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The yogurt kingpin, the radio DJ coup, and the most interesting island on Earth
Madagascar is a fascinating island home to 30 million people. It's also home to bizarre, volatile politics that virtually nobody knows about. Now, you will.
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I’ve been bitten by a lemur
Here’s a strange fact about me: I once had to get a rabies vaccine after I was bitten by a lemur in Madagascar the day after I had breakfast with the former president—a yogurt kingpin who got overthrown by a 34 year-old radio DJ in a 2009 coup d’etat.
Fourteen years after that coup, the radio DJ—a secret French citizen ineligible to serve in public office—is again the president and the yogurt kingpin is trying to unseat him in elections later this year. Another coup is not out of the question.
Madagascar is the most interesting place you probably know nothing about. When I first rang up my bank to let them know that I’d be traveling to the island for my research, the woman I spoke to asked me if I was sure that it was a real country.
“Madagascar?” she said, puzzled. “I thought that was a children’s cartoon. Are you sure that’s a country?”
More people live in Madagascar (29 million) than live in Australia (26 million). If you ever consume vanilla, odds are it came from Madagascar—it’s responsible for about 90 percent of the world’s supply. And it’s a hub of unique, life-saving biodiversity—roughly nine out of ten animals and plants you see on the island exist nowhere else. It’s a beautiful place, one that would be one of the world’s biggest tourist hotspots and a major basin of investment, if only its political class could stop being so awful.
Instead, Madagascar remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. The average person earns about $50/month and only 35 out of 100 people have access to electricity.
We virtually never hear about this forgotten red-earthed island, perched off the coast of Africa, in its lonely expanse of the Indian Ocean. When it does flit into the news, it’s almost always for one of three reasons (believe me, I’ve had a Google Alert for “Madagascar” for 12 years, so I know):
Stories about the Madagascar cartoon film, musical, and, yes, the show on ice.
Stories about lemurs. (Everyone loves them, and with good reason).
Tragedy stories, about famine, violence, bubonic plague, or cyclones.1
But how about this pop quiz: what’s the capital of Madagascar? (Ten points if you know, without Googling). I'll reveal the answer after you scroll past this photo of me from several years ago with a lemur on my shoulder (not the one who bit me).
The capital city, Antananarivo, often known as Tana, is dusty, hilly, and vibrant. The name means “city of the thousand,” in honor of the thousand soldiers that apparently captured the city in the early 17th century.
Tana’s metro area has a population around three million, and it’s a mix of French colonial buildings with colorful houses, embedded against rising rocky hills overlooking a man-made lake.
Most taxis in the city are a 1950s Citroën Deux Chevaux, a sort of French version of the Volkswagen Beetle, and they strain and groan as they make their way up and down the cobblestone roads of the capital. Traffic jams are frequent, particularly when someone is herding a Zebu, the humped cattle that populate the island. In the lowlands of the city, there are shocks of green from flooded rice fields, with barefoot children playing in the brown water within them.
Memorably, the capital has a Hollywood-style sign spelling out Antananarivo, which you can see in this photo I took eleven years ago on my first visit to the island.
The Killer Tangena Nuts of Queen Ranavalona I
There’s no consensus for when Madagascar was first inhabited by humans (estimates range from speculative evidence from 8,500 BC to ironclad proof in 490 AD), but what is agreed is that the first major migration came from people who lived in the Sunda Islands, which now are split between Brunei, East Timor, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Other waves of migration have come across the Mozambique Channel from mainland Africa. As a result, modern Malagasy people are a mix of Asian and African heritage, though those who live in the highlands have more Asian heritage than those who live on the coasts (also known as the côtiers). The largest ethnicity in the highlands is known as the Merina people, and for 350 years, they ruled the Merina Kingdom.
The most extraordinary monarch from this kingdom was the fearsome queen, Ranavalona I, who ruled from 1828 to 1861. Through bloody wars of conquest, forced labor, and an incredibly bizarre form of lethal justice, she managed to halve the population of the island from 5 million in 1833 to just over 2.5 million in 1839, wiping out 2.5 million people in six years. After conquering territory, she enslaved local inhabitants, bringing a million enslaved people to Antananarivo during her rule.
Throughout that bloody reign, anyone accused of a serious crime—such as stealing, witchcraft, or secretly practicing Christianity—would have to undergo an ordeal to determine their guilt. Ordeals have been around a long time, and medieval Europe was full of trial-by-ordeal, in which people were tossed into water to see if they would sink or float, or forced to plunge their arms into boiling cauldrons, to see if they were burned (only the righteous and innocent would be unscathed).
But in Madagascar, the ordeals took on a deadly local flavor, provided by the poisonous tangena nut. The accused would ingest the poison along with three chicken skins. If they vomited up the chicken skins and survived, they were deemed innocent. If they died from the poison, then they were deemed guilty, their punishment conveniently already administered by the tangena nut. If they survived the poison but failed to vomit up the chicken skins, they were still deemed guilty, then executed.
Jean Laborde, a French adventurer who advised the murderous Queen Ranavalona I and built a palace for her (visible in the photo above), noted that “Tangena is used on the slightest pretext and even without any pretext at all.” By his estimation, virtually all adults were forced to undergo the poisonous ordeal at some point or another, and that he had seen at least one person who had undergone the ordeal twelve times. Estimates suggest that roughly 3,000 people per year were killed by these tangena trials under her reign.
Eventually, the Merina Kingdom ended when the French colonized the island through a series of wars that lasted from 1883 to 1896. Back then, Europeans really did produce images like this, glorifying colonization by conquest:
Democracy-by-Kidnap and The Rise of the Yogurt Kingpin
I’ve been to Madagascar eight times for everything from research to monitoring elections, but on my first visit, I met an extraordinary general-turned-poet named Désiré-Philippe Ramakavelo. He was the commander of Madagascar’s armed forces in the early 1990s, when a political crisis threatened to erupt into mass violence. I paid him a visit at his house, perched just above the Hotel Panorama, and he described to me how Madagascar’s fledgling democracy was born.
When the factions were deadlocked and tensions were rising, the general turned to a novel strategy: he kidnapped the political leaders, locked them in a hotel room at the Hotel Panorama, and told them they could leave when they had agreed on a solution. The ensuing Panorama Agreement, as it later became known, gave birth to the island’s first multi-party elections. The hotel, still in operation today, is ranked 57th out of 92 hotels in Antananarivo on TripAdvisor, but in my book, it’s number 1 for democracy-by-kidnap.
Here’s a photo I took of General Ramakavelo, who is now a poet (he read me some of his poems, which were excellent, insofar as I can discern good poetry, which I can’t).
In the early 2000s, a new political titan rose in Madagascar by the name of Marc Ravalomanana. He grew up poor, selling homemade yogurt off the back of his bicycle. Fast forward a few decades and he had built a dairy empire, becoming one of the island’s richest men. In 2001, Ravalomanana, the yogurt kingpin, was elected president.
During his time in office, Madagascar’s economy boomed, one of the fastest-growing in the world. This was partly due to Ravalomanana’s self-serving efforts to make it easier to distribute his yogurt and dairy products across the island; he invested massively in roads, which helped himself, but also unlocked significant latent economic activity. (Every so often, self-serving abuse of power has spillover benefits, as it did here). At the same time, to consolidate his grip on power, Ravalomanana forced some of his major opponents into exile.
In 2006, when Ravalomanana was up for re-election, one of those exiled opponents—Pierrot Rajaonarivelo—tried to return. In order to be eligible, he would need to register his candidacy in person, as remote registration wasn’t allowed. So, the exiled man got on a plane, and flew back.
President Ravalomanana, ever the shrewd operator, picked up the phone and ordered all the airports closed, forcing his opponent’s plane to divert. This happened four more times, until the deadline passed, and Rajaonarivelo was disqualified for failing to register his candidacy in person. (Letter of the law? Yes. Spirit? Not so much).
Then, in 2009, Ravalomanana screwed up: he tried to lease roughly half of Madagascar’s arable land to the South Korean firm Daewoo, which hoped to grow crops on it. It sparked mass demonstrations, which eventually culminated in protesters storming the presidential palace. Soldiers used live rounds on the protesters, killing at least 50 people. (It’s unclear whether Ravalomanana issued the order for bullets to be used, or if soldiers did so on their own; I’ve met Ravalomanana many times and he hasn’t directly answered that question).2
Who was the political ringleader pushing for mass protests? Andry Rajoelina, a young former radio DJ who had recently been elected Antananarivo’s mayor. A few months after the protests turned deadly, the military deposed President Ravalomanana in a coup and put Rajoelina in charge instead, the yogurt kingpin replaced by the disc jockey.
The Radio DJ President and the Russians
Nearly a decade later, in 2018, there was an electoral showdown between Ravalomanana (the yogurt kingpin) and Rajoelina (the radio DJ). It was a battle between the man who had been deposed in the coup, and the man who had deposed him.
But there was another player who had entered Madagascar’s political stage: Russia.
Russian operatives, who apparently had little knowledge of local politics, clumsily offered literal suitcases full of cash to various candidates. When the BBC started asking questions, a few candidates happily explained that Russians had approached them and offered them bribes to do their bidding. This came shortly after one of Madagascar’s recent presidents met directly with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in a meeting that was also attended by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner group (and this year’s failed mutiny).
Three Russians—who called themselves Andrei, Roman and Vladimir—even bribed Pastor André Mailhol, the leader of a popular apocalyptic cult in Madagascar. Pastor Mailhol excitedly told journalists about all the money they gave him. “Just like that!” he exclaimed. (The open source investigations team at Bellingcat produced a report on Russian operations around the 2018 Madagascar elections, which is worth a read).
In the end, the Russians had wasted their money on the cult leader, because Rajoelina won the election. However, Russia retains significant influence with his administration. In 2022, Madagascar’s foreign minister was fired after the country voted to condemn Russia’s illegal annexations of territory in Ukraine at the United Nations, apparently an instance of one hand not knowing what the other was doing.
Later this year, there will be another election, likely a rematch between the yogurt kingpin and the radio DJ. But this time, there’s a new wrinkle. Leaked documents show that the former radio DJ and now president Rajoelina secretly became a French citizen, probably as an insurance policy in case he’s overthrown and forced into exile.
However, the island’s constitution doesn’t allow dual nationality to be taken voluntarily, which normally would mean that Rajoelina stopped being a citizen of Madagascar when he became a citizen of France. That would yield the rather bizarre circumstance that the president of Madagascar…isn’t a citizen of Madagascar, something that his opponents are sure to use as an attack when the elections get underway in a few months.
And in the coming months, I wouldn’t bet against the possibility of another coup, nor would I be surprised if the Russians are already doling out more suitcases full of cash.
But there is one silver lining: no matter who wins, they’re unlikely to force Madagascar’s 29 million citizens to prove they’re not a witch by eating tangena nuts.
You’ve made it this far, so here are some photos I’ve taken of lemurs while in Madagascar. The first one is the one who bit me, chewing happily on my camera cord, moments before he decided I looked tastier.
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Fun trivia question: what’s the difference between a hurricane, a typhoon, and a cyclone? The answer: there is none. It just refers to where they happen. Hurricanes in the Atlantic ocean; typhoons in the Pacific ocean; cyclones in the Indian ocean. Less fun fact: Madagascar is one of the few places on Earth where bubonic plague—the Black Death—still routinely kills people, often in squalid prisons.
One time, his chief of staff texted me and said “President Ravalomanana will be in Paris tomorrow. You will be in Paris tomorrow.” The yogurt kingpin wanted to talk. So, I went).