Failed States

La Vie en %$!

Why is France still propping up Africa's dictators?

Illustration by Sean McCabe for FP
Illustration by Sean McCabe for FP

Almost as soon as they had been elected, Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama began planning high-profile trips to Africa. Surely the French and American presidents had more pressing priorities than addressing a continent so long ago judged unimportant to global affairs. But as it turned out, this curious exercise of “talking to Africa” offered the perfect opportunity for these two novice Western heads of state to prove that they embodied exactly what they said they did: leadership unwedded to the conventionalities of business as usual.

So our two guests came, portraying themselves as friends of the continent — and indeed possessing an affection so profound that they were unafraid to say out loud all the unpleasant truths about Africa usually reserved for whispers in private. Like the gentleman who fondly lectures the beggar before dropping a meager coin into his jar, they came to Africa with an innate sense of superiority. Their sentiment derived, of course, from a conviction that they had done all in their power to avoid making such a mess of things, unlike the beggars — the African countries themselves. Obama and Sarkozy, it seemed, were tormented by the desire to restore reason to the world’s most irresponsible nations.

But what a shameless rewriting of history!

Certainly, Obama was courteous enough in his trip last year to Ghana. Yet even he needed reminding of the extent to which Cold War America pushed so many countries toward becoming today’s “failed states.” Between the two presidents, however, Sarkozy is surely the leader most deserving of rebuke. For never in modern political annals has there been anything close to the powerful, inseparable synergy between France and its former empire. At the very moment it realized decolonization was historically inevitable, Paris concocted a true masterpiece of political genius: undertaking all that was necessary in pulling out of Africa — and doing so in such a way as to, in fact, not budge an inch.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s trusted advisor, Jacques Foccart, was the architect of this neocolonial ruse. His methods were simple: install trusted African politicians, some with French nationality, as the heads of these 14 new states and maintain the firm, French grasp on their natural resources. It was a system that naturally bred corruption and instability — and could hardly persist without massive abuses of human rights.

But no matter; Africa’s new dictators could rest easy. Thanks to its almost 60,000 troops on the continent, the French Army could rush to their aid at a moment’s notice — and had already agreed to do so as part of defense agreements in which certain key clauses were kept secret. The French secret service was also poised to undertake, if necessary, the liquidation of the dictators’ most formidable rivals. The list of African opposition figures who perished this way is dreadfully long.

In truth, the greatest fault of the French model was not that it existed in the first place, but that it so unabashedly survived the Cold War. At the time, when Moscow and Washington were behaving even more savagely in their respective spheres of influence, Paris’s meddling in Africa seemed relatively benign. But today, it would be unimaginable to see the British prime minister interfering in the succession of the Ghanaian or Kenyan heads of state. And Sarkozy? He did exactly that last year when Ali Bongo emerged victorious in Gabon’s disputed presidential election — with the endorsement of the French president to succeed his father. No wonder: Bongo senior was himself installed by de Gaulle back in 1967. Jacques Chirac similarly backed the son of Togo’s Gen. Gnassingbé Eyadéma in 2005.

And so it goes: France destabilizes and destroys the countries of Africa, as if nothing in the world had changed. Indeed, among all the former European colonial powers, France is unique in its refusal to decolonize. And the countries that have refused this “friendship” with Paris — Vietnam, Madagascar, Cameroon, and Algeria — have paid for their liberty with many hundreds of thousands of lives.

Consider Niger, where France is not content to simply extract uranium from the country while paying Third World prices; it does so under such exploitative conditions — sucking the groundwater dry — that agriculture has become an impossibility in this agricultural nation. Suicidally focused on supplying 40 percent of France’s uranium needs, Niger may be the world’s second-largest uranium producer, but it is also today one of the poorest countries on the planet. And Paris will have it no other way; the French secret service was widely rumored to have ousted the country’s first president, Hamani Diori, in 1974 after he said that his country benefited not one bit from the mineral’s extraction. Niger’s current instability — three coups since 1996 and an ongoing internal rebellion — is directly linked to the French imperative to control its strategic resource.

For years, many assumed that this Françafrique had become an anachronism, one that would eventually wither and die a natural death. Yet somehow or another, the marriage keeps on working, in Gabon and Chad, Niger and the Republic of Congo, with no apparent sign of duress. France is content to pull the strings from behind the scenes in such a way that no popular African revolt could ever take aim at its involvement.

Instead, French leaders have done all in their power to nourish a profound emotional complicity in their African counterparts. In his memoirs, de Gaulle’s advisor Foccart insisted upon the importance of maintaining deeply personal relationships with African presidents, far beyond what protocol requires. De Gaulle was irritated that Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic always called him “Papa,” but he held his tongue, surely so as not to compromise France’s provisions of tropical wood and diamonds. African counterparts felt more at ease, it was believed, with Chirac, less snobby about good food and even an aficionado of bawdy jokes — in short, not a very complicated man.

Such a philosophy rests upon the uncomfortable notion that Africans, “joyous by nature,” as Chirac once said, are simply big children. That assumed immaturity authorizes France to act in a way so undemocratic in Africa that its practices would be unimaginable back home. Unfortunately, my continent doesn’t have to imagine those realities because we live them every single day — with every deprived citizen who wants for education, for health care, or even, at times, for so much as a bowl of rice to eat. France, meanwhile, is satiated.

NEXT: Who Else is to Blame?

Boubacar Boris Diop is a writing fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg.