Monday, 27 December 2010

The Bogey of African-French Relations

(This essay, first published in [March 2003], sets the context that helps explain the increasingly desperate French position on the ongoing crisis in Côte d’Ivorie)

It never ceases to amaze how very hypocritical indeed French foreign policy considerations can be especially when it comes to Africa. For a country that has displayed unrelenting opposition to the ongoing US and British military intervention in Iraq, France appears to be basking in the global populist imagination as perhaps the country that not only invented the concept of “non-intervention” in other countries’ internal affairs, but is guided unambiguously by this principle in its own policy in practice.

The robust performance of Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin during those dramatic January-March 2003 UN Security Council debates on Iraq would have added vivid credibility to this assumption. In one memorable session in these debates, de Villepin’s opposition to military intervention drew unprecedented applause from even usually reticent diplomats. Such were the liberatory contents in de Villepin’s address that one would not have been too mistaken if they thought that these had been derived, unedited, from the seminal papers of Amilcar Cabral!

Yet a few weeks after these declarations and coupled with the preoccupation of an international media audience intensely focused on the unfolding Iraqi crisis, France intervened militarily in the Central African Republic (CAR). In the wake of a coup d’état that had toppled the Angé-Felix Patassé regime in Bangui (CAR capital), France sent its troops into the country under the pretext of “protecting French nationals” – the standard French rationalisation for its military interventions in Africa in the past 43 years which, in reality, are aimed at protecting the extensively entrenched socio-economic and strategic interests that Paris still wields across its former conquered African countries. France’s mid-March invasion of the CAR is its second military intervention in Africa this year and the 48th since 1960.

Earlier on in January 2003, France had significantly escalated its 2002 intervention in Côte d’Ivorie, to the west, by reinforcing its overall troop-deployment to about 3000 and expanding the so-called sandwich territory between it and the forces of the Ivorian state and north-based insurgents. Given the frequency and the tally of its military interventions in Africa since 1960, France has, contrary to prevailing international perception, the worst record of Northern World power state military intervention in the Southern World.

Quintessential target

Africa has been the quintessential target of French military interventionism during this period because immanent in the worldview of the French political establishment, irrespective of ideological/political colouration, none of the former French-conquered and occupied African states is really seen as independent or sovereign by any breadth or shade of either of these definitions. Instead, according to this conception, these are “francophone” backwoods, which, at best, have some measure of local administrative autonomy (hence, “francophone Africa”!), with ultimate sovereign power lodged back in Europe – in Paris. If recent evidence from the highest level of political authority of the French state is required to buttress this line of thought, we should recall that very introspectively frank declaration made on the subject in the early 1990s by Francois Mitterand, the former socialist president of France: “Without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century”.

It was however Mitterand’s conservative Guallist party presidential counterpart, Charles de Gaulle, who, 50 years earlier, had inaugurated the now well-known French obsession to control Africa in perpetuity. The irony of the circumstances was indeed not lost on anyone. Despite France’s early capitulation to Germany in 1940 in the latter’s war of aggression against its neighbours, de Gaulle, then exiled leader of the anti-German “French Free Forces” struggling desperately to effect French liberation, was himself vociferously opposed to the liberation of Africa. Africa, we mustn’t forget, was then under the jackboot of French occupation and those of its British and Belgian wartime allies. During the 1944 Brazzaville conference of French “overseas” governors which de Gaulle chaired, he was adamant in what he saw as his vision of the future of French-occupied Africa: “Self-government must be rejected – even in the more distant future”.

Supercilious antagonism

De Gaulle’s supercilious antagonism to African liberation was of course not unique at the time. Similar sentiments were evident in the position of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, who insisted that he had not attained his position as head of government to “preside over the liquidation of the British empire”. The Belgian king and government who barely resisted Germany’s attack and overrun of their country beyond three weeks in May 1940, were themselves equally unwilling to discontinue their occupation of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) after Germany’s eventual defeat in 1945. This was in spite of the central role that the Congo played in the financing of the Belgian war effort (including the entire expenses of the country’s exiled royal family and government in London), which totalled the grand sum of £40 million. “In fact, thanks to the resources of the Congo, the Belgian government [in exile] in London had not to borrow a shilling or a dollar, and the Belgian gold reserve could be left intact”, recalls Robert Godding, the then Belgian government-in-exile secretary with direct responsibility for the occupation of the Congo.

But unlike British and Belgian leaders, de Gaulle pursued France’s long time ambitions in Africa with megalomaniac intensity in the years after 1945 – opposing African liberation projects in the western and central regions of the continent under French occupation as well as on the islands off the east coast in the Indian Ocean especially Madagascar. However in 1958, de Gaulle changed track, somewhat, in his anti-African independence drive. Stung and disillusioned by the 1954 spectacular and humiliating defeat of French forces in Vietnam and the looming disaster in its ongoing war in Algeria, de Gaulle produced a document for a purported future of African freedom. In the main, this document envisioned a circumscribed African independence outcome that would ensure continuing French political and economic hegemony in Africa. Apart from Guinea, which opposed it when it was put to a referendum, France succeeded in imposing the document on the rest of its occupied states, with evident compliance with some segments of the African leaderships of the restoration-of-independence movement and the all too familiar tragic consequences since. The stage was now set for France to invoke the licence, at its own choosing, to intervene in the political process of any of its prized African lands of “francophonie”: invade, intimidate, manipulate, install, antagonise, ingratiate, indemnify, expropriate, invade, intimidate...

Hardly any of these 22 African countries in “francophonie” escaped this epoch of witnessing the invasion of their territory by some contingent of the French military from one of its numerous bases in the region or from those further away in Corsica. Each of these states “hosts” a French military base of varying capabilities and configuration as part of this overarching network in which Dakar, Sénégal, is at the epicentre, in turn linked to requisite interventionist brigades positioned back home in Corsica. Thanks to this network, the French military has invaded this African “francophonie” enclave 50 times since 1960 – from Chad to the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Côte d’Ivoire to the Comoros. Such invasions provide the French the opportunity to directly manipulate local political trends in line with their strategic objectives, install new client regimes, if need be, and expand the parameters of expropriation of critical resources even further. On this score, the DRC (or Zaïre or Congo-Kinshasa as it has been variously called), the jewel in the crown of “francophonie”, is aptly illustrative. Between 1961 and 1996, France intervened militarily in the country 17 times to prop up the notorious dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko which ravaged one of Africa’s richest economies. Countries such as Central African Republic (or Central African Empire as it was known when it was ruled, literally, by the very francophile acolyte and dictator, Jean-Bedel Bokassa), Rwanda (French military intervention was ongoing in the country as the forces of the pro-French central government perpetrated its dreadful genocide against the Tutsi in the mid-1990s), Burundi, Djibouti and Chad bore the brunt of the invasions as France sought to enforce or safeguard the fortunes of one client regime or the other. For France, therefore, its hegemonic control of “francophone Africa” in the past 40 years has been a lucrative and prestigious rearguard quest to maintain a stranglehold of influence in the Southern World despite the obvious militarily weakened position of its overall international status after the end of the Second World War. Jacques Godfrain, who was a former head of the French foreign ministry, is perfectly right to observe: “A little country, with a small amount of strength, we can move a planet because [of our] ... relations... with 15 or 20 African countries”.

This factor is crucial in understanding why the seemingly “humanist” tenor of French foreign policy rhetoric the world has witnessed lately over Iraq lacks resonance in the African auditorium. Yet despite its near-monolithic activity in the lives of a generation and the resultant semblance of durability, the importance and influence of “francophonie” in Africa is beginning to wane. Events in Africa in the past 10 years have seriously weakened and undermined its efficacy. The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, organised premeditatedly by France’s ruthless local clients in power in Kigali whilst a French expeditionary force was operating in the country, was a monumental indictment of the entire “francophonie”  project in Africa. France could not escape some complicity in this horrific slaughter of 800,000 Africans. Pointedly, there has been a partial eclipse of French influence in this central/southern Africa region since the genocide.

The popular overthrow and subsequent death in exile of Congolese dictator Mobutu, during the same period, was a further blow to the fortunes of “francophonie”  in the region. Elsewhere in the empire, the tentacles of “francophonie”  were also beginning to unravel. The situation in the Côte d'Ivoire economic powerhouse was of particular relevance. The sudden death in 1993 of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the Ivorian political colossus who had been state president since 1960, created a serious crisis of succession in the country that still remains unresolved. In 2002, it became the background of a tragic war between the state and insurgents in its north region and the precipitate collapse of Africa’s most successful economy. In Sénégal, France’s attempt to continue to dictate its choice of leaders in“francophonie” was rejected massively in the 2000 presidential elections when Abdoulaye Wade, the veteran opposition politician, defeated Abdou Diouf, the incumbent president and Paris’s much preferred candidate.

In a desperate effort to stem the steady decline of  “francophonie” , France embarked on its biennial so-called African-French summit that extends invitation to leaders of non-league states. It was in this context of “francophonie”-extension in the 1990s that France intensely courted the friendship of Sani Abacha, the Nigerian dictator and genocidist military commander who participated in the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide, who was at the time internationally quarantined as a result of his regime’s gross human rights violations. Abacha’s predictable appreciation at this gesture of breaking out of painful political and economic isolation was followed by a deft regime decision that keyed into the inner workings of the infrastructure of“francophonie”: Nigeria would hence embark on an intensive educational/allied cultural programme to adopt French as an additional lingua franca to English! Paris was of course delighted! But it was very short-lived indeed. The lingua franca opportunism died with the genocidist and dictator in 1998!

It was also in the context of the forum of “francophonie”-extension that President Jacques Chirac insisted on his invitation of Zimbabwean President Mugabe to last February’s summit between him and African leaders in Paris despite the European Union ban on travels to member states by principal Zimbabwean state leaders. Chirac was of course not interested in discussing with his guests how to find lasting solutions to the acute crises besetting Zimbabwe nor indeed those of the wider continent. He had literally “summoned” these leaders of “francophonie”-extension to Paris to endorse a solely French-prepared, so-called African-French Declaration on Iraq. This was nothing but the French position on its turbulent two-cornered diplomatic stand-off on the possibilities of a US-led war in Iraq – against Britain and Spain in the European Union, and against the US, Britain and Spain at the United Nations. France brooked no debate with the visiting Africans on the subject (not to mention the central and east European prospective members of the European Union that it had ordered to “shut up!” for daring to oppose its stance whilst siding with the US’s) even though it exuded enormous pride in debating its opposition openly against both the US and Britain! Most disgracefully of course, the world did not know of the independent views of the 50 visiting African heads of regime who had variously travelled 3000-12000 miles to the summit. It was left to Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, the affable Senegalese foreign minister, to put a brave face on an awkward situation when he claimed, albeit unconvincingly, that the African voice had not been heard in Paris because “we Africans, we respect our host, you don’t challenge the host!”

There was of course nothing “African” in the behaviour of these utterly failed and failing leaders to remain silent during those two days in Paris. Africans know that Africans speak their minds whether they are hosts or guests ... It was clearly the choice of self-styled leaders who most of the time are at war with their own populations, their own people, to remain silent because they lacked the integrity to state their positions on a subject whose varying facets and strands did in fact expose the state of their ruinous regimes back home. Even though Gadio was doing all he could to minimise the glaring character of the disgrace that these leaders had brought on themselves, the implication of his assertion was nonetheless troubling. If these leaders had remained silent and endorsed the French position of opposition to the impending war on Iraq because they were “Africans [who] respect [their] host”, they would equally have remained silent and endorsed the contrary British pro-war agenda on Iraq (because they were “Africans [who] respect [their] host”) if only Prime Minister Tony Blair had also “summoned” them to a London summit soon after being wined and dined and all expenses paid by the Elysee Palace.

Opportunity and limit

It is now clear that the tenuousness of “francophonie” in Africa, despite French propaganda to the contrary, lies right in its foundational premise of operations: the incorporation of a league of countries that exists to serve French interests whilst critically dependent on its day to day operations on usually ruthless anti-African local regimes. This ruthlessness is a feature of its overarching moral and intellectual bankruptcy, which ensures that it does the bidding of such projects as“francophonie” or“francophonie”-extension because of the firm grip that it exercises on its home turf. Paradoxically, though, this grip is all too brittle as can be seen in the immediate consequences on “francophonie” in the event of the overthrow or death of the dictator. The French find it extremely difficult to contemplate that, with the intense African grassroots’ pressure on their inept African-led regimes which can only increase, “francophonie”  has no long-term prospects in Africa. While the overall socio-economic situation across the continent is currently in a state of flux, Africa is unlikely to return to that spurious stability epoch of the Houphouët-Boignys and Senghors or the murderous repression of the Mobutus and Bokassas which enhanced the development of “francophonie”.

France will realise much sooner than later that it cannot continue to construct some phantom prestige in international relations based on its control of the destiny of Africa and Africans. If there is any single lesson that France should have learnt from the Iraqi debates earlier on in the year, it is not to confuse Bangui or Brazzaville or Bujumbura or Bamako for Baghdad or Basra; Ndjamena or Niamey or Nouakchott for Nasiriya or Najaf; Kinshasa or Kigali for Karbala, Kirkuk or Kut. For the first time since 1960, the French were confronted, even if belatedly, with the Achilles’ heel of “francophonie”: Africa is at once the opportunity and the limit of French foreign policy impact in the contemporary world.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

17 days: South Sudan – and Africa’s date with history

Aimé Césaire once told an interviewer during one of those illuminating discourses of his on history: “History is always dangerous, the world of history is a risky world; but it is up to us at any given moment to establish and readjust the hierarchy of dangers”. It is indeed in the very course to disrupt – and “readjust” this hierarchy of an age in favour of the African people of south Sudan that this nation heads for an historic referendum just 17 days away, poised to vote for the restoration of their independence from Arab/muslim rule and hegemony.

There is an added verve of audaciousness in the south Sudan choice of or agreement to a January date, the 9th (2011), to make their decision. On another January date, this time the 1st, in 1956, the supposedly departing British occupation regime imposed the minority Arab/muslim population on the south in a bogus independence contraption aimed at perpetuating its vast economic and strategic interests in northcentral Africa. The south’s response was to launch a stretch of resistance which has transformed that monstrosity to a case of referendum and breath of freedom. This time around, south Sudan has indeed wrestled down January and tamed its clime of adversity!

Ten years after 1956, 29 May 1966, the Igbo nation of southwestcentral Africa, some 1800 miles away from the Sudan, spectacularly disrupted the presumed teleological insistence of the burgeoning genocide state in Nigeria, the first in Africa in 60 years. The Igbo had played the vanguard role in the liberation of Nigeria from the British conquest and occupation. As Nigeria embarked on its genocidal campaign to destroy the Igbo, which resulted in the murder of 3.1 million of the people or a quarter of the population within 44 months, the Igbo responded by declaring their independence, the state of Biafra, from yet another outlandish British contraption. Nigeria, to all intents and purposes, collapsed in the wake of the Igbo genocide. We mustn’t forget to recall that the final edifice of the Nigeria contrivance, namely the British positioning of the minority Hausa-Fulani muslim/north region on the apex of its “hierarchy of dangers”, was instructively fitted by the same occupation governor James Robertson who had, on 1 January 1956, officiated the Sudan farce that is on the eve of unravelling. Contrariously, Biafra is the first African people’s-centred state created on African soil since the 1885 formal loss of all-African sovereignty.

The bridging of 29 May 1966 and 9 January 2011, the two most important dates on the African calendar since 1885, will henceforth chart and transform the continent’s political landscape in this evolving epoch of the post-Berlin state of Africa. After 9 January 2011, the bridge becomes a panhandle unto which the new successor states will embark on the construction of an unprecedented polycentric connectivity of relations on the African scene.

Fifty-five years after 1956, the wheel has undoubtedly turned full circle in Africa. Africans are back to the beginnings but this time clearly on their own terms. The constituent African nation – so long maligned, so long impoverished, so long brutalised, so long humiliated, so long massacred, is recognised, at last, as the principal actor and agency of its being. This nation can now decide what precepts, what aspirations, what trajectory, what goals, it has set its new state to embark upon…* Whoever says that history isn’t so incorrigibly fascinating?! As Césaire deftly puts it in the interview already referred to, the challenges of the times become the “quest to reconquer something, our name (sic), our country … ourselves”.

So, which new states will emerge after south Sudan? The overwhelming majority of 50 million Igbo surely wish that theirs is next, following the link with south Sudan. But the Igbo know, particularly from their own experience, that history does not cohere to some logic of sequencing. Given its volatility, a people consciously and actively constructs, humanises and maintains its own passage of history. Igbo base organisations – human rights, civil rights, peace, workers, women, youth, students, enterprise and intellectuals must now begin the process of planning and carrying out a referendum of all Igbo people in occupied Igboland and abroad (Nigeria and elsewhere in the world) to decide freely on the restoration of Biafra. Reports from east/central Africa already indicate that four new states could emerge from the Congo Democratic Republic and two new states from one or two of the Berlin-states of northeast Africa. In the west region, observers, no doubt, will keep developments in the following countries in their sights: Cameroon, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria … Surely, as from the morrow of 9 January 2011, Africa is back!

*To underscore an important feature of this fast moving development in Africa, even if some might wish to categorise this particular example as “retrogressive”, Omar al-Bashir, the head of the Sudanese regime, made the following broadcast on Khartoum radio and television on 19 December 2010: “If south Sudan secedes, we’ll change the constitution. There will be no question of cultural or ethnic diversity. Sharia will be the only source of the constitution, and Arabic the only official language”. The people of the south would probably have responded, presumably quietly, in the confines of their homes: “This is your right, Mr al-Bashir! We have gone!”