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The Scramble for French Africa
September 4, 2023
On August 30, a military coup d’etat took place in Gabon, a former French colony, just one month after another coup in Niger and six others. A “coup contagion” in the past three years afflicts former French colonies, as other “colonizers” exploit or foment their instability. The biggest player is China, with its mercantilist Belt and Road Initiative, but there’s also Russia and its Wagner mercenaries that have stoked political unrest across Africa in return for fees, gold mines, oilfields, and influence. What’s underway is a second “Scramble for Africa”, the name ascribed to the colonization, partition, and plunder by seven European nations that took place over centuries. Decolonization occurred after the Second World War with mixed results. The British left behind mostly viable democracies, but France and others left behind messy autocracies. “There is a feeling in Francophone African countries that the French always sided with the people in power, regardless of whether they were popular,” said Senegalese human rights lawyer, Ibrahima Kane, of the Open Society Foundation. “There is always a very strong connection between France and the government who, in many situations, are not very friendly with their own population.”
France’s post-colonial template, or “Françafrique”, was to extend its sphere of influence in sub-Saharan Africa by signing defense agreements with the leaders of its former French colonies. This required the deployment of thousands of troops. Between 1960 and the mid-1990s there were 122 military interventions to settle disputes and problems in the region — a burden from which France has been gradually withdrawing. “It lost interest which was an injustice to these countries,” commented Kenyan advisor Stella Agara to Al Jazeera TV. She cited the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron went to the francophone region recently and demonstrated the ”disconnection” by talking mostly about “climate change”.
Britain’s colonies fared better, said African affairs analyst Emmanuel Bensah, because its decolonization template was to build strong democratic and judicial institutions in each country. As a result, British colonies have fostered large civil societies that work together, with the help of strong media, to hold governments accountable. “The challenge [for French colonies] has always been because, for the longest time, a lot of things were dictated by France, which did not allow for room for local civil society to grow," he said.
France offered only military intervention, in partnership with local strong men, which has caused resentment – a sentiment that was on full display in these coups. For instance, Niger’s junta ordered the expulsion of the French ambassador and France’s 1,500 French troops by September 3. (Paris refuses to accede until a proper election is held and the result is a standoff that may lead to violence.) Coup leaders in Mali, the Central African Republic, and Burkina Faso have all rejected French involvement from now on. Such anti-French “contagion” has spread to the Ivory Coast and Senegal as well as to North Africa where France’s relations with its former colonies there – Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria – have become extremely hostile. Arab News noted: “The main issue is that despite uttering words of regret for colonialism, France continues to lecture, rather than engage in meaningful relationships.”
Another challenge in Africa is religion. There are clashes between Islamics and Christians, but jihadists plague all groups in the Sahel which is the region below the Sahara stretching from Senegal to Kenya. France has failed to decisively overcome terrorism and attacks on local communities and security forces continue. Niger, according to observers, has been more effective in halting al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and Islamic State in the region. But fears are that its coup leaders may abandon this effort, which will generate more instability.
The other predatory player is Russia whose Wagner Group has provided political, propaganda, and military advice to cause trouble. Its future is uncertain, following the assassination of its entire leadership team and founders, but it will continue in some guise because of its profitability and success in overturning governments in former French colonies — Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea. It’s also involved in North Africa.
France’s withdrawal, and failure to leave behind strong democracies, has left military action as the only solution for francophone Africans to address their problems of poverty and oppression caused by dictatorships and kleptocracies. Unfortunately, military juntas may keep the peace and replace odious leaders, but are no guarantee that democracy or the rule of law will follow. They often simply swap one kleptocrat for another. In Gabon, for instance, the General who led the coup is a cousin of the dictator and also made a fortune over the years working for the government. This means it may have merely been a family squabble and not a peoples’ revolution aimed at positive change. But at least some coups leaders promise to introduce fair elections, checks and balances, press freedoms, and independent courts.
Upheaval in France’s colonies has embarrassed the French and upset the six million North Africans and three million French nationals of sub-Saharan African origin who live there as naturalized citizens and/or second-generation immigrants. The controversy is an enormous political issue. Last week, President Macron got a letter from 100 senators lamenting the “failures and setbacks” of France’s policy in Africa and asking him to devise a new strategy. But the reality is that reforms are decades too late: France is pulling out.
As this historical de-linking unfolds, the world’s other big players – China, Russia, the United States, and terrorist organizations – wait and watch. There is new interest from Turkey, Israel, and India, but the giant foreign incumbent is China. As of August 2022, its official Belt and Road website listed 52 African countries that have signed onto an agreement or understanding with the One Belt One Road initiative. Beijing has been building infrastructure all over the continent for years in return for resource concessions, favorable commodity prices, and access to markets. Africa is now a key part of China's “economic empire” and includes railway, road, ports, and energy projects. Already established, its penetration will expand as these new regimes look for foreign investment and economic development.
America has mostly been involved in providing aid, humanitarian and economic. Three dozen African nations participate in its African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which gives preferential access to U.S. markets by eliminating import tariffs and other development programs. This initiative will undoubtedly be bolstered, but Washington is also concerned about the spread of autocracies. “We are going to watch this closely, and we're going to continue to do everything we can to support the idea of democratic ideals that are expressed by the African people,” said White House national security spokesman John Kirby.
China’s reaction has been muted. For instance, it commented recently that it “closely follows the development of the situation in Gabon and calls on relevant parties in Gabon to restore normal order as soon as possible… and ensure the personal safety of President Bongo, maintain national peace, stability, and overall development,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry. Russia feigned concern over Africa’s unrest even though it has played a key role in many coups.
Thus the next “Scramble for Africa” begins. And the outcome is unknown. As the Senators’ letter to Macron said: “Yesterday’s `Françafrique’ has been replaced by military `Russafrique’, economic `Chinafrique’, or diplomatic `Américafrique’.”