As France is humiliated in the old African empire, other neocolonialist powers threaten to replace it
The steady humiliation of France in its former African colonies continues apace. Despite decades of careful nurturing from Paris, countries that were once firm allies are turning their backs on the old colonial master and seeking new international partners.
The question is, who are these new arrivals, and what do they offer a continent still wracked by endemic problems? Are they benevolent friends, or self-interested power players following in the tradition of neo-colonial exploitation?
To understand the rapidly changing situation, we need to look at what is happening in countries such as Niger and Gabon. The army seized power in the latter last month, deposing Ali Bongo, whose family has run Gabon for more than four decades, while maintaining close links with France.
''Instead of rising to the task of destroying violent extremists, the French have been accused of settling into their old imperial bases, while imposing their demands and values on Africans looking for radical changes in their lives.''
the coup in Niger, the largest landlocked country in West Africa, provides an even clearer case study. The democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, was removed from office by members of his state guard on 26 July. He is now under house arrest, and facing trial, following General Abdourahamane Tchiani appointing himself head of the country’s new military government.
Despite the turmoil, France just about remains the most influential overseas power in Niger. The country was a French colony up until 1960, and even after nominal “liberation”, Paris exerted considerable control. This was through a policy known as Françafrique – the continuation of the kind of economic, political, security and cultural ties that characterised the old French Empire in sub-Saharan Africa.
The old imperial structures may be gone, but to this day France has retained a strong military presence in Niger, including a garrison and airforce base.
Gold is also mined in the African country and government advisors from France have penetrated successive Nigerien governments to ensure their supply stays intact. French is also still the official language in Niger – a fact that has made wheeling and dealing within the Françafrique system a lot easier. It is frequently alleged that the15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has demanded Bazoum’s “immediate release and reinstatement”, is also a French puppet.
As far as challenges to France from other powers are concerned, the military aspect of Françafrique is the most important. In the short term, there is no doubt that failed policies in the Sahel – the area that stretches across central Africa, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean – are largely responsible for the July coup in Niger. France has used Niger as a strategic base to fight terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in this vast and often lawless area.
Instead of rising to the task of destroying violent extremists, the French have been accused of settling into their old imperial bases, while imposing their demands and values on Africans looking for radical changes in their lives.
Despite its natural resources, Niger is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. According to the World Bank, more than 10 million Nigeriens – 42% of the population – live in extreme poverty. Just as significantly, 70% of people in Niger are illiterate, and the average length of time they spend at school is just one year.
That the enduring legacy of French interference has become associated with such disturbing facts is indisputable. Hence crowds trying to ransack the French Embassy in Niger at the start of the coup, while burning blue-white-and-red tricolour flags. Emmanuel Macron responded by evacuating all French citizens from Niger. He is now under pressure from the coupists to shut down his entire diplomatic mission, along with his military capability.
The chief benefactors of such a move will undoubtedly be the Russians. “Up Putin!” – in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin – has been chanted at demonstrations outside the French Embassy, and his forces are already operating in the region through the mercenary group Wagner.
Yes, the organisation’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has just died in a suspected assassination, but this will not curtail Russian expansion in Africa. Wagner is well established in Niger’s neighbours, including the Central African Republic and Mali.
Africa as a whole is of huge geopolitical importance to Putin as he tries to assert global power status for a Russia mired in controversy surrounding its invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing war there. In turn, Moscow is seen by many Africans as a fresh alternative to the traditional Western speculators backed by the economic and military might of the United States.
In security terms, Russia is a partner which can deploy significant military force, even if it is through allegedly independent contractors. Russia is by far the biggest arms supplier to Africa too.
China is increasing military and economic interests across the African continent as well. Beijing was Africa’s biggest weapons provider for many years, and wants to set up permanent military bases, such as an Atlantic naval port in Equatorial Guinea. Moreover, numerous African nations have signed up to China’s trillion dollar Belt & Road Initiative which aims to bolster imperial-style trade in an area covering a billion people.
Beyond such developments, the question is what positive difference powers such as China and Russia will actually make as they fill an influence vacuum left by the French. It may well be that they are the new neo-colonial devil that will be every bit as destructive as the last.
Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and academic of Algerian descent, and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic published by PublicAffairs and Hurst.
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