… as we call on France to do the honourable thing and withdraw, we should also rebuke Africa’s leaders who have not only put their interests above that of their people but have also turned the instruments of regional intervention and development (like the AU and ECOWAS) into tools for ensuring their political survival
FRANCE ruined Haiti, the first black country to become independent in 1804. France is on the course to ruining all its former African colonies. It is no coincidence that the recent spate of coups in Africa has manifested in former French African colonies (so-called Francophone Africa), once again redirecting the global spotlight on France’s activities in the region. And that the commentaries, especially amongst Africans, have been most critical of France and its continued interference in the region.
This is coming at the backdrop of France’s continuous meddling in the economic and political affairs of “independent” Francophone countries, an involvement which has seen it embroiled, both directly and indirectly, in a series of unrests, corruption controversies and assassinations that have bedevilled the region since independence. Unlike Britain and other European countries with colonial possessions in Africa, France never left—at least not in the sense of the traditional distance observed since independence by the other erstwhile colonial overlords. Instead, it has, under the cover of a policy of coopération (cooperation) within the framework of an extended “French Community,” continued to maintain a perceptible cultural, economic, political and military presence in Africa.
On the surface, the promise of coopération between France and its former colonies in Africa—which presupposes a relationship of mutual benefit between politically independent nations—where the former would, through the provision of technical and military assistance, lead the development/advancement of its erstwhile colonial “family,” is both commendable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. However, when this carefully scripted façade is juxtaposed with the reality that has unfolded over the decades, what is revealed is an extensive conspiracy involving individuals at the highest levels of the French government. Along with other influential business interests—also domiciled in France—they have worked with a select African elite to orchestrate the most extensive and heinous crimes against the people of today’s Francophone Africa. A people who, even today, continues to strain under the weight of France’s insatiable greed.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s. The decision to give in to African demands for independence was not the outcome of any benevolence or civilized reason on the part of Europe but for economic and political expedience. Thus, when the then President of France, Charles de Gaulle—who nurtured an ambition to see France maintain its status as a world power—agreed to independence for its African colonies, it was only a pre-emptive measure to check the further loss of French influence on the continent. In other words, the political liberation offered “on a platter of gold,” as a means to avoid the development of other costly wars of independence which, a World War II depleted, France was already fighting in Indochina and Algeria.
Independence was, thus, only the first step in ensuring the survival of French interests in Africa and, more importantly, its prioritization. Pursuant to this objective, De Gaulle also proposed a “French Community”—delivered on the same “golden platter”—as a caveat to continued French patronage. As such, the over ninety-eight per cent of its colonies which agreed to be part of this community were roped into signing coopération accords—covering economic, political, military and cultural sectors—by Jacques Foccart, a former intelligence member of the French Resistance in the Second World War, handpicked by De Gaulle. This signing of coopération accords between France and the colonies, which opted to be part of its post-independence French Community’ marked the beginning of France’s neo-colonial regime in Africa, where Africans got teachers and despotic leaders in exchange for their natural resources and French military installations.
Commonly referred to as Françafrique—a pejorative derivation from Felix Houphouet Boigny’s “France-Afrique,” describing the close ties between France and Africa—France’s neo-colonial footprint in Africa has been characterized by allegations of corruption and other covert activities perpetrated through various Franco-African economic, political and military networks. An essential feature of Françafrique is the crookish mafia-like relations between French leaders and their African counterparts, which was reinforced by a dense web of personal networks. On the French side, African ties, which had been French presidents’ domaine réservé (sole responsibility) since 1958, was run by an “African cell” founded and managed by Jacques Foccart. Comprising French presidents, powerful influential members of the French business community and the French secret service, this cell operated outside the purview of the French parliament, its civil society organization, and non-governmental organisations. This created a window for corruption, as politicians and state officials took part in business arrangements, which amounted to state racketeering.
Whereas pro-French sentiments in Africa, and without, still argue for France’s continuous presence and contributions, particularly in the area of military intervention and economic aid, which they say have been critical to security, political stability and economic survival in the region, such arguments intentionally play down the historical consequences of French interests in the region. Enjoying a free reign in the region—backed mainly by the United States and Britain since the Cold War—France used the opportunity to strengthen its hold on its former colonies. This translated into the development of a franc zone—a restrictive monetary policy tying the economies of Francophone countries to France—as well as the adoption of an active interventionist approach, which has produced over 120 military interventions across fourteen dependent states between 1960 and the 1990s. These interventions, which were either to rescue stranded French citizens, put down rebellions, prevent coups, restore order, or uphold French-favoured regimes, have rarely been about improving the fortunes of the general population of Francophone Africa. French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger. At the same time, its joint military action in Libya was responsible for unleashing Islamic terrorism threatening to engulf countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
In pursuit of its interests in Africa, France has made little secret of its contempt for all independent and populist reasons while upholding puppet regimes. In Guinea in 1958, De Gaulle embarked on a ruthless agenda to undermine the government of Ahmed Sékou Touré—destroying infrastructure and flooding the economy with fake currency—for voting to stay out of the French Community. This behaviour was again replicated in Togo, where that country’s first president, Sylvio Olympio, was overthrown and gruesomely murdered for daring to establish a central bank for the country outside the Franc CFA Zone. Subsequently, his killer, Gnassingbé Eyadema, assumed office and ruled from 1967 till his death in 2005—after which he was succeeded by his son, who still rules. In Gabon, you had the Bongo family, who ran a regime of corruption and oppression with the open support of France throughout 56 years of unproductive rule. As for Cameroun’s most promising, pan-Africanist pro-independence leader, Felix Moumie, died under mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, paving the way for the likes of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982. France also backs a Senegalese government, which today holds over 1500 political prisoners, and had singlehandedly installed Alhassan Ouattara as president of Cote d’Ivoire.
Therefore, the widespread anti-France sentiment spreading through the populations of Francophone Africa and beyond is not unfounded, as it has become apparent to all and sundry that these countries have not fared well under the shadow of France. In Niger, where France carried out one of the bloodiest campaigns of colonial pacification in Africa—murdering and pillaging entire villages—and which is France’s most important source of uranium, the income per capita was 59 per cent lower in 2022 than it was in 1965. In Cote d’Ivoire, the largest producer of cocoa in the world, the income per capita was 25 per cent lower in 2022 than in 1975. Outside the rampant unemployment, systematic disenfranchisement and infrastructural deficits that characterize these Francophone countries, there’s also the frustration and anger of sitting back to watch helplessly. In contrast, the wealth of your country is being carted away to nations whose people feed fat on your birth right and then turn around to make judgements and other disparaging comments on your humanity and condition of existence. The people are tired of being poor, helpless and judged as third-world citizens! France is a dangerous country.
It is indeed overdue for France to cut its losses — whatever it envisages they are—and step back from its permanent colonies to allow the people of Francophone Africa to decide on their preferred path to the future. After nearly 200 years of take, the people have had good reasons to say France should leave. The restlessness and the coups that have become commonplace in the region are symptoms of deeper underlying social, economic and political problems, including weak institutions, systematic disenfranchisement, poverty, corruption and/or misappropriation of national wealth. And as we call on France to do the honourable thing and withdraw, we should also rebuke Africa’s leaders who have not only put their interests above that of their people but have also turned the instruments of regional intervention and development (like the AU and ECOWAS) into tools for ensuring their political survival.
*Falola, eminent historian and Professor of African Studies is a Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria and of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, and currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin.