REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, was a rich city. Towering above is the Queen's palace, once the jewel in the Malagasy crown. Now all that's left is the stone exterior. The rest of it burnt down in mysterious circumstances more than a decade ago.
In the last six months, Madagascar has again become the site of drama and intrigue as two presidents, the old and the new, play out a lengthy and violent struggle to win power. The turning point came in December last year, when the young mayor of Antananarivo, Marc Ravalomanana, challenged the former Marxist military boss, Didier Ratsiraka, for the presidency. Few predicted the resulting chaos. Ravalomanana claims he won the election, Ratsiraka says he didn't.
Madagascar now has two presidents, two governments, and most ominously, two armies. Ravalomanana controls Antananarivo, but Ratsiraka controls most of the countryside and has laid siege to the capital. Since the siege of Antananarivo began, everyone has been affected. Even the city's transvestite prostitutes, who've been hitting the streets earlier than usual in their search for clients.
TRANSVESTITE #1, (Translation): Since the blockades have been put up everywhere around the capital we get less and less money. Before, people used to come to this area, but now our clients are afraid to go out.
As soon as it's dark, Angela, Senegalese and Stephany make their way to their favourite cruising spot, right outside the presidential palace. They are strong supporters of the man now sleeping inside.
TRANSVESTITE #2, (Translation): We think the new president will find a good way to get us out of this mess, but there are some people who just want to stop him from improving the situation.
Inside the palace, Marc Ravalomanana sits in the President's chair. Ravalomanana was a successful entrepreneur, a yoghurt tycoon, before he became mayor of Antananarivo, or Tana as it's known here. His affable manner and no-nonsense style gained him millions of admirers, fuelling his political ambitions. But Ravalomanana insists that he is an accidental president.
MARC RAVALOMANANA, PRESIDENT OF MADAGASCAR: I didn't expect to be a president, but when I started to do the politics in the mayor of Tana, I thought it was very important to help the Madagascar people, to improve the life of this country. That's why I decided to go on the candidature for president last year.
Ravalomanana stood against Didier Ratsiraka, the military officer who staged a coup in the mid-'70s and ruled Madagascar for the next 23 years. Ratsiraka was once regarded affectionately as a father figure in Madagascar. He introduced his own brand of Malagasy Marxism to the island, but economic realities soon proved that most of the country's wealth was flowing to a select few. Although Ratsiraka was thrown out during elections in 1993, he was re-elected a few years later. But by last year, the writing was on the wall.
ERIC BEANTANANA, FORMER COMMERCE MINISTER: They told us that the year 2000 is going to be ours, which is wrong, and we expected not to import one gram of rice by the year 2000, and none of that happened. I don't think that we were naive at that time, but we saw there were factories, there were lots of industries that they created, but what happened is what the French say, "the white elephants".
Eric Beantanana served for a few months as Minister of Commerce in Marc Ravalomanana's first cabinet. He believes that the former mayor's business credentials are an ideal qualification for the presidency.
ERIC BEANTANANA: First of all, he's a businessman, a successful businessman, and he's a self-made man, and he's a projective and very quick and efficient person when he does something. When he says "This is what I'm going to do", he's going to make it.
JAOJOBY EUSEBE, MUSICIAN & RAVALOMANANA SUPPORTER: We believe that it will change. Didier Ratsiraka and his crew will be thrown away, I am sure. I am sure.
Along with vanilla and precious gemstones, this man is also one of Madagascar's most valuable exports. Jaojoby Eusebe is a musician and singer, an adherent to a special style of Malagasy music known as salegesy. Jaojoby is also one of the new president's most loyal supporters.
JAOJOBY EUSEBE: Maybe my band were the first to help him. You know, I have - we were gone to the north, the south, the east, the west, here in Antananarivo, to sing during his campaign. In his speech, what did he say? Justice, love...yah, yah. Marc Ravalomanana is a good guy.
The initial government-supervised count of the vote in the December elections gave 46% to Marc Ravalomanana and 40% to the old president, Didier Ratsiraka. It was a substantial lead, but not an absolute majority. Under the constitution, this meant going to a second round of voting. Ravalomanana cried foul and independent election monitors agreed with him, arguing that his vote was in fact much higher.
ERIC BEANTANANA: Marc Ravalomanana won the election. He came out first and not second, so the debate is not who came first and second. We know who came first, and we expected from that that he's going to be the president and then from January it's going to be a new government, a new president. We didn't expect the situation to last that long.
Believing that he had a clear mandate, Marc Ravalomanana had himself inaugurated as President in February to much fanfare. It was a bold move, and the beginning of the end for Ratsiraka's government in the capital. Despite the intercession of devout nuns, crowds of Ravalomanana supporters began attacking Ratsiraka's ministerial offices.
In March, Ratsiraka fled the capital, establishing a government-in-exile in the western city of Toamasina, the old president's political heartland. Although he controls probably less than a third of the armed forces, Ratsiraka has a far greater store of arms and ammunition and commands loyalty from several provincial governors. Ratsiraka's military strength was used with devastating impact in the first few months of this year as his soldiers cut off the capital by blowing up dozens of major bridges leading to it.
MARC RAVOLOMANANA: We didn't expect it. Everybody didn't expect the crisis in Madagascar. Why? Because the Madagascar people say, "We are very pacific. We don't like the violence." But a few people don't want to leave the power, they want to keep it for his life, but it is not possible.
With access to Madagascar's main port cut off, the lack of vital supplies has crippled Antananarivo. At the peak of the siege, black-market petrol traders scurry between a lucky few customers selling one-litre bottles for more than US$12 each. With food supplies also dwindling, patience has been wearing thin.
The anger directed at Ratsiraka and his colleagues reached boiling point in March. Although Ratsiraka had already fled the capital, his Minister for City Planning was holding firm. He decided to hold this demonstration outside the ministry's central offices. Nearby, Ravalomanana supporters had gathered near the city lake and began advancing on the crowd supporting Ratsiraka. As Ratsiraka supporters ran for their lives, the crowd attacked the ministry building.
As the crowd surged into the ministry offices, terrified staff were dragged from their desks. Pleading for their lives, the entire ministry staff were unceremoniously booted on to the street. Some, like the minister's personal bodyguard, were lucky to escape alive. It was a clear message for the old president, Didier Ratsiraka.
In late April, Madagascar's High Constitutional Court, appointed by Ravalomanana, announced that an election re-count proved he was the clear winner with 53% of the vote. Ravalomanana wasted no time in being inaugurated President of Madagascar for the second time this year. But the man he unseated refuses to accept the verdict.
DIDIER RATSIRAKA: And it's a pity that nobody condemned this act of Ravalomanana, because this is a coup d'etat. There is no other name - this is a coup d'etat.
In a recent visit to Paris, where he has a home, Ratsiraka insisted to journalists that Ravalomanana had no right to international recognition.
DIDIER RATSIRAKA (Translation): We can't reasonably accept, it would be unfair, unjust, immoral, amoral for anyone not winning the first round of elections to proclaim himself president and to impose himself as President of the Republic elected in the first round.
((Ratsiraka is an old friend of French President Jacques Chirac, so perhaps it's no surprise that France has indeed withheld recognition from his would-be successor. Marc Ravalomanana's government is isolated diplomatically as well as by the blockades that surround the capital. His authority is now recognised by the United States and Sweden, but he doesn't have the critical support he needs from African governments or from the former colonial power. ))
You don't need to go far in Antananarivo to see the human impact of this political drama. The capital's shanty towns, which were already desperately poor and without sanitation, are now rancid with rubbish and active breeding grounds for a range of diseases.
DIDIER YOUNG, CARE INTERNATIIONAL: It was really improving. There were really good signals, good indicators of growth. And now, in a matter of six months, everything is just down, back 10 years in the past.
Recent tests of young children in the capital's poorest suburbs revealed a disturbing trend. Malnutrition rates in children under five are already close to 20% and children are dying.
DIDIER YOUNG: Being in charge of all sorts of emergencies in Madagascar for now seven years for Care International, I've never seen such a situation. I think it's going to last, because the people who are involved are not ready, obviously, they're not ready to give up, so I'm afraid it's going to last. I don't really see how we're going to get out of this and that's what is frightening.
Last year, John Hargreaves was running one of the biggest clothing factories in Madagascar. Now it's all in danger of collapse, and he's dodging international phone calls from anxious clients.
JOHN HARGREAVES (Answering mobile phone): I don't want to answer this one.
John's company, Floreal, was making deep inroads into the international fashion market, providing to rich brand-name outlets in London and New York. That's now gone, and this ghost factory is the proof.
JOHN HARGREAVES: 2,300 people were actually working under this roof and altogether we employed more than 10,000 people in Tana. These 10,000 people today are out of work. We're very disappointed because we believed in Madagascar and we've invested heavily in Madagascar, in machinery, in training. It's costing us a fortune. I mean, it's millions literally every day that are just going idle. It's really heartbreaking. I started this factory 12 years ago and one of those factories, because we have actually eight factories in the country, in Tana, and they're all completely out of work.
At Tana's central railway station, the gates are locked. Trains haven't been operating for months. Making use of the space on the now-unused railway tracks, swarms of people from the nearby shanty towns try to earn money for food by selling whatever they can.
Certainly, there's bitterness here about the response of other African states, particularly the Organisation of African Unity, which has refused to recognise Ravalomanana as the legitimate president and called for fresh elections. But increasingly, one country in particular is being blamed for not having ended Madagascar's descent into misery and chaos. Foreigners living in Madagascar, most of them French, demonstrate outside the French embassy in the centre of Antananarivo.
DEMONSTRATORS: Long live Malagasy democracy... Terrorists out! Terrorists out! Jacques Chirac, in the sea!
PATRICIA CROMBEUE, MADAGASCAR FOREIGNERS ASSOC: France has always advocated for democracy and human rights and we denounce their position, because human rights have been violated for months now and they do not react against this. We're talking about rights of the children, of a child. Thousands of children under five have already died because of lack of medicine, lack of food, lack of care anyway, and we have not heard a single voice from so-called democratic countries.
Frances leadership role in Madagascars recent crisis has attracted a great deal of criticism. In July, long after the US and other western nations backed Ravalomanana France finally recognised his new government. Within days Ratsiraka deserted his stronghold at Thomasina and fled to Paris with his family and closest colleagues. To what extent France has been complicit in propping up his government in exile is unknown.
JAOJOBY EUSEBE: Jacques Chirac, he's a friend of Ratsiraka.
REPORTER: Does that make you angry?
JAOJOBY EUSEBE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, France, I think that France is the first country of the world to speak about democracy, the human being, human rights. Why do the French Government support a guy like Didier Ratsiraka? What did Ratsiraka do here? Now, actually?
DIDIER YOUNG: France or any other country, any other major donor of this country, could have chosen a clear position, and it would have made things much clearer and sent a message to the people of this country. They didn't.
A group of villagers put on a display of traditional music and song in Central Antananarivo, just near the presidential palace. These performers are from the High Plateau, the same tribe as President Marc Ravalomanana and the traditional rulers of Madagascar. But they know that their President hasn't won the battle yet. Back inside the palace, Ravalomanana carries on the duties of president as best he can, despite the enormous task ahead. But some worry that unless he can affect real change in Madagascar and fast, theres likely to be further trouble.
DIDIER YOUNG: People are fed up. They want a change. They're not ready to accept, to get back to the situation that prevailed before the election, and I'm afraid it's not going to end up nicely.
ERIC BEANTANANA: Maybe you're going to say that I'm too optimistic, but I think it can't be worse. All that can happen to us is that it's going to get better.