Feb 18, 2015 11:49 AM

Potholes, blackouts confront Madagascar's president

The Associated Press

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) With traffic proceeding at a creep, Jean Rolland Randrianirina inches his taxi into yet another pothole. He snorts a laugh and shakes his head.

"The whole city is in gridlock and the government isn't doing anything," he says.

Randrianirina wants the authorities to repair the roads in Madagascar's hilly, ramshackle capital after recent tropical rains washed away whole sections of tarmac. He says the traffic is the worst he has seen in years.

The president of Madagascar is on the defensive after just over one year in office, and not just over the roads.

Security is an issue. A French boy was abducted from outside his school in southwest Madagascar, authorities said Wednesday. There have been a number of high-profile kidnappings, apparently for ransom, over the last few months.

Widespread power blackouts are a problem. Those who have access to electricity just 14 percent of the population have suffered power cuts. The power shortages are blamed on the chaotic administration of the state-owned power company.

Evenings spent in darkness without a television or radio have encouraged frustration and anger. In Toamasina, Madagascar's main port city, two people died in December in protests over power outages.

When Hery Rajaonarimampianina (long names are common in Madagascar) came to power in January 2014 there was optimism both at home and abroad that he could bring some political stability and improvement to the lives of the 23 million citizens of this island nation larger than California off Africa's southeast coast. Madagascar's GDP per capita is under $500, among the lowest in the world.

Madagascar has suffered numerous political crises since independence from France in 1960. Rajaonarimampianina's election came after five difficult years during which Madagascar was led by a regime which seized power in a coup. That takeover prompted international donors to cut aid which accounted for up to 70 percent of the national budget. Investors pulled out of the country. Key economic sectors such as the textile industry and tourism suffered badly while the illegal trafficking of resources, like rosewood timber, exploded as unscrupulous local and foreign traders took advantage of the political instability.

"The priority of the president's first year was to get aid money to return again," said Education Minister Andrianiaina Paul Rabary, who is also a top official in the president's party.

That took time, with donor funds only coming through in November, said Rabary. Until that happened, there was little the government could do, he said. Another problem is the perception of widespread corruption.

Now, Rajaonarimampianina is scrambling to show progress.

In recent weeks there have been announcements about funding for roads. Truck-sized diesel generators have been delivered to cities to provide stopgap measures so businesses can run their computers again and students can study in the evenings. At the end of January, Rajaonarimampianina appointed a new prime minister and replaced eight government ministers deemed to be underperforming in his Cabinet of 31.

Political stability is not yet a given. The government still has not managed to build a solid majority in parliament. Getting every vote through the National Assembly is a major struggle, but the president is optimistic.

"We're now going to shift up a gear," the president said when making the Cabinet changes. That's something Randrianirina, the taxi driver, would dearly love to do with his car on Antananarivo's jammed roads.

Surveying the state of the road and the monster traffic jam ahead of him, Randrianirina worries that the president is continuing politics as usual more interested in rewarding friends with powerful appointments than with resolving people's everyday problems.

"I hope the president will be able to do better than the other presidents before him," said Randrianirina. "I hope, but I also have a lot of doubt."


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