legislative election was held in June 1993 to elect a new
National Assembly, which, under the new constitution, exercises
legislative initiative along with the prime minister, whom it elects.
On the legislative agenda of the new National Assembly is the
redefinition of Madagascar's territorial divisions and the increased
devolution of administrative decision making to them.
The proportional representation system for the election of legislators
contributed to a significant increase in the number of political parties
and special-interest groups. These and a free press promote open and
lively discussion of political issues in Madagascar.
Agriculture dominates the Malagasy economy, accounting for about 43% of
GDP and 80% of exports. Recent estimates are that 88% of the work force
is engaged in the agricultural sector. An estimated 65% of the
population lives at subsistence level.
Historically, Madagascar's principal export crops have been coffee,
vanilla, and cloves. Coffee, which as recently as 1989, was
Madagascar's largest earner of foreign exchange, is now a distant
second, as both prices and exports have dropped sharply.
Total coffee production has not increased appreciably since the late
1980s. Vanilla exports are the largest source of export earnings, but
in recent years this industry has come under intense pressure from
foreign competition as well as by increasing use of artificial
Clove exports have been highly cyclical in the past; however, prices
have changed little in the last six years. Despite price stability, in
1992, exports fell nearly 35% in volume from the previous year.
Price stabilization funds for coffee and cloves were abolished in the
late 1980s, but the export price of vanilla remains subject to
government control. The recent sharp decline in export receipts from
these three cash crops has contributed to a severe shortage of foreign
exchange in Madagascar, limiting the import of industrial inputs,
capital equipment, and spare parts essential to national economic
The principal food crop in Madagascar is rice. In recent years, one of
the main policy objectives in the agriculture sector has been to expand
rice production to meet food self-sufficiency targets. During the
1980s, controls on the transport, production, and sale of rice were
removed. Although rice imports have not been eliminated, they have
declined appreciably from levels reached during the early 1980s.
Other industries showing promise for foreign exchange and employment are
tourism, clothing manufacture, fishing, commercial agriculture, and
mining. Because of its unique and diverse flora and fauna, Madagascar
has the potential of becoming a center of world eco-tourism. The future
development of this activity will depend, however, on extensive
improvements in the transportation and communication infrastructure in
Madagascar. It will also depend on efforts to control deforestation by
the population of as much as 80% of existing forests.
Manufacturing accounts for about 14% of the nation's gross domestic
product. Low labor costs have encouraged clothing manufacturers to move
some operations from Mauritius to Madagascar. A program of duty-free-
zones has also attracted some clothing manufacturers. The clothing
sector promises to become increasingly important relative to the
previous industrial sectors--food processing (currently 50% of
industrial activity) and textiles (about 25%). The duty-free program
provides for tax benefits and duty-free import of manufacturing inputs
for export-oriented industries. By early 1993, about 70 companies
established under the provisions of this law were employing more than
Madagascar's coastal waters, rich in fish and shrimp, have also become
an important source of foreign exchange. In 1991, shrimp export
receipts overtook those from export of both coffee and cloves for the
first time. In the mineral sector, Madagascar has substantial deposits
of mica, graphite, and chromite, but exports of these minerals remain
comparatively small (less than 10%). It is also a leading producer of
semiprecious stones. Large ilmenite deposits in the south may become
important sources of titanium dioxide, used for paint pigment.
Petroleum exploration continues in Madagascar, but commercially
significant quantities of oil have not yet been found.
In the foreign trade sector, Madagascar consistently has run a large
trade deficit since the mid-1980s. Severely depressed coffee export
receipts and the failure to diversify into new export products have
exacerbated the trade imbalance. Energy imports (one-sixth of total
imports) are a major drain on foreign exchange resources. Until 1988,
the former Soviet Union was Madagascar's principal supplier of crude
oil. Supplies are now obtained from Middle Eastern sources and Iran.
France remains Madagascar's principal trading partner. The U.S. is an
important vanilla market, and Indonesia has been the largest customer
for cloves, although its imports recently have decreased as Indonesia's
domestic production has increased.
Madagascar historically has remained outside the mainstream of African
affairs, although it is an active member of the Organization of African
Unity and the Non-Aligned Movement.
In contrast to former President Ratsiraka's "all points" policy
stressing ties with socialist and radical regimes, including North
Korea, Cuba, Libya, and Iran, President Albert Zafy has expressed his
desire for diplomatic relations with all countries. Early in his
tenure, he established formal ties with South Korea and sent emissaries
to Morocco. Active relationships have been maintained with Europe,
especially France, Germany, and Switzerland, as well as with Russia,
Japan, India, and China.
Relations with the United States date to the early 1800s. The two
countries concluded a commercial convention in 1867 and a treaty of
peace, friendship, and commerce in 1881.
These traditionally warm relations suffered considerably during the
1970s, when Madagascar expelled the U.S. ambassador, closed a NASA
tracking station, and nationalized two U.S. oil companies. In 1980,
relations at the ambassadorial level were restored. Throughout the
troubled period, commercial and cultural relations remained active.
In 1990, Madagascar was designated as a priority aid recipient, and
assistance increased from $15 million in 1989 to $40 million in 1993.
Recent U.S. assistance has contributed to a population census and family
planning programs, conservation of Madagascar's remarkable biodiversity,
private sector development, agriculture, democracy and governance
initiatives, and media training.
U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Dennis P. Barrett
Deputy Chief of Mission--Peter R. Reams
USAID Director--George Carner
Defense Attache--Lt. Cdr. John Logan
Public Affairs Officer--Lawrence Wohlers
Consular Officer--Robert Kragie
Political Officer--Christopher Davis
Economic Officer--James Freund
Administrative Officer--Garace Reynard
Peace Corps Director--Robert Friedman
The U.S. embassy in Madagascar is at 14 Rue Rainitovo, Antsahavola,
Antananarivo (tel. 212-57, 209-56; telex 222-02). The postal address is
Ambassade Americaine, B.P. 620, Antananarivo, Madagascar. (###)
Customs: A valid passport and entry visa are required. Tourists and
official travelers should obtain visas before arrival; airport visas can
be obtained for official travelers, but problems have been encountered.
Travelers should be scrupulous in reporting currency; undeclared
currency may be confiscated. Also required is a certificate of
immunization against cholera and, if coming from an infected area,
yellow fever. Health requirements change; check latest information.
Unauthorized export of protected plant and animal species is severely
Health: Avoid raw fruits and vegetables; eat only thoroughly cooked
meats. Dairy products generally are not pasteurized and should be
avoided. Tapwater is not potable--drink bottled beverages without ice.
Do not swim in fresh or salt waters without competent local advice;
fresh water is at risk for bilharzia, and coastal waters have sharks.
Antimalaria medication is advisable in the capital and indispensable in
the coastal areas. The climate in the highland interior tends to
provoke colds and bronchitis.
Telecommunications: Long-distance telephone and telegraph service is
available but expensive and frequently unreliable. Antananarivo is
eight time zones ahead of eastern standard time.
Transportation: International flights are often fully booked; travel
arrangements should be confirmed well in advance. Domestic air
connections are good. Some parts of the country can be covered by
train, bus, rural taxi, or hired car, but the road network has
deteriorated considerably, and many areas are inaccessible except by
four-wheel-drive vehicles. (###)
Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public
Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC April 1994
-- Managing Editor: Peter A. Knecht
Department of State Publication 8015 -- Background Notes Series Contents
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