Last month, Gabon became the latest in a series of African Nations to experience what has been proclaimed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to be an epidemic of coups. Gabon joins fellow African Nations Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, and Mali to have military takeovers in the last three years. Aside from the notoriety of having forcibly ousted their civilian governments, these states have another commonality. All these states were once part of the “Empire Colonial Français”. 78% of the coups in Sub-Saharan Africa have been in Francophone states.
This raises the question regarding France being a factor in Africa’s rising wave of putsches. The new military dictators give credence to this narrative. Invariably, coup leaders across these states blame increasing insecurity and lack of economic growth, brought about by the actions of France, as the raison d’être of their actions.
Niger’s military leaders recently accused the French of fermenting instability within the nation by releasing captured terrorists and violating the Nigerien airspace.
One of the most startling observations made in these coup-stricken countries is the lack of public protest and general acceptance of the dissolution of civilian governments. Case in point, the news of the coup in Gabon was received with a widespread display of support and jubilation by the Gabonese people. Concurrently, anti-French sentiments are rising in Africa, with huge protests chanting “Get out France” and “France is a leech”. Many people blame France for what they describe as its neo-colonial policies to maintain a hegemonic role in Africa.
Although many of the colonial territories of France had achieved independence by 1960, France still maintained a significant role in Africa through its policy of Françafrique. This refers to the formal and informal networks and lobbies (political, economic, and military) designed to ensure continued French influence in Africa, often at the cost of local interests.
Since the days of Charles de Gaulle, Paris has always perceived that France’s world power and French power in Africa are inexorably linked and mutually conforming. Thus, France has always sought to maintain a controlling interest in the politics of its former colonies. In this regard, France supported autocratic and dynastic leaders in Africa, who supported French ambitions and did not chafe at working under French direction. History is littered with such examples, from Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the erstwhile emperor of the Central African Empire, to the Chadian President Hissène Habré, who was later persecuted for crimes against humanity in 2016. Even Macron, who has proclaimed the end of Francafrique, has been seen to support dictators. A prominent example is Mahamat Idriss Deby, who took over the reins of power after his father’s death by suspending the Chadian constitution and parliament.
Even France’s condemnation of the putsch against Ali Bongo Ondimba in Gabon can be considered blatant interference, considering the decades-long friendship the Bongo family has had with Paris.
One of the most important tools that France had in Africa was the CFA Fran. CFA Franc (Franc of the French Colonies in Africa) was the name of the West African CFA Franc and the Central African CFA Franc, pegged to the Euro. The CFA franc, having a fixed exchange rate, had been disastrous for the nascent African economies, as evidenced by the fact that 9 out of the 14 nations in the CFA franc zone are classified as Least Developed Countries (LDC). This currency has been accused of encouraging massive capital outflows, leading to poverty and unemployment on a tremendous scale. One of the most egregious aspects of this currency was that it required the two central banks of the CFA Franc zone to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange in the French treasury.
Moreover, France held a de facto veto on the boards of the two central banks. Additionally, due to the fixed exchange rate between the CFA franc and the Euro, the monetary policies of these central banks were also under the purview of the European Central Bank. These facts effectively resulted in the absence of economic sovereignty in these African nations. Although reforms in the CFA franc in 2019, led to the end of many of these provisions, however, France continues to have a stake in African economies through its guarantee to exchange the CFA franc to Euros.
France has always seen itself as the gendarme of Africa. This has led to the deployment of French boots across Africa and the creation of military bases in Senegal, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and elsewhere. France signed technical military arrangements with African states to legitimize its African footprint. For instance, the 1961 French Defence Accord with Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin would allow France to freely access these states’ resources and government machinery to ensure their defense. However, more often than not, the French military has propelled the governments of its African allies, such as French operations against rebels, and protected the government of Mobuto Sese Seko in the former Zaire.
French military presence persists in Africa today in the guise of fighting against extremism. However, many Africans criticize the presence of French troops, considering it an intolerable breach of their sovereignty.
It is evident that despite being the birthplace of the ideals of sovereignty and democracy, France has never practiced these norms in Africa. It has directly undermined these principles in Africa to retain its hegemonic control. Perhaps this is the reason behind the recent wave of putsches. The African people have become fed up with foreign-imposed autocrats who have done nothing to improve their lives and thus are granting their support to military juntas just for the glimmer of hope of change.
The author is a student at the National Defence University and associated with the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.