Africa can make its own fortune; it just needs to ‘get’ Francophone Africa—Part II

The geopolitical and economic case for Africa: why Francophone Africa matters--and in surprising ways.

 Part 1 of this article, looked at the ideological divide between Anglophone and Francophone Africa. In this final part we look at the culture, geography, integration and the moneyREAD: Africa can make its own fortune; it just needs to ‘get’ the Francophone region to the table (PART 1)

ENTRY into Senegal tends to be hassle-free, with about 70 countries exempted from visa (including the entire European Union bloc) and nearly 90 others able to obtain visas on arrival. If you can be good-natured about the rather ubiquitous gendarmes, customs and other security agents, at the tiny Leopold Sedar Senghor airport, it is an incredibly welcoming country.

The basic nature of the airport for an emerging and strategic West African aviation hub is in keeping with other airports in French-speaking Africa—Bamako and Abidjan spring most readily to mind. 

It is a pointer to the infrastructure deficit in the region—and one recognised by the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), a major African Union plan that has identified a raft of game-changing infrastructure projects.

But an understanding of the trade links between France and Africa could shed some light on how this deficit is a result of dependence. In the 1950s, French exponents begun to go town with literature calling for closer integration, a concept pioneered by war-battered Germans and that came to be known as Eurafrica. Leading names included Henry Didier, Jean Monnet and Guernier, who called for European emigration to Africa and extraction of the continent’s riches to Europe’s benefit.

The concept was institutionalised in Europe’s 1952 Strasbourg plan that called for closer economic integration with African territories as a counter to an ambitious Asia and the post-war dominance of the US. The 1957 Rome Treaty birthed the European Economic Community (Britain was not a member), and which gave associate membership to among others the overseas territories of France, giving Eurafrica legal status.

Lome Convention
Among the benefits to Francophone Africa of membership to the EEC and its later forms was tariff reduction on exports and the setting up of million-dollar development funds. The UK only joined in 1973, leading to the much-widened Lome Convention that roped in British territories. To retain their cultural links, the Union African et Malgache (UAM) was created in 1961, giving form to the first real show of the modern-day La Francophonie.

The UAM was dissolved with the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, but the links remained strong, championed by the likes of Niger president Hamani Diori and Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, even though tensions at the time came to the fore due to Paris’ focus on the practical rather than the sentimental, and its role in the angst between Canada and Quebec. Due to this, Francophonie in its current form was birthed in 1970.

It helped assuage the feelings of many Francophone African nations that had been upset by the entry into the EEC of bigger Anglophone states such as Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, and of France which felt its diplomatic clout was in danger of dilution.

Interesting, later Francophonie summits have been attended by almost all world regions, giving France enormous pride, but even in those early years tensions between Anglophone and Francophone Africa were evident.

But France would soon throw a spanner in the cosy works—in 1991 in Paris president François Mitterand asked delegates to “democatise and we will help you”, and soon linked aid to governance, in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Paris also begun to woo Eastern Europe, leaving many of its former colonies discomfitted as investments begun to shrink. But the final straw came with the devaluation of the CFA Franc in early 1994 under the arm of ‘Monsieur Devaluation’—prime minister Edouard Balladur, with 13 African countries directly affected.

In the aftermath of this decision it became clear that for many Francophone African countries, their future growth was better served by taking control of their own destiny. But France has never really gone away—its paternalistic approach to the continent, and the embedded if convoluted business ties remain, many of which are protected by military means.

Big infrastructure fix

Of the 24 projects identified by PIDA as absolute transport priorities, at 11 those in Francophone Africa are just over half but are of smaller value—the biggest is aimed at fixing hubs and ports, with a sticker price of $2.14 billion. 

By contrast, there are at least three projects in eastern and southern Africa valued higher, including the (admittedly troubled) $5.9 billion Lamu project that originates in Kenya, with a view to moving into the hinterland of Uganda and South Sudan.

Just $420 million—almost a third of Ethiopian Airlines’ most recent annual profit—has been sought for the West Africa Air Transport plan, a project that seeks to increase services for 15 countries—all of which lack a discernible aviation hub.    

In a map of the continent’s energy mega-projects, it is hard not to notice the blank canvas that is West Africa, with few either in planning or development. On the data-rich cartograms provided by the Africa-EU energy partnership that was signed off by scores of heads of states in 2007 to much fanfare but which has been stuttering, the Sahelian belt that is Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania sticks out—captive no doubt to geography, but also to its history as an extractive catchment for the dominantly French multinationals in their backgrounds.

It is a deficit that could get worse: Of the 15 energy projects that PIDA has been selling to investors, only four are in West Africa, and feeds into investor concerns that projects in the region are generally more poorly conceived, hurting their bankability—a problem the AU is battling to solve.

 Developing this infrastructure deficit would diversify West Africa’s resource-dependent economies that have been the source of much of the region’s conflict. By one count, of the 32 coups that took place between 1960-75, twenty were in French-speaking Africa, and all but eight in West Africa.

Making instability expensive
Making the price of instability expensive through trade links looks to be key, if the political risk that is a big concern for investors is to be beaten back. West Africa has more economic blocs, but the south and east have had a better experience of market integration—a tailwind that led to the inauguration of the Cape-to-Cairo free trade area, of which any other bloc in the sub-region is yet to accede to.

Despite political efforts, the share of regional trade in wider West Africa, which is the anchor ECOWAS bloc, has hovered at about 12% for years—and is dominated by Nigeria which accounts for two-thirds of GDP.

This leaves a much diminished share for French-speaking countries, who form just over half of member states. This is important if you remember the role of geography. Francophone Africa—both as a first or second language—accounts for 31 countries but just 120 million of the continent’s 1.1 billion people, including a majority share of the continent’s landlocked countries.

Access to the sea has for centuries driven commerce, in addition to the abundance of marine resources and strategic military location it offers countries that have a coastline. Being landlocked is not an incurable handicap, as rich countries as such as Switzerland would show, and can make states more open to reforms and foreign trade imperative. But it also affects regional clout—you are hardly likely to take hardline positions if as a polity you have no access to the sea, your focus is on maintaining good relations with the neighbor. It is thus not a coincidence that of the bottom 12 countries with the lowest Human Development Indices, nine have no access to an open sea.

This in part is reflected in the population distribution of Francophone Africa—countries with coastlines are more densely populated than those without one.

Winners of the Miss Ecowas competition. The regional bloc is key to Africa’s growth.

A more robust Francophone Africa integration effort, such as movement towards a customs union, and deepening its shallow financial markets, would also help lessen the difficulties of trade, such as the protectionism between the CFA franc system (which interestingly highlights higher but externally-imposed monetary integration) and Anglophone West African nations. The potential is there: Ivory Coast and DR Congo are expected to be among the year’s 10 fastest growing economies, according to the World Bank.

But the skills question also comes to the fore. Analysts have noted the rise of policy makers and technocrats in Francophone Africa who are keen on the position private sector in new growth.

It is a notable shift—French training was heavy on training administrators for the civil service, as Anglophone mandarins pushed for an entrepreneurial approach, which in part explains the market-oriented vibrance of non-French Africa countries. In other words, growth led by private businesses, both Anglo and Franco, and which is aware of historically-driven cultural nuances, appears to have the most potential for eliminating any lingering divides.

As the divide-bridging election of AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina showed, it is achievable, but governments must do their bit to build the highways, and then get out of the way and let business create, and take, the opportunity. It can only be a win-win situation for all.

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