Francophone Africa’s Scramble for Self-Reliant Sovereignty: Beyond France’s ‘Incroyable Mais Vrai’

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Francophone Africa’s scramble for self-reliant independence and sovereignty is a big surprise to France as a people, in general, and as a government, in particular. For the French, it is ‘incroyable mais vrai’, that is, ‘unbelievable but true.’ The French cannot easily believe that their former colonized people can declare them personae non grata in their countries.

European scramble for Africa, which culminated into the 1884 and 1885 Berlin Conferences and agreements, is gradually being replaced by a new reactive scramble some Francophone African countries. While the Berlin scramble was largely predicated on the sermons of ‘Missions Civilisatrices’ (Civilisation Missions), exploitative partitioning of Africa into zones of influence, and governance of Africa by manu militari, the reactive Francophone scramble is to stop the unending exploitative impact of the alleged European civilisation mission in Africa, beginning from their countries. The objective is also to replace it with a self-reliant and totally self-dependent sovereignty. The Francophone scramble therefore appears to be a direct negation of the Berlin spirit which sought the partitioning of Africa into zones of influence as an instrument of self-developmental promotion through divide and rule policies.

For instance, some Francophone African countries are currently trying to chase France out of Africa by using coup making to oust incumbent governments which owe political allegiance more to France than to their home country. The coups, though carried out by military junta, have always been endorsed by the people. Consequently, there is the need to differentiate this type of military-supported coups which are not only aimed at simply changing the incumbent president and his government, but also to stop French exploitative influence.

In the eyes of the French they do not see themselves as exploiters but as helpers. Francophone Africans believe that France aids and abets bad governance and therefore organize coups to stop bad governance, politico-economic corruption and other political irrationality. Thus, coups d’état are instruments for fighting against France and for freedom.

Francophone Africa’s Scramble 

The scramble for sovereign self-reliance began with the Malian coup of 18 August 2020 at the Kati military base outside of Bamako. This was the foundation of the scramble. Malians engaged in public protests led by the June 5 Movement (officially known as June 5 – Rally of Patriotic Forces) for several days which prompted the military, under Assimi Goita, to take advantage of the situation to lunch a coup d’état against the elected government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keїta (IBK). The Rally wanted the president to resign for his failure to tackle the dire economy and Mali’s eight-year Jihadist conflict.

Another rally in which thousands of people were involved and which lasted for three days, was held on July 10, 2020 not only turned violent but also escalated the political crisis: bridges were blocked. The parliament building was attacked. In fact, clashes with security left 11 people dead and 158 people injured. The anger about this has served as a basis for unification of the people, especially the religious figures and civil society leaders, and military leaders involved in Mali’s 2012 coup.

As explained by Emily Cole of the United States Institute of Peace (Making Peace Possible), it was an argument over promotion at a military base on August 18, 2020 that prompted the rising tensions to culminate into a mutiny. Besides, Mali’s 2012 coup led to growing regional instability while regional and international efforts to stabilize Mali focused excessively on security but neglecting decades of failed governance. Perhaps more importantly, Emily Cole had it that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keїta (IBK) ‘was a symbol of government corruption, of international interference and inaction, of ongoing instability.’ In short, he has come to represent the failure of governance that has led to huge losses of life, mostly civilians, in Mali. 

At the level of France’s reactions, Mali’s ties with France began to be tainted when a second coup occurred on May 24, 2021. The Vice President, Assimi Goїta, captured President Bah N’daw, Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, and Minister of Defence, Souleymane Doucouré. 

. Contrary to the wishes of France, the military junta in power refused to set an early date for the restoration of civilian rule. The Bamako authorities accused France of inciting hostility of Mali’s neighbours towards the Malian junta. This mésentente was aggravated with the Mali-Russia rapprochement in 2021, with Russia sending military instructors to Mali, and with the involvement of the pro-Kremlin Wagner group. 

More disturbingly, in January 2023 the French Ambassador to Mali, Joel Meyer, was declared unwanted by the Malian government. In February 2023 France announced the pulling out of its troops from Mali and those of the French-led Takuba Force. In fact, the three agreements that provide the legal foundation for French militaries in Mali were denounced allegedly because of a ‘blatant violation of Mali’s national sovereignty by France.’ France was accused of spying and subversion. As further explained by Abdoulaye Diop, Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, there was no longer ‘a legal basis for France to operate on Malian soil…Anything which takes place on the territory of a sovereign state should be discussed and agreed with the state which is in place.

What is noteworthy here is the major causal factor of the misunderstanding. Malians consider that the French troops had been in Mali since 2013 continuously without being able to contain terrorism and which had been spreading from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger Republic. The conduct and management of the crisis, especially by France, is another problem. When France suspended the issuance of visas to Malians, the Bamako military junta also reciprocated. When President Emmanuel Macron visited Benin, Cameroon and Guinea Bissau, he said West African nations should ensure that Malians should ‘express the sovereignty of the people, build a framework of stability’ to allow an ‘effective fight against terrorist group.’ In response to President Macron, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, spokesman to the military junta, said on public television that ‘the transitional government demands President Macron to permanently abandon his neocolonial, paternalistic and patronizing posture and to understand that no one can love Mali better than Malians.’

As regards Burkina Faso, the story of Franco-Burkinabe relations is not different. France is opposed to the coup d’état in Burkina Faso. Because of the French opposition, the Ouagadougou authorities told the French Ambassador to leave their country. Thereafter, Burkina Faso denounced ‘the technical military assistance agreement reached in Paris on April 24, 1961,’ including the two appendix.’ Considering that armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL have taken over large swatches of land and displaced millions of people in the south of the Sahara, Burkina Faso authorities asked France in January 2023 to withdraw its troops so that the Burkinabes could begin to defend themselves. The French troops must be pulled out within one month.   

Unlike in Mali where France had 2,400 troops, there were only 400 Special Forces in Burkina Faso. The Burkina Faso transnational government led by Ibrahim Traore suspended the 2018 military accord with France. The spokesman of Government, Rimtalba Jean Emmanuel Ouedraogo, reportedly said: ‘we are terminating the agreement which allows French forces to be in Burkina Faso. This is not the end of diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and France. This termination is normal and is foreseen in the terms of the agreement.’ And more significantly, Ouedraogo said the Burkinabés and the government want ‘to be the prime actors in the recapture of our territory.’

Additionally, Burkinabés attacked the Embassy of France. They turned to Russia as a ‘reasonable choice in this dynamic,’ the Burkinabé Prime Minister reportedly said.  Protesters not only carried Russian flags but were also saying ‘we don’t want the smallest second added to the scheduled date of departure. Let them leave and leave our Faso to us,’ Amadé Maiga again reportedly said. Even though France considers Russia’s influence in troubled African countries as ‘predatory,’ a 58-year-old protester, Amadé Compaoré, has also opined that ‘walking with Russia is not a sin… Russia is the solution.’

From the two cases of Mali and Burkina Faso, two points are made clear. First is the fact that if the French could not contain the spread of Jihadist terrorism since 2013, nothing should prevent seeking an alternative. The chosen alternative is Russia, an arch enemy of the Western world in the making of a new world order. Second, the major concern of the people is not only stoppage of terror but also the end of French neo-colonialism. Will Russia, as an alternative be able to meaningfully solve the problem? Will Russia not be another obstacle to the quest for a self-reliant sovereignty? Will Russia be better than France in the exploitation of the national resources? Will there be transfer of technology, better protection of human rights and democratic culture?

In Niger Republic, even though the conquest of Niger by the French dates back to 1898 and Niger had its political flag independence on August 3rd, 1960, it is still arguable that the Republic of Niger is independent or decolonized. For us, Niger Republic has never known any form of independence. Presidents of Niger Republic need the support of France in order to survive in power.  France has been importing economic raw materials from its colonies since the colonial days and such importations are yet to be stopped as at today, especially from Niger. France imports at least 25% of her nuclear needs from Niger. More than 70% of Niger’s foreign reserves are kept in the French Central Bank. If Niger is to take out of it, interest is still paid to France.

What is problematic and relevant here is that when the Mohammed Bazoum was ousted on July 26, 2023, the French government refused to recognize the new junta under Abdourahamane Tchiani, the President of the National Council for the safeguard of the Homeland of Niger. He replaced President Bazoum. France capitalized on the support of the ECOWAS to restore President Bazoum but to no avail. Aggrieved, France suspended the issuance of visas to Nigeriens, and prevented French cultural centres from collaborating with their counterparts in Niger Republic. The artists in Niger vowed not to beg France. Quo Vadis?

Beyond France’s ‘Incroyable Mais Vrai’ 

Unbelievable, but True’ is not only an issue for France but also for all African observers. France for instance, is much concerned that the French Ambassador was declared persona non grata but was not allowed to go out of the embassy, the ambassador could not eat as explained by President Emmanuel Macron of France. It is unbelievable for President Macron. In this regard, President Macron easily forgets two main issues responsible. First, France is waiting for President Bazoum to come back to power, since the junta in power is not recognized by France. Consequently, France was not prepared to take instructions from an illegal government. Most unfortunately, however, France has been compelled by force majeure to comply with the government’s policy direction, especially when social services to the embassy were suspended. Provision of social services to any embassy is not a function of legality of a government but largely a resultant of a de facto government discharging the duties of a State in international law and relations. 

Secondly, the non-recognised Abdourahamane Tchiani junta gave a time limit for the French Ambassador to check out of Niger Republic but the instruction from government was disregarded by the ambassador. It was at the expiration of the ultimatum given that the civilian population supporting the military government that the Embassy of France was surrounded and that efforts were made to enter the diplomatic premises without the consent of the Ambassador as required by diplomatic conventions. In this regard, the French found this development as unbelievable but it was true.

More importantly, it should be noted that, even though France does not recognize the Abdourahamane Tchiani military junta initially, but later accepted to check out of Niger, the truth is that, by implication, the acceptance to still check out of Niger cannot but be a resultant of the instruction given by the unrecognized government of Niger, which, in the eyes of France, is an illegal government, but which, in the eyes of Nigeriens, is both the de jure and de facto, and the wanted government of Niger Republic. The insistence of the people of Niger that political governance in Niger Republic must not be an expression of neo-colonial mainmise and therefore the people of Niger must remove it by forceful means is unbelievable for the French but it true. 

Without jot of gainsaying, France does not any longer have any modicum of respect in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This is to the extent that they now prefer Russia, even if the country is considered as another devil. In fact, it is mainly because of the pro-Russia Wagner group of mercenaries in Francophone countries that France had to quickly accept to withdraw its troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. France cannot imagine how French troops will be collaborating with the Wagner mercenaries in fighting jihadist terror in the Sahel.

In light of the foregoing, it has become necessary to go beyond France’s incroyable-mais-vrai syndrome to evolving a programmatic new foreign policy of how to respond to future foreign policy on Africa. The gradual chasing out of Africa of France has the potential to serve as a new basis for a new foreign policy attitude, as well as exploring other areas of foreign policy focus. For instance, Nigeria is yet to evolve a well-articulated foreign policy on the participation of Nigerians in Diaspora in Nigeria’s economic, technology, and political development. True enough, there is the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), chaired by Honourable Abike Dabiri who has been actively engaging Nigerians in the Diaspora. However, this engagement has not been translated into a foreign policy posture. The engagement is currently at the level of bilateral conversations between the Government of Nigeria and the Nigerians in Diaspora. 

Whereas, having a foreign policy posture necessarily takes the conversations beyond the bilateral level to plurilateral and multilateral levels, and therefore making the Nigerians in Diaspora a question to be addressed in the various dimensions of Nigeria’s foreign relations. Indeed, more often than not, what we have always seen is unnecessary complaints that the NIDCOM is usurping the functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although the activities of any Ministry of Foreign Affairs necessarily fall under the purview of Public International Law while those of the NIDCOM also necessarily fall under International Private Law, this difference in categorization requires reconciliation. There must be a place for the Diaspora in the conduct and management of Diaspora resources.

Additionally, there is neither any foreign policy on bilateral and multilateral agreement negotiation nor on international technology transfer.  For instance, there is no foreign policy targeted specifically at Nigeria’s economic independence or self-reliance in the current mania of Francophone Africa fighting France now.

Another area of concern is what happens to the aspect of special and privileged relationship between France and Francophone Africa? The elements of the special relationship are quite interesting: The first is the CFA franc, which was officially created on 26th December by a decree of General Charles de Gaulle to foster economic integration among the colonies and to ensure effective control of their resources, economic structures and systems. At the time of independence in 1960, the colonial currency was redesigned for both West Africa and Central Africa. West Africa comprised eight countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo known as WAEMU – and became the African Financial Community (AFC as English Acronym and CFA in French). The Central African region comprises Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad, all constituting the Central African Financial Cooperation (CAEMC).

The two currencies are not inter-changeable but have a fixed exchange rate with the French franc and later with the euro: 655.957 CFA. France guarantees unlimited convertibility of the CFA franc. All the foreign exchange reserves are centralize. And more importantly, since 2005, the BCEAO (Central Bank of West African States and the BEAC (Bank of Central African States) are required to always deposit fifty percent of their foreign exchange reserves in a special French Treasury ‘operating account.’ 

Without doubt, there are proponents and opponents of the CFA franc. For instance, President Idriss Déby noted on 11 August 2015 during the 55th anniversary of the independence of Chad that ‘we must have the courage to say there is a cord preventing development in Africa that must be severed.’ The cord being referred to is the CFA franc. Now that many Francophone African countries are chasing France out of their countries, what now happens to the CFA franc? The ECOWAS agreed to have a regional currency to be named Eco. The Francophone Member States worked against it by naming their CFA franc Eco. The Eco is expected to still be guaranteed by France and convertibility to the euro is still guaranteed. Can the reduction in France’s influence in West Africa enhance greater integration in the region? France is Nigeria’s neighbour by geo-political propinquity. France is not wanted in faraway Mali and Burkina Faso and in neighbouring Niger Republic. But France is still welcomed in Benin, Chad, and Cameroon. How will Nigeria begin to respond to France’s new image in Africa? Franco-Nigerian rapprochement in this context has problems. If Nigeria is hobnobbing with France, it also has the potential of antagonizing the Francophone African countries seeking to free themselves from the clutches of politico-colonial and economico-cultural imprisonment of France. There is the need for re-strategy.

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