The people of Madagascar call him Deba, which means Big Boss. When President Didier Ratsiraka came to power 26 years ago, the moniker was meant as a term of endearment. The articulate naval officer's eccentric brand of socialism promised to liberate the Indian Ocean island's 16 million inhabitants from poverty and neocolonialism. "He encouraged the name because he felt it made him closer to the people," says Edmond Razafimahefa, a Presbyterian minister and President of the Churches of Jesus Christ in Madagascar.
But in the intervening years and especially after a brief period of exile in Paris after he was kicked out of office in 1992 the nickname has taken on a more sinister and sadly familiar meaning. Like many old-style African leaders, Ratsiraka used his position to enrich himself and his family while many citizens of the former French colony grew poorer. "He became nothing more than a dictator," says Razafimahefa, "practicing nepotism, corruption and power politics."
Ratsiraka's rule finally came to an end sort of in last December's presidential election. Nearly half the voters backed Marc Ravalomanana, mayor of the capital Antananarivo and a peasant farmer turned yogurt tycoon. To win the President's office, though, a candidate must garner a majority of votes, so Ratsiraka, 65, pushed for a second round. But Ravalomanana, 51, resisted, claiming that the vote had been rigged and he had passed the 50% hurdle. After some 100,000 of his supporters took to the streets, he occupied the ministerial buildings and forced the incumbents to flee. With the army officially neutral but in effect split on the impasse, Ratsiraka abandoned Antananarivo for his home city of Tamatave on the east coast, blowing up bridges leading to the capital and erecting blockades to starve the city of supplies.
Last week, though, Ratsiraka hopped on a flight to Paris, denying he was in exile and promising to attend an upcoming Organization of African Unity meeting on the Madagascar crisis. Back home, Ravalomanana's forces took control of the airport and other key towns with little apparent resistance from Ratsiraka's supporters.
In the past month, the standoff had turned deadly: more than two dozen people were killed in fighting between militia loyal to Ratsiraka and soldiers sent by Ravalomanana to bring the provincial capitals into line. As a semblance of calm returns, Malagasy are asking a question all too common in Africa: "Why did the old man fight so hard to stay in power?"
Pride and financial interest, say friends and acquaintances. Like many of Africa's long-serving leaders, Ratsiraka hardly distinguishes between himself and the state he leads. "He thinks that Madagascar belongs to him," says a long time acquaintance. A senior European diplomat agrees: "In his mind, he is Madagascar and even after all these years of failure he thinks he's the only leader able to bring development to the country."
Ratsiraka ruled over a corrupt political machine that he might still find hard to escape. Too many people depended upon his ongoing rule for their own survival, locking Deba into his Big Boss role. As democracy has spread across Africa over the past decade, many countries have struggled with the question of whether to grant amnesty to corrupt outgoing leaders or prosecute them. In Ratsiraka's case, the new government has said it would grant amnesty to a dozen or so of Ratsiraka's camp. But the outgoing President has apparently drawn up a list of more than 200 people requiring protection.
Top of that list are two of Ratsiraka's four children. Sophie Ratsiraka, 34, has advised her father in political affairs for more than a decade. Ratsiraka's official adviser Jose Andrianoelison says Sophie "has no more influence than any normal daughter." But other insiders say she often sits in on cabinet meetings and she regularly replaced her sickly mother at her father's side during last year's election campaign. For many years the Princess, as she is known, was a familiar face around the hotels and nightclubs of Anatananarivo. She spent weekends at the capital's tony country club, playing tennis and socializing with the Malagasy élite. But as her involvement in island business grew some people now call her "Miss 10%" for the cut she allegedly takes from deals her standing slipped. She caused a stir late last year when she held a celebratory party after her personal fortune passed $5 million, according to invitees. The new government of Ravalomanana accuses Sophie of financing the blockades that cut off fuel and food supplies to the capital, and describe her as "an enemy of the people." "Of course she uses her money to help, as every good daughter would," says Andrianoelison of Sophie's support for the blockades. And regarding the allegations of corruption, he says: "I don't know if it is true or not, but if she took 10% then a minister or head of department must also have taken a cut. She has no direct power, so if she's taking money she must have shared it with officials. Why do they talk about Miss 10% and not talk about Minister 10%?"
Ratsiraka's only son Xavier, 32, also has reason to want his father to stay in power. After graduating he used his father's connections to build a small airline company, Somavan. He also controls large sapphire fields near Ilakaka in the south of the country and ruby fields near Moramanga in the east. According to Western businessmen familiar with the industry, he employs local operators to run mining operations but also regularly uses his company's helicopters to fly into other areas and force small-time fortune seekers to sell their precious finds for a few dollars. He then sells the stones overseas for thousands. "This place is like The Sopranos," says one of the businessmen. "You've got the Don at the top, his ministers are capos whom he uses to make money, and his children are out of control." But Andrianoelison says the mining operations are "all legitimate. People need permits to dig, but people dig anyway and then businessmen buy the stones from these people and sell them on. To buy cheaply and to sell at a high price is just good commerce."
Yet Andrianoelison, who was Agriculture Minister between 1985 and 1990, concedes that there has been wrongdoing: "Clearly, some of them [in the Ratsiraka government] were corrupt, but this is not a new problem and unfortunately it's unlikely to disappear." Andrianoelison also says that it is "natural" for the President's children to be so wealthy: "If you are the son or the daughter of the President, people will do business with you more than if you are not well connected. This is not a peculiarity to Madagascar." A meeting of military chiefs two weeks ago apparently backed Ravalomanana's presidency. "There is no question any more that Ratsiraka is beaten," said a French businessman who attended the meeting. But even if Ratsiraka does stay in Paris and retire, Madagascar may not have seen the last of the family altogether. Media reports in Madagascar suggest that Ratsiraka's wife and daughter Sophie are with him in France, while his son remains at home. By all accounts Sophie has political ambitions of her own and could make her own run for presidency.