French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up his 18th tour of Africa on Sunday, after visiting Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo-Brazzaville. Macron made headlines at the outset declaring that the era of intervention in African affairs is “well over” and that France has become a “neutral interlocutor”. With this four-nation tour, Macron has now visited a total of 12 African countries once, eight twice and Tunisia thrice.
Opponents of Gabonese President Ali Bongo and his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi criticised Macron’s visit, saying it gives the two heads of state the legitimacy and popularity they need the year of the elections.
In Kinshasa, Tshisekedi wants Macron’s support to take on the Rwanda-backed M23 group, an accusation Kigali denies. Macron vowed to defend Kinshasa, indicating that France’s role as a “neutral interlocutor” was a message for Rwanda and Congo to come to the negotiating table in the hope of a political solution.
Macron ordered the formation of two committees to write about the “war (liberation) in Algeria” and the “1994 Rwanda and Burundi massacres” to uncover two of France’s greatest historical mistakes on the continent.
Algerians have been demanding an apology and compensation for the victims, with a complete condemnation of the period of French colonialism, which exceeded 130 years.
Meanwhile, Rwanda accuses France of negligence that amounts to conspiracy, which resulted in massacres claiming the lives of 800,000 people in 100 days, rendering the incident one of the most horrible tragedies of the last century.
Macron also pushed forward a French programme to return “looted African treasures”. Paris returned a historic Senegalese sword belonging to Hajj Omar Talal, a prominent leader of the resistance against French colonialism in the 19th century, as well as part of the Malagasy royal throne to Madagascar, several items to Benin, and a historical drum to the Ivory Coast. These are all symbolic gestures that Africans hope will be followed by other more significant steps.
Before flying to Libreville, the Gabonese capital, to attend the One Forest Summit, meant to curb the repercussions of climate change on the forests of the Congo River on 1-2 March, Macron announced France’s new strategy in Africa, which was reminiscent of his speech in November 2017 at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The Congo Basin, which includes 220 million hectares of forest, is the world’s second largest forest after the Amazon. The basin runs through several countries, including Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, and Gabon. Forests, from Africa to Brazil and Southeast Asia, are threatened by over-exploitation for agriculture, industry and oil production.
Macron said during his latest African tour that the remaining French bases in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Gabon will now be co-managed with the forces of the host nations. However, the base in Djibouti will remain exclusively French, he added.
After decreasing the number of French troops in Africa, France now has around 10,000 soldiers in the continent, the majority of whom are concentrated in west and central Africa. Macron added the base in the Ivory Coast ready to train troops from different West African states.
Many observers feel it is late for these French measures, especially after the Malian ruling military council expelled French forces taking part in the anti-terrorist Barkhane operation on the African coast. Such observers opine that French efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel countries — Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania — did not yield tangible results.
Announcing his strategy to fix relations with Africa, Macron emphasised the importance of civil society, culture and trade, and declared the beginning of the reform of the CFA Franc, a currency used in 14 West African countries and tied to the euro.
If the new African eco replaces the CFA Franc — currently a subject of discussion by the Economic Community of West African States — many African countries will disengage from France by 2027. However, doubts about the ability of those African countries to take this step persist.
The countries that use the CFA Franc are in two minds. One group believes the currency is one form of colonialism, having to pay 50 per cent of their foreign exchange reserves to the French treasury. The other group supports the CFA Franc, believing it is a guarantor of financial stability.
Thousands of French companies operate in Africa. Paris is the third largest investor in the continent after the US and the UK. All are facing challenges from China and Russia.
China has been welcome in tens of African countries since the 1990s, especially with its economic formula based on constructing a solid infrastructure in populous capitals and offering loans at low interest in return for African raw materials and resources.
China has not put pressure on its African partners regarding human rights, democracy, and corruption, which are all thorny issues the West insists on discussing with African leaders.
Nonetheless, 23 African countries are heavily in debt, particularly to China, and they may not be able to pay their dues, according to a United Nations Development Program report released on Saturday. The debts are hindering development efforts, the report added.
The Russia-Ukraine war, which the majority of Africans consider “of no concern” to them, has revealed Russia’s ability to provide relatively cheap food to almost all developing countries. Its abundant energy production has affected global oil and gas prices, which has severely exhausted the fragile African countries.
In addition, Moscow exports arms at relatively affordable prices to African countries that face security challenges, such as terrorism in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Libya, and northern Mozambique, and political threats, including rebellions and separatist movements.
The Russian presence in Africa takes more than one form, such as military cooperation, which takes a formal tone. According to Western reports there are also private military companies, the most famous of which is Wagner, active in Mali, Sudan and Burkina Faso, among other countries. However, both Russia and the African countries consistently deny those reports.
Despite the Sino-Russian challenge, France is still more appealing to African elites in education, culture — such as facilitating visas to complete postgraduate studies – and the economy. However, France needs to exert more effort to erase its dark colonial history in Africa.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly