Abdoulaye Bathily: A Tale of Mediation in Madagascar

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Abdoulaye Bathily was named Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on Madagascar in April 2018 at a particularly precarious moment in the frequently distressed Malagasy public life. The country had had a 30-year history of national leaders being turned out of office before their terms were up when the outcome of a runoff second round presidential election in December 2018 finally offered the promise of a peaceful transition for the first time in the country’s history.

The runoff had pitted two men against each other who had both been presidents before. Andry Rajoelina, the president from 2002 to 2009, won the runoff against Marc Ravalomanana, who had served as president from 2002 to 2009 and again from 2009 to 2014. But protests were continuing into 2019, and a surprise referendum proposal from Mr. Rajoelina threatened to throw the whole undertaking into question.

Mr. Bathily recalled the ongoing political upheaval and how he addressed it at an IPI “Leading for Peace: Voices from the Field” series event on April 24th.

“We had hundreds of people taking to the streets, demonstrating, asking the President to resign and to set up a transition government, they lured their complaint to the High Constitutional Court. The country was at a standstill, the economy was at a standstill, we were at a political impasse…They would not settle for anything but the resignation of the president. Our common position was that we would not accept an unconstitutional change of government. We had to accept a settlement whereby the rule of law would prevail, the constitution would prevail, on the basis of what any accommodation politically can be arrived at by national actors.”

The United Nations Human Development Index, which measures health, education, and economic performance, ranks Madagascar 161st out of 189 countries, and the Indian Ocean island’s political history was not encouraging. “Coups and counter coups, civiI strife, popular uprisings have been the milestone of Madagascar,” Mr. Bathily said.

His mission was, in his words, “to try to give other stakeholders both from the international community and national stakeholders a chance to diffuse tensions, to stabilize the situation and allow Madagascar to hold free fair elections along constitutional rules. This was not an easy task, as you can imagine. After three decades of conflict, mistrust among actors, national actors, but also a divided international community.” The dissension was so all-consuming, he said, that he had to “mediate among the mediators themselves.”

So he led a highly consultative and flexible process, engaging with groups and individuals to spread the word that achieving consensus was the only way forward. “We have to hold bilateral talks with each of these representatives, but also get them collectively instead of each of us going around in motorcades from one stakeholder to another…We talked to all of them not only formally through meetings but also individually, to go to them, to talk to them, to share views with them and most importantly to try to convince them it was in their own strategic interest and the interest of the people of Madagascar for the country to have peace.”

He also set out to convince international actors like the International Organization of the Francophonie, the Indian Ocean Commission, the African Union, and subregional organizations that they had to speak with one voice in the interests of coming up with a consensus for the country. The communication was so fraught, he said, that “we had to sometimes play a role as intermediary to them because they wouldn’t talk to each other directly.”

He had to repeat the exercise after the first round of elections turned up no majority winner, and there was the runoff between the two former presidents. “We had to do the same kind of thing because the two were enemies…it was not easy for them. For both of them, it was a matter of life and death…We had to mediate again to make them hold to their responsibility. This is why finally Madagascar was able to have free, fair, and peaceful elections. At the inauguration, all the former presidents came to congratulate the new president.”

One institution Mr. Bathily had sought out was the High Constitutional Court, seeking not to put undue political pressure on them but persuading them to remain neutral in the interest of arriving at a credible settlement that all sides could accept. Explaining how the judges rose to the occasion, he said, “They played an important role in interpreting the constitution but also looking at the interests of a country where for the first time they have been able to take decisions which led to the upholding of the constitution on the one hand and political leaders to come to a political agreement, which is very important.”

He said that the national electoral commission also took a responsible position “independent from the government and from the pressure of the opposition.” The UN resident coordinator’s office helped animate donors and provided needed technical assistance to the electoral commission.

As for the feuding local politicians, many of whom had been rotating in and out of office over the years, he told them, “You are all responsible, both the opposition and the governing party, you have all been president so don’t point fingers at one person. If you do, history will record that once more you have failed your country.”

The next step now is holding legislative elections on May 27th. “So we have to talk to all the stakeholders again to keep the national mood of dialogue, of consensus, so that Madagascar will be open,” Mr. Bathily said. “This is why mediation is a complex terrain, it needs a lot of patience, understanding, and a sense of duty on the part of all stakeholders from within and from without.”

IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud, himself a former UN envoy in Africa, moderated the discussion and commended Mr. Bathily for adopting three strategies in particular. He identified them as continually citing the country’s constitution, ensuring that all the actors, inside and outside, were “speaking from the same handbook,” and using “resilient peace institutions…as leverage to speak logic to internal actors.”

Mr. Bathily’s report, Mr. Mahmoud said in conclusion, was “a consummate account of mediation.”