Selected Analysis

Adieu to a post-colonial bully?

by Obiora Ikoku, African Arguments

“We want France out of our country because France does not bring any positive thing except trouble, poverty, terrorism and so on,” Aboubacar Salou Maiga says rather emphatically. Maiga, 44, is a Nigerien citizen who alongside hundreds of others, welcomed the recent military coup that ousted Niger’s democratically-elected leader, Mohamed Bazoum. He believes Russia can be a fairer partner for Africa’s development. “Russia is a serious country. Their partnership is a win-win whereas France is a thief,” he adds.

The political crisis in Niger, a uranium-rich state in central Sahel, has continued to escalate since the 26 July putsch, adding to the increasing number of former French colonies that have cut ties with France. French forces have been kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso following similar military takeovers in those countries amidst a wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping across the region.

Niger’s coup leaders also revoked military cooperation agreements with France, and recently ordered the French ambassador, Sylvain Itte, to leave the country within 48 hours – an ultimatum Paris has defied, creating a tense standoff.

But with the latest coup  in oil-rich Gabon where the military has placed President Ali Bongo under house arrest hours after he won a third term in an election held over the weekend, France’s presence in the region faces more uncertainty. Ali Bongo took over  in 2009 following the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondima, who had ruled Gabon since 1967.

Equatorial empire

In 1910 Gabon became one of the four colonies within the federation of French Equatorial Africa alongside the Central African Republic, the Republic of Chad, and the Republic of Congo.

“Anti-French sentiments are rooted in a colonial history marked by violence and extraction that has left deep wounds,” Professor Adeline Masquelier told African Arguments. Masquelier is a professor at the Department of Anthropology, Tulane University and author of three books on Niger.

“Rumours that Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president of Niger, was a puppet of the French government served to legitimize the recent coup in Niger. Though the coup was triggered by fears that President Bazoum had plans to reform the presidential guard and demote the top brass, including General Tchiani, Niger’s self-appointed military leader, coup leaders have taken advantage of the growing anti-French antipathy among the population to assert their authority,” she added.

French presence in Africa dates back to the 17th century, but it was not until the 19th century during the scramble for Africa that it expanded its reach considerably with the conquests of West and Equatorial Africa and the establishment of protectorates in Tunisia and Morocco. For almost a century and a half since then, France maintained a colonial empire in Africa stretching from the Maghreb through the Western and Central sub-Saharan regions.

Unlike the British who relied on the cooperation of local chiefs, French colonies were run under a direct rule system – a style of administration responsible for the different outcomes colonization had in Francophone countries in comparison to their Anglophone neighbours.

“Both British colonial rule and French colonial rule resulted in the exploitation of valuable African resources. The extent to which France has continued to meddle in the politics and economics of its former colonies is what distinguishes it from its European counterparts,” Masquelier added.

French officials controlled every aspect of the administration and affairs of their colonies, and declared everything and everyone in these colonies to be French: “But more as in French property. In other words, as subjects of France rather than citizens. The idea behind the insistence of the rightness and dominance of French language and French culture was for Africans to aspire to be French, but of course they could never really be French because they were black and not actually from France,” Prof. Catherine E. Bolten of the University of Notre Dame, told African Arguments.

Post-Colonial Bullies

Though French colonial rule ended in 1960 when a host of African countries gained independence, France has continued to maintain a hegemonic influence over its former possessions in Africa, both to serve its interests and maintain a last bastion of prestige. This was achieved through a host of political, security, economic and cultural links which helped to project France as a global power while placing the former colonies in the position of vassals. To that end, France signed cooperation accords with its former colonies. Among other strategic links, the accords allowed France to maintain troops in the former colonies and to establish a framework that would allow France to intervene militarily in the region.

Under President de Gaulle, French aid and assistance were made contingent on the signing of these accords, in effect robbing the former French colonies of their full sovereignty. Also, France has until now retained its economic grip on its former colonies through its imposition of a monetary zone that shares the same currency, the CFA franc, created in 1945 as a means of ensuring France’s control of the resources, economic structures, and political systems of sub-Saharan African colonies.

“Backed by the French treasury, the CFA franc is tied to the Euro, and previously the French franc, which means that its value on the global market follows that of the Euro. All the stipulations concerning the CFA franc ultimately benefit France, not African nations, ensuring that France retains control over the West African economic zone and the Central African economic zone. For instance, France can veto any decisions taken by one of the two central banks within the CFA franc zone,” Masquelier added.

While the CFA was reconfigured after these territories earned their independence from France, it effectively remains a colonial currency. “The fact that policies within the CFA franc zone are dictated by the European Central Bank provides a measure of Francophone African nations’ lack of economic sovereignty. Add to that the fact that France has often removed from office Heads of State who attempted to pull out of the CFA franc zone, and you get a good picture of the meddling France has engaged in over the years to preserve its control over large parts of West and Central Africa,” Masquelier added.

Upon independence in 1958 Guinea under its first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, refused to sign the cooperation accord.

“Stories from Conakry were that the French responded by bringing massive container ships to Conakry and taking everything French with them that was not nailed down, down to the furniture and files in government offices,” Bolten adds. Paris was communicating an important lesson: “If you refuse our continued dominance over you and our casual involvement in your everyday affairs – always and only on our terms – we will strip you of all moveable infrastructure that was built under our rule.” Bolten continues.

“The situation in Guinea revealed the true nature of the relationship between France and its colonies: that this relationship was never meant to be beneficial to those former colonies, nor would it ever be equal, nor would France allow its colonies to succeed on their own terms without France getting credit for it. In essence, France became a post-colonial bully,” she remarks.

Notes on a colonial currency

As more African heads of state declare the CFA franc a colonial relic that must be discarded so they can earn full independence, the French government maintains that the CFA franc is an African currency that exists for the benefit of African economies. Increasingly, however, the chorus of voices demanding that the currency be abandoned is amplifying, with activists now encouraging Africans to boycott French products. Critics have shown that membership to the CFA zone has stifled development and promoted poverty while others assert that abandoning the CFA franc would be a risky, and probably costly, operation.

“But let’s be frank: French corporations are the ones that benefit from the arrangement. The CFA franc is not a sovereign currency. Far from encouraging investment in local economies and enabling entrepreneurs to obtain credit and export their products competitively, the CFA franc has curbed economic growth and held back job creation. In sum, the continued imposition of the CFA franc is a form of economic imperialism. France would not have retained its prominence as a world power had it not been for the lucrative deals it forced its former colonies to sign at independence,” Masquelier explains.

The result is further plundering of the ex-colonies. “Since Niger’s independence in 1960, France has continued to benefit handsomely from Niger’s natural resources,” says Masquelier. Until recently, the French company Areva extracted the uranium that powered many French nuclear plants while Niger remains one of the poorest countries on the planet, with less than 20 percent of its citizens having access to electricity. “People are resentful that despite having rich resources, Niger has not managed to develop” she says.

In addition to economic interference, France has always seen itself as a guarantor of stability in the region, adopting an interventionist policy in Africa that resulted in a legacy of coup d’etats and military interventions since 1960. The latest of these interventions is Operation Barkhane – a 3000-strong anti-insurgent operation led by the French military against Islamist groups in Africa’s Sahel region. The operation which formerly came to an end in November 2022, was organized with the cooperation of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. But critics blame France for the worsening of the insurgency despite the military operation.

“Despite mobilizing important resources, France has failed to contain the growing insurgent threat, and Nigerien people are frustrated and angry. Rumours, encouraged by propaganda campaigns from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, of an alliance between France and the extremist factions perpetrating attacks on civilians and soldiers at the Malian and Burkinabe border, have only fueled further antipathy against the former colonial power,” Masquelier adds.

This and more have added fuel to the wave of anti-French sentiment spreading like wildfire across the region with many accusing Macron’s government of meddling in their country’s affairs. Some also blame France for supporting dictatorial regimes in exchange for access to resources and military bases – in short, the perpetuation of the neocolonial system known as FrançAfrique.

Scandals such as the Bokassa diamond saga which cost France’s then president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing his re-election in 1981 on account of diamonds he allegedly received from Central African Republic’s self-appointed emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, or Elf Aquitaine sleaze scandal under the Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand presidencies that revealed the dirty ties between top French officials and Francophone elites, were a hallmark of FrançAfrique.

“Because they promoted French interests, heads of state like Paul Biya in Cameroon and Ali Bongo in Gabon, enjoyed French support regardless of the corruption and abuse they perpetrated at home. As long as they did not try to renegotiate the terms of their countries’ partnerships with France, French officials turned a blind eye to their excesses. Moreover, France has often intervened militarily to keep pro-French African leaders in power, no matter how unpopular they were at home,” Masquelier explains.

A sticky situation

“If the recent string of coups in Francophone Africa are anything to go by, it is that they signal the rejection of France’s paternalistic policies,” Masquelier told African Arguments. French officials are perceived in Africa as proud and conceited, and still acting as if they are in charge.

“It is perhaps for this reason that, a month after the coup, France is persona non grata in Niger while Nigerien officials still talk to American officials, who have been cautious not to condemn the coup” she observes.

Despite his recent efforts to shed the mantle of paternalism and reframe the terms of France’s partnership with African countries, Macron has not managed to convince ordinary Africans that France can be a trustworthy partner. Vowing not to give in to Niger junta’s pressure for France to recall its ambassador, Macron’s insistence that “one shouldn’t give in to the narrative used by the coup leaders that consists of saying France has become our enemy” is unlikely to win over an African public tired of French domination. And as Masquelier notes, “Having refused to recall its ambassador to Niger, France is now in a sticky situation.”

There are now seven countries in the region under military rule some of whom are already seeking new development and military partners, not least with Russia and its infamous Wagner group.

“The latest coup in Gabon further signals a growing confidence among military elites across the continent that they can and should intervene to forge the futures of their nations. This suggests that France must rethink its Africa policies so that they do more than protect French interests if France wants to remain involved,” noted Masquelier.

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