Neocolonialism in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa

In the decade following World War II, three sub-Saharan African territories threatened the French project of maintaining its empire as the reformed French Union or French Community. In targeting Madagascar and Cameroon, Paris strove to preserve the French Union. In making an example of Guinea, which had refused junior partnership in the French Community, Paris hoped to demonstrate that nation’s inability to assume the responsibilities of independence and to dissuade other territories from following its path. French victories were short lived. By the end of 1960, virtually all French sub-Saharan African territories had become sovereign independent nations. The UN trust territories of Cameroon and Togo claimed their independence in January and April 1960, respectively. In June, Senegal, French Soudan, and Madagascar declared independence. They were followed in August by Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Ubangi-Shari, Middle Congo, and Gabon. Finally, in November, Mauritania became a sovereign state. Thus, by the end of 1960, the eight territories of French West Africa, the four of French Equatorial Africa, the two UN trusts, and Madagascar had declared their independence from France. Having devised the means to maintain dominance through economic and military agreements, France was ready to relinquish political control – and to unburden itself of the onus of colonial rule. None of the territories that achieved independence in 1960 was subjected to the dire consequences imposed on Guinea two years previously.

The French African territories were independent but weak. Most of the new nations were small and impoverished, and France remained a significant force in their political and economic affairs – in a relationship that typified neocolonialism. Africa remained France’s most important source of raw materials and, after Europe, its second most important market for exports. French state-owned enterprises invested heavily in African oil and minerals. In a number of former colonies, France continued to control the radio, telecommunications, and military communications networks. In many countries, French citizens retained important positions in government and influenced economic, foreign policy, and military decisions. Thousands of government-sponsored teachers, technicians, and medical and military personnel, as well as tens of thousands of private entrepreneurs, lived and worked in the former colonies. Decades after the colonies became independent, France exploited their natural resources, profited from investments in their economies, and propped up or overthrew their governments. No other former imperial power intervened to the same extent in the internal affairs of its onetime possessions.

Once African territories became independent, French-African affairs were directed from the Africa Cell, a secretive body that was separate from the Foreign Ministry and worked under the personal direction of the French president. From 1960 to 1974, the Africa Cell was headed by Jacques Foccart, who not only shaped France’s Africa policy but also directed the activities of the French intelligence agency, SDECE, throughout Francophone Africa. As such, Foccart had enormous power in making or breaking African governments. Successive French presidents and heads of the Africa Cell cultivated close personal ties with the leaders of Francophone African states and established pacts that stressed loyalty and reciprocity. Until the early 1990s, the personalization of politics bound France to its African clients, even after the extent of their corrupt, repressive, and authoritarian practices had been exposed. Personal ties were strengthened by annual Franco-African summits that included French presidents and their Francophone African counterparts.

France’s ties to its former colonies were formalized by a number of cooperation agreements signed in the early 1960s and subsequently updated. The agreements covered economic, monetary, and foreign affairs; defense and security; strategic minerals; and other domains. Whereas the French Community agreement of 1958 gave France sole authority in these areas, the new cooperation agreements were billed as giving African nations a voice. In reality, they perpetuated French dominance. Although most former French territories signed such agreements, four of them – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, and Gabon – constituted the pillars of the postcolonial system. Their political and economic policies were crafted to protect French interests, and their rulers, boasting close personal ties to France, reigned supreme for periods ranging from two to four decades. If the regimes or their policies were threatened, Paris used its political, economic, and military clout to restore the balance.

The postindependence economic cooperation agreements preserved the mercantilist relationship between Paris and its former colonies. For France, they guaranteed markets for exports and privileged access to Africa’s raw materials, the most important of which were critical to French aeronautical, nuclear energy, and armaments industries. The former colonies agreed to limit their imports from other countries. As a result, France remained the dominant supplier of goods and services, even though French prices generally exceeded the world average by substantial amounts. Even after the 1963 Yaoundé Convention opened Francophone African markets to all members of the European Economic Community, France continued to maintain a large trade surplus with Africa, in part because French foreign aid and loans to African governments were tied to French goods and services. Large French trading companies still controlled the import-export market, and French industries continued to dominate African manufacturing sectors.

Economic cooperation agreements were complemented by monetary accords. Most former French colonies joined the African Financial Community (CFA) or franc zone, a monetary union whose participants shared a common currency, the value of which was linked to the French franc. Membership in the franc zone bestowed a number of benefits on its African participants. The CFA franc was convertible – unlike the currencies of many individual African countries. The currency’s convertibility meant that the French Treasury would exchange any quantity of CFA francs for hard currency. Moreover, the CFA franc was guaranteed by the Bank of France. Countries with balance-of-payments difficulties were able to draw on the foreign exchange reserves of members with a surplus. However, membership in the franc zone also had drawbacks. African participants surrendered their economic autonomy. Monetary and financial regulations – and, by extension, economic policies – were determined in Paris. The issue and circulation of currency was under French control. France was permitted to devalue the CFA currency without consulting African governments, and French administrators could veto the decisions of African central banks. Lack of restrictions on capital transfers meant that French firms repatriated significant portions of their profits rather than reinvesting them in African economies.

These shortcomings were not merely theoretical. In the late 1980s, when many African countries were in economic crisis, the French Treasury was forced to bail out a number of clients threatened with bankruptcy, repaying their IMF and World Bank debts. The bailouts constituted a huge expense for French taxpayers and resulted in a dramatic revision to French policy. In 1993, Paris took the unprecedented step of suspending the free convertibility of the CFA franc and announced that, henceforth, prospective aid recipients must implement IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and good governance programs before receiving French aid. Moreover, France would no longer bail out corrupt countries with failing economies. In January 1994, France made another unforeseen move, unilaterally devaluing the CFA franc by 50 percent. Shock waves spread across the franc zone. Import costs doubled, and foreign exchange earnings plummeted. Household income and living standards declined precipitously. These critical actions were taken without input from African governments.

Like the postindependence economic and monetary accords, military cooperation agreements provided the framework for permanent French involvement in the former colonies. Parties to the agreements were required to buy French weapons and equipment and to hire French military and technical advisors. They could also appeal for French military intervention to quash internal or external threats to their regimes. In exchange, France was guaranteed access to strategic raw materials in the signatory countries. Most important among these were oil, natural gas, and uranium, the critical element in nuclear-power production. France was granted a priority right to buy such strategic materials and to limit or prevent their export to other countries if such actions were determined to be in “the interests of common defense.”9 Related military training and technical assistance agreements guaranteed French training to African armed forces, while the French intelligence agency trained African intelligence operatives as well as local police forces. From the early 1960s through 1992, France trained some 40,000 African military officers. In some instances, French officers remained after independence to organize, train, and advise the new national armies. In others, African soldiers were sent for training in France. These agreements gave France enormous influence over the size and capabilities of African armies. As the major weapons supplier in its former colonies, France also had significant influence over the regional balance of power.

The military accords granted France enormous clout by permitting the former imperial power to retain military bases and keep large numbers of troops on African soil. In 1960, when most French African colonies attained their independence, more than 60,000 French troops were lodged in some ninety garrisons in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. The number of troops in North Africa was far greater – with 500,000 French troops in Algeria alone. In the context of widespread decolonization, France determined that it was politically risky to station such large numbers of troops in Africa. As a result, when the Algerian war ended in 1962, France began to diminish its military presence on the continent. Between 1962 and 1964, some 300,000 French troops departed, leaving more than 23,000 French troops in nearly forty garrisons. France closed most of its military bases, retaining only those in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, and Madagascar. In the mid-1970s, after its ejection from the bases in Chad and Madagascar, France established new ones in Gabon, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, and on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion.

Despite these moves, France retained a considerable military presence in Africa. By the late 1970s, some 15,000 French troops were still garrisoned in more than twenty African states and territories, and France continued to maintain transit, refueling, and support facilities across the continent. Nor did the removal of hundreds of thousands of troops herald the end of French military intervention. Contingents in Africa were supplemented by rapid deployment forces composed of mobile airborne troops, which were stationed in France and ready to intervene whenever and wherever necessary. As late as 1993, a rapid deployment force of 44,500 men was ready to leave France on short notice to protect French interests in Africa.

French Military Intervention in African Affairs

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. 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.

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.

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