French Air Force Mirage F1s were first deployed operationally in 1984 during Operation Manta, the French intervention in Chad, to counter growing Libyan encroachment. Four Mirage F1C-200s provided air cover for a force of four Jaguars, and took part in skirmishes against the pro-Libyan GUNT rebels.
In 1986, French Mirage F1s returned to Chad, as part of Operation Epervier, with four F1C-200s providing fighter cover for a strike package of eight Jaguars during the air raid against the Libyan airbase at Ouadi Doum, on 16 February. Two F1CRs also flew pre and post-strike reconnaissance missions.
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. 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.