François Hollande’s African Adventure: The End of Françafrique?
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The official visits to Paris during the first week of July by three African heads of state raised more questions than answers about the Africa policy of François Hollande, the newly-elected French President. On July 2 it was President Alpha Conde of Guinea, on July 5 Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, and on July 6 President Macky Sall of Senegal. Presidents Conde and Sall came to power through elections generally recognized as free and fair, but the 2009 elections that brought Bongo to power, succeeding his late father Omar Bongo, who had served as Gabon’s President for 42 years, were widely thought to have been rigged.

This series of visits came as something of a surprise, François Hollande having promised to put an end to “Françafrique,” the web of political, economic, and military links between France and its former African colonies, links that maintained France’s sphere of influence and allowed it to continue to think of itself as a world power. In the words of former President François Mitterrand, Without Africa, there will be no history of France in the 21st century. Françafrique, though it came to have a negative connotation, had already been official French policy since the founding of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle.

When De Gaulle returned to power in 1958, it was clear that colonialism was on its last legs. France was embroiled in a conflict that would soon lead to independence for Algeria, regarded not as a colony but as an integral part of France, with the same political status as Normandy. The French had already suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which led to French withdrawal from all of Indochina. In 1956, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had sided with Egypt against the French and British who, in alliance with Israel, had retaken the Suez Canal, which Egyptian President Nasser had just nationalized.

Rather than resist the tide, De Gaulle immediately set about turning it to his advantage, proposing a new community joining France to the countries of French West Africa and making an example of punishing Guinea, which instead of following the proposed timetable to independence in 1960 had voted for immediate independence (Guinea was welcomed back into the fold, more or less, in the mid-seventies). Liberal democracy and human rights were not high on the French agenda: the idea instead was to create a cadre of client states whose rulers depended on France’s military support to remain in power and civilian support to keep the lights turned on, and who, in exchange, granted French companies unlimited access to their markets and reserves of oil, timber, and minerals. The French never let democratic niceties prevent them from sending in the Foreign Legion to remove a troublesome African president or to keep a client, however repugnant, in power. To express their gratitude, these African presidents often presented their French counterparts with diamonds or suitcases of cash to finance their re-election campaigns.

Of all the client despots, none was more loyal than Omar Bongo, Ali Bongo’s father, who became, as a result, one of the longest-serving and richest rulers in the world by the time of his death in 2009 after 42 years as President.

Gabon, which has only 1.5 million people but produces around 240,000 barrels of oil per day, became one of Africa’s richest countries under Bongo’s rule, with per capita GDP in excess of $14,000. You wouldn’t know it from visiting the place. Gabon built an average of 5 km of roads per year during that period, and had one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates. A U.S. Senate investigation in 1999 revealed that in Citibank alone, President Bongo held personal accounts worth $130 million. Bongo is said to have received from the French oil company Elf Aquitaine – acquired by Total in 2000 – a commission of $1 on every barrel of oil produced in Gabon. Over 42 years, that works out to more than $3.5 billion.

Every French President has had his “Monsieur Afrique.” Some have had several. Jacques Foccart was the original, a former Resistance fighter who became Charles De Gaulle’s Chief of Staff for Africa – in which capacity he instigated several coups d’état – and he subsequently served under President Pompidou. Foccart was credited, if that’s the right word, with engineering Bongo père’s accession to the presidency in 1967 and during the 1960s, at the height of his influence, was known to telephone Ivoirian President Félix Houphouët Boigny every Wednesday. Pompidou’s successor, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, sidelined Foccart in favor of his own protégé, Martin Kirsch, but Jacques Chirac rehabilitated Foccart on becoming Prime Minister in 1986, and then brought him back again, aged 81, when elected President in 1995.

These Messieurs Afrique, working in an official or quasi-official capacity, cultivated close ties to major French companies, both private and state-owned, in a symbiosis that used those companies as instruments of French policy while smoothing their way to fat public contracts with African governments. Some of the major beneficiaries were the giant construction company Bouygues and the transportation-advertising-media conglomerate Bolloré, which with the tacit or explicit backing of the French Government, managed to win lucrative contracts and concessions through procedures that were far from transparent. Bouygues wound up with a controlling stake in Ivory Coast’s electricity and water utilities. Bolloré found itself running Cameroon’s major port and its railways, as well as owning a major share of its timber, rubber, palm oil, aluminum, and oil pipeline, and is thought to have the inside track for the $500 million construction and operation of the new deep water port of Kribi. As one Cameroonian blogger put it: “When one company is involved in your ports, your railway, your oil palm, your rubber, your timber, your aluminum, your road transport, an oil pipeline passing through your country, what do you call it? You call it your owner.”

President François Mitterand, President during Chirac’s tenure as Prime Minister, relied on his son, Jean-Christophe, nicknamed “Papamadit,” (Daddy told me) to manage relationships with African leaders, as well as a shadier – though probably more competent – fixer, Guy Penne. Penne, noted for his close personal relationships with several African leaders, including the murderous Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, had few illusions about the people he was dealing with, and was quoted as saying, “When you sup with the devil, it’s best to use a long spoon.” Compaoré was one of the most important backers of Charles Taylor, the Liberian ex-President recently sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes.

Loïk Le Floch Prigent, the CEO of Elf from 1989 to 1993, was later brought down and sentenced to five years in prison for his role in funneling hundreds of millions of dollars of company funds (Elf was a state-owned company) not only to African leaders but also to the campaign war chests of senior French political figures.

Robert Bourgi, a French-Lebanese lawyer who served as an unofficial advisor on African affairs to Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy, in an interview last year claimed that from 2002 to 2007 he had personally carried at least $20 million in cash, gifts from the Presidents of Burkina Faso, the Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Equatorial Guinea to fund the political campaigns of Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, transporting the loot variously in a sports bag, a poster and an African drum.

This pattern of corruption was to have stopped with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President in 2007. Bourgi, in his interview, maintained that he had never carried any money to Sarkozy. Sarkozy himself promised a “rupture” with Françafrique and its replacement with a “healthier relationship” of transparency and mutual respect, and a “partnership between equal nations.” But it wasn’t that simple.

On Sarkozy’s first trip to Africa after his election, he visited not only Libya, where he negotiated an arms deal with Gaddafi, but also Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, two of France’s most loyal client states on the continent. And despite Robert Bourgi’s denials, Jean-François Probst, another of Chirac’s ‘Messieurs Afrique,” maintained that the suitcases of cash had not stopped when Sarkozy came to power. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, whom the French had backed in a 1997 civil war to wrest control from democratically elected President Pascal Lissouba, was a close personal friend, whom Sarkozy received in a state visit to Paris last February (see picture).

Picture by Eric Feferberg/Reuters

Sarkozy’s first Minister for Development Cooperation, Jean-Marie Bockel, also promised a definitive break with past policies, but he was forced out after barely a year in office by Omar Bongo, who with the support of fellow dictators Sassou-Nguesso and Cameroonian President Paul Biya, demanded, and got, Bockel’s head on a platter. Bockel’s offense? He gave a speech in which he said: “One of the main obstacles to development is bad governance: the wastage of public funds, failed institutions, and the predatory behavior of certain leaders…When oil is $100 a barrel but some of the biggest oil producing countries remain undeveloped, it calls into question those countries’ governance. When the social indicators of these countries fail to improve, or even worsen, while at the same time a small minority leads a life of luxury, it calls into question those countries governance. What happens to those oil revenues? Why doesn’t the population benefit from them? Is it really acceptable to give development assistance to countries that waste their own resources?”

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Sarkozy’s government pledged its support to Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, Minister of Foreign Affairs Michèle Alliot-Marie going so far as to offer “the world-renowned know-how of France’s security forces,” only two days before Ben Ali fled the country. Sarkozy was forced to back-pedal furiously, denying Ben Ali sanctuary in France, while keeping his criticisms of Ben Ali’s excesses muted. Later on, Sarkozy sent French troops to Ivory Coast to force President Laurent Gbagbo out of office and install Alassane Ouattara, who had won the recent elections, and took a leading role in mobilizing the NATO no-fly zone in Libya and in transforming it into an aerial war to topple the Gaddafi regime. France is also said to have supported the Touareg separatists in Mali, hedging its bets in case they succeeded in toppling the corrupt and ineffective – though democratic – government of Amadou Touré, and also hoping they might rid the region of the terrorist Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

François Hollande pledged to change all of this. In the run-up to the second round of voting in the presidential elections he stated: “I will develop France’s relations with the countries south of the Mediterranean on a basis of economic, democratic, and cultural cooperation. I will replace Françafrique with an approach based on equality, trust, and solidarity… and put an end to relationships of dominance, influence, and cronyism.” In an interview with the Cameroonian newspaper Le Messager, he said: “I want to change the way France looks at Africa and put an end to the arrogance, the paternalism, and the shady collusions that have tarnished the relationship between France and Africa. I also want to turn the page on the complacency, the secrecy, and the ambiguity of that relationship. As far as I am concerned, the important thing is not just to alter the modalities of partnership between one government and another, but much more to reinforce the links between one society and another.”

Stirring sentiments. But we have heard them before. Roland Dumas, President Mitterrand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs summarized François Mitterrand’s speech to the 1990 Franco-African summit meeting: “The winds of liberty blowing from the East must inevitably one day blow to the South. There is no development without democracy and there is no democracy without development.” Mitterand went on to say, “France will henceforth adopt a lukewarm approach on assistance to regimes that continue their authoritarian ways without engaging in progress toward democracy, and enthusiastic toward those willing to take that first courageous step.” Dumas was later implicated in the Elf scandal and sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison (two of them suspended). Mitterrand, using his son as a go-between, went on to support and arm Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose death in a plane crash (in a jet given to him by Mitterrand as a personal gift) set off the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Even if we give President Hollande the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge his sincerity, he will have a difficult time keeping his promises. There is no easy solution in Mali, where a military junta exercises uneasy control over the southern half of the country while Al Qaeda appears to have put the Touareg insurgents to flight and is busy imposing strict sharia law on the northern half of the country, which it now controls. While ECOWAS, the community of West African states, dithers over its response to the crisis, eyes naturally turn to France, the former colonial ruler.

In June President Hollande received President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger. Americans may know Niger as the country Ambassador Joseph Wilson visited in the run-up to the Second Gulf War to see if there was any truth to allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium there. Wilson is the husband of Valerie Plame, outed as a CIA agent in what may have been retaliation for Wilson’s refusal to confirm the Bush Administration’s suspicions.

Photo by John Schulters/Reuters

In the press conference following their meeting (see photo) President Hollande endorsed the bid of Areva, the French nuclear company, to develop and operate the huge Imouraren uranium mine, saying, “If it can move faster, we’re in favor. Anything that can be done to promote development and economic activity should be accomplished as quickly as possible.” Areva plans to invest 1.2 billion Euros in the project, which will become the second largest uranium mine in the world. Hollande went on to say that the project would be hugely favorable both to France, which gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear plants. and to Niger, 60% of whose export earnings come from uranium.

There may be nothing sinister about this. Issoufou, after years, some of them in prison, as the leader of the opposition in Niger, came to power in 2011 in elections generally recognized as free and fair. It is not uncommon for Presidents and Prime Ministers and even Princes Royal to act as shills for their countries’ industries. The fact that Hollande announced his intentions in public could signal a welcome move toward the transparency he advocates.

There is substantial speculation over who might become Mr. Hollande’s Monsieur Afrique, with at least a dozen party apparatchiks, functionaries, retired politicians, technocrats, and academics whose names have been floated. Though he has said he intends to abolish the position, Mr. Hollande will certainly need someone to advise him on Africa matters and to serve as a discreet diplomatic liaison. This too is not necessarily sinister. American Presidents have relied on Bill Richardson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and other luminaries to carry messages they are unwilling to entrust to normal diplomatic channels. Hollande may follow suit, using different people in different situations, which could avoid creating the kind of secretive and unaccountable cabal that ran such a big part of France’s African relations for so long. If so, it will be, as the French say, a decisive “rupture” with past practices. It is too early to tell. The real test will come when an African crisis arises, especially one in which big French commercial interests are threatened. We will then find out not only if François Hollande is a man of his word but also if he has the strength and the will to stand up to those who would drag his administration back to the dark side.

Posted 08-01-2012 10:46 AM by Charles Krakoff