French Military Intervention in African Affairs

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During the first three decades of African independence, France was involved in some three dozen military interventions in sixteen African countries, including Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Zaire. In most cases, France acted to protect allied regimes from internal threats to their power rather than from external aggression. In some instances, French intervention was sparked by concern about communist subversion or intrusion into France’s privileged domain by Anglophone or Arab interests.

French government concerns about communist subversion were nearly matched by its antipathy toward American political and economic expansion into France’s “traditional” spheres of influence. Hostility toward the United States had been preceded by centuries of competition with Britain. Paris’s aversion to Anglophone influence in Africa, the so-called Fashoda complex, is frequently attributed to a 1898 incident at Fashoda, Sudan, where a British military challenge thwarted French dreams of building an empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Even after the dissolution of its empire in the 1950s and 1960s, France considered its former colonies to be a pré carré (private domain) or chasse gardée (private hunting ground) – off limits to other powers, much as the United States applied the Monroe Doctrine to Latin America. To safeguard its supremacy, France expanded its sphere of influence to include Francophone countries that had been colonized by Belgium (Congo/Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi) and sought to undermine the influence of Anglophone countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, which it considered to be British and American surrogates. Thus, during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, France was the main source of arms for the Biafran secessionist movement. In the 1990s, France supported a Hutu extremist regime in Rwanda in its bid to destroy the Uganda-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement composed primarily of Rwandan Tutsi refugees and their descendants, who had been exiled in Anglophone Uganda. It was these Hutu extremists who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. Paris also supported Zaire’s brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (formerly, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu), until he was driven from power in 1997 by a Zairian rebel movement supported by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda.

Six cases of French military intervention are briefly considered here, including those in Cameroon, Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. In each case, French predominance was believed to be threatened by communist, Anglophone, or pan-Arab interests. Two countries, Cameroon and Gabon, were among France’s four political and economic pillars on the continent. All six countries possessed important deposits of strategic minerals, particularly uranium, which France desired for both weapons and energy production.10 Protection of France’s privileged access to uranium was a factor in French intervention in Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. Gabon and Chad also possessed important oil reserves. Diamonds were found in the Central African Republic and Zaire, while the latter also claimed rich deposits of copper, cobalt, and a plethora of other strategic minerals.

Although all six cases displayed a number of commonalities, they also exhibited differences. In Cameroon, France engaged in a long-term counterinsurgency operation, which diverged from the more common pattern of thwarting or supporting military coups. Following its expulsion from the RDA and banning by the French government in 1955, the UPC had transformed itself into a guerrilla movement. With longstanding ties to the PCF and to nationalists in British Cameroon, the UPC sparked French concerns about both communist and Anglophone infringement. Immediately after Cameroon’s independence, President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who was closely tied to metropolitan interests, requested French assistance in quashing the UPC insurrection. France sent 300 military officers to orchestrate the Cameroonian government’s response and five French battalions to enact it. In the ensuing months, some 3,000 rebels were killed, and thousands of civilians died as a result of the war. Ahidjo subsequently banned all opposition parties and, with SDECE support, established an extensive domestic security apparatus. The insurgency was quelled in the mid-1960s, and Ahidjo clung to power until 1982.

French intervention in Niger included thwarting a coup d’état, supporting a coup d’état, and waging a counterinsurgency operation. In 1963, French troops helped crush an attempted coup against Hamani Diori’s government, which had granted France priority access to uranium deposits and other strategic minerals. In 1964–65, France assisted Diori in putting down a rebellion led by Sawaba, an outlawed organization that had emerged from the Nigerien Democratic Union, Niger’s renegade RDA branch. Sawaba, like the UPC, played into French fears of communist and Anglophone infiltration. The organ-ization’s guerrillas were trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, Cuba, China, and North Vietnam. They also received support from radical African states, including Algeria and Ghana. Equally worrisome, Sawaba’s popular base was linked ethnically, culturally, and economically to Nigeria, France’s Anglophone nemesis in the region. French intelligence officers, who continued to dominate Niger’s security apparatus, kept close tabs on Sawaba’s activities, while French security officers supervised the beating and torture of captured Sawaba guerrillas. French soldiers were stationed in several Nigerien cities, and Paris retained military bases in Niger until the end of 1964, when the conclusion of the Algerian war rendered their presence less crucial. French support for Diori waned with his loyalty. In 1974, the Nigerien president attempted to negotiate more favorable terms for uranium sales, at a time when Nigerien uranium constituted two-thirds of that used by French nuclear reactors and French firms held significant shares in Niger’s uranium exploration and production. Shortly after negotiations began, Diori was overthrown by a military coup. The French military did not intervene to support him.

In Gabon, where France had extensive investments in uranium, oil, natural gas, manganese, iron, and timber, Paris supported a client regime by suppressing domestic dissent and restoring the president to power following a military coup. In 1960, SDECE intervened in Gabon’s presidential elections to ensure the victory of Léon M’ba, who was willing to cater to French interests. In 1960 and 1962, France helped M’ba put down internal unrest aimed at his increasingly repressive government. In February 1964, 600 French paratroopers reinstated M’ba after he was toppled by a coup d’état, which French President Charles de Gaulle believed was orchestrated by the CIA to give the United States access to Gabon’s oil, uranium, and other strategic resources. In Gabon, there were widespread protests against the dictator’s reinstatement.

After M’ba’s death in 1967, his successor, Omar Bongo, was handpicked by SDECE’s Africa chief, Jacques Foccart. During Bongo’s forty-two year reign, French paratroopers and pilots were permanently stationed near the Gabonese capital, and French officers trained the country’s military and intelligence networks. Notoriously repressive and corrupt, Bongo siphoned off Gabon’s oil wealth to become one of Africa’s richest rulers. The year after its client was installed in Gabon, France intervened in the Nigerian Civil War, hoping to undermine the power of the Anglophone giant. SDECE agents convinced Bongo to recognize the Biafran secessionists and to permit France to use Gabon as a resupply area. Over the course of the war, France covertly supplied the Biafrans with 350 tons of weapons, transferred through both Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

In the Central African Republic, France supported regime change to safeguard its interests – failing to intervene in some cases and aggressively intervening in others. In 1960, France actively supported David Dacko as the nation’s first president. Military and economic cooperation agreements permitted France to station troops in the country and to control uranium exploration and production. Dacko quickly instituted a one-party state that was rife with corruption. Hoping to gain popular support by demonstrating his independence, Dacko eliminated French monopolies on diamonds and lumber and accepted Chinese aid. On New Year’s Eve in 1965, Dacko was overthrown in a military coup led by army chief of staff Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa. French troops in the capital did not intervene.

Claiming that he was saving the country from international communism, Bokassa began a decade and a half of brutal dictatorial rule. He changed the name of his country to the Central African Empire and was crowned emperor in a ceremony reputed to have cost $30 million. Concerned that Bokassa’s repressive policies and erratic behavior threatened French interests, SDECE planned another coup. In September 1979, in what Jacques Foccart called “France’s last colonial expedition,” French paratroopers and intelligence agents deposed the emperor and restored Dacko to power.11 As before, Dacko permitted a strong French military and bureaucratic presence in the country. However, in September 1981, when Dacko was overthrown by army chief of staff General André Kolingba, who had important French military connections, France again chose not to intervene. Another in a long line of corrupt dictators, Kolingba maintained close relations with France through the end of the Cold War.

French intervention in Chad, which occurred in 1968–75, 1977–80, and 1983–84, was perhaps the most drawn-out of France’s military actions in postcolonial Africa. Bordering on six states, Chad was rich in uranium and oil and an important source of cotton for the French textile industry. Concerned about Soviet, Libyan, and American intrusion, Paris acted to ensure the survival of a regime friendly to French interests. During the colonial period, France had focused its development efforts in Chad’s predominantly Christian and Sara south, neglecting the heavily Muslim northern region. As a result, Sara and other southerners dominated the state at independence. In 1962, President Ngartha François Tombalbaye, a southerner, outlawed all political parties except his own and appointed primarily southerners to the government and civil service. Discrimination against the Muslim north led to the establishment of the multi-ethnic Front for the National Liberation of Chad (FROLINAT) in 1966 and the commencement of armed struggle. Between 1968 and 1971, the French military helped Tombalbaye’s regime recapture most of the rebel-held regions. In the meantime, Captain Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power in neighboring Libya following a 1969 coup d’état. When Nasser died in September 1970, Qaddafi assumed the leadership of the pan-Arab movement, which supported Arab emancipation and unity in Africa and the Middle East. Hoping to draw Chad into the Libyan sphere, Qaddafi openly supported the Chadian rebels, contributing to tensions between FROLINAT’s primarily Arab leadership and Tubu fighters on the ground.

By 1975, when Tombalbaye was killed in a coup d’état, Chad’s north-south division had been replaced by a more complex pattern of ethnic and intra-ethnic conflict. At one time or another, France and Libya supported most of the factions with military and economic aid. Although the factionalism was domestic in origin, foreign involvement made it particularly lethal. General Félix Malloum, chair of the newly established military junta, incorporated more northern and eastern Muslims in his government, but southern Sara continued to dominate. Among the northern rebels, rivalry between Arabs and Tubus was further complicated by divisions among Tubu groups. Goukouni Oueddei’s Tubu faction, residing near the Libyan border, identified strongly with the peoples of southern Libya. Hissène Habré’s Tubu faction, located further south, was oriented toward Sudan in the east. Under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s center-right government (1974–81), France provided covert assistance to Habré, while Libya supported Goukouni Oueddei. The United States, which considered Libya to be a Soviet proxy as well as a sponsor of international terrorism, supported whichever side was opposed by the Libyans.

By the spring of 1978, half of Chad was under rebel control. Malloum appealed for the return of French troops and made an alliance with Habré, who joined the government as prime minister. France supplied 2,000 troops and Jaguar fighter-bombers to stem Goukouni’s advance. By March 1979, more than 10,000 Chadians had died in the violence. A peace accord was signed in August, followed by the establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity (GUNT), which was recognized by the OAU as Chad’s legitimate government. Goukouni assumed the position of president, and Habré was named minister of national defense. By late March 1980, it was clear that GUNT had failed. French troops and OAU peacekeepers stood by as Habré’s forces took control of part of the capital. Libya responded to GUNT’s appeal for assistance, providing money, training facilities, and troops.

Under François Mitterrand’s socialist government (1981–95), France again changed course. Committed to backing the OAU solution, the new French government threw its support to Goukouni, offering economic aid and support for an OAU peacekeeping force in exchange for Libyan withdrawal from Chad. Goukouni agreed, and Libyan soldiers departed. The Reagan administration, however, believed that Qaddafi was an agent of international communism. Worried that Chad, Sudan, Egypt, and Nigeria would fall like dominos, President Reagan authorized the CIA to funnel large amounts of cash, arms, and vehicles to Habré’s rebels, undermining the OAU peacekeeping operation. In June 1982, largely as a result of American covert funding and military support, Habré returned to power. In another about-face, France recognized the Habré government as a fait accompli and the one most likely to protect French interests.

Goukouni again turned to Libya for assistance. In June 1983, Goukouni’s forces, armed with sophisticated military equipment and backed by 2,000 Libyan regulars, attacked Habré’s forces in Chad. France, the United States, and their regional proxy – Zaire – came to Habré’s rescue. While the United States provided military advisors and aid, and Zaire sent aircraft and paratroopers, France supplied some 3,000 troops, as well as weapons, equipment, and logistical support. The Chad campaign of August 1983 to September 1984 was France’s largest military intervention in Africa since Algeria. Habré ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, when he was ousted by his former chief military advisor, Idriss Déby. Habré’s brutal eight-year reign was marked by the systematic use of torture and thousands of political murders.

Paris also had a strong presence in Zaire, which followed France as the world’s second most populous Francophone country. French businesses had important interests in the copper and cobalt mines of Shaba (formerly Katanga) Province. They helped build the massive hydroelectric dams near the capital city and assisted in the construction of ports, airports, and telecommunications infrastructure. In the 1970s and 1980s, France bailed out the nearly bankrupt Mobutu regime and provided it with sophisticated military equipment – including Mirage F1 fighter jets, Alouette III helicopters, armored cars, and weaponry – as well French instructors to teach Zairian soldiers how to use them.

France also intervened in Zaire militarily. In 1977 and again in 1978, Zairian rebels based in Angola attacked the mineral-rich Shaba Province. Claiming that it was repelling a Soviet-backed invasion from MPLA territory, France helped Mobutu ward off the first wave of attacks in April 1977 by transporting Moroccan troops and military vehicles to the embattled region. In May 1978, Paris sent 1,000 French paratroopers to break the siege of Kolwezi, an important Shaba mining center. In a strategic region challenged by Anglophone interests, Zaire was France’s final hope. As a result, the French courtship of Mobutu endured for two decades. Having “lost” Rwanda in 1994 to the English-speaking RPF, Paris was determined to retain Zaire for “la francophonie.” In 1997, as Mobutu’s regime crumbled under a rebel onslaught backed by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda, France ran a covert military operation against the rebels that included three combat aircraft and some eighty European mercenaries. While the United States distanced itself from Mobutu, who had little value in the post–Cold War world, France supported its protégé to the bitter end.

New Developments in the 1990s

From the 1960s to the 1990s, France was closely linked to a number of unsavory but anticommunist dictators who protected French interests in Africa. With the end of the Cold War, France could afford to cut many of these ties, and the emergence of popular prodemocracy movements across Francophone Africa made severing them a necessity. Beginning in February 1990, trade unionists, civil servants, religious leaders, students, and other democratic forces pressured unelected governments to hold national conferences in a number of Francophone African states, including Benin, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Mali, Togo, Niger, Zaire, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Civil society organizations demanded that the conferences honestly assess past government practices, evaluate ongoing political and economic crises, and write new constitutions that enshrined multiparty democracy and the accountability of leaders.

Pressured by national conferences held in Benin and Gabon and widespread agitation elsewhere, President Mitterrand unveiled a new Africa policy in June 1990. At the Franco-African summit held in La Baule, France, Mitterrand declared that there could be no development without democracy and announced that, henceforth, French aid would be tied to human rights practices. However, in an ambiguous escape clause, Mitterrand also affirmed that France would continue to help its allies ward off external threats and would refrain from interfering in internal conflicts. Throughout Francophone Africa, wary dictators embarked on superficial reforms to bring about “multiparty democracy” that would protect their relationships with France, then resumed rigging elections and cracking down on dissent without fear of the consequences.

The changing political climate of the 1990s was accompanied by economic transformations at home and abroad. Reformers in the French bureaucracy argued that Africa’s economic importance to France had diminished and that military and economic aid should be similarly curtailed. By the late 1990s, less than 5 percent of French foreign trade was with Africa, and African countries absorbed less than 20 percent of France’s direct foreign investment – although French businesses still dominated mining, agribusiness, building and public works, telecommunications, insurance, banking, and electricity supply. Moreover, when France joined the European Economic and Monetary Union in 1993, it was required to reduce its government deficit, which resulted in diminished military and economic aid to African countries; the suspension of the free convertibility of the CFA franc; and a year later, its dramatic devaluation.

French military presence in Africa was also overhauled in the 1990s. In 1994, nearly 9,000 French troops were in stationed in seven African countries, while approximately 800 French military advisors operated in twenty more. By 2008, Paris had reduced the number of troops on the ground to approximately 6,000 and had eliminated all but three bases – retaining only those in Djibouti, Senegal, and Gabon. Instead of the permanent presence that had characterized the 1960s to 1990s, French troops in the new millennium would be moved in and out of African countries on short-term assignments.


The United States

During the Cold War, US foreign policy was fairly clear, it was based on “US vs. Them”, “them” being the Communists and their allies. The central strategy was containment of the Communist.

After the end of the Cold War, buoyed by the defeat of the USSR, US foreign policy embarked on “The New World Order”. The US saw and acted as the uncontested leader of this new order. Multilateralism rather than unilateralism was now the byword.

Saddam Hussein was the first to face the wrath of multilateralism when in 1990 he invaded Kuwait. Then US president George H. Bush cobbled together a coalition of 34 countries; a force numbering between 500,000–600,000 with the blessing of the United Nations. Saddam was defeated.

Shortly after, the US embarked on another foreign expedition, this time in Somalia to contain the warlords ravaging the country. This proved more difficult than anticipated. The humanitarian effort dubbed Operation Restore Hope that was launched with fanfare quickly turned sour, when some 18 US servicemen were killed.

After being chastised over the Somalia operation, the US remains famously reticent to committing troops in intractable “tribal” conflicts in far flung areas.

The bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 brought home the reality of transnational non-state actors. Their engagement shifted the nature of the war, the strategy and the operation.

The safety and security of US personnel, safeguarding of critical trade routes, combined with the emergence of China, has seen the US increase its resources and operations in Africa.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), established in 2007, is the main vehicle of Washington’s new security-focused policy towards Africa.

The Horn of Africa and Sahel are the two regions the US has increasingly focused on in its counter- terrorism efforts.

In the Horn, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF- HOA), established in 2001, and based at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, is the American military’s main operational presence in Horn of Africa, where it has an estimated 4,000 troops. The key role here is to destabilise and destroy Al Shabaab- the Somali-based Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda.

Horn of Africa and Great Lakes

In Somalia, the US has deployed about two dozen regular troops to advise the fragile government of Hassan Shekh Mahmoud. Following the breakout of conflict in South Sudan early this year, the US deployed 45 military personnel to protect its citizens and their property.

After Camp Lemonnier, the largest US deployment is in Entebbe in Uganda. A total of 300 military officers are stationed in a dilapidated compound that has recently received a huge facelift. Their key function here is to look for Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony.

In Camp Simba, located in the remote Manda Bay in Lamu, Kenya, there are an estimated 60 military officers stationed there since the end of 2013.

West Africa

According to the White House, there are about 100 US military personnel in Niamey Niger. Following Boko Haram’s abduction of the school children, the US sent 70 military personnel in Nigeria, with 50 regularly assigned to the US Embassy, and 20 Marines there for training.

The US has announced it was sending 80 troops to Chad as part of the team to help in rescuing the Nigerian school children abducted by Boko Haram.

There are a number of US military personnel in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Congo and Mali, but it is difficult to establish their numbers.

The known total number of US troops in Africa is 4,680, combined with the classified ones; the actual number could conservatively be anywhere between 4,000- 6,000.

The British army also has a Training Unit in Kenya, BATUK, which provides logistic support to visiting units. There are around 56 permanent staff and reinforcing short tour cohort of another 110 personnel, according to its data.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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