Over the past few years, various coups and uprisings have occurred in former French colonies and African nations. Many of them with the same message delivered loud and clear, “Down With France.” The people of Africa do not want their countries to be pawns of the French anymore and want French military influences and economic and governmental ties to be severed immediately. These anti-French uprisings have been seen in countries such as Gabon, Niger, and Guinea, with a recent attack on and burning of the French Embassy in Niger in July of this year. But what has caused these uprisings? Why are they happening now? And most importantly, what does it mean for the future of these former colonies and the continent as a whole?
Since the 17th century, France has had a presence in Africa. This presence would grow significantly with The Berlin Conference of 1884, also known as ‘The Scramble of Africa’. During this conference, the entire African continent, excluding Ethiopia and Liberia, was divided into different states and given to various European powers to rule over, with France being one of the most significant colonisers. France, in Central and West Africa, was given modern-day Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Cameroon, Niger, Central African Republic, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Benin, Gabon, and would eventually also take control of the Congo. French colonialism would last around a century and a half, with their last Central and West African colonies gaining independence in the 1960s.
During the French rule, a new French administration was installed throughout the colonies, differing from the British, who utilised existing local power structures. This new administration stripped Africans of their citizenship, classifying them as subjects of the empire instead. The French imposed taxation in many areas, using methods such as forced labour to extract valuable resources and further French interests.
Although the French colonial endeavour was often justified as a mission for civilising the peoples of Central and Western Africa, in retrospect, there is a strong argument that the mission was not undertaken out of wanting to help Africans which is evident as, during this period, little was done to the benefit of Central and West Africans, except for some minimal health and educational services. Additionally, across the colonies, there was an estimated illiteracy rate of over 95% of native Africans. When comparing these results to France, one can see that its productive sectors benefited from colonialism due to low-cost imports and protectionist export policies to the colonies, giving them a considerable economic advantage. Moreover, in the end, despite the last Central-African colony to gain independence, Gabon, gained independence on August 16, 1960, the relationship between the former colonies and their former coloniser was far from over.
France’s Colonial Legacy: Françafrique
Françafrique is a term coined by Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Former President of Senegal, to describe the historic relationship between France and Africa. As time passed, the word Françafrique evolved, encompassing the still-existing complex economic, political and military links between the two. Unlike other former colonial powers like Great Britain and Germany, who arguably left their former colonies alone after their independence, a different case can be made for the French, who have increasingly been drawing criticism in recent years about their exploitative relationship with these countries, that many describe as ‘neocolonialism’.
Perhaps the most well-known and heavily criticised aspect of the Françafrique relationship is the enduring economic ties that continue to shape the African nations involved. These economic ties take different forms, such as exploiting continuous resources and monetary policy. This monetary policy exploitation has its roots in the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, which established a global monetary system where the United States Dollar was tied to gold, and other currencies were pegged to the value of the U.S. Dollar. In December 1945, France created what is now known as the African Financial Community (Communauté Financière Africaine), widely recognised by its acronym, CFA. Currently, the CFA franc is used by 140 million people in 14 countries, 12 of them former colonies. The CFA is issued by two institutions that are now known as the Bank of Central African States and the Central Bank of West African States. These central banks issue the CFA currency separately in their respective regions.
Originally pegged to the French franc, the CFA currency has since transitioned to being pegged to the euro. As a result, the policies governing the CFA franc are set by the European Central Bank, raising concerns about the autonomy of African nations. This arrangement prompts critical questions about economic sovereignty – how much control can these African countries exert over their own economic policies when their currency is pegged to another continent's central bank? This system raises issues about the capacity of these African nations to make independent economic decisions, further fueling the ongoing debate about economic exploitation and neocolonialism in the Françafrique relationship.
Furthermore, one of the defining characteristics of this CFA system is the obligation for each central bank to maintain at least 50% of their foreign exchange reserves with the French Treasury, a requirement that has been in place since the mid-2000s. This practice has been a point of contention, often labelled as a form of "colonial tax system”, as it takes a significant portion of these African countries' financial assets to benefit the French Treasury. This system limits these former colonies' abilities to invest in their development and respond to their specific economic needs, continuing a legacy of exploitation and control.
Political & Military Legacy
Since the independence of these former colonies in the 1960s, France has maintained close political ties with African heads of state. These relationships have often drawn criticism for their perceived exploitative nature. The French have continuously intervened in African politics and carried out armed interventions. It is also interesting that many of the African leaders who disagree with France and pay colonial taxes have historically fallen victim to an assassination or a coup d’état.
One of the most significant and controversial political interactions came to light in 2011 when it was revealed that former French President Jacques Chirac and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin regularly received briefcases filled with cash from African heads of state to fund their election campaigns. Robert Bourgi, a Parisian lawyer and advisor to both, disclosed the methods used to deliver these bags of money to the French leaders. These methods included transporting the cash in briefcases, hiding it in drum sets, sports bags, and other means. Bourgi estimated that the amounts in these bags ranged from a minimum of 5 million French francs to as much as 15 million French francs. In total, he alone delivered an estimated 20 million USD in cash to these leaders. This revelation highlighted how, even in the modern day, there is still rampant corruption and neocolonial influence in French-African politics.
The French have also managed to maintain a robust military presence in their former colonies. Since 1964, there has been an estimate of at least 30 military interventions by them in various states. Currently, France has around 3,000 troops across five countries. Their justification for the French being in Western and Central Africa was to help “maintain stability in the region and to combat terror”. However, many argue that France’s main objectives for being there are to protect and seek their own interests, and there have been growing tensions to the extent that their troops have been expelled from Niger and Mali within the last two years.
It is worth noting that the concept of 'Françafrique' itself has faced criticism, as it can carry negative preconceptions about the relationships between France and its former African colonies. Furthermore, it may, to some extent, overlook the sovereignty of each of these nations and their leaders who actively contribute to this system. However, it is essential to recognise that when dealing with a global power that holds significant influence in economic, geopolitical, and military domains, a power imbalance exists that cannot be ignored. Acknowledging this imbalance is crucial when assessing the intricate dynamics at play in the Françafrique relationship.
Recent Coups & Changing Tides
The surge in successful coups in Central and West Africa, starting with Mali in 2020 and most recently in Niger on July 26, 2023, has sparked numerous discussions regarding the underlying causes of this trend. These coups have arisen from a diverse range of factors, which vary from one region to another. A common thread among these nations is the escalating tension stemming from long-standing frustrations between their civilian populations and the government.
One important catalyst is the growing threat of violent extremism in the Sahel region, affecting countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. This security challenge has added to the existing discontent and contributed to the desire for change. Furthermore, many of these nations struggle with long-time endemic poverty. Citizens often witness the extraction of abundant resources from their countries, yet these resources fail to translate into tangible improvements in their lives. For instance, Burkina Faso, being the fourth largest gold exporter in Africa and the fourteenth in the world, exported $7.71 billion worth of gold in 2021. However, 37% of the population, approximately 7.5 million people, continue to live below the poverty line.
Moreover, governments are frequently perceived as pawns by which French interests are advanced, with the country’s elites benefiting from this at the expense of the greater population. This speaks to a larger national issue, namely, corruption and the government's inability to establish stable institutions that could allow the nation to engage with France and other foreign powers on a more equitable basis. This topic of French involvement with elites in the country became central to the discourse of the coup setters, in addition to the protesters who supported them. For example, in Niger, allegations that President Mohamed Bazoum was a puppet for French interests were used to legitimise his removal from power.
While demonstrators marched through Niger's capital, Niamey, expressing their discontent with France, many of them simultaneously displayed their support for Russia, shouting “Long Live Putin” and waving Russian flags. This speaks to the growing influence that Russia has been having in Western and Central African countries in recent years. In 2019, President Putin hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia, followed by another in July 2023. These summits have been aimed at expanding Russo-African diplomatic, economic, and defence ties.
For instance, Russia's Wagner Group mercenaries have become active in Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic, underlining their increasing presence in the region. Furthermore, a significant development occurred in October 2023 when Russia and Burkina Faso signed an agreement to construct a nuclear power plant to provide electricity to a population where 50% currently lack access to this essential resource.
While it may appear that Russia is extending assistance to these former French colonies, there is a prevailing belief that predatory motives drive this assistance. Many argue that Russia's intentions may be to take over France as the dominant power in the region, not to help it but to exploit it further.
The history of Françafrique is complex and has profoundly impacted the current relationships between France and its former African colonies. However, as we look to the future, there are still many uncertainties. These are some of the questions I’m asking: 1. Will the anti-French sentiment and the 'coup-belt' phenomenon spread to other former French colonies, possibly extending to nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Cameroon? 2. How will France and the United States try to counter Russia's growing influence in the region? 3. Do these coups signify the potential for genuine change and growth that the citizens of these nations so desperately hope for, or will they merely mark a new phase in the perpetuation of the same old cycle? The answers, I believe, will only be told in time, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think below!