Madagascar is currently going through a critical period: after the coup of 2009, new elections will be held in May and July of this year after having been repeatedly postponed. The situation on the ground remains of great concern, especially in the southern region of Madagascar where mass killings are perpetrated both by criminal gangs and security forces.

From stealing zebus…

It all started with the dahalos (Malagasy word for “bandits”) who came to the villages to steal the zebus (a type of cattle which are symbols of wealth in Madagascar). Originally, stealing zebus was a tradition for young men to prove their manhood: before the wedding, the husband-to-be would catch a zebu in a neighbouring village to prove that he would be able to feed his future family. This tradition was even accepted by the owners since they will also steal a zebu from another village.

Yet, what originally used to be a traditional practice to prove manhood has now turned into a large criminal organisation, which is a great source of earning money for these dahalos, in a country where over three quarters of the population live below the poverty line.

… to killing villagers

Since June 2012, the situation in Madagascar quickly deteriorated and turned into an open crisis. Heavily armed and well-organised groups of dahalos carried out violent attacks against villagers, mainly in rural areas of the south of Madagascar, destroying their houses.

Reportedly, the response from the police and military forces has worsened the situation. Indeed, since dahalos look and live like other peasant farmers and villagers, it is difficult to identify them from the rural populations. Security forces seem to think it is easier to burn down entire villages to ensure that those responsible are punished, no matter if innocent populations have to pay the greatest price.

These attacks from both armed groups and security forces have forced inhabitants to flee from their villages to the cities or in the forest, provoking a serious humanitarian situation of internally displaced population.

Photo of a Zebu Market in Madagascar

© Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia Commons

A vicious circle of never-ending violence

In response to this insecurity, villagers are trying to protect themselves by organising self-defense units, and even sometimes by hiring private security companies to protect them from bandits. The government does not only tolerate these reprisals from exasperated villagers but even strongly encourages them to defend themselves, and this is leading to an escalation of violence.

Indeed, villagers and private security companies have no interest in arresting these dahalos, since they either later escape with the help of their fellow bandits or are freed by a corrupt justice system. Instead, they try to kill them if possible: as a result, more than 100 dahalos are reported to have been killed by local populations.

In return, dahalos react by increasing their groups and armaments, and by killing more and more innocent people, feeding the vicious circle of never-ending violence…

Well-armed bandits… with the collusion of the State

Where there is armed violence, there is obviously a flow of arms fueling the conflict. The dahalos are armed with a whole range of weapons, from those dating back to World War I to modern Kalashnikovs.

European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and many others have been selling weapons to Madagascar despite the complete lack of control over the arms flow in this country. Small arms are circulating freely, adding to the fragility of an already tragic situation.

In addition, political instability stresses small arms proliferation on the island. During the conflict in 2002, lots of people were armed from State arsenals and the weapons have never been returned to date. Many of these people are today’s dahalos, and most of these weapons are now used against innocent civilians.

However, if dahalos are so well organised and armed, it is also due to the direct collaboration of the State’s security forces: investigations have proven that many former and current members of the State’s security sector are involved in arms trafficking and rent out their weapons to bandits to supplement low incomes. They also accept bribes to turn a blind eye on crimes committed by dahalos.

What to do?

To prevent this crisis from getting worse, it must be a priority for countries providing weapons to Madagascar to put an end to their arms shipments, especially in the context of the Arms Trade Treaty that has been voted very recently. This treaty requires exporting States to assess the risk that the weapons being transferred could be diverted for committing violations of human rights or international humanitarian law.

The Malagasy government has to tidy up its security forces and launch an independent investigation into these allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Finally, the authorities have to be reminded of their duty to protect the population from bandits. Encouraging them to kill each other will never lead to an improvement of the population’s security.