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Atlas Madagascar

Country (long form)
Republic of Madagascar
Total Area
226,657.41 sq mi
587,040.00 sq km
15,506,472 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
French (official), Malagasy (official)
80.0% total, 88.0% male, 73% female (1990 est.)
indigenous beliefs 52%, Christian 41%, Muslim 7%
Life Expectancy
52.71 male, 57.26 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
1 Malagasy franc (FMG) = 100 centimes
GDP (per capita)
$780 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
meat processing, soap, breweries, tanneries, sugar, textiles, glassware, cement, automobile assembly plant, paper, petroleum, tourism
coffee, vanilla, sugarcane, cloves, cocoa, rice, cassava (tapioca), beans, bananas, peanuts; livestock products
Arable Land
coffee 45%, vanilla 20%, cloves, shellfish, sugar, petroleum products (1995 est.)
intermediate manufactures 30%, capital goods 28%, petroleum 15%, consumer goods 14%, food 13% (1995 est.)
Natural Resources
graphite, chromite, coal, bauxite, salt, quartz, tar sands, semiprecious stones, mica, fish, hydropower
Current Environmental Issues
soil erosion results from deforestation and overgrazing; desertification; surface water contaminated with raw sewage and other organic wastes; several species of flora and fauna unique to the island are endangered
Telephones (main lines in use)
33,000 (1995)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
0 (1995)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
3 (1999)

The Malagasy people are a mixture of Asians and Africans, and have been on Madagascar for 1500 to 2000 years, although stone artefacts indicate an older culture possibly existed there. Most of the immigrants were Malay-Polynesians, who crossed the Indian Ocean from Indonesia and South-East Asia, but people came from eastern Africa as well. African slaves, Arab, Indian and Portuguese traders, European pirates and French colonists all mixed with the population to eventually create the 18 official 'tribes' or clans inhabiting the island today. The first Malagasy brought the food crops that they'd grown in South-East Asia with them, and the agricultural regions with their endless rice paddies today look as if they belong in Asia rather than Africa.

Marco Polo reported Madagascar's existence in the narrative of his travels, and it was also known to Arab cartographers. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive, in a fleet under the command of Diego Dias in 1500. In the centuries that followed, the Portuguese, Dutch and British all failed to establish permanent bases on the island, but from the 17th century, bands of outlaws succeeded where their governments had failed. Pirates contributed booty, buried treasure, and genes to the island's population, especially around Île Sainte Marie. At one stage when they were just saying no to piracy in the Caribbean, more than 1000 English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, American and other pirates were based on Madagascar's east coast. They used it as a convenient base to attack shipping rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

Increasing trade in arms and slaves with Europeans brought about the rise of Malagasy kingdoms, and small, rival states eventually emerged. By the late 18th century, the Merina clan had begun to dominate. The British signed a treaty in 1820 recognising Madagascar as an independent state under Merina rule, and British influence remained strong well into the 20th century. But by 1883, the British had gone cold and France had become the recognised and sole European power in Madagascar (in exchange for French recognition of British sovereignty in Zanzibar).

The French invaded from the west coast in 1895, surprising Merina defences and setting up a colonial administration with General Joseph Galliéni as the first governor general. He sent Queen Ranavalona III into exile in Algeria in 1897, effectively abolishing the monarchy. He attempted to suppress all British influence and crush the Malagasy language, declaring French the official language. Although the French abolished slavery in name on the island, in practice they introduced such a repressive tax regime that anyone who couldn't pay went into forced labour. Land was expropriated by foreign settlers and companies, and an import and export economy developed based on coffee plantations.

During WWII the French administration turned coats over to the Vichy French quislings, so Britain invaded, ostensibly to prevent Japan from using Madagascar as an Indian Ocean base. The British handed it back to de Gaulle's free French in 1943. Post-war, Madagascar underwent a nationalist backlash; many Malagasy had been trained to French standards and schooled on notions of liberté, égalité and fraternité, and were no longer willing to be second class citizens in their own country. The 1947 revolt was crushed at the cost of many thousands of Malagasy lives (possibly as many as 80,000), but the rot had set in.

Several indigenous political parties were born in the 1950s, and when de Gaulle returned to power in France in 1958, the Malagasy voted to become an autonomous republic within the French community of overseas nations. Madagascar underwent a peaceful transition to independence in 1960, although the colons, as the French settlers were called, still pulled the strings. Philibert Tsiranana, the first president, gradually became more oppressive, and although he was a Merina (and they generally leaned toward the Soviet camp), he refused to establish a dialogue with any communist nations. He ferociously repressed a revolt in the country's south in 1972, which was the beginning of his undoing. He resigned soon after and handed power to his army commander, General Gabriel Ramantsoa.

The economy began a slow nose dive almost as soon as Madagascar gained independence. When it withdrew from the Communauté Financier Africaine (CFA), the nosedive gathered pace as the French farming community departed wholesale, taking capital, skills and technology with them. A quick shuffle of army general presidents - one of whom was assassinated after only a week in office - couldn't stem the haemorrhaging economy. A new group of officers led by Admiral Didier Ratsiraka had a shot at the top job, nationalising banks and other major businesses without compensation. The remaining French packed up their money and skills and went home.

By the late 1970s Madagascar had severed all ties with France and the government was seriously courting communist nations; Ratsiraka even produced his own 'red book' of government policies and theories. A mounting debt crisis in 1981-82 prodded the government to slow its reforms, and to trot out the standard austerity measures the IMF demanded as terms of a loan. The economy improved marginally with the IMF's programs, but quickly slumped again. Ratsiraka won the election in March 1989 under dubious circumstances, which led to riots. More came in 1991 when peaceful demonstrators were killed by North Korean-trained presidential guards in front of Ratsiraka's opulent new palace (built with North Korean aid). The early 90s was plagued by civil unrest. After a four year rule by Professor Albert Zafy that failed to unite the country or overcome years of bureaucratic misrule, Ratsiraka was voted back into power in 1996, to almost universal surprise. That less than 50% of the 6.5 million registered voters bothered to cast a ballot indicates that the Malagasy had little enthusiasm for any of the candidates.

Since his 1996 reelection, Ratsiraka helped put together a deal with the IMF and World Bank that led to the privatisation of several important economic sectors, resulting in both a greater expansion of the economy and higher inflation. Growing opposition to Ratsiraka led to the popularity of Marc Ravalomanana, the mayor of Antananarivo. Presidential elections in December 2001 were inconclusive, with both Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana claiming victory.

Ravalomanana declared himself president in February 2002 and set up shop in the capital of Antananarivo, while Ratsiraka and his forces moved to the port city of Tamatave. Ratsiraka fled to Paris several months later although forces loyal to him still operate, sometimes preventing supplies from reaching the capital. Ravalomanana soundly defeated the fragmented opposition in elections in December 2002, thus securing the legitimacy he claimed at the outset of the trouble. The new president set about reforming the countryís ruined economy, and announced salary increases for politicians in an effort to stamp out corruption. He generally made the right noises to the World Bank which, along with France and the US, pledged a total of US$2.3 billion in aid. They, like millions of Malagasies, are hoping that Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire, can help to finally fulfil Madagascarís huge economic potential.