Violence erupted Monday in Toamasina, Madagascar's chief seaport, as protests over prolonged and recurring electricity blackouts in the country escalated. Clashes between demonstrators and police reportedly left one dead and five people injured.
Monday's demonstration is the latest episode in an energy crisis that has paralyzed the country since 2009 and worsened since President Hery Rajaonarimampianina took office earlier this year.
Hundreds of young people took to the streets Monday, marching late into the night against the periodic "rolling blackouts" — controlled interruptions of power — that have affected the island nation in the past few months. According to local reports, protesters looted stores and attempted to storm the headquarters of Jirama, Madagascar's electricity and water services company.
The demonstrations, which brought the city to a standstill and forced markets and stores to close, resumed Tuesday afternoon.
Only 15 percent of Madagascar has access to electricity, and islanders often make do with just a few hours of power each day. The regular power outages have severely impacted the country's economy, hitting small businesses especially hard.
According to local news site Tananews, Jirama engineers have struggled for days to start five new state-of-the-art generators, brought in to compensate for the lack of electricity in Toamasina.
In October 2014, Prime Minister Roger Kolo fired energy minister Richard Fienena for "incompetency" in dealing with the rolling blackouts, and temporarily appointed Herilanto Raveloharison, the country's minister of economy and planning, to the post. Speaking Tuesday, Raveloharison reassured islanders that Jirama was instructed not to plan any blackouts during Christmas.
But a government source — who requested anonymity to discuss the issue candidly — told VICE News that this type of government promise is seldom kept. The island's energy consumption spikes during the holiday season, and there is widespread doubt over Jirama's ability to meet the demand. The same source predicted that more protests will erupt across the island's coastal towns in the coming days.
Ce n— Andrea Rose Mialisoa (@MialisoaRose) December 22, 2014
Madagascar has suffered chronic political instability since achieving independence from France in 1960, enduring several tumultuous leadership changes and persistent corruption.
In October 2014, former president Marc Ravalomanana returned to the island after five years in exile. Elected in 2002, Ravalomanana fled the country in 2009 after thousands of citizens took to the streets to denounce his lavish lifestyle, leading to bloody riots and clashes. He returned to contest the legitimacy of Rajaonarimampianina, who was elected in January 2014 with 53.5 percent of the vote. Since his return, Ravalomanana has been kept under house arrest in Antsiranana, a city at the northern tip of the island, which is located off Africa's southeast coast.
On December 19, Rajaonarimampianina met four of his predecessors in Antananarivo, the country's capital, in a bid to foster national unity.
Madagascar's electricity network is comprised of 114 power stations. Jirama, which uses diesel to produce 60 percent of its power, is in dire financial straits, and has been unable to pay its rocketing fuel bills since 2013. To make up for this deficit, the government reduced import duties on fuel in exchange for diesel, but tariff hikes in July 2014 interrupted the delivery of fuel and prompted the rolling blackouts.
A government source told VICE News the textile industry is particularly affected by the weaknesses in the island's current energy picture, with growing numbers of small businesses forced to invest in generators. Meanwhile, the huge multinationals, which currently exploit Madagascar's mineral resources —including nickel mining— have stopped patronizing Jirama, and are building power stations to meet their own energy needs.
In September 2014, Rajaonarimampianina expressed concern over Jirama's increased fuel consumption, saying the significant increase in spending is not reflected by the company's level of service to the public. Jirama officials are under investigation from BIANCO, Madagascar's independent anti-corruption office.
Jirama announced December 20 that former energy minister Nestor Razafindroriake had been appointed the company's new executive director.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter@p_a_l_