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 abolished.
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 independence.
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.
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.
Madagascar maintains an embassy in the United States at 2374 Massachusetts Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-265-5525).
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.
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 flavorings.
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 recovery plans.
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 17,000 workers.
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.
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.
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.