Could France’s new odd couple—Sarkozy and Kouchner—spell the end of French privilege for Africa’s most venal?

Edward B. Rackley

Naional_symbol_2 In the 1960s, post-colonial Africa was the most hopeful place on the planet. Post-partum exuberance in Europe’s former colonies was infectious and abundant. Yet fate has not been kind to sub-Saharan Africa. From Namibia to Guinea to Somalia, the path of most sub-Saharan nations has traced an arc of intimate complicity with the predatory appetites of their former colonial masters. Nowhere has this neo-colonial continuation of anti-development and enrichment by and for the few been more evident than in France’s former colonies.

The nature of governance in these ex-colonies attests to the abiding power of the self-serving instinct and immediate gain, over and against the long-term goal of national progress. Such is the confounding irony of Africa’s entire post-colonial era in nations previously occupied by France, Britain, Portugal and Belgium alike: why is the colonial, predatory model of governance so faithfully re-enacted by ruling African elites? It’s as if all that negative conditioning only succeeded in instilling a predatory instinct in the new ruling class. Why are Mandela-style visions for collective prosperity not more common, given the shared experience of subjugation and occupation across the continent?

Two to Tango

Colonialism’s direct rule in Africa was subjugation globalized. African independence in the early 1960s opened the door to fresh national possibilities. New African leaders claimed to reject the culture and values of the former occupier but happily overtook their infrastructure, education systems and administrative apparatus. “Authenticity” campaigns were launched in many countries; western attire and Christian names were banned in an effort to restore the indigenous to its rightful pride of place. Private companies held by former colonials were nationalized and dispersed among the new political elites, the results of which were just as disastrous as Mugabe’s land re-distribution schemes in Zimbabwe. Yet genuinely radical or “clean slate” beginnings, in affairs of the state as in art, are illusory.

During the cold war, western foreign policy in post-colonial Africa sought political stability, access to raw materials, and a common front against the Soviet threat. Military hardware and training for elite presidential guards was a common form of international assistance, a quid pro quo in exchange for access to resources and for remaining faithful to western capitalism. African leaders were not pressed on human rights, “good governance” or controlling corruption as they are today. The massacres of Idi Amin were insignificant compared to the Soviet threat.

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, western strategies towards Africa shifted as the need for quid pro quo camaraderie faded. The US gradually disengaged. Multiple internecine wars arose to topple African dictators, newly vulnerable without superpower protection. The UN struggled to contain the violence in Somalia, Liberia, Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Angola, and more recently Ivory Coast and Sudan. Peace deals were brokered, mostly on the cheap, resulting in a new crop of leaders.

As Africa imploded in the 1990, France in particular found itself on the receiving end of a massive outpouring of illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. This influx continues at a massive pace, regularly making headlines in the international media. For Sarkozy and other EU leaders, the “African disaster” and the ongoing human exodus towards Europe constitutes a social, economic and political crisis and hot potato, engaging and enraging all sides of the domestic political spectrum.

La Françafrique

After independence, the new leaders of France’s ex-colonies chose to “respect continuity” by maintaining close political and economic ties with the former occupier. A common franc zones was initiated among the former colonies and the resulting currency, the CFA, was tied to the French franc to ensure stability. A parallel to the British Commonwealth was sought; its first articulation was issued the Ivoirian leader Houphouet-Boigny. La Françafrique would designate the unofficial confederation, bound by language, common history and appreciation of the ties that bind power and wealth. As the machinations of this network involving French oil companies, arms dealers and notoriously corrupt regimes came under increasing public scrutiny in the 1990s, Françafrique was subsequently adopted by F-X Verschave as the title of his book, La Françafrique. Le plus long scandale de la République (1999). Françafrique also means “France à fric,” fric being slang for cash. [More on this network, including interactive maps and histories by country, at]

Since ceding control of its African colonies in 1960, France continued to support and protect the new client states, fending off insurgents or usurping leaders no longer of use. Between 1960 and 1994 alone, it carried out 16 non-UN mandated military interventions in former colonies. As of 2002, France maintains defense pacts with eight countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, CAR, Djibouti, Cameroon, Comoros, Senegal, Togo), provides technical and material support to the national armies in 30 others, and has 14500 troops stationed in five countries. In return, France receives privileged, sometimes exclusive access to raw materials.

The political returns on this relationship for African leaders can be grand. President Omar Bongo of Gabon first rose to power in 1967 with French help; Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo ruled for 38 years until his death in 2005, when his son assumed the presidency, thanks to a nod from Paris. Jean-Bedel Bokassa, self-proclaimed “emperor” of the Central African “empire” and later tried for cannibalism, was ingloriously deposed by the French secret service while visiting Kadhafi in 1979. Belgium conducted affairs with Mobutu of the former Zaire in this way, as did the US with its African clients for the duration of the cold war. The closest American parallel to Françafrique is the way the US treats its Latin American “backyard” in the pursuit of profit and opportunistic alliance (recall the infamous “School of the Americas” still in operation at Fort Bennington GA).

France’s most infamous support to a rotten ally, the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda, led to recurrent accusations of complicity in the genocide as perpetrated by officials and military authorities from the ethnic Hutu majority then in power. France then intervened with Operation Turquoise, after 100 days of slaughter, ostensibly to prevent a “second genocide” by the invading Tutsi army against Hutus on the run towards neighboring Zaire. While some lives were saved, the French buffer zone allowed genocidaires to escape safely, proving the critics’ point that France is loyal to its puppet regimes no matter how venal or murderous.

Since the recent Sarkozy presidential victory, Africa observers are a-twitter over probable shifts in French policy on African immigrants, and whether the Françafrique network will finally be laid to rest. Consternation and surprise followed Sarkozy’s appointment of Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister, the socialist and well-known humanitarian. Kouchner is also the architect of the so-called droit d’ingerence (“the right to intervene on humanitarian grounds in the internal conflicts of sovereign states, which was recognized by international law in 1988. It has since served as the basis for inter-state military interventions on humanitarian grounds (Kosovo, Côte d’Ivoire, etc).

Kouchner_sarkozi It’s a bird, it’s a plane…

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that French paratroopers landed near Birao in the Central African Republic on March 4 to recapture an airstrip held by a rebel faction (reprint here). An email from colleagues at Médecins Sans Frontières working out of Birao confirmed the report of the French intervention, ostensibly to stem a swell of rebel activity in the northeast quadrant of the country where violence has driven refugees into southern Chad and Sudan, further destabilizing the region.

The intervention was not the first for France in this country, where bolstering the country’s sagging leadership in Bangui, the country’s capital, has been a regular occurrence through several regimes since independence. While the WSJ article used the incident to highlight France’s long history of covert military interventions in its former colonies to support despotic regimes by extinguishing local insurgencies, its primary thrust was to question Sarkozy’s recent claims that the pattern of military meddling in African politics would cease.

Some pundits argue that an end of Françafrique will come “naturally,” as French foreign policy is modernized and subsumed by the EU. This would be an unfortunate disappearance act, for it would sacrifice France’s unique experience and knowledge of African realities. France under Sarkozi and Kouchner is far better positioned to create and drive policy renewal as an individual state than would behemoth multilateral that is the European Union. Yes a common front among EU states is needed, but this should not preclude or eclipse a reformed French policy on Africa. Hopefully Sarkozy and Kouchner will not duck the challenge of reforming Françafrique by passing the hot potato to Brussels, where reaching multilateral consensus can take years, the result an incoherent soup of compromise and concession between member states.

The big question is what will become of the client states themselves, the “backyard” of Françafrique and its cronyist web of privilege and profit. Omar Bongo of Gabon has already emphasized his friendship with Sarkozy, explaining that were he new president to reject him, (Bongo) would respond, “Ce n’est pas sérieux Nicolas, […] the fundamentals of Françafrique will remain, and can only be improved upon.” But whether armed invasions to bolster dubious regimes continue where no viable alternative exists and murderous chaos is literally at the door?

There is a potential humanitarian argument to be made for propping up drooling dictators if their demise is sure to unleash untold carnage as it did in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo-Kinshasa. The stage is set in Chad today, where French troops are supporting a delusional autocrat, President Idriss Déby, as violence escalates and spills over from Darfur. Without a foreign armed presence as a deterrent, things would certainly be much worse.

Kouchner’s visage humain

Besides the fresh perspectives Kouchner will bring to the table and, one hopes, the rapid retirement of the Françafrique cronies and kickback systems, Sarkozi needs a “human face” to deal with the immigration issue. Credited with single-handedly inventing the humanitarian movement, Kouchner is the face of humanitarianism in France. Serving with the Red Cross in the Biafran civil war in the late 1960s, he later broke publicly with the institution over its unwillingness to expose the government’s role in sustaining the famine to attract international attention. Out of this experience he founded Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 1971, which in 1999 won the Nobel Peace Prize for its pioneering and controversial approach to emergency relief work. In 1980, after a similar breach with MSF, he founded Médecins du Monde. Mdm Msf 

How will Kouchner respond to France’s “immigration problem”? Sarkozy, in a deft play on classic French solidarité, claims the immigration crisis points to the common destiny binding France and its former colonies—yet “another occasion to satisfy mutual interest through joint problem solving.” Will the Kouchner solution see a tempering of his humanitarian instincts in a bow to national interest and pragmatism? In 1979, Kouchner responded to a different migrant crisis, the Vietnamese “boat people,” by filling a giant lifeboat with aid workers and journalists to rescue a fleeing, desperate population. The adventure also served to highlight the alleged totalitarianism of the Vietnam regime. A potent symbolic and life-saving idea at the time, such grandiose gestures are less feasible now given the scale of the current African exodus. (Its inverse, an equally grandiose gesture of quarantine and rejection—the erection of enormous concrete walls—is the current favorite of conservatives in Israel and America).

Efforts to solve the impasse will doubtless be multi-faceted and contain complimentary strategic elements. Opening the floodgates has never been an option; “fortress Europe” and forced deportations have been the modus operandi since early 2000. Since his election last month, Sarkozy has already spoken of a 1:1 ratio of legal entry per available employment opportunity. But what will the African side of the solution look like? More stable regimes and job creation is the probable thrust of the policy, as Champs Elysée has already subsumed its development ministry, harnessing its development budget to the more dominant national interest machine. (The same is happening in Washington as USAID gets relegated to the State and Defense Departments toolbox).

Syphilitics on crutches

Françafrique may be buried or modernized under another name, but that won’t solve the mother of Africa’s problems, its governance crisis. Realistically, then, what are the immediate alternatives to propping up syphilitic regimes? Option 1: Let the people decide. The persistence of Mugabe’s grip on power shows how unready that population is to mobilize for change—no one wants to get killed. Popular reticence to risk life and limb is not indifference or ignorance; it is a calculated survival strategy common in many dysfunctional African states. As a result, there is no structured or coherent vox populi in the dozens of African countries living under Mugabe clones.

Option 2: Let the venal autocrats fall to any armed would-be liberator, and deal with the outcome. This is not a solution, it is a recipe for recurrent humanitarian disaster. If memory serves, Rwanda is the only internecine conflict in Africa since the cold war where a rebel group took power and actually delivered a superior product over the preceding regime. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Congo-Kinshasa were all ruled by corrupt cronies and were toppled viciously, but none were replaced by functional cabal, autocrat or enlightened despot who could restore order and rebuild the state.*

Option 3: Arrete le propping and forcibly remove them from power, à la Saddam. Where there is no local political system to step in and fill the void left by a charismatic autocrat (which rarely exists because smart autocrats destroy systems so everyone depends on them), this option will result in Iraqi-style failure or will require the installation of another dictator, fuelling an eternal new boss/old boss spin cycle.

A spoonful of democracy

Sarkozy has also said he will give development aid only to democratic regimes, and stop using the French army to control the political landscape in its former colonies. This is easy talk. The elephant in the room is that no magic solution exists to bring about more humane, transparent governance in Africa. Everything short of a continent-wide Marshall Plan has been tried: the tireless efforts by human rights groups to build civil society—what have these come to after thirty years of training and documenting systematic and atrocious abuses? When is the democratic genie going to pop out of the much-rubbed and fetishized lamp, assiduously cultivated and endlessly bankrolled by western democratization groups? Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2005 election in Liberia is one cause for hope. Other alleged democracies and favorites of the west, Kenya and Uganda come to mind, are extremely fragile whose presidents serve at the pleasure of the national army.

[Indulge me the following aside: Western governments fund the ballots, the pencils, the voting urns and booths, the observers, the armed guards, the voter registration process, ad infinitum, for most all elections in developing countries. When a party we don’t like wins, say, Hamas in Palestine, we insist that the elections were rigged and to start over. Unbowed, our mirage of miraculous democratization remains intact: just add candidates, willing voters and stir. Presto! Democratic process is born, fully formed and self-aware, straight from the test tube. Should you be undecided about whether the exportation of western-style democracy is what the developing world needs, sign on with the Carter Center and go observe upcoming elections in Asscrackistan, Zimzongoland, or wherever. I assure you a good time—and that no further proof of the scandalous charade that is the democratization business will be needed.]

The priority for the Sarkozy-Kouchner couple will be to conclude a viable foreign policy on the African disaster, both internally within specific nations, and the increasing outpouring of migration towards Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kouchner bury his head in the hallways of Brussels EU offices, spending less time expounding on French policy and positions on the plethora of problems facing sub-Saharan Africa. It is in the end far easier to construct and drive a bilateral foreign policy, and make it “more humanitarian,” “less hawkish” or even to pull the plug on the dirtier dealings of Françafrique than it will be to engage a multilateral mechanism like the EU to build and implement a common front on African policy that combines development and humanitarian assistance in sufficient measure, commercial investment and economic/employment development, and military training and assistance to fledgling but representative democracies, as in Liberia or Congo-Kinshasa.

In rural Africa today, subsistence livelihoods are the norm, even for those lucky enough to have received formal education. Where there is peace, the lumpen majority can hardly be called a proletariat given a near total absence of employment opportunities. Many of the rural poor I’ve met in Congo-Kinshasa, an ex-colony of Belgium, pine openly for re-colonization. But if a Marshall Plan for sub-Saharan Africa is out of the question, can Sarkozy and Kouchner at least get some of these people a job?


* In Angola and Congo-Brazzaville, western powers ultimately came around to support the side with the oil—Congo-B president Sassou Nguesso is a card-carrying member of Françafrique, so no surprise there. But in Angola, Dos Santos’ MPLA party was adamantly pro-Soviet, with Cuban troops protecting extraction facilities run by American companies. Go figure.