Madagascar’s presidential palace, built on a grandiose scale by North Korea, sits on manicured grounds about 15km outside Antananarivo. Its splendid isolation from the capital — let alone the poverty of Madagascar — is a fitting symbol of a state whose influence is scant.
Inside its vast hallways and cavernous meeting rooms, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is weathering the latest in a series of political crises that have debilitated his nation since independence in 1960. In that period, Madagascar is the world’s only non-conflict country to have become poorer, according to the World Bank. Its income per head has nearly halved, to about $400.
In May, just months before elections, the high constitutional court — reacting to months of opposition protests and legal petitions — forced the president to dispense with his prime minister and form a government of national consensus. Last week, he appointed a cabinet that included allies of his main political rivals, known as the milkman and the DJ after their former professions.
Mr Rajaonarimampianina — usually referred to by his first name, Hery, for obvious reasons — was the finance minister in a previous administration and is known as “the accountant”. He talks of a “coup” and pleads for a period of political stability, for which many read a second term.
“The cycles of crises have come back so often that our politicians think in the short term,” he told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “They have not been able to put in place a vision [to exploit] the immense resources of this country.”
Opponents accuse Mr Rajaonarimampianina of trying to manipulate the electoral law to neutralise his two main challengers — former leaders who were, respectively, removed in a 2009 coup and after a transitional government ended in 2014.
Mr Rajaonarimampianina denies any such ploy and refuses to say whether he intends to stand in elections now likely to take place in October. But his intentions appear clear. “This democracy remains fragile,” he said. “I want to put in place a new way of managing, a new vision of development, a new economic approach.”
The needs of Madagascar, the world’s fourth-biggest island, are indeed great and its strategic importance bigger than most outsiders understand, say diplomats. Yet until two years ago it received less aid per capita than any nation bar North Korea.
“Madagascar is the world’s forgotten island,” said Patrick Imam, the IMF’s representative to the country, who argues the west should pay more attention. “This is probably one of the few countries in the world where the IMF cautions the government: ‘You are not spending enough money,’” he says, referring to the limited presence of the state outside Antananarivo.
In the semi-lawless rural regions where banditry, cattle rustling and smuggling are rife, the government’s influence its virtually non-existent. Madagascar has one of the worst road networks in Africa and spends just 3 per cent of gross domestic product on healthcare, among the lowest in the world.
“About 80 per cent of the population lives on less than $1.50 a day,” said Mr Imam. “My office driver is possibly part of the 1 per cent.”
Coralie Gevers, the World Bank’s country manager, said Madagascar is ignored partly because it is an island, which makes it less likely than continental states, such as Somalia, to export instability and refugees. Its famed lushness has lulled even sophisticated observers into false notions about the living standards of its 25m people, she added.
Almost one in two Malagasy children is stunted through malnutrition, according to Ms Gevers. “You look at all this greenery and you think: ‘How’s this possible?’.”
What financial assistance and international investment the country had been receiving was cut sharply after the 2009 coup, one of a string of non-constitutional transfers of power. No head of state since independence has both gained office and left it via normal elections.
Diplomats warn that the chronic poverty makes Madagascar vulnerable to ecological destruction. Artisanal mining of gems, gold and sapphires is common, with few proceeds finding their way into state coffers. Logging of rosewood and ebony is rife, with much of it smuggled to China and south-east Asia.
Ecologists say illegal logging and slash-and-burn farming have destroyed much old forest, threatening one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth.
Yet for all the talk of the need for development, Mr Rajaonarimampianina and his country are yet again slugging it out. In April, two demonstrators were killed in clashes with police after protesting against changes to electoral laws.
Mr Rajaonarimampianina said it was time to end the infighting between elites. “There have been so many interest groups here that the majority interests have often been forgotten,” he said. “We really need to put in place a political culture that looks at the interests of the people.”