I'm in Madagascar looking for a man I don't believe exists. 'Remenabila' (meaning red swagger) was first described to me in November as Madagascar's "national past-time", the country's most wanted man, despite the fact that he only came to fame last year after killing a number of military personnel in Madagascar's lawless south. "Actually, he's out of power right now", said Amir, my fixer, when I asked him about the man. Remenabila's shaman had just been arrested, he explained, rendering him bereft of his super-natural powers. Remenabila is immune to bullets, Amir continued; he cannot be shot.
Every newspaper shows the same blurry photograph of a little man dressed in jelly shoes, a cowboy hat and a blue rain jacket. Sometimes the photographs are framed in western-style WANTED poster.
Remenabila is said to be the boss of a multi-million dollar cattle rustling ring that operates across Madagascar's south. Every day, reports emerge of new deaths, the casualties being either 'dahalo', meaning bandits (the term has become synonymous with cattle rustlers), or civilians. The President says 8,000 cattle were stolen last year, with a value of well over $5 million.
As far as I can tell, no one has definitively seen Remenabila - ever. No one knows exactly who he is. And no one knows where he is. In one of the poorest countries in the world, there is a $50,000 reward on this man's head ($10,000 for relevant information), and no one has come forward with anything. Yet he has become so much a part of the national discourse that politicians accuse the opposition of creating him to weaken their regime and, at the end of last year, the sanctioned and penniless Government that can't even pay for its hospitals funded a 3-month $500,000 military operation to catch him. It failed (obviously). But there were some winners. Human Rights Watch carried out an investigation of the human rights abuses committed during the operation, and the UN are now carrying out an investigation into the human rights abuses alleged in the Human Rights Watch report.
Needless to say, I became a bit obsessed by all this. But I thought that once I was actually in Madagascar it would make sense. To be honest now I'm here it's getting worse.
Everyone believes firmly that Remenabila exists, from the most senior local government officials to journalists. This would normally be fine - I don't have a problem with being wrong. Except it's not fine, because every person who believes he exists also believes he has special powers. He's bullet-proof, to be specific. And I'm finding it very hard to bow to the better knowledge of people who believe in a bullet-proof thug in his fifties that no-one has ever seen who roams free (now dressed in a bright red suit, because it protects him) with 10,000 head of cattle despite a $50,000 bounty on his head.
Finally, last night, someone spoke some sense. In terms of natural resources, Madagasar is one of the richest countries in the world. For a long time the cattle rustling dahalos have been propped up by corrupt individuals who use them as a smoke screen for the more lucrative smuggling of simpler things (minerals, rosewood, rare species, amongst others) elsewhere on the fabled isle. So the security forces divert their attention to the dahalos, while the illicit trade takes place and no one sees.
Given this context, Remenabila would be the ultimate smokescreen. Diverting the entire nation's attention to catching a man who does not exist, or at least not as they believe, is genius. The more they look, the less he is found, and the more attention diverted from elsewhere.
To contextualise, this madness began three years into the rule of an unrecognised and unelected regime whose days in power are numbered. The Government wanted to be seen to have achieved something, people say, hence putting its weight behind the campaign to catch Remenabila. But in addition to that, it's less of a PR disaster to blame a few thousand square kilometres of insecurity on one man with supernatural powers than it is to admit widespread and uncontainable criminality. Look at the history of Western reporting on conflict - we all like a baddy to personify a war. But the Remenabila story is out of control. According to frantic (and often overstated if not invented) media reports, groups of young men turn up in villages every night, threatening and killing innocent people, stealing cows, and being allowed to do so because they're working with Remenabila and they have magic powers. You can't kill them - but they can kill you.
These aren't cattle rustlers but arcadian terrorists committing atrocities in the name of a man that doesn't really exist. "He's like the Loch Ness Monster", a source at Amnesty said.
I won't give up but so far have zero evidence to support his existence and am struggling to take seriously anyone who seriously believes in Remenabila's superpowers.