Without exploiting African countries, France would not be a world power

On 26 July 2023, news of the coup in Niger and the overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum by elite units of the Presidential Guard swept the world media. We then witnessed an extremely tense situation after the bloc of states of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS threatened a military intervention supported by France and its allies. As a result, Burkina Faso and Mali announced that they would side with Niger and the military, who had taken over. The clinch lasted for several weeks. Fortunately, war did not occur, but the situation permanently divided this region of Africa.

The events of last summer led to an erosion of the local balance of power. This threatened French interests in the region, as well as the stability of ECOWAS member governments. The Niger coup led to riots in neighbouring countries, and the situation is now extremely tense in, among others, Senegal, a country of creeping authoritarianism, or Chad, a strategic key to the Central African region which, according to many experts, could become the scene of further internal fighting, a coup d’état or perhaps armed intervention by third countries. Meanwhile, in the background, the ever-present spirit of France and its colonial interests is present.

What is the so-called Françafrique? How do we explain France’s continued presence in the region, who wins from that, and who loses? What happened last year in Niger? Why was war avoided, and what are the prospects for western African countries in 2024?

Wojciech Albert Łobodziński asks Bara NDiaye from the Institute of History of the Faculty of Humanities at University of Warmia and Mazury, Olsztyn, Poland.

What are the French interests in the Sahel region, on which the whole world focused on last summer?

French companies have completely penetrated the countries of the region. Among the largest entities operating in sub-Saharan Africa, there is Bolloré Africa Logistics, the first integrated logistics network in Africa, present for more than fifty years in 45 African countries. Then there is Castel, the leading producer of French wines and the leader in the production and sale of beer and soft drinks in the French-speaking part of the continent. Then, CFAO, a company that controls the local car market in 33 countries there. Then, France Telecom (Orange since 2013), present in the telecommunications market in 18 African countries. Then, Areva (now Orano), the French nuclear power giant with operations mainly in Niger, Namibia and the Central African Republic. Bouygues, a global leader in construction and services, prospers in 15 sub-Saharan African countries. Then, Total Group, a historic player on the African continent with a 15% market share in the distribution of petroleum products in 40 countries. And, last but not least, Alstom, a company building a regional express train in Dakar, saved from bankruptcy by President Macky Sall, who spent more than 1 000 billion FCFA (local currency) on a 57 km regional express train. In comparison, Nigeria inaugurated its first high-speed train in July 2016. Nigeria’s TGV will connect the capital Abuja to the city of Kaduna, almost 200 km away. The project was carried out by a Chinese company and is estimated to cost 552 billion CFA francs.

In the Middle East, in places where there are oil fields, the US forces make sure that US companies can operate there. This is the case in Syria or Iraq, for example, although it is illegal. We know this, thanks in part to Donald Trump‘s outspokenness. How does it look like in the former French countries?

This is encapsulated in the notion of Françafrique. When African states gained ‘independence’ in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle made sure that elites that came to power ensured the continuity of French interests. This was the case in all countries that were formerly French colonies. French governments did their best to remain, unofficially, in these countries, influencing those who nominally held power there. During this time, agreements, until recently secret, were signed between Paris and African countries. They included a permanent presence of French troops, the creation of a currency that is still in place today: the CFA franc (but a different one for West Africa and Central Africa), and also the introduction of the principle of pre-emptive purchase of local raw materials by France. Another buyer can be selected only when the former coloniser is not interested.

Monetary colonialism

The CFA franc, backed by the French Treasury and pegged to the euro, refers to both the Central African CFA franc and that of West Africa, and is accepted in 14 member countries. One euro is roughly equivalent to 650 CFA. It is the most popular currency in Africa, which, however, is now undergoing the most serious changes….

The CFA franc was officially created on 25 December 1945, i.e. the day France ratified the Bretton Woods Agreements and joined the first parity declaration of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the time, this marked the creation of the ‘franc of the French colonies in Africa’. This currency continues to show the special relations of domination of France vis-à-vis some of the former colonies: the joint maintenance of exchange reserves by France, the guarantee of convertibility, the fixed parity. With the creation of the CFA franc, France wanted to rebuild its monetary authority in African territories. It was also a particular way of controlling the economies there. The raw material resources were to feed French industry while it transferred surplus production to these countries. The CFA franc thus ensured that the profits of French companies were transferred without the risk of exchange. Some countries, aware of this state of affairs, chose to leave the colonial franc zone during the process of gaining independence or later.

With Mali leaving in 1962 to rejoin in 1984, the CFA itself has also been reformed several times.

The fixed parity of the CFA franc has been changed four times since its creation. The first such change took place in 1948 with the devaluation of the metropolitan franc: the value of the CFA franc reached FF 2 against FF 1.70 in 1945, i.e. there was a revaluation of 17.65%. In 1960, with the creation of the new franc (1 “heavy” franc = 100 former francs), the CFA franc maintained its value: 1 FCFA = 0.02 NF or 1 NF = 50 FCFA. In 1994, under pressure from France, the heads of state and government of the franc zone decided to devalue the franc by 50%: the value of one 1 FCFA was set at FF 0.01. In 1999, with the abolition of the French franc and the creation of the single European coin (euro), the CFA franc was merged with the euro at the same fixed parity; the guarantee of convertibility remained with the French state: 1 euro = 655.95 CFA francs.

And what obligations does the CFA impose on African banks?

In return for this guarantee, the African central banks (BCEAO, BEAC and BCC) must transfer 50% of their exchange reserves (foreign claims) to the French treasury for ‘clearing transactions’. Each of the three central banks of the CFA zone thus has a clearing account, called the operational account opened by the French treasury. Initially, the central banks were supposed to transfer 100% of their foreign receivables to this account, but since the 1973 reform, this amount has been reduced to 65% and, since September 2005. – to 50%. The remaining amount is to be used to repay the foreign debt of member countries.

The French Treasury, fed by these reserves, is then obliged to provide the central banks with the funds they need. Depending on the amount of these needs and the foreign debts transferred to the French treasury, the clearing transaction account is either debit (in which case the African central banks must pay interest to the French treasury) or has a credit balance (in which case France must pay interest to the CFA countries).

This looks like quite a breach of financial sovereignty.

The 14 African countries in the CFA zone are deprived of monetary autonomy. Their governments are condemned to high interest rates and repeated devaluations. They are powerless against massive capital outflows and deprived of productive investment. These countries are restricted to exporting raw materials to Europe and cut off from the rest of the South. This makes them dependent on foreign fluctuations.

Is it any wonder, then, that authorities without budgetary capacity cannot provide the local population with adequate education, health care and food?

From time to time, there is talk of abandoning the CFA and France stepping down from its role as the region’s financial guarantor. However, the aforementioned reform has never been completed and Africa’s role for the French economy is far from secondary.

This role has been increasing. Recently, rich natural gas deposits were discovered in Senegal. The French energy company TotalEnergies won the rights to extract it, even though better offers were made by companies with capital other than French. The same happened with uranium deposits in Niger.

Most of the French energy mix is nuclear, but there is not a single gram of uranium in France itself! Until recently, it came from Niger. French President Emmanuel Macron chaired a Defence and National Security Council dedicated to Niger the day after the coup d’etat. This shows how important Niger is.


The CFA and the French interests behind it have operate in the Sahel under the ECOWAS organisation. What is its history?

The ECOWAS organisation was established in 1975 under the Lagos Treaty, with the sole mission of achieving economic integration across the region. However, the bloc struggled to achieve its goals due to extreme political instability and constant civil wars that paralysed many of the member states. Recognising that true economic integration could only be built based on lasting peace and political stability, the organisation revised its founding treaty in July 1993. The mandate of facilitating peace, security, and stability in West Africa was included.

In December 2001, the bloc adopted the Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which states that “any coming to power must be through free, fair and transparent elections” and that member states must show “zero tolerance for power gained or maintained unconstitutionally”. The Protocol – which contains several other provisions on elections, the rule of law and human rights – also established that “the armed forces, police and other security agencies [in member states – author’s note] are subordinate to legitimately established civilian authorities”.

As electoral democracy does not work in the region, very often the French authorities, as well as ECOWAS, applying a policy of double standards, close their eyes to rigged elections or constitutional changes in violation of the law. France condemns the coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Niger, while supporting another coup in Chad and backing the violation of democracy in Senegal, an authoritarian state. How to understand this? The key is the interests mentioned. I always say this: without an African hinterland, France would not be a world power. All that makes continental France a strong economy is the access to cheap raw materials in Africa.

All of this is the reason for the frequent and repeated coups d’état, which Mali — a country that is essential for deciphering the regional puzzle — has also experienced several times in its history.

We are now seeing this whole puzzle fall like a house of cards. In January, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where the coup d’état took place last July, formed the Alliance des États du Sahel, i.e. the Alliance of Sahel States. The impetus for this was the exclusion of Niger from ECOWAS, followed by the threat of war against it by the states of that organisation with the support of France. So, let us perhaps start at the beginning, what were the reasons for the military coup in Niger?

Let us start by noting that the destabilisation of the region was triggered in Libya by the intervention of Western countries, including France, which removed and killed the former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in October 2011. It was then that Gaddafi’s former soldiers immigrated to the northern part of Mali, from which, incidentally, they originated. Most of them belonged to the Tuaregs, living in the desert areas of the Sahel. They did not return there empty-handed. They were armed with the equipment they had managed to take with them from a collapsing Libya.

A country that has so far failed to rise from the ashes of civil war….

Unfortunately. With their migration came another Tuareg uprising in Azawad, a region in northern Mali that includes the Saharan areas north of Timbuktu. The Tuaregs had always enjoyed the support of the French, who backed their separatism, and thus allowed them to exercise control over the region. The official narrative was, of course, different. Nevertheless, since 1960, when a series of uprisings took place, the French have had an argument for their presence in Mali. For some reason, for these almost ten years (from the start of the last rebellion by the Tuaregs in 2012 until 2021, the year of the military coup in Mali), the Malian army was unable to reach Kidal, the main city of Azawad. Everything suggests that the French army prevented the Malian army from operating effectively. Now all areas of the state are under the control of the government army. Previously, this was not possible, despite the presence of UN forces and the French army.

However, fighting and massacres of civilians continue, including by troops supporting government forces, including the so-called Wagnerites. Nevertheless, returning to history, we need to mention the coup in Mali in 2021, and Mohamed Bazouma’s election as the president of Niger in the same year.

He succeeded President Mahamadou Issoufou from the Nigerian Party for Democracy and Socialism. He came from the Arab minority, which accounts for less than 1% of the population. There was every indication that he had been recommended by the former president. What followed was a situation that can be described with the quote: “it doesn’t matter who votes, it matters who counts the votes”. The coup itself was reportedly carried out as a response to possible changes in the command of the Presidential Guard. Importantly, it was led by commanders representing the Zarma and Hausa peoples, groups that constitute the vast majority of Nigerian society.

This is just one aspect of what is happening in the region. First there was the coup in Mali, then in Burkina Faso, and now these two countries together form l’Alliance des États du Sahel, the Alliance of Sahel States, as they confirmed by leaving the ECOWAS/CEDEAO structures on 28 January 2024. The main reason for this decision was that ECOWAS threatened to intervene militarily in Niger in July/August last year, imposed a complete border blockade and an embargo on the countries that now create the Alliance of Sahel States, known by the acronym AES. The military governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger declared that this was proof that ECOWAS was under the influence of colonial states, implicitly France. This accusation cannot be negated. France has huge interests in the region and wants to return to its role as a major player.

Guinea may join the AES alliance. It was suspended from ECOWAS in 2021 as a result of a military coup. Such a transfer would provide the new alliance with a connection to the sea.

The formula is open, and furthermore, it is possible that Togo will join. The coup automatically results in a suspension within ECOWAS, but it should not lead to an embargo, a land blockade of the country or military intervention. The leaders of the bloc have thus overstepped their authority over Niger. The main axis of the dispute is the acquisition of sovereignty from France. All indications are that the conduct of ECOWAS was dictated by the government of French President Emmanuel Macron.

On the other hand, according to the available information, the French military was ready to intervene; it was President Macron who was supposed to oppose it. Following this line of thought, why did it not happen?

This was the result of Burkina Faso and Mali declaring that any violation of Niger’s integrity would result in a declaration of war against them. Here they used a formula familiar to us NATO’s Article 5: an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. It was this declaration that led to the de-escalation.

If a war were to occur, it would be the biggest conflict in Africa since the 1990s, i.e. the Great African War of 1998-2003.

It would be another pointless conflict that would ruin all the states in the region.

There are different views on this, but in my opinion, the governments that constitute the AES, namely Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, are betting on the development of their sovereignty because, in fact, from the beginning of colonisation until today, this zone of the so-called Françafrique, i.e. France’s backyard in Africa, has been a region where France has done what it wants. Recently, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister said at the UN that “Africa’s greatest misfortune was its meeting with France”, recalling the words of Aimé Césaire, the poet from Martinique, the effects of which we still see today.

New regional actors

France has always used the argument of local jihadism in its military-political interventions. Nevertheless, even French policy hawks such as Bernard Lugan show in his books that these are usually, if not always, ethnic conflicts, smouldering in the region for centuries. This was the situation in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and before that in the Central African Republic, from where the French military was expelled as early as 2013.

Here again, we must go back to 2012, when destabilisation occurred in Mali because of the intervention in Libya. François Hollande sent French forces on the ground as part of Operation Serval. This stopped terrorist organisations from capturing the city of Bamako.

French troops gradually increased their presence and were stationed there for the next 10 years. The declared aim was to fight terrorism, but the results, apart from the initial ones, were nil. I recently read an interview with the current president of the military junta in Burkina Faso. He said that French troops, when present in the country, sabotaged the actions of government troops. He stated that there was no sharing of intelligence, satellite images, news of enemy actions by the French side. If there is a partnership relationship and at the same time the troops of the local forces are restricted, the situation becomes pathological.

It was the same in Mali. Some towns were to be taken out of potential military operations. The contracts for military equipment themselves were selective. African governments did not have access to many advanced weapons to win and end internal conflicts. Hence, there was a perception among the military that French troops were de facto supporting local terrorist forces. This is why there have been military coups in today’s AES countries. Their cooperation led to Malian and Burkinese forces regaining control of their territories. The same could happen in Niger.

How does the problem of jihadism relate to all this, however?

The issue of jihadism is a issue of separatism, most often centred around the activities of the Tuaregs, who have inhabited the area for centuries. To a large extent, what passes as religious fanatism is in dact separatism in a new form that uses radical Islam as the banner of its own cause. This, after all, allows it to compete with other terrorist organisations on issues such as funding or effective recruitment. More often than not, this is a pragmatic choice; despite this, there are of course minor cells of strictly Islamic organisations operating in the region, but their influence is limited. It is these forces that the national forces, and until recently the French army, have been fighting for years.

Of course, there is currently no vacuum. Support from, among others, Russia, China and Turkey is present; the latter, for example, provides drone equipment. However, we are not just dealing with the Russian Federation here, as the Polish media try to describe it. Chinese and Turkish forces are also on the ground, providing training and equipment support to the forces of the new alliance.

Eurocentric critics claim that there will be a replacement of French colonialism with Chinese or Russian colonialism. In your opinion, is there such a danger?

This has been talked about for years. There is a large Chinese presence, but it can hardly be called colonialism. Africa needs to look for its partners and act multi-vectorally. If relations with China are needed, why not. The important thing is not to monopolise and change one colonial relationship into another. I believe that the current governments of the three countries, in maintaining relations with the governments of Turkey, China and Russia, have this in mind. And given that Turkey is part of NATO, broad diversification is possible.

So the Alliance of Sahel Countries has the potential to become a counterweight to ECOWAS/CEDEAO?

In my opinion, what we have seen in recent months is the beginning of the end of ECOWAS. The Sahel Alliance countries leaving the organisation and talking about creating their own local currency will create a huge centrifugal push, leading to more countries joining the Alliance. And there are several potential new members, as we discussed earlier.

I think the way ECOWAS has worked so far has been unsustainable, as the events of last summer have shown. There was a sudden transformation from an economic alliance to a military alliance and a fractured relationship between local countries. For more than 10 years, Mali and Burkina Faso have been victims of terrorist attacks; ECOWAS, however, did not react. It was only as a result of the putsch that there was a threat of war and an embargo. This shows the degeneration of this organisation. The citizens of these countries have noticed this change, hence the hostility and the betting on self-determination.

In response, the Sahel Alliance countries are signalling, in addition to creating their own currency, the possibility of a federation of three countries.

Yes, this is also possible.

An uncertain future

Again, the question: will citizens be always suspended between military coups and colonial ‘democracy’, or is another model, more democratic and local, possible?

What is currently happening in Senegal under the Sall government is completely unprecedented if we look at Senegal’s political history since independence. It seems even more unprecedented if we look at the country’s political history that preceded it, i.e. the heyday of true democracy in cities such as Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée and Rufisque. During these periods, Senegal was able to lay the foundations of a tradition of political and trade union democracy, to provide a framework for the development of political and civil liberties and the ability to live in community without blurring differences, conflicts or cultural traditions. Since coming to power, Sall, breaking with his predecessors, has pursued a policy inspired by authoritarianism, aiming, in his words, “to reduce the opposition to its simplest expression”. The consequence has been to limit the scope of the rule of law by systematically challenging the rights and freedoms guaranteed under both international legal instruments signed and ratified by both Senegal and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as by Senegal’s existing constitution, adopted in a referendum in 2001.

By interrupting the electoral process hours before the start of the election campaign, Macky Sall is pushing Senegal into a deepening crisis. For the first time in more than 60 years, presidential elections will not be held on the statutory deadline. The Senegalese people, through all professional sectors, are organising to oppose the dictatorial inclinations of the current president, whose term of office ends on 2 April 2024. The absence of elections before this date could lead to a strong destabilisation of Senegal….

Another country that has never been part of the ECOWAS/CEDEAO bloc, however, is Chad. It became notorious for the infamous kidnapping of a Polish citizen and her recapture by Chadian forces. However, the reality of the country is perhaps best captured in the words of Radoslaw Sikorski, who thanked ‘local’ forces and ‘French allies’ for their participation. Bernard Lugan, a far-right expert on French politics in Africa, predicted, as it were, in his reflections, the fall of the government in Niger the previous spring. He went on to say that the next country where a coup could take place would be Chad. Today, however, we can read loads of francophone analyses talking about a potential future coup. What is the situation in Chad?

The reign of Idriss Débi, i.e. the predecessor of the currently ruling Mahamat Debi, father of the country’s current president, was also triggered by a coup. His death on the frontline of the fight against the Islamists in 2021 has not been fully explained. My sense is that we do not know the true version; there are various stories circulating in the media about what happened on 20 April 2021. His son was rapidly appointed successor, in an illegal manner. Macron himself took part in this, blessing the new dictator, as it were, during the funeral of the previous one. Moreover, the former opposition leader Succès Masra returned to the country and became Prime Minister of the Mahamat Debi government, having previously been in political exile.

The question is, how did this castling come about? Until now, Masra had been fighting with the Debich family for years. So we are dealing with a political deal. There are still formidable opposition forces in Chad who want to fight the family in power and the clique grouped around it. They may have been behind Débi’s assassination. How this gambit will end, remains to be seen.

One thing we do know: Chad is the apple of French influence in Africa. From there, due to its central location on the continent, France can project its influence over the rest of Africa. Its instability caused by ethnic fighting, taking on a religious cloak, was partially beneficial to the French, who always had a reason to station their troops there. Déby, in the last years of his life, criticised French neocolonial policies in Africa forcefully, so it is also not an unlikely scenario that it was pro-French forces that eliminated him. This has always been the case so far across the continent.

How is the perception of the West’s role in Africa currently affected by the situation in Gaza and Palestine?

There is a crisis in international organisations and the law they make. Once again, the mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation have proved weak. Double standards have become apparent and are being witnessed by all citizens of the Global South, yet the situation in Gaza is being reported all over the world — even, I would say, more widely in the countries of the South. But “all is well” because Israel is friends with the most important and powerful countries in the West; at the same time, the Palestinian voice is not heard in international organisations. Even the UN Security Council is finding it difficult to agree on a united message on this issue. In my opinion, South Africa has saved Africa’s honour with its lawsuit against Israel.

Bara Ndiaye helds a PhD and works as Assistant Professor at the Institute of History (Department of Military Science and Strategic Studies), Faculty of Humanities, University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn. His research work focuses on contemporary Africa, Franco-African relations and media systems in the world. He is the author of three monographic books, more than 80 scientific articles, and co-initiator and organiser, together with his wife, Professor. Iwona Anna Ndiaye, of “African Days in Olsztyn” (since 2004). For a more detailed bio in Polish see here.

Cover photo: Mali soldiers during a parade on Independence Day. Source.

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