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France Plays World Cop In Africa – For How Long?

Politics / Africa Dec 14, 2013 - 04:30 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Inside France, criticism and questioning of France's intensifying role as self-elected “savior of Africa” is mounting. Former defence ministers including Sarkozy-era Herve Morin who took on the role of pacifying Ivory Coast in an operation that took years rather than the promised months or weeks, have said that the ongoing Hollande-era action in Africa will take a lot longer, and cost a lot more in terms of money and French lives lost, than present defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pretends or claims. Backing that up, Le Drian on 14 December told French media that the Central African Republic (CAR) intervention is facing massively mounting violence and “a descent into anarchy which could destabilize the whole region”. Current government statements on CAR say that French armed forces will likely be expanded, from the present 1600, and their intervention dubbed “Sangaris” which was first stated as being a matter of “days or weeks”, will last 6 months or longer if the African Union force in CAR is not fully operational.  UN sources estimate that the daily death toll in CAR is now close to 200 but this provisional count is uncertain, and could be too low.

France's Mali war is now approaching its first birthday, on 11 January, and the operation dubbed “Serval” has shifted from neutralizing or killing al-Qaeda and Tuareg insurgents in the south of Mali, who threatened the capital Bamako, to “pacifying” the vast desert north of the country. Here, French soldiers are trying to beat back shifting groups of insurgents, often called “al-Qaeda and Salafi militants” but covering a wide range of dissident and hostile forces. These in fact represent the convergence of multiple blowback ripples from close to two centuries of French policies in Africa. These policies, shifting from direct rule to rule through local “comprador elites”, date as far back as the 1820s, while others date from the Mitterand era of 1981-1995, and more recently. Rising collateral damage and risk from this mishmash of failed policies include the pure and simple disappearance of countries such as Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, CAR and others.

Only one other western country apart from France has set itself up as a recent or present world cop. The US until very recently saw itself as the Middle East's lawmaker and pacifier, but now shows clear signs of abandoning this self-elected role. The benefits do not outweigh the risks, as American public opinion focuses national and domestic issues, especially the troubled economy and rejects the supposed glory and the real costs of overseas war.


Never outcropping in French politicians' official statements, residual colonial hangover permeates French political life. In the case of Mali, it was clear that French “laisser faire” tolerating and encouraging military junta rule on a serial basis had in Mali, as elsewhere, produced a no-win situation of total corruption where Bamako-based black African power elites ran a low level war against northern, Arabic-speaking Tuaregs and others, to no final and conceivable benefit for anybody. The southern junta carried out its own form of ethnic cleansing for imagined and real past historic crimes by northern Muslims and others, tolerated and often encouraged by the French during their colonial rule.

French diplomats, army cadres, politicians and analysts reacted with shock to the threat of northern Malian forces, usually fighting among themselves, uniting to form an al-Qaeda type military front carving out a quasi-independent zone in the north. The al-Qaeda threat was quickly renamed AQIM or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, by the French and westerners, or Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) locally, but the life expectancy of AQIM can be considered even lower than French colonial hangover dreaming, translated as costly French Army intervention on the ground. Simple refueling costs for French armed forces in Mali are estimated at about $50 000 per hour on a 24/24 and 7/7 basis.

AQIM runs on more disparate-source and lower funding needs, ranging from handouts from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait, to cigarette smuggling, car theft and protection rackets, but when or if AQIM owned and ran northern Mali, calling it “Azawad”, its ability to do more than run a low budget Islamic fascist theocracy modeled on Saudi Arabia would be zero. Also, although French media has made a point of ignoring this subject, not only Islamic fundamentalists but democratic forces are opposed to the Bamako junta, which France had no problems turning a blind eye to for as long as French Mali continued to look like a real and “united” country and served French interests.

The French problem in a huge swath of Africa, spanning the Sahel and its southern fringes, is because France was directly responsible for the creation of most of the states involved in the present conflicts. In CAR for example, the same Malian conflict scene of animists and christians fighting muslims and others is being played out, this time (in CAR) with muslims only about 15% of the population, whereas in Mali they are around 50%. French colonization of huge swaths of North, West and Central Africa from the start of the 19thC took no notice of such “ethnic problems”. One cause, apart from white colonial hubris, was the rapidity of the conquests, France taking what today is Mauretania and Senegal by 1815, followed by invading and occupying Algeria in 1830. The pace accelerated with Tunisia in 1881, French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and the French Sudan (later called Mali) - in the 1890s, Niger in 1903 and Morocco in 1912.


French colonial hangovers and its kneejerk recourse to military action to prevent what many French critics call “Franceafrique” (a corporate playground for French business run by French-installed dictators) from exploding and disappearing, at least helps draw world attention to the unreality of current African nations. This crisis is a lot more than only “mature”.

Very clearly now, we can state that it is impossible to know how the map of Africa would have evolved without European colonialism shaping it. The correctly named European "scramble for Africa" that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries – with a mix and mingle of comprador elites and direct colonial rule – was abandoned just as fast as it was created, by at latest the 1960s (although South Africa might be considered a longer, more drawn-out Anglo-Dutch colonial hangover). Some 50 years have ticked by, and the European colonial legacy of “modern nation-states” with borders bearing little or no relation to the religious, linguistic and ethnoecological geography is now a giant handicap. And a sure and certain cause of riot, rebellion and mayhem. Mali, as just one example, was slated by the French as able to be united with Senegal when France officially “decolonized” both states in 1960, but this almost instantly sparked ethnic, tribal, religious and racial conflict, in large part driven by the totally unreal frontiers that had been set.

Like the other colonists, France proclaimed a “civilizing mission”. This mission was a jumble of real and fake emotions, as well as greed for Africa's natural resources - blinding France and the other colonizers to reality on the ground. Political action in the colonies of France, for example, was at best “only tolerated”. Sometimes it was suppressed outright, with totally unexpected results, for example Algeria's Senussi Order abandoned Algeria in the 1830s, when the French arrived, and moved to today's Libya – with fateful results, including the policy and world view of Gaddafi's secret police headed by a descendant of the Senussi Order's founder.

African politicians unsurprisingly reacted with exuberant force to France's departure, and quickly found or created local opponents as surrogates for the colonial master with his superior weapons and fighting ability. To be sure, the "civilising mission" proclaimed by Paris was to extract as much wealth and natural resources as possible and enforce the control needed to do that by whatever means necessary, but the economic yield from African colonization was always lower than hoped or expected. Nearly all the postcolonial indigenous governments have followed the same model, operating their own internal and domestic colonization, with pitiful economic results. Mass poverty, and armed rebellion by separatist movements is the totally logical result.

Lost nations or “tribes” abound in Africa. Conflicts in Mali, Niger, Chad and elsewhere, including Algeria and Mauretania show the plight of these French-made states' Tuareg communities - who are spread across the Sahel much like the Kurds are spread across the Middle East, from Lebanon and Turkey to Iraq and Iran – also thanks to western colonization. Action by the “lost tribes” to assert themselves has led to France repeatedly taking the worst-possible political expedient decision - of aiding local strongmen and dictators to repress attempts inside their huge “pieces of real estate” handed down to them by France, when facing “lost nations and peoples” seeking self-determination.

One stark example was France's unreserved support for the Algerian military junta and its brutal repression of the aborted democratic transition which began in 1988 and was officially crushed by 1992 (but conflict continued until at least 1999) with an unknown total number of deaths – probably surpassing 200 000. Among the resistance to the Algerian junta, the Kabyle mountain peoples never accepted either French rule – or the junta. What is well known is that rather than allow the Islamic Salvation Front - a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired group not different to the recent Morsi government in Egypt - to take power after its clear electoral victory in the first round of the 1991-92 parliamentary elections, the Algerian junta declared a savage crackdown. This quickly degenerated into civil war between the military government and radical Islamist groups, and democracy-seeking groups.
Faced with the choice of allowing a new, Islamist political actor to take the reigns of power, or continue dealing with the long-installed junta sitting on a treasure trove of petrodollars (like Saudi Arabia), France was quickly joined by the US, Britain, Italy, Spain and other interested parties - interested only in oil and gas - supporting the Algerian military.  By allying with a despotic, brutal and corrupt government the French and the West more broadly were party to a vicious conflict that saw the emergence of a dangerous terror group, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), which was almost certainly itself controlled by the Algerian military, in whole or in part. By the late 1990s the GIA enabled the creation and development of the “Predication Front”, a Salafist group which quickly moved to preaching the Islamic fundamentalist crusade against the “impious” - outside Algeria. By at latest 2005, the Salafists had spread to Morocco, Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Sudan.

Just before France conceded to African demands for independence, from 1960, it organised the CFA money system based on "compulsory solidarity", which consists of obliging the 14 African CFA states of Central and West Africa (technically called the CEMAC and UEMOA countries) to put 65% of their foreign currency reserves into the French Treasury, plus another 20% for financial liabilities. The net result is that at any one time, these 14 African countries only have access to 15% of their own money, and anything above that needs compulsory borrowing from France at commercial interest rates. At least as shocking, the “comprador elites” of Franceafrique have continue this system almost unchanged to this day, further dragging down their economies.

African intellectuals rage at this colonial hangover. Ivorian broadcaster Nimba Mhaat for example says the CFA system was a “revenge” action by France after losing its colonial war in Vietnam by dragging America into it, to America's humiliation in 1975. The French, Mhaat says, then focused their revenge effort solely on African Francophone countries, in a form of colonial bondage worse than direct rule.

This of course begs the question of Africa suffering from imposed, or chosen “neocolonial humiliation”. Its comprador elites and western-backed juntas are however and today most certainly under pressure, from the Maghreb north and Central Africa, to now-unsettled South Africa, post-Mandela, in the south.
Most African countries are still economic pygmies tottering on their feet, and many are close to collapse, renewing an already 50-year-old question. Is the problem due to Africa's colonial experience or due to inherent inadequacies and weakness of Africans?

For colonial apologists, such as France's recent president Sarkozy (who later “apologized” for his remarks) the answer is simple. Whatever the shortcomings of colonial rule, the overall effect was positive for Africa. Surely the colonial powers exploited Africa’s natural resources, but on balance colonialism reduced the economic gap between Africa and the West.  This however has no real relation to Africa's border problems and cruel lack of nation-state identity today. This set of problems is squarely the fault of westerners, notably French. 

Another certainty, but which has to remain theoretical, is that if Africa had not been colonized mainly in the 19th century, by Europeans, it would have been colonized by somebody else. Also, whether Africa had been colonized or not by the west, its wealthy elites would have imported and consumed western industrial products, needing to pay for that one way or another – one of their methods in the 18th and 19th centuries being the sale of black human slaves to whites and Arabs. Colonization of Africa by “somebody else” would have reproduced exactly the same situation as today – where a crony comprador elite, often “aristocratic” clings on to power one way or another, and depresses the economy doing so. Fomenting civil war is the most extreme endgame way of elite self protection – and Africa's unreal nations and borders are a powerful aid to this strategy.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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