Civil War in Madagascar Interrupts Gem Supply

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a civil war in Madagascar, and it has shut down the supply of goods from that island nation. “I heard in March that a group of Thais had gotten in, but they couldn’t get out of the capital city,” says Tom Cushman, an importer of Madagascar gems based in Sun Valley, Idaho. “Fortunately, I bought a lot of rough over the last few years, so I’m lucky.”

The conflict began Dec. 16, 2001, when Madagascar held its presidential election. When results were finally tallied on Jan. 25, no candidate had received 50% of the vote. According to Madagascar law, that should trigger a runoff election, and Didier Ratsiraka, the incumbent president, declared one.

But opposition candidate Marc Ravalomanana—a self-made millionaire and mayor of the capital city of Antananarivo—declared himself the victor, claiming that Ratsiraka had tampered with the votes. Ravalomanana called for countrywide strikes and a recount. By February, there was violence in Antananarivo, and by the end of that month, Ratsiraka had decreed martial law. But the military in the capital followed its mayor, so Ratsiraka packed his bags and headed for the port city of Tamatave, where he and his cabinet members remain, running a provincial government with the backing of the four regional provinces that appear to be loyal to him.

In the capital city, Ravalomanana took over government offices and replaced the cabinet ministers. Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana then agreed to a recount, but when early May results gave 51% of the vote to Ravalomanana, Ratsiraka refused to accept the results. He’s still “governing” from Tamatave.

Ravalomanana’s biggest problem is that Ratsiraka has set up roadblocks, preventing supplies—including food, clothing, and gasoline ($25 per gallon on the black market)—from reaching the capital. “There are no tourists, there’s no cash in circulation, and no buyers!” says Cushman. “The banks are closed.”

At press time, the blockade had lasted two months, and numerous bridges into the city had been damaged or destroyed. The economy has been hit hard, especially in the country’s two largest industries—textiles and tourism. And with nothing being imported, medicines—especially penicillin and anti-malaria pills—are nonexistent.

“I can tell you this,” says Cushman. “I’m not going back till there’s gas in the pumps.”