Historically, no imperial nation has exerted more political, social, military, economic and cultural power over the West African sub-region than France. The pattern of governance used by France in administering its former colonies in West Africa had tremendous impacts on the region to the extent that post-colonial governments depended helplessly on France for virtually all their national development plans and their security architecture. However, recent developments indicate that France’s dominance in the region is currently being challenged.
France’s dominance in Francophone West Africa
Long before the emergence of General Charles de Gaulle whose colonial legacies and political reforms in Françeafrique subsists, and regardless of the rhetoric by subsequent French presidents who repeatedly promised change, unequal relations characterized French patterns of administration in African colonies. For instance, the policy of assimilation introduced in the colonies was based mainly on the pretext and doctrine of the superiority of French culture and civilization. As it were, France embarked on a mission of civilization meant to transform their African subjects to think and act like the French and ultimately make their African colonies become a mere geographical extension of France. However, when the policy of assimilation failed, the policy of association was introduced, in which they allowed Africans to retain some aspects of their lives/cultures.
To an extent, despite this failure, the entrenchment of the policy of assimilation engrained a sense of French invincibility and indispensability upon Francophone West Africa (FWA) insofar as security and developmental aspirations are concerned. In other words, in spite of the reforms initiated since the time of Charles de Gaulle with a view to undoing the numerous sociopolitical errors of the policy of assimilation, the grip of France on FWA remains visible.
On the one hand, since political independence, France has been in control of the monetary policies of FWA (money supply, insurance of the CFA, financial regulations, banking procedures, budgeting, and many other economic policies) through its Central Bank of West Africa.
On the other hand, military intervention is one of France’s channels of interference in FWA. In his time as the President of France, Francois Hollande promised non-interference in African affairs. Just about a year later, he reneged on the promise (as did other presidents) when he deployed about 4,000 soldiers to Mali. Similarly, President Nicholas Sarkozy, in 2013, intervened militarily also in Mali. Emmanuel Macron is yet to make any significant shift away from the routine of his predecessors. The much done by Macron has been to restyle France’s method of intervention in FWA. Rather than the usual unilateral approach, Marcon mobilizes for multilateral interventions which remain subject to French ratification and leadership. All these arrangements are now being challenged.
Power realignments and the new opportunities in FWA – involvement of China and Russia
Growing dissatisfaction with long years of France’s dominance as well as widespread poverty, security crises, imminent debt crises, and very low human development index are some of the main features that continue to characterize, nay bedevil, FWA, and France is perceived as undermining the improvement of the living condition of Francophone West Africans. Violent conflicts including rising waves of terrorism, insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism, drug abuse, youth radicalization, and official corruption are daunting. The political instability they fuel in FWA has opened the door to other major state actors like China and Russia to come in, raising questions as to whether local people, particularly Malians, stand a chance of achieving full national freedom and non-interference from all foreign actors in the aftermaths of the present economic, political and security challenges.
Emerging economic, social, military, security, and political configurations in contemporary FWA have serious implications for hitherto challenged patterns of international relations between France and its former West African colonies. There is an avalanche of strong pieces of evidence of longings for the intervention of new actors, states, and foreign development partners, not just in Mali but across the entire region.
With the increasing economic powers of China, the dogged military expansionism of Russia, and the rising determination of the indigenous peoples of West Africa for change, France’s grip on the region is increasingly becoming wobbly. A recent report on economic activities in West Africa shows a bourgeoning influence of China. The report reveals that China has replaced France as the biggest trading partner in most of FWA (including Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo and the Republic of Benin) that used to be the exclusive economic zone of France. China’s economic efforts in the sub-region is also significant in areas of development funds, infrastructure development, loans and economic investments.
Furthermore, the ongoing political and security crisis in Mali has provided a pretext for Russia’s security assistance, in total disregard of France’s wishes. The crisis of credibility which confronted France’s Operation Barkhane was a major scar on Macron’s foreign policy position in the Sahel, but a smooth ride for Russia’s intervention. The new military leaders in Mali are collaborating with Russia in their attempt to restructure the political and security order. Sergey Lavrov’s (Russia’s foreign minister) recent visits and promises of support, to Africa seems to be yielding desired results. Russia responded promptly to the invitation of Mali’s military leaders and provided military assistance. The Wagner Group, a Private Military Company vigorously supported by the Russian government, is now active in Mali and helping in the fight against Islamic militancy. Beyond Mali, Russia’s military presence in other former French colonies in the region like Burkina Faso is also growing.
Whether or not the contemporary power tussle and political realignments in Mali and FWA would provide sufficient grounds for local and national authorities to reconstitute the economic, political and security architecture of their homelands remains unknown. However, to take back ownership of their territories, these countries must seek and emphasize non-interference in all spheres of their national life. Any unhelpful age-old treaties or new-age agreements with the potential of making African countries engage feebly in international relations or bargain from a position of weakness must be repudiated. Economic diplomacy must be vigorously pursued to set FWA free from long years of painful dependency and servitude.
In the security sector, human security must be accorded significant priority in order to stimulate sustainable peace and development. Furthermore, national military forces within the sub-region must be improved upon and made ready to confront twenty-first-century security challenges.
Francophone West African countries must assert their sovereignty in ways that would enable them to freely negotiate their national priorities with any state of their choice – from the East or from the West.