How bad can things get in Madagascar? Dissident soldiers said they had deployed tanks in the capital on Friday and the president urged the population to repel the mutineers.

In a worst case scenario, tanks in Antananarivo could lead to battles between the police and the presidential guard — who remain loyal to President Marc Ravalomanana — against mutinous troops and members of the military police.

The mutineers insist they have no plans to attack the presidential palace, that they are not taking orders from opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, and that they are only responding to public calls to restore law and order.

Rumours have been rife in the city all week that Ravalomanana might call in hundreds of mercenaries, perhaps from South Africa, to defend him now that parts of the armed forces no longer listen to him. The mutineers said they had deployed tanks specifically to “intercept” any private mercenary forces that tried to enter the capital.

If that happened, fighting could break out and civilians would almost certainly be caught in the crossfire. The U.S. Embassy is encouraging its diplomats and citizens to leave while they can.

If the public ignore the president’s call to confront the dissident troops, and the mutineers stick to their pledge not to attack his palace and topple him at gunpoint, the stand-off is likely to continue. A crisis in 2002 over disputed election results rumbled on for eight months. The United Nations, African Union and others have been pushing for a resumption of face-to-face talks between the two men, but as the crisis deepens that prospect is receding.

Rural poverty in Madagascar

Madagascar, an island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, has seen its inhabitants' standard of living decline dramatically over the past 25 years. Between 1970 and 1995, per capita income fell by 40 per cent, while the population doubled, reaching more than 18 million. Despite the marked economic recovery that followed the opening up of the regime in 1991 and then the boost provided by the new regime after 2002, the Malagasy population is still extremely poor: according to the most recent data, published in 2005 by the National Institute of Statistics, 68.7 per cent of the island's inhabitants live below the poverty threshold, with the overwhelming majority of these (85 per cent) living in rural areas, while per capita GNP was a bare US$266 in 2004.

The country is ranked 143rd out of the 177 countries classified according to the human development index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Malagasy life expectancy is only just over 55 years, and 84 out of every 1,000 children die before the age of 5. The lack of hygiene, chronic malnutrition and the lack of access to drinking water encourage the development of such infectious diseases as respiratory ailments, tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Who are the poor?

The poor in Madagascar are basically members of farming families in rural areas. Almost 80 per cent of the country's inhabitants live in the countryside, where living conditions have been steadily declining in recent years, particularly in terms of transport, health, education and market access. Poverty is also more prevalent in these areas: 76.7 per cent of rural inhabitants are poor, as compared with 52.1 per cent of urban inhabitants.

Why are they poor?

Malagasy farmers practise subsistence agriculture, producing barely enough to feed their families. The average size of a family plot is 1.3 ha. With the growth in the island's population, this situation has only worsened, so that half of Malagasy children now show signs of chronic malnutrition. The isolation of rural inhabitants also helps to make living conditions particularly hard. Roads are generally in a poor state and are unevenly distributed over the country.

Where are the poor?

Toliara Province in the south-west of the island has the highest rate of poverty, with 80 per cent of its inhabitants living in poverty. However, the majority of the rural poor are concentrated in the three most densely populated former provinces of Antananarivo, Fianarantsoa and Toamasina.