FOUR years ago, France had the opportunity to scale back its decades-long dabbling in Africa, run under the so-called “Françafrique” arrangements—shadowy but passionate ties that saw Paris retain considerable influence in its former colonies.
In 2010 some 17 African countries marked 50 years of their independence—on paper at least— from their former master, against a background of what was seen as France’s declining clout on the continent.
The death of the Machiavellian and long-time French government adviser on Africa policy Jacques Foccart, the passing of former Côte d’Ivoire president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, arguably France’s greatest disciple, and the coming to power of the rather strait-laced French premier Lionel Jospin, were held up as signs of a markedly changing African foreign policy.
But there was also the rise of a younger brood of African leaders that sneered at Paris’s indulgence of corrupt dictators, the most damning example being Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).
Leader upon leader at the independence celebrations hinted at it not being “business as usual”, as Gabon president Ali Bongo Ondimba memorably put it.
In the years running up to the festivities then-president Nicolas Sarkozy had talked of “times having changed” the role of France as Africa’s gendarme. While the Zeitgeist then was more of a lull than an overhaul, it still felt different.
And then Côte d’Ivoire’s contentious election later in 2010 happened, forcing Paris back into the thick of things, where it played a key role in dislodging Laurent Gbagbo from power. The moment passed.
Given France’s extensive interests in the west African country—at least 800 French companies employ 35,000 Ivorians, and their combined turnover accounts for 30% of its GDP—intervention was a no-brainer.
But in March 2011 Paris provided the setting of a key military coalition meeting that drew up the operational details for a no-fly zone over Libya, the end result of which was the deposing of longtime strongman and trading partner, Muammar Gaddafi, months later.
Since then France has intervened militarily in the Central African Republic and Mali, where it played a key role in pegging back separatist militants.
It is this latter role that could be the lynchpin of France’s continued deep involvement in its former colonies. It is a sign of sorts that Cote d’Ivoire provides the setting for this new phase.
On the face of it visiting French president Francoise Hollande will mainly talk business in Abidjan. France is Côte d’Ivoire’s main trading partner, and the French leader is accompanied by dozens of business barons. He will also address a key economic forum in the country’s financial capital.
But on the eve of his visit Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara promulgated a law on a new defence partnership with France, which a spokesman said “clearly defines the areas of cooperation”, following ratification by the West African country’s legislatures.
The agreement replaces one signed between the two countries in 1961 and is valid for five years with an option to renew. While the timeliness of the deal is obvious, it is not lost on observers that Côte d’Ivoire will soon be going into an election year, with campaigning already underway.
Doubts have been raised as to the preparedness of the fragile country to hold a ballot, with electoral bodies running out of time and reconciliation and disarmament efforts at best laboured.
The stability of the country in such a volatile time will thus be key for Hollande, who is making his first visit there despite Ouattara having travelled four times in the opposite direction in the last two years.
With Cote d’Ivoire being West Africa’s economic hub, conflagration there would have a huge import on regional security, touching on Guinea, Liberia and Mali, neighbours who are also seen as fragile. Ghana, another neighbour, shares a 700-kilometre border with Côte d’Ivoire.
The regional security concern by French will notably be taking an anti-terrorism dimension in a further evolution of ties. Hollande will next visit Niger, another country where it retains extensive economic interests, but which is also part of a Sahara-Sahel band infested with Islamist militants.
French specialist forces were key in tackling a major terror threat in the landlocked nation, which saw former Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar launch twin attacks at a French uranium mine and a military base last year.
Hollande will visit a French military base there used to deploy surveillance drones in the restive region, before heading to the Chad capital N’Djamena, which will be the permanent headquarters of the newly-minted Operation Barkhane.
New defence deals
Barkhane replaces Operation Serval, the military offensive in Mali that pushed back the northern rebels, who are now locked in tight peace talks with the Malian government in Algiers.
It will be a 3,000 strong counter-terrorism force that will operate in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Mali this week signed a new defence pact with Paris that keeps French troops at the vanguard of the security effort in the desert north which has been complicated by Bamako’s clientelist dealings.
Hollande’s visit provides the political tailwind for French efforts to stabilise regional hotspots, with the long term goal that Paris can finally reduce its presence in its African pré carré (backyard).
France was the setting in May of a high-level summit that agreed to wage “war” on Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamic militants, a meeting that was seen as redefining the campaign against the brutal extremists.
A key outcome of that security summit, which brought together five African leaders, was a deal on a “global and regional action plan”, seen as necessary given the cross-border operation of Boko Haram militants.
Smaller meetings between these leaders have since taken place, but it is felt the overall exertion at regional co-operation has been slow. Curiously Hollande’s trip, in part designed to prod the effort along, may instead end up prolonging France’s stay on the continent, and even expanding its sphere of influence, including into English-speaking Nigeria, the region’s biggest economy.