Angry residents in a rural Madagascar town line up along a road construction brandishing a banner emblazoned with the words “stop property plunder!” in a bid to halt expropriation of their land.
For hundreds of local families, the protest alongside a motorway promised by Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who is running for reelection as president, has become a symbol of how widely official corruption has spread before November´s election.
Officials say the highway in Andranotapahina aims to ease traffic outside the capital Antananarivo, just 10 kilometres (six miles) away, but local families say it has made them victims of widely practised graft.
“We´re here to condemn high-level corruption that has led to the theft of our rights to profit companies,” said Andranotapahina resident Celestin Razafimanantsoa.
Madagascar votes on November 7, with Rajaonarimampianina a frontrunner in the Indian Ocean island state that was beset by protests this year over his attempts to change electoral laws.
But corruption remains a major complaint. Graft affects every level of society in one of the world´s poorest countries which ranks 155 out of 180 on Transparency International´s corruption perception index.
Critics say graft seeps into infrastructure projects, the judicial system and even the African nation´s illicit rosewood trade as bureaucrats take their cut for services or from business deals.
Transparency International Initiative Madagascar (TIIM) director Ketakandriana Rafitoson has described graft as “institutionalised” and said corruption was at the core of the presidential campaign.
Former prime minister Jean Omer Beriziky is running on an anti-corruption ticket against Rajaonarimampianina, who stepped down in September to seek re-election.
“I want to reestablish the rule of law,” Beriziky told AFP. “We are elected to serve — not to serve ourselves.”
‘Right to suspect corruption’
In Andranotapahina, 2,500 local families say they have found themselves in conflict over the motorway project with Filatex, an Indo-Pakistani textile company with operations in the area.
Construction of the road, intended to ease traffic in the capital, required the seizure of several tracts of land.
“We´re not against the project, but Filatex paid the state so the road would link to their facilities — at the expense of our properties,” said local resident Razafimanantsoa.
Filatex denies any wrongdoing. The group rejects claims from angry residents in Andranotapahina that approval of the motorway project involved bribes.
“We´re also losing part of our property which will be seized for the project,” said company director Dominique Andreas. “Corruption is not part of our strategy.”
But local protester Georgienne Rahatarivony criticised the lack of transparency over the route selection.
“We were never consulted. It got our attention when our rice fields were marked with stakes during the night,” he said.
Transparency International´s Rafitoson said: “When affected communities are not consulted, we´re right to suspect corruption.
“(It is) the nation of bribes and the ´10 per cent´ rule.”
In the former French colony of 25 million, poorly-paid civil servants typically seek cash incentives for providing basic services to the public.
Officials responsible for awarding contracts and tenders are often suspected of skimming off 10 percent from lucrative deals.
Rajaonarimampianina, in power from 2014 until he resigned in September, has refused to comment on the issue of graft.
He is not the only prominent Madagascan leader to face allegations of corruption.
Two predecessors, Marc Ravalomanana (2002 – 2009) and Andry Rajoelina have been criticised for criss-crossing the poor nation by helicopter to drum up support for their campaigns.
‘Protected at the highest levels’
In the 2013 campaign, Rajaonarimampianina spent $43 million wooing electors, according to a study funded by the European Union.
The TIIM anti-corruption group also “doesn´t rule out” that front-runners could be funding their campaigns with proceeds from the country´s rosewood trade.
Rosewood is coveted by Chinese carpenters for household furniture, but the species is on the verge of extinction.
The illicit rosewood trade began in 2007 when storms devastated Madagascar, according to an Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project report published in August.
The report said rosewood financing could be the “kingmaker” to decide whether Ravalomanana, Rajoelina or Rajaonarimampianina are elected president.
All three deny wrongdoing or links to the illicit business, but opposition candidate Beriziky, one of Rajoelina´s former prime ministers, says illicit trade had the green light from high levels in government.
“The smugglers were protected at the highest levels of power so all of my efforts to control the trade came to nothing,” Beriziky said.
TIIM and civil action groups issued a statement ahead of the election appealing to voters.
“Make sure there is no chance that corrupt people of any kind could be president,” it said.