After a spate of coup d’états in recent years across west and central Africa, Manitou Nsaka questions if this is the end of Françafrique on the African continent?
Before attaining independence from France, west and central African countries faced pressure to use the CFA Franc, a currency backed by the French treasury. Under Ahmed Sekou Touré’s leadership, the Republic of Guinea rejected membership in the CFA Franc region, and established its own currency system. The French decided to retaliate. Their intelligence agency dropped bags full of counterfeit Guinea Francs printed in France from helicopters and planes around the country in 1959. Known as ‘Operation Persil,’ it lasted for months, leaving the Guinean economy in a dire state.
Sekou Toure was one of the earlier victims of a neocolonial doctrine called Françafrique, a term coined by François-Xavier Verschave, used to describe clandestine interventions, operations, and illicit business activities carried out by France in order to protect its interests.
During a four-nation tour of Africa by President Emmanuel Macron of France, earlier this year to repair ties, Macron announced France would no longer meddle in its former colonies’ internal affairs. However, it’s not the first time a French president has made such a pledge.
In the late 1980s, Africa joined the call for democracy that was already resonating in eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. While popular uprisings had long been an intermittent element of African politics, the fall of the Berlin Wall sparked mass protests and challenged incumbent governments like never before. Indeed, mass protests took place in Francophone countries; the Republic of Benin, Madagascar, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire.
In a speech made at a Franco-African summit in La Baule, France, in 1990, the then French president, François Mitterrand, acknowledged the inevitability of democratic transformation in Africa. He went on to say France would continue to play a leading role in Africa, but this time it would be in a reduced capacity. However, the reality on the ground revealed a different picture. A report published in 2006 by France’s Senate Commission, France and the management of African crises: what possible changes?, revealed that France was still grappling with the idea of abandoning the Françafrique doctrine sixteen years after la Baule. The report concluded, rather controversially, that “Disengagement is not only impossible, Africa being our close foreigner…..A French withdrawal would be very odd at a time when other countries are attempting to strengthen their positions.”
In August, members of the Gabonese military announced on national television that they had seized power, extending Africa’s coup belt into central Africa. They claimed the election results were null and void, all borders had been closed, and various government entities, including both chambers of parliament had been dissolved.
Jean-Luc Melanchon, a former French presidential candidate, denounced the French government’s African policy on X, formerly Twitter. At a time when “Africans are turning the page, Macron will have, once again, compromised France by supporting the unbearable to the end,” he wrote. Marie Le Pen, the French far-right leader of Rassemblement National, questioned France’s Africa strategy in a lengthy post. “What is the coherence of your African policy when we see the pitiful results in Chad, Mali, Niger and now in one of the most historically Francophile countries in Africa?”
In previous decades, the strategy of France towards Africa was little more than superficial reforms aimed at restoring France’s reputation in Africa, while trying to maintain dominance through other methods. Given the presence of other global powers, such as China, India, and Russia in the former “closed shop” of French-speaking Africa, the reluctance to change is surprising.
Concerned about being driven out of Africa entirely as a result of Macron’s misguided policies, two senators submitted an open letter to the French president in August, requesting a reassessment of France’s African policy. The letter was signed by 94 legislators from various political parties. In the letter published by Le Figaro, a French national daily, the senators argue that France’s fondness for Françafrique is an aberration that has only served to conceal its diplomatic failures and setbacks in Africa.
It is no accident that these coups are occurring in former French colonies where poverty is endemic. Anglophone Africa, in contrast, has a reasonably stable political and economic environment. Francophone Africa still lacks an effective governance system and institutions to address its development issues. Gabon serves as a prime example, despite having abundant natural resources, it currently ranks as the tenth most indebted nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a bilateral debt amounting to $174 million. The IMF published a damning report on the poor administration of public investments between 2010 and 2019 (during the Ali Bongo era) in 2020, alleging that the regime and its allies emptied public coffers by more than $5 billion.
“I really despise this notion of hand-me-downs for Africa, and for our
community. I can’t stand it. We deserve the best.”
Similarly, Niger, which deposed its president just five weeks before the Gabonese coup, has a poorly diversified economy, with agriculture accounting for 40%of its GDP. According to the World Bank, more than 10 million people (41.8% of the population) were living in extreme poverty in 2021.
While France condemned the military coup in Niger and Gabon, it has failed to use its influence to guarantee honest elections, democratic legitimacy, political fairness, and adherence to the rule of law in the states it supports.
The majority of the general population strongly supports these military takeovers because they see the army as a pragmatic tool to get rid of autocratic rule.
Francophone Africa is at a turning point. Paul Biya, who has been in power in Cameroon for 41 years, approved the retirement of 83 senior officers hours after the coup in Gabon. Similarly, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, since 2000, also approved the promotions and appointments of some army officers.
A domino effect appears to be developing; the military takeover in Gabon is the eighth coup in west and central Africa since 2020, and the end of the Francophone era is imminent. However, if the leaders of the coups want to demonstrate that they’re not opportunists, they need to engage in frank dialogue with the civil society and the political class.