The history of relations between Paris and its former colonies on the continent explains the recent spate of anti-French coups
As the whole world has turned its attention to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the events in Ukraine have faded into the background, nearly everyone has forgotten about another region that is permanently unstable and immersed in conflicts and crises – Africa.
Over the past several years, there have been a series of coups in Africa – precisely, eight coups in three years. The last one occurred in Gabon. At the time, the media discussed Africa’s anger at colonialist France and the pro-French governments that toppled like dominoes. For Paris, that was a real disaster, since African countries had only formally escaped from under its ‘wing’ and were still subordinated to France politically and economically. Moreover, Africa is rich in minerals, oil, gas, gold, and other resources. For example, Niger supplies about 15% of France’s uranium needs.
We will find out why Africans have such a hostile attitude towards France and how this confrontation may end.
French colonialism in Niger began with the infamous and brutal military campaign to expand control over West Africa in 1899 (the so-called Central African-Chad Mission). The local population fiercely resisted the invaders, headed by captains Paul Voulet and Charles-Paul-Louis Chanoine (also known as Julien Chanoine). However, the forces of the two sides were unequal.
After leaving Dakar, the Voulet-Chanoine Mission was supposed to explore Chad and Niger and unite the French territories. Voulet had previously demonstrated sadistic tendencies in Burkina Faso, and his associate Chanoine was not any better. Moreover, Chanoine was the son of the powerful general and Minister of War Jules Chanoine, a fact that untied the mission’s hands.
The atrocities committed by the French in Niger could have never come to light, if one of the junior officers, Lieutenant Louis Peteau, had not described them in a letter to his fiancee. In the 15-page letter, he wrote how porters who were too weak from dysentery were beheaded and replaced by enslaved locals. Voulet ordered the severed heads to be placed on stakes in order to scare the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. The letter contains many details of war crimes committed by French soldiers. It was eventually made public and provoked a major scandal.
This did not stop the mission, however, and in 1922, after a severe drought and famine, the French established control over the territory.
France was primarily interested in Niger’s natural resources. Despite the fact that the country’s economy largely depended on agriculture and animal husbandry, the world’s largest uranium deposits were later discovered there. France seized hold of these resources.
In 1960, Niger was formally liberated. However, even after the 1960s, all the officers of Niger’s army were Frenchmen with French-Nigerian dual-citizenship. As of 1960, there were only ten African officers in the Armed Forces of Niger, all of low rank.
Paris would continue to exploit Niger’s rich resources for many years. Most recently, Niamey criticized the agreement with France and demanded a fairer share of the profits from the extraction of uranium ore.
??Africa soaked in blood
A few years ago, the adviser to Algerian President Abdelmadjid Cheikhi said that after the massacre staged by the French in Algeria, the bones of the Algerians were taken out of the country and used to make soap and for sugar filtration. Cheikhi stressed that his country had become “a real field of experiments for the brutal practices that France later applied in other colonies.” He added that today Paris attempts to hide the crimes by destroying historical archives.
Some tragedies, however, could not be hidden, since they were witnessed by tens and even hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are still alive. Here are just a few chilling episodes from France’s colonial past.
Burning everything in its path
The French, who are so proud of their elegant cultural heritage and Enlightenment values, were actually capable of savage atrocities against those who were not part of their culture, particularly colonized peoples. The cruelty of the French knew no bounds. They were involved in murder, rape, the plundering of African wealth, and the use of slave labor in the Central African Republic, Chad, and the Republic of the Congo. All these events happened in recent history and were recorded in archives, but no one has been held accountable so far.
There has been no justice in the case of the Thiaroye massacre, when on the outskirts of Dakar French forces shot West African veterans who had once defended France in cold blood. Likewise, no one was held responsible for the Rwandan genocide, nor for France’s nuclear experiments in Algeria. In February 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb, exposing over 24,000 people to radiation. It is difficult to imagine the real losses caused by the resulting pollution since today we do not know the locations of all the test sites and areas of disposal of nuclear waste. But it’s safe to say that the French don’t care about this.
An uprising soaked in blood
The people of Madagascar also have many painful memories. The French army subjected them to severe repressions simply because they wished to be independent- and this despite the fact that at the time, France itself had just been liberated from Nazi occupation. Tens of thousands of Malagasy people were tortured and killed during the Franco-Malagasy Wars and in their aftermath. There were even cases when people were thrown out of airplanes.
In 1946, the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Rejuvenation (abbreviated MDRM in French) was founded in Madagascar. It wanted to put an end to the inhumane treatment of people and advocated political equality, prosperity, and independence. But less than a year after the party was formed, France intervened. On May 5, 1947, a massacre happened in Moramanga – a city that had become the epicenter of the Madagascar uprising against colonial rule. At midnight, French officers gave the order to attack three passenger train cars with MDRM members inside. The train cars were fired upon using a machine gun. Most of the people inside were killed, and those who survived were executed without a trial shortly afterward. This event became a symbol of French repression in Madagascar.
The forgotten genocide
The fate of the Bamileke people of Cameroon is sometimes compared to the fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. It is not known exactly how many were killed – the numbers vary from 100,000 to 500,000 people. Some even say there were a million victims. In any case, this was a real genocide staged by the French under the leadership of the anti-communists Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Foccart, in their fight against the Union of Populations of Cameroon (UPC) – a liberation movement founded in April 1948.
We find an eyewitness account of those horrible events online. Jeannette was just a little girl when her country became flooded with blood and tears:
“In the evening, the military convoys come back filled with heads that are dumped and exposed at the crossroads that will become the crossroads of the maquisards, until my departure from Cameroon, in 1976, and even perhaps until today. It is in the heart of Bafoussam, about thirty meters from the house of my parents that all this is exposed. This is also where the executions take place. After a certain pause, because of the famine and in the absence of any help, the populations returned to the kingdoms without homes and without cultures. Others went to camps created by the occupier, without water, without access to the wood, and terrorized by the military.”
“Some, especially the occupier himself, have dared to advance the figure of 400,000 dead. Over what period? Are dead people in the Mungo area counted? Many died there. Others were tattooed and sent back to the West, where massacres and crowding in the camps were raging.
“After the war, the region was almost empty…”
Hell on Earth
Doubtlessly one of the most terrible genocides in world history was the Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days (other sources claim there were over a million victims).
France also carries the burden of this crime on its conscience. Numerous human rights organizations and historians (basing their assumption on documents) claim that France armed the Hutu government. Moreover, these events happened in light of Operation Turquoise, launched by France on June 23, 1994 in order to supposedly stop the mass killings of people. Instead, France secretly helped the participants of the genocide to flee.
Renowned French historian Vincent Duclert, who was commissioned by President Macron to prepare a report on the Rwandan genocide, concluded that Paris was responsible for what happened, at least in terms of ignoring the racist nature and brutality of the Hutu regime.
“Francafrique”: The illusion of freedom
The UN proclaimed 1960 the “Year of Africa”: 17 African nations gained independence that year – but only on paper.
France didn’t take leave of Africa without making sure that it could continue to exploit the resources of its former colonies, and continue to dominate them – even if from now on, that would happen behind the scenes.
In his memoirs, Charles de Gaulle wrote that France brought civilization to Africa, helped it build nation states and educated the elites, teaching them to act based on principles of human rights and freedoms (and, of course, French interests). At the same time, the founder of the Fifth Republic wrote that Paris was supposed to become a “specially privileged partner” for Africans. In other words, the colonizers wanted to take leave of Africa but preserve their influence over it. This is probably what de Gaulle meant by “privileged partnership.”
This is how the “Francafrique” [“French Africa”] concept was born – a system of special ties between Paris and its former colonies, developed by Jacques Foccart. Informal ‘guardianship’ of Africa through the Francafrique system guaranteed France political, economic, and military control over the region and, as a result, uninterrupted access to its natural resources – whether it was oil from Gabon, uranium from Niger, or cocoa from the Ivory Coast.
Making use of the economic whip and corruption, Foccart appointed his own people to high-ranking positions – these were the ‘elite’ raised by the French, which de Gaulle mentioned in his memoirs. If something went wrong, the French resorted to contract killing, terror, blackmail, intrigue, and bribery. When that did not help, France used its special services to eliminate high-profile politicians and even organize military rebellions. This is what the legendary French mercenary Bob Denard spoke about.
“One way or another, there was always some kind of interaction with the special services. Sometimes, Monsieur Foccart acted as a link. To involve the army in this or that operation, a lot of preliminary preparation was required. But my squad was light and mobile and could carry out the same mission using small forces,” Denard said.
Finally, in those cases when the efforts of mercenaries and the intrigues of special services failed, France conducted direct military interventions, meddling in the affairs of the “free” African nations. To this end, Paris had and still has military bases in Senegal, Djibouti, Gabon, and on the Ivory Coast. Until 2008, eight African countries had active agreements with France which allowed the latter to legally invade their territory and “restore order.”
On July 31, 2022, the government of Mali demanded that French President Emmanuel Macron abandon the principles of neocolonialism – above all, with regard to economic control over the continent.
Experts around the world have long discussed the CFA franc, which was introduced in December 1945. At the time, the abbreviation CFA stood for “French African colonies” (Colonies Francaises d’Afrique). By the 1960s, it meant “African Financial Community” (Communaute Financière Africaine). Today, the CFA franc is pegged to the euro, but until recently it was dependent on the exchange rate of the French franc. Moreover, the member countries of the zone where the CFA franc is in use are required to keep half of their monetary and gold reserves in the Treasury of France.
The CFA franc makes it possible for Paris to buy up Africa’s natural resources at extremely low prices. And considering the Francafrique system, local elites often derive benefits from the economic intervention of France.
Paris is almost impossible to push away, since it is a major investor in the region. In 2020, for example, French foreign direct investments (FDI) in Cote d’Ivoire topped $500 million. It is just one example – other such countries include Tunisia, Morocco, etc. The French industrial sector in West Africa is also quite influential. For example, TotalEnergies accounts for 17 percent of the African oil market and is the leading distributor of petroleum products in Africa.
For Paris, the African continent has become a giant market for selling overpriced goods – despite the fact that France itself was indignant when the US took advantage of the political situation and sold it gas at exorbitant prices. In contrast, goods from the former French colonies are sold cheaply.
This system is called neocolonialism, and this is exactly what Africa is rebelling against.
France continued to devour Africa in the decades after de Gaulle. Each of the eight subsequent presidents contributed to the disintegration of the African continent. Of course, African leaders, who saw France as a natural guarantor of their personal security, were also responsible for the situation. Africa gifted its patrons, bowed before them, and coordinated every step with the Elysee Palace. But this didn’t help. The fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is a good example – and this is the man who financed the election campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy.
The political processes happening in Niger today are not a color revolution or a nonconformist riot backed by an external force. These processes are a result of wounds and sorrows accumulated over many decades. There is a chance that Niger may help other African countries move towards real liberation, particularly now that France has encountered major competitors in Africa in the face of China and Russia. But in fact, these developments have only accelerated inevitable changes.