Madagascar is the world's fourth biggest island after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo. Because of its isolation most of its mammals, half its birds, and most of its plants exist nowhere else on earth.
The island is heavily exposed to tropical cyclones which bring torrential rains and destructive floods, such as the ones in early 2000 which left thousands homeless.
The Malagasy are thought to be descendents of Africans and Indonesians who settled the island more than 2,000 years ago. Malagasy pay a lot of attention to their dead and spend much effort on ancestral tombs, which are opened from time to time so the remains can be carried in procession, before being rewrapped in fresh shrouds.
After sometimes harsh French colonial rule, Madagascar gained independence in 1960. The military seized power in the early 1970s with the aim of achieving a socialist paradise, which however did not materialise.
The economy went into decline and by 1982 the authorities were forced to adopt a structural adjustment programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund.
Madagascar has maintained strong ties with France and developed economic and cultural links with francophone west Africa.
|Major languages:||Malagasy (official), French|
|Major religions:||Indigenous beliefs, Christianity|
|Life expectancy:||52 years (men), 57 years (women)|
|Monetary unit:||1 Malagasy franc (FMG) = 100 centimes|
|Main exports:||Coffee, seafood, cloves, vanilla, petroleum products, chromium, fabrics|
|Average annual income:||US $780|
|International dialling code:||+261|
President: Didier Ratsiraka
Ratsiraka wielded absolute power for 17 years until he was voted out of office in 1993, only to be re-elected three years later.
He was named president in 1975 shortly after the introduction of a socialist constitution which limited political activity. Under pressure from anti-government demonstrations and strikes, Ratsiraka agreed in 1991 to democratic reforms.
A new, multiparty constitution was approved in 1992, and in 1993 Ratsiraka lost in elections to Albert Zafy, who was later impeached. Ratsiraka was re-elected in 1996 and in 1998 a new constitution increased the powers of the president.
The 1990 law on press freedom was followed by a boom in privately-owned FM radio stations and more critical political reporting by the print media.
Although nationwide radio and TV broadcasting remains the monopoly of the state, there were no fewer than 80 FM radio stations operating across the country in 1999. There has been a similar trend in TV stations.
Although state control is strongly felt in the state-owned radio and TV, press freedom is a reality for the privately-owned media.