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The Accountant Turned President

Published 8 years ago
By Forbes Africa

Gert Grobler should have retired a while ago. He is over the age, and served with distinction as South Africa’s ambassador in Spain and then Japan, prestigious appointments. Trading Tokyo’s opulence for the tarnish of Antananarivo is not considered an attractive offer.

But when Grobler was due to retire, the powers that be asked him to stay on to resolve the problematic politics of Madagascar.

“What could I do? They asked me to help,” he says, when I ask how the glitzy residence in Tokyo compares with the poverty of ‘Tana, as Madagascar’s capital is known.

Madagascan politics are fraught. The incumbent president was there because of a coup, unrecognized by South Africa, who hosted the ‘real’ president, Marc Ravalomanana, at considerable expense to taxpayers for four years.

South Africa has major mining and tourism interests in the large island state of Madagascar, a state which has been loyal to France, has been riddled with corruption, and has been run by proxy presidents whose strings are pulled by puppet masters in the five major families.

As it turned out, the elections held this January – after banning both the incumbent president and the real president from standing – resulted in the election of President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, not exactly South Africa’s choice.

It was a relatively free and fair election, so South Africa supported the outcome and Grobler had to try to exert South Africa’s influence, against fierce French rivalry.

Many ambassadors are lazy, and as many are useless. Grobler works hard. So it came about that Rajaonarimampianina, on his visit to South Africa in May for President Jacob Zuma’s inauguration, enjoyed a slew of high-level important meetings, from the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) to a private lunch at Werksmans Attorneys, a lunch I chaired.

The new president outlined his tasks, explained his attitude to the return of former President Ravalomanana, and came across as a good guy intent on ridding his country of corruption, being his own man not answerable to the five families, and having a serious grasp of his island’s finances, treasury, business opportunities and threats.

A short, friendly man, he speaks fluent French and Malagasy and is eloquent in English, only resorting to an interpreter once or twice.

He plays tennis and follows soccer, has five children, been married twice, and was the Minister of Finance under the coup administration.

“Madagascar is the land of opportunity,” he says at the lunch. A cliché, yet I believe him.

“We are creating an environment that is good for investment. On the energy front there is huge potential for solar energy, but we need capital and a return on investment.”

Asked questions on air travel, the cost of which is a sore point for tourists, he says, “We have open skies and I invite your South African companies to come to develop tourism.”

His biggest challenge?

“To eradicate the extreme poverty in Madagascar. That’s number one. Then to bring jobs is a first aim, and to create different services in education.”

Poverty, jobs, education. Good priorities.

In the interview, he suggests investment in agriculture is tops in business opportunities, then mining, tourism and renewable energy.

“We have ports, roads, airports, so you can move freely in Madagascar, but infrastructure is still a problem.”

Pretty new in the job, is he a new broom sweeping clean?

“We are in the beginning of my mandate,” he admits disarmingly. “This transition is important. A new president brings a new framework and authority to fight corruption and it is important to set up a new kind of democracy in Madagascar.”

Presumably one that doesn’t rely on patronage from the five almost-royal families or from big business or the military?

The big question is what will he do about the exiled former president, Ravalomanana?

“His return will be better if it can happen in a peaceful and fair environment. I am not sure if it is there [yet]. This is not the time for it but I am sure it can happen.”

“Ravalomanana is a patriotic person and wants the best for the country. He has a problem with justice and we have to find a solution to that before he returns.”

After being ousted in a coup, Ravalomanana was tried in absentia for ordering his troops to fire on protestors. The court sentenced him, also in absentia, in what the whole world saw as a kangaroo court decision. But the decision is still binding, although the new president probably has some legal leeway to have it rescinded.

“If I say he must stay for a while in South Africa it is a transitional thing. He also has real tax he must pay from the past and to be fair to the citizens it is the rule of law, everyone has to pay his duty. He has a debt in that and he has to pay or at least he has to come to a negotiation to settle this debt.

“The Malagasy courts are sovereign over the criminal charges. He has accepted the decisions of the court of a formal government. If he wants to be amnestied he must apply.”

But what about France’s influence?

“France is our historical partner. France has its place. But I’m not sure it has an influence on my politics. The voice of France is always listened to. But the world is now globalized.”

One of Rajaonarimampianina’s major priorities is to curb the illegal export of rosewood.

“That was my first challenge. To fight for the authority of the state and fight the illegal traffic of rosewood, gold, indigenous animals, turtles and all the endemics.”

Rajaonarimampianina has a Master’s in Economics from the University of Quebec and a Diploma of Certified Accounting. He was on the Board of Accounting of Canada. He started his own accounting firm in ‘Tana in 1995, and was then proposed in 2009 by the private sector to serve their interests as Finance Minister in the coup government.

Being president is a step up but one that Rajaonarimampianina relishes.

“I do it with pride, joy and conviction.”

The new president is a far cry from the person he replaced. Coup leader Andry Rajoelina was popularly known as a failed disc jockey, doing the bidding of a puppet master of one of the five families.

Rajaonarimampianina brings technical knowledge, university degrees in finance and a more appealing personality to the job.

It will be difficult to drag the island up from the depths to which it has descended. He may just be the man to do it. Certainly everyone in Africa wishes him and his country the very best.

As for Gert, he’ll still be there for a while.

“You get old, but you try to help where you can,” he says.

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Related Topics: #Ambassador, #Gert Grobler, #Hery Rajaonarimampianina, #Island, #July 2014, #Madagascan, #Politics, #President.