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End of Empire? French Influence in Africa

Updated: Mar 17

The disintegration of French influence in Africa seems to signal the end of this ex-colonial power's influence. Military take-overs in a number of countries with French ties such as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, violence by Islamists and ethnic rebels, rejection of French, and Western military support: these are all pointers to a radical transformation between these nations and their old colonial masters. But this is not the whole story.

French and American Ambassadors were told to leave Niger. French troops withdraw from Mali. A military coup in Gabon ousts French-aligned leader after 18 years of rule. These and other headlines suggest the end of French influence in Africa.

A quick historical note: After the wave of independence in Africa in the early 1960's, France renegotiated a unique relationship with its erstwhile colonies. Promises of military and political support and the establishment of a French-backed common currency, the CFA, did wonders for the compliant countries, and especially their anointed leaders.

An exception was Guinea, which refused this relationship and chose to align with the Soviet Union. In retaliation, it is said, French officials and businessmen withdrew and destroyed everything they could not carry. Light bulbs were unscrewed, medicines burnt, infrastructure destroyed. 

The term Francafrique came to describe the cordial, some say incestuous relationship between French leaders and their African counterparts. Not unlike the relationship between then USA and South American leaders, which Roosevelt famously summed up with the expression, 'He is a bastard, but he is our bastard,' le francafrique entailed links between politicians, French companies, including the oil and gas giant Total, and the French secret services. Underhand oil deals, diamonds and other goods were exchanged for political and military support.

The result was that satisfaction with democracy has dropped significantly in many African countries due to election corruption and the propping up of life-long dictators. The recent spate of coups saw the toppling of regimes of twenty and thirty years' rule.

While the continental organization has failed to address these take-overs and while foreign (notably, Russian influence has much to do with this phenomenon), the origin must be sought in the lack of governance, the lack of service delivery to the people. It is a fact that smuggling networks have much to do with the development of rebels and notably jihadist groups, but in the end failure by Government to provide security, economic stability and growth inevitably leads to the citizens beginning to support alternative groups and power centers that promise them these basic elements of life. 

This problem is not limited to Francophone Africa, although leaders like Paul Bia of Cameroon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso must be trembling in their shoes. Sudan has seen one military government after the other, Ghana is under pressure as is Nigeria. Zimbabwe has just had elections that saw even close and formerly loyal neighbors criticizing the outcome and talks of a palace coup circulated recently. In all these cases foreign interests stand ready to profit from instability and distrust of citizens in their governments. 

Unless African politicians and their counterparts realize that they are the servants of the people they set themselves up for removal, by force. 

A Ugandan farmer told me that, if a cow does not give milk to its owners the problem us usually too many parasites, too many ticks. And they have to be pulled off by force. He was not talking about farming.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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