DAKAR: The calm capri blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean stretch as far as the eye can see, peeking placidly through the elegant palm trees so emblematic of the peoples of this country. In the distance, they meet the azure Dakar sky at an edged angle, much like an experienced carpenter’s mitre joint.
In the near line of sight, blissfully unaware but instinctively optimistic of what the African future holds for them, dozens of young Senegalese boys play kickabout on the beach, which is lapped up gently by the waves before they recede into space to carry ponderous-looking fishing pirogues.
Rising over them is the Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine (The African Renaissance Monument). Galling by day to some, it is to many breathtaking by night. The local ambivalence over its presence in some ways encompasses the struggle for identity on the continent, a conversation that it has not always owned.
This is Senegal, the Francophone Africa country that, perhaps even more than the Ivory Coast represents the struggle for Africa’s place in the global economic and social order. To discern a country’s identity, one is often directed into its literature, and it is no wonder that one of the best examples in Africa is to be found in the 1961 novel L’aventure ambigue (The Ambiguous Adventure), by Senegal’s Check Hamidou Kane, whose main character, Samba Diallo, battles between tradition and the European way of life.
Below this, a loosely symbolic scenario plays out—expatriates mostly of French origin sun themselves lazily, margaritas in hand, their cigarette smoke rings only just dispersed by the humid torpor-inducing Atlantic air, which feels like harmattan arrived early. They clearly enjoy life in this elegant part of the capital. In many of the well-shielded booths, a number of mixed-race couples can be seen, their demeanour simultaneously both tentative and confident of the prevailing social order.
Africa’s spiritual Mecca
Senegal holds a hallowed place in African identity, and it is easy to see why it is such a popular place for the continent’s black diaspora seeking to reconnect, including US president Barack Obama and his family. The first globally known poet of African origin was descended from here; Phillis Wheately, who was named for her American owner, was a bestseller author whose 18th century body of works counts elegies and both religious and moralising lyric monologues.
Boats parked at the Soumbedioune fish market for the well deserved break on Sunday. (Photo/Jeff Attaway/Flickr).
In April 1966, the West African country played host to the first World Festival of the Negro Arts, a 45-nation donor-funded jamboree that handed a lifeline of sorts to Negritude, which at the time appeared to be losing its way. Among the philosophy’s spiritual founders were (Senegal’s founding president) Léopold Sédar Senghor, and is a movement that claims other illustrious Senegalese citizens such as Alioune Diop, Birago Diop and David Diop.
Based on the conscience of the African personality, Negritude owed much of its thought pillars to the Americas, which were experiencing what then was called Negro-renaissance, a self-affirmation identity current that owed much of its literary visibility to the American poet Langston Hughes.
But even at that early stage, Negritude was experiencing cleavages, fissures that would soon be foisted onto the continent, and which inform a significant part of the current Francophone-Anglophone divide that has in decades gone by been a slippery slope for the continent’s prospects of shared economic growth, while hurting its efforts to curry international clout.
Most authors of Negritude wrote in French, and while alluding much to their African roots, would also not go out on a limb to condemn colonialism, their pro-France ideals weighing heavily on their work— Ousmane Socé Diop’s 1937 work Mirage de Paris is representative of this, detailing his rural-urban experience. The assimilation policy championed by France already had its foothold.
Negritude and revolution
Despite Negritude owing its roots to revolutionary movements, it sought to use culture to appeal to the humanism of those who had taken its freedom away, perhaps inevitably so given many of its proponents were products of western education.
While it did have an aggressive left wing, championed by among others Senegal’s David Diop, Negritude generally found itself shepherded into passivity. As such, it was easy for Anglophone-oriented intellectuals to reject it: one of its better known critics was South Africa’s Es’kia Mphahlele, who is celebrated as the father of African Humanism. By the 1960s, it was being mocked as “Tigritude”, keener on announcing its bravery than actually pouncing. Only then did newer Francophone writers change tack, affording a platform to acclaimed historians such as Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop.
The African Renaissance Monument. (Photo/Jeff Attaway/Flickr).
But the Anglophone-Francophone tendency towards atavism has remained relevant, and while current pan-Africanists have been keener to view economic integration as the answer, ignoring the realities that could rob policy makers of an understanding of what the Holy Grail of knocking down barriers to trade and movement really entails.
It can also have major repercussions for private business: not too long ago a clutch of Nigerian banks sought to muscle their way into the Francophone market. The results were dismal, with regulators in those countries taking a hawkish stance with the new entrants. In contrast, the Togo-headquartered Ecobank has been phenomenally successful in the region, including Anglophone Africa, as have a number of Moroccan banks, such as the Attijariwafa group.
Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was another who learnt this the difficult way. The consummate African nationalist, to the detriment of his national mandate even, his battle against the hold of France’s Charles de Gaulle on Francophone Africa would leave him a frustrated man. Assuming a key organisational role at the historic 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester, England, he was aghast when French-speaking Africa only sent Dr Raphael Armattoe of Togoland, who was more concerned with the loss of his portmanteau than with his speaking role at the conference.
Nkrumah recalled: “He felt that since we had been responsible for his attendance at the conference, we should make good the loss he had sustained. He proceeded there and then to list the items and assets, their value, and presented me with the account. The Congress was already very much in debt but I decided it was better to pay the man and get it over the best way we could.”
Armattoe disappointed Nkrumah and fellow Pan Africanists in speech too, only professing French-speaking Africa’s “admiration” for the bubbling nationalistic fervour present in Britain’s African colonies.
So disillusioned was Nkrumah with what he saw as Francophone Africa’s lack of nationalism that he resulted to supporting dissidents in those countries, attracting the ire of several countries that threatened to boycott the Organisation for African Unity meeting of 1965 in Accra. Deposed a year later while abroad, Nkrumah, despite his best intentions at the time, essentially left relations between Anglophone and Francophone Africa decidedly worse.
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, seeking to railroad Francophone Africa into African nationalism was a tad unnecessary: despite the overwhelming vote of its members in a 1958 referendum to remain under France’s sphere of influence, broken only by Guinea, independence for much of French-speaking Africa would come much sooner than expected.
The strength of Francophone Africa’s links with France is generally acknowledged as due to its assimilation policy in its overseas territories, but less is known about just how the trade links came to be, and which were also presented the glue that was a formidable barrier to the efforts of Nkrumah and others to drive a wedge between France and its territories.
In Part II of this article, published Monday November 9, we make the geopolitical and economic case for Africa, and highlight why Francophone Africa really matters. (READ: Africa can make its own fortune; it just needs to ‘get’ Francophone Africa—Part II).