France Military Bases in Africa.
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By 1975, when Tombalbaye was killed in a coup d’état, Chad’s north-south division had been replaced by a more complex pattern of ethnic and intra-ethnic conflict.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.