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Madagascar - Introduction

Madagascar is a noun, while Malagasy is an adjective. The Malagasy (French: Malgache) are the people who form the population of the island of Madagascar. The Malagasy Republic was a state established in 1958 as an autonomous republic within the newly created French Community, which existed until the proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Madagascar in 1975.

The island broke off from the African continent about 165 million years ago, and established its own evolutionary future, serendipitously free from human intervention until the arrival of the first settlers about 1700 years ago. As a result, it possesses a flora and fauna that are largely unique to the island, a biodiversity hotspot with pristine habitats that continue to attract adventurous travelers from far and wide. Approximately 40 percent of the bird species found on the island are unique to Madagascar, as are 80 percent of the flowers, 95 percent of the reptiles, 90 percent of the trees and 99 percent of the primates — the famous lemurs.

A true understanding of the character of Madagascar's population and historical development requires an appreciation of the inhabitants' shared characteristics, including language and kinship structure, as well as the central highlands / cotier split and other divisions based on geographical regions.

Madagascar has a history of cyclical coups d'état, some of which toppled sitting governments. Most of the regime changes were peaceful by most standards, but all involved a certain degree of political instability, most notably in 2009. In late 2014, students, teachers, and other social stakeholders held demonstrations against the lack of economic progress under the government and frequent electrical outages, reflecting broader public frustration.

Although the population of Madagascar comprises some 18 ethnic groups who are united by a common Malagasy language, the two larger groups, Merina and côtiers, have a history of conflictual relations. Group members have migrated across the island's regions in search of economic opportunities, but are primarily located in the Central Highlands of Madagascar. The Merina, who reside in the highland plateaus, are the light-skinned descendants of those of Asian-Pacific origin. In contrast, the peoples of the coast are darker-skinned and are of African origins. They are collectively referred to as the côtier and include the Betsimisaraka of the east coast, the Tsimihety of the north and the Antandroy of the south. The Merina follow multiple religious beliefs, but the Protestant church receives its largest support from the Merina population. Unlike the other ethnic groups of Madagascar, the Merina and Betsileo practice a turning of the dead where relatives are taken from the tomb and reburied during a ceremony.

The country gained full independence from colonial rule on June 26, 1960. Philibert Tsiranana headed the conservative regime of the First Republic, superseded in 1975 by a Marxist-oriented military regime under Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka. In the face of rising political dissent and socioeconomic decline that reached its height at the beginning of the 1990s, the Second Republic succumbed to the wave of democratization spreading throughout the African continent. On March 27, 1993, the inauguration of Albert Zafy as the third elected president of Madagascar since independence marked the beginning of the Third Republic.

After the ouster of President Ravalomanana in March 2009, a de facto transition government led by President Andry Rajoelina took power. Since this political crisis, the country found itself in an economic crisis, worsened by the global financial and economic downturn. The international community suspended most aid, on which the country was highly dependent, and international mediation efforts saw limited success.

Since September 2012, violent confrontations between bandits (Dahalo) and security forces increased in the southern region of Anosy. In May 2014, more than 30 Dahalos and police officers were killed and hundreds of houses were destroyed during clashes. In 2015, sporadic violent clashes between government security forces and armed cattle rustlers (“Dahalos”) occurred in the southern portion of the island, resulting in injuries and deaths on both sides. The latest Dahalos’ attack occurred in February 2016 where six persons were killed in the region of Fort Dauphin.

The government increased its security presence throughout these regions and in key towns/villages near where the Dahalos traditionally operate. These incidents occurred mostly in rural areas, but several clashes garnered public and media attention.

Most terrorist acts (the detonation of explosive devices) can be linked directly to political violence. The most concentrated series of improvised / homemade explosive devices was within two weeks in September 2013 when five devices were discovered in a major downtown Antananarivo thoroughfare. Three detonated, including the final one that police allege killed the bomb maker. As a result, the area surrounding l'Avenue de l'Indépendance was placed off-limits for U.S. Embassy personnel from September 6-October 29, 2013. In Anakalkely, in December 2014, seven men (four Chinese nationals, three Malagasy nationals) were arrested when a routine search of their vehicle discovered automatic weapons and grenades; allegedly the weapons were to be used in an attack against an unnamed casino in Antananarivo. The threat of international terrorist organizations remains low.

The centre of Antananarivo remains unstable and potentially volatile. The Ankatso areas, the Avenue de L’ Independence, Ambohijatovo, Analakely, Bohorika, Isoraka, Ampasamandinika, 67ha, Isotry, Analakely as well as military barracks are potential flashpoints. Crime and politically motivated violence is widespread in Madagascar. There are regular armed banditry attacks on vehicles carrying goods and people, including taxis and public transport (specifically “taxi be” and “taxi brousse”).

The electrical power in Antananarivo frequently goes out, sometimes for several hours at a time. The power company has partnered with a Western company to attempt to fix the issue but is unclear if/when stable power will be had in the capital. Power and phone lines may block roads or intersections for days or weeks before being moved or repaired.

Road conditions range from minimally acceptable to terrible. In Antananarivo, the roads are relatively well-maintained except during the rainy season when large potholes are left unattended until the rains subside. Drivers compete with cattle, human-propelled carts, scooters, and “taxi-be” buses, any of which may swerve/stop at a moment’s notice. The roads in most other major cities show signs of wear (potholes, other obstructions). Nighttime driving is hazardous and is prohibited for US Embassy personnel outside of the major cities. Certain roads in Antananarivo have restrictions on tractor trailers during the day, so trucks use the roads at night and do not always follow the traffic rules. Many vehicles do not meet minimal safety standards and lack working lights.

Sanitation is extremely poor throughout the country, including major urban areas. Local food and water sources (including ice) are heavily contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, parasites, and viruses to which most foreigners have little or no natural immunity. Effective disease surveillance does not exist within the country. Only a small fraction of diseases are identified or reported.

Madagascar has a regular plague season. The bubonic plague is deadly, the pneumonic plague deadlier. In 2013 Madagascar was suffering from both. Bubonic plague struck in the northwestern town of Madritsara. Originally 20 were thought to have died from the disease, which results when fleas that feed on infected rodents - often black rats - bite humans, but the number kept rising. More villagers died of pneumonic plague, which, like the bubonic variety, can be caused by the bite of an infected flea, though pneumonic plague can also spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Of the two, bubonic plague is more common though less virulent.

Diarrheal diseases can be expected to temporarily incapacitate a very high percentage of personnel within days if local food, water, or ice is consumed. Hepatitis A and typhoid fever can cause prolonged illness in a smaller percentage. Additionally, viral gastroenteritis (e.g., Norovirus) and food poisoning (e.g., Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, Staphylococcus) may cause significant outbreaks.

The climate and ecological habitat support large populations of arthropod vectors, including mosquitoes, ticks, and sand flies. Significant disease transmission is sustained year-round and countrywide, including urban areas. Serious diseases may not be recognized or reported due to the lack of surveillance and diagnostic capability.

Malaria is the major vector-borne risk in Madagascar, capable of debilitating a high percentage of personnel for up to a week or more. Yellow fever is also capable of causing a significant number of cases. In addition, there are a variety of other vector-borne diseases occurring at low or unknown levels, which as a group may constitute a very serious risk comparable to that of malaria. Personnel exposed to mosquitoes, ticks, sand flies or other biting vectors are at high risk during day or night, in both urban and rural areas.

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Page last modified: 12-10-2016 19:48:41 ZULU