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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Merina in Madagascar

View Group Chronology

Madagascar Facts
Area:    587,040 sq. km.
Capital:    Antananarivo
Total Population:    14,460,000 (source: various, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Merina have one of the factors that increase the chances of future protest: Madagascar's recent transition to democracy. While the côtier ethnic group has consolidated its political and economic position in the post-independence period, its willingness to share some of the gains will likely influence the future of relations between the two communities. Tensions continue to build in the country over December 2001 elections. The election of Ravalomanana, the first Merina to be elected to the presidency, sparked violence between pro-Ratsikara and pro-Ravalomana groups in the country. Now that ethnic tensions have been heightened, the stability of this region depends upon the ability of Ravalomanana to reintegrate pro-Ratsiraka members, mostly côtiers, back into government and official positions. Merina risk of protest is low as they lack the risk factors such as recent repression and political discrimination. However, protest by the group cannot be entirely ruled out as the Merina have protested in previous years (2001 and 2002). It is still too soon to determine what effects the 2009 coup (which overthrew the ethnically Merina president) in Madagascar will have on the political status and activities of Merina.


Analytic Summary

Although the population of Madagascar comprises some 18 ethnic groups who are united by a common Malagasy language (LANG = 0), the two larger groups, Merina and côtiers, have a history of conflictual relations. Group members have migrated across the island's regions in search of economic opportunities, but are primarily located in the Central Highlands of Madagascar (GROUPCON = 3). The Merina, who reside in the highland plateaus, are the light-skinned descendants of those of Asian-Pacific origin (RACE = 0). In contrast, the peoples of the coast are darker-skinned and are of African origins. They are collectively referred to as the côtier and include the Betsimisaraka of the east coast, the Tsimihety of the north and the Antandroy of the south. The Merina follow multiple religious beliefs, but the Protestant church receives its largest support from the Merina population (BELIEF = 0; RELIGS1 = 3). Unlike the other ethnic groups of Madagascar, the Merina and Betsileo practice a turning of the dead where relatives are taken from the tomb and reburied during a ceremony.

In the 18th century, the Merina established a Malagasy kingdom and forcibly incorporated the côtier over the next century. Fears of being dominated by the Merina first arose during this period and continue to the present. French occupation of the territory in 1896 ended Merina domination as France systematically reduced the group's means of control, including their power over the slave trade and land redistribution along with their disproportionate representation in the armed forces (AUTLOST = 1).

France's attempts to placate Malagasy (a term that refers to all peoples in Madagascar) political aspirations led to token political representation in the French Assembly. In the 1946 National Assembly elections, the Merina-dominated Democratic Movement for Malagasy Renewal (MDRM) won all three of the available seats. Political mobilization by the côtiers shortly followed when they created an alternative party, PADESM (Party of Disinherited Malagasy).

Some 50-80,000 people died in a revolt against colonial rule, which began in 1947 and was not completely subdued until December 1948 (REB45X = 2). Blame for instigating the rebellion was placed on extremist elements of the MDRM despite the fact that people from all over the island participated.

Greater self-rule for the Malagasy emerged in 1956 when the French transferred significant executive powers to local control along with allowing for universal suffrage. The PSD (Social Democratic Party), a côtier-supported party, emerged as the dominant political force by 1959 when its leader Philibert Tsiranana was elected president. In June of the following year, Madagascar became independent.

Ethnic divisions represented through opposing political parties have been the defining force in the post-independence era. The AKFM (Congress Party of the Independence of Madagascar), which was supported by the Merina autocracy, formed the country's first official opposition (PROT55X = 2). It had ties to the Soviet Union and other Communist states. Tensions were soon to emerge as the PSD's pro-French position, its appointment of increasing numbers of côtiers in the administration and its recruitment from other parts of the country to dilute Merina representation in the armed forces raised concerns among the Merina, who were nationalists, anti-France and feared losing their advantaged status to an emerging côtier elite.

The deterioration of the economy and dissatisfaction with the authoritarian and pro-France orientation of the government brought an end to the First Republic in 1972. An anti-government revolt emerged when the security forces killed 34 protestors in May 1972. President Tsiranana handed over power to General Ramanantsoa who was to govern for a five-year transitional period. Ramanantsoa was a Merina who drew his support from the plateau area, which is populated by the Merina and the Betsileo. However, continued economic difficulties coupled with Merina-côtier tensions and a recently failed côtier coup forced him to turn over power to Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava in February 1975. A week after assuming power, Ratsimandrava was assassinated and a côtier, Didier Ratsiraka, assumed power.

A one-party state was established in 1976. The ruling FNRD (Front for the Defense of the Socialist Malagasy) was a coalition of political parties that included the Merina-supported AKFM and various côtier-supported organizations. The AKFM splintered in two factions in March 1989: AKFM-KDRSM and AKFM-Renewal, the latter of which withdrew from the coalition in October of that same year.

In 1990, opposition to the FNRD government resulted in frequent protests and some anti-government violence by a new opposition force, the Merina-supported Force Vives Rasalama (PROT90 = 2; REB90 = 3). A new constitution was enacted and presidential elections were held in the fall of the following year. Albert Zafy, a côtier who was supported by the Merina, became President. Group members sought to have a Merina appointed as Prime Minister but instead President Zafy chose a half-Merina whom the group did not support. The Forces Vives Rasalama won the majority of seats to the National Assembly in June 1993, and its Merina leader Richard Andriamanjato was named assembly chairman.

President Zafy was impeached in 1996, and President Ratsiraka was reelected the following year. National legislative elections held in 1998 resulted in Merina losses as prominent leaders including the AKFM-Renewal's Andriamanjato and Force Vives Rasalama's Ramasoron lost their seats.

While the Merina have seen some reduction in their advantaged economic status in the post-independence era, they are not subject to any economic discrimination, cultural restrictions or demographic stresses (ECDIS06 = 0; CULPO106 = 0; CULPO206 = 0). In the political arena, after the 2002 election of President Marc Ravalomanana, the Merina enjoyed an advantage in access to power (POLDIS06 = 0). It is unclear at this point how Ravalomanana's overthrow in a March 2009 coup will affect the political fortunes of the Merina.

Group members are seeking greater political participation at the central level along with protection from attacks by other communal groups. While there had been no reports of côtier-Merina violence since 1992, tensions rose with the elections and as pro-Ratsiraka radios were charged with inciting ethnic violence, some Merina people living in côtier-dominated areas asked their governors for protection. In 2002, it is estimated that about 100 people were killed when violence erupted at several locations following the uncertainty of December 2001 elections. Pro-Ratsiraka radio stations have been accused of operating as hate radios. Ratsiraka encouraged a blockade of Antananarivo, a political stronghold for Ravalomanana. After the elections Ravalomana declared himself the winner, but the government claimed he only received 46 percent of the vote, which would not have been enough to assume power under majority rule without a run-off election. Six months of tensions flared before the High Court declared Ravalomanana the winner with 52 percent of the vote. Ratsiraka then fled the country with his family.

Although there has been little political activism in recent years (PROT98 = 2; PROT99-00 = 0; PROT01 = 1; PROT02 = 3; PROT04-06 = 0), 2001 saw an upswing in poltical activism as Ravalomanana created a new party named TIM (Tiako-i-Madagasikara), meaning I love Madagascar. Political activism was also apparent throughout the disputed elections as each group took sides. The protests began with verbal opposition in mid-December and the culminated in strikes and rallies in early 2002. There has been no rebellion since the 1990 opposition movement.



Africa Research Bulletin. Various reports. 1980-1994.

Covell, Maureen. 1987. Madagascar: Politics, Economics, and Society. London: Frances Pinter.

Helen Chapin Metz, ed. 1994. Madagascar: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1993-2006.

Minority Rights Group. 2005. "Madagascar Overview: World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.", accessed 06/26/08.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Madagascar. 1999-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006