French-speaking Africa: 'Half a Century of Non-Sovereignty'


Invited by Nicolas Sarkozy, African Heads of State meet in Nice.    by Odile Tobner

The summit of African Heads of State, called by Nicolas Sarkozy for May 31 and June 1, had been due to take place in Charm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, to invite non French-speaking African countries. It will actually be held in Nice, in the purest Françafrique* tradition.

These solemn ceremonies serve to show to what extent African States feel drawn to the French rulers or are bound to them. Indeed some African Heads of State have no choice but to attend: Bong’s son and his likes, Sassou Ngesso, Biya, Déby, Compaoré, Gnassingbé, whose despotic rule is unconditionally supported by France. They can rig elections, murder their opponents, jail reporters and still rest assured that Paris will never protest. That’s well worth attending the French president’s mass for. Besides, that president is sure to turn a blind eye to the coups that put some into the saddle, like Guinea’s and Niger’s presidents. After all, they are not much less legitimate than the dictators who won dubious majorities in the ballot-box and they are often much more popular among their peoples.

A number of presidents of English- or Portuguese-speaking countries will probably be flattered to attend, even if the most notorious (Sudan’s and Zimbabwe’s) will probably be kept away. Indeed, Angola, Nigeria and South Africa have promising emerging markets to offer. France is looking to other countries in Africa because, having hampered the growth of its former colonies, it needs expanding markets and customers with increasing purchasing power.

This 25th Franco-African summit will show to what extent French policy is adjusting to the evolution of a continent that is the scene of deep changes. The stagnation of most sub-Saharan French-speaking countries, especially in Central Africa, held back in a state of so-called stability in the interest of corrupt oligarchies and predatory multinationals, are sinking deeper into poverty, and are explosives that cannot be kept indefinitely from catching fire by the repressive policy France blindly and exclusively supports.

A new political discourse will have to be found. One cannot say that Africa is of no interest to France, as Nicolas Sarkozy declared in Bamako during his campaign - a stance that is widely upheld by the media and the political and financial spheres - and at the same time cry out in protest against the global rush at Africa. China-in-Africa has become a favourite with established Africanist commentators, and this view is well accepted in French public opinion. The most naïve worry about the Africans’ fate, while the most cunning say out loud that only fools would stop helping themselves when others are out to help themselves in their turn.

Nobody notices how injuriously paternalistic this kind of discourse is, one which denies that Africans have the ability to look after themselves. Do those same commentators worry about the Chinese finding their way into Canada or Australia? No, because they think that Canada and Australia can take care of themselves. Are they afraid lest the Chinese might come and exploit our own forests or mines? The very idea can only draw a smile: aren’t we our own masters at home?

So why can so many come and help themselves to Africa’s resources? The reason is that African Heads of State sell off their countries’ assets for next to nothing.

In the end all this only goes to set off the scandalous way in which these countries, for half a century, have been held in tutelage, have been denied sovereignty, prevented from developing, and drained of their resources for the benefit of foreign multinationals whose power has increased tenfold. That harsh reality will be buried under canned, totally meaningless speeches. If only another Sankara could rise and speak out the naked truth about Africa, without having to please anyone!

Odile Tobner is President of the French association 'Survie' (survival). This article first appeared in French in the daily L'Humanité on 29th May 2010. It was translated by Isabelle Metral for L'Humanité-in-English.

*A blend of France and Afrique (French. for 'Africa'), the phrase was coined by critics of the persistence of the French colonial rule in the former French colonies and is now widely used