Stephen W. Smith writes about the French retreat from Africa.
This year, all France’s former colonies – except for Guinea, which achieved sovereignty under Ahmed Sékou Touré in 1958 – will commemorate the first half-century of independence. Thirteen countries will recall the curious trajectory that led them from participation in the liberation of their colonial master from Nazi occupation to what the former French prime minister Edgar Faure, an artisan of the French brand of decolonisation, called ‘independence as interdependence’. About 250,000 African soldiers fought Hitler’s Germany for la France Libre (on the beaches of the Mediterranean the African contingents chanted: ‘We’ve come a long way to free France’). But in December 1944, a mutiny of demobilised African infantry in a camp near Dakar was brutally avenged by the French: clearly African hopes of independence were to be sacrificed on the altar of a reinvigorated French grandeur. Then, in May 1947, Léopold Senghor, the great exponent of Négritude, spoke out against what he called ‘kollaboration’ with the colonial power.
There was no royal road to liberation in French sub-Saharan Africa, nor much ‘armed struggle’ for that matter (insurrections in Cameroon and Madagascar were summarily put down): France’s colonies had to wait until 1960 for formal independence. African leaders, who had previously been elected members of the French Assembly and sometimes senior ministers in the metropolitan government, now took over the reins of power in their countries. De Gaulle envisaged the new arrangement as a ‘French system where everyone plays his part’. It was to be based on elite co-optation, within what the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon calls the ‘Franco-African state’. This was not a formula involving a series of relationships between the erstwhile colonial power on the one hand, and the newly independent states on the other, but a unitary Jacobin entity, with big brothers and smaller brothers governing and an unmistakeable centre of power, Paris.
In 1960, Senghor became the poet-president of Senegal and was happy to maintain close ties with France. The initials CFA, which identified the common currency of the Colonies françaises d’Afrique, remained the same, and crucially so did the currency itself, the CFA franc – only now the wording changed to Communauté financière africaine. Six months into Cameroon’s independence, the French army – five battalions, an armoured unit and a fighter squadron – intervened to finish off the only revolutionary rebel movement in a former French sub-Saharan colony. At least 3000 partisans of ‘real independence’ were killed. In 1962, the French army rode out to the rescue of Senghor’s regime without firing a shot. In 1964, the Gabonese president Léon M’ba, toppled but not killed, was reinstated by yet another French military intervention. A further 37 such operations would follow before the end of the Cold War.
The most impressive aspect of the French military shield was its breadth: it wasn’t simply a protection for lackeys and minor potentates. Between 1960 and 1990, 40,000 people are believed to have died as a result of internecine violence in French Africa, half of them in Chad; by comparison, roughly two million died in former British Africa, another two million in former Belgian Africa, 1.2 million in the former Portuguese colonies and another million in the residual category that includes Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea. A different indicator, which corrects for demographic imbalances, confirms the value of the pax franca: the number of ‘victims of repression or massacres’ is put at 35 per 10,000 inhabitants in ex-French Africa, 790 in postcolonial Anglophone Africa, 3000 in the Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, and a staggering 4000 in the Portuguese colonies, which didn’t achieve independence until the mid-1970s.
The motto of French decolonisation, ‘partir pour mieux rester’, was not a fantasy. In the first ten years after independence, the number of expatriates in the ‘former’ colonies more than doubled. In the mid-1980s, 50,000 French coopérants (dispatched by the French government) and private-sector entrepreneurs ran Ivory Coast and its economy. If you went to interview an Ivorian minister in those days, you shook hands with the holder of office and sat down to question his French adviser. Pro-consuls rather than accredited diplomats, France’s ambassadors in Abidjan were like senior civil servants in French overseas departments. It was possible to move back and forth between the civil service and an African administration, making a career in the Franco-African state without compromising one’s promotion and pension rights.
The Cold War provided geopolitical cover for France’s tutelary presence in her neo-colonies. South of the Sahara, the French army remained an auxiliary of the ‘free world’, despite the odd humiliation at the hands of Washington. During the Cold War, Africa’s gendarme was not just a policeman: he was an overseas administrator, a state-tethered businessman prospering on sweetheart deals and, more than anything else, a longstanding addict of an old imperialist hallucinogen known as la plus grande France, or Greater France. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant cold turkey. It also precipitated the erosion of a comfortable trade surplus of around €2 billion a year – between two and three times the revenue from a far greater volume of trade with the US.