Hundreds of anti-government protesters took to the streets in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo on Saturday, denouncing alleged mismanagement of coronavirus funds and economic hardship.
Demonstrators in red t-shirts and face masks gathered for the first opposition protest to be authorized since presidential elections in 2018.
Authorities deployed a heavy military and police presence and flew a drone over the protest to surveil the crowd.
Hanitra Razafimanantsoa, spokeswoman for the main opposition party Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM), addressed around 1,000 demonstrators from a stage.
“We have been victims of exclusion,” she shouted down a microphone.
The opposition accuses the government of embezzling a $600-million donation to help fight coronavirus.
“None of us have been able to benefit from this aid,” Razafimanantsoa said.
Tensions between President Andry Rajoelina and his political rivals have escalated in recent weeks amid growing frustrations at the regime’s handling of the pandemic.
A senior opposition figure was detained in July for protesting over a herbal drink touted by the president as a coronavirus treatment and cure.
Former communications minister Harry Laurent Rahajason was sentenced to 44 months in prison for disrupting public order and inciting hatred.
He was denied bail on Friday.
Rajoelina has widely boasted the virtues of the locally-brewed artemisia plant infusion to fight coronavirus.
The drink, which has not been scientifically tested, has been handed out freely across the country and exported to other African countries.
But the Indian Ocean island nation had still recorded more than 19,800 coronavirus cases and at least 297 deaths by the third week of February.
Restrictions brought into to tackle the spread of the virus have compounded the hardships in one of the world’s poorest countries, where a severe drought in southern regions is threatening food security.
“The price of rice per kilogram... is double the price it was two years ago,” Razafimanantsoa said.
The government has not yet laid out any coronavirus vaccination plans, saying it will first observe the roll out in other countries.