Op-Ed: The Ivory Coast and the end of French colonialist connivance

Posted Dec 9, 2010 by Michael Cosgrove
France’s reputation for influence-peddling and widespread corruption in Africa is nobody’s secret, but Nicolas Sarkozy's reactions to the current electoral deadlock in the Ivory Coast indicate that France's shadowy African era may be coming to an end.
French President  Nicolas Sarkozy.
French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.
They call it ‘Françafrique.’ That term, which describes in global terms the many African countries in which France is influential, used to be the proud epithet that French presidents would use in speeches when they felt the country needed to bask momentarily in the warm glow of the country’s centuries-old colonial activities in Africa in order to keep morale up in bad times. Such used to be the extent of French influence in Africa in fact that French diplomats unabashedly used to call Africa France’s ‘pré carré’ – or ‘private reserve’ - in which the rest of the major powers, and the dreaded Anglo-Saxons in particular, were not welcome.
Those colonial activities may have been reduced in scale since France lost Algeria to its independence movements in the late fifties and early sixties, but Françafrique still represents a sizable chunk of the continent. It officially includes Togo, the Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, the Cameroons, Chad, the Comoros, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Benin, Tunisia, Morocco, Guinea, Niger, Djibouti, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria (France is still enormously influential there) and the Ivory Coast.
As rumors of France’s involvement in the many coups d’état in Africa and the support it gave to various despots and dictators in exchange for corrupt business deals – most notably in oil - began to surface in the 1980’s, one virulent critic of French policies in Africa, NGO supporter François-Xavier Verschave, changed the meaning of Françafrique forever.
That change took the form of a bombshell book he wrote in 1998 which resulted in a major upheaval in French thinking. It was called ‘Francafrique, Republican France’s longest-running scandal.’ He said that the word Francafrique should be re-written as ‘France à fric.’ ‘Fric’ is a slang word in French for ‘cash’ so what he meant was that Françafrique was in reality a corrupt money-making machine for French politicians and businessmen.
The book describes Françafrique as “the secret criminality in the upper echelons of French politics and economy, where a kind of underground Republic is hidden from view” and in which “forty years of pillage, support for dictatorships, dirty tricks and secret wars - from Biafra to the two Congos. Rwanda, the Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Togo and others will bear the scars for many years to come.” He also describes the millions in misappropriated debt which financed French political-business networks, shareholders’ dividends, the secret services’ major operations and mercenary expeditions.
The cover was blown, the game was up, and although staunch African network adept President Jacques Chirac tried to keep it alive, the public had had enough of it all and it became obvious that things would have to change.
Meaningful change began with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, and has been helped along since by the financial crisis. Deficits have severely strained the defense budget which paid for the thousands of French troops and more shady characters crawling all over the continent and so Sarkozy decided early on to begin the slow but sure process of French military disengagement from the African quagmire. A pragmatic appraisal of the recent increase in American and Chinese diplomatic and economic activity on the continent also played a role.
France’s relations with the Ivory Coast had long been characterized by endemic levels of corruption initiated by both French and Ivory Coast leaders as well as the use of covert military operations by French military and paramilitary units to support them. The Ivory Coast’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, was an unconditional supporter of French aspirations in neighboring countries and helped the French to destabilize them, although he did restore a certain level of stability within the country himself. Those who have followed him as president such as Laurent Gbagbo have had more mixed relations with France, but the corruption has continued unabated.
Abidjan  capital of the Ivory Coast.
Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast.
Zenman (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The recent elections in the Ivory Coast resulted in a dangerous stalemate and stand-off between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and his challenger Alassane Ouattara as well as the closing of the country’s borders and a ban on foreign reporting within them. The elections also gave the world the opportunity to see whether Sarkozy would put his principles into action and not intervene in a manner likely to further inflame tensions. He has passed this test with flying colors.
On the very day (December 2) that the results were announced to the effect that Ouattara had won in terms of votes he got on the phone from India, where he had just begun an official visit, to both Ouattara and Gbagbo as well as UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon. His message was clear and he announced it to the press immediately. “I am appealing to all Ivory Coast civilian and military leaders to respect the will of the people and abstain from any initiative which could provoke violence” he said, before adding that “the results show a clear and incontestable victory for Alassane Ouattara. A president has just been elected in the Ivory Coast. That president is Ouattara.”
Today’s decision by the UN Security Council to officially recognize Ouattara as president, as well as the council’s condemnation of any actions which may attempt to subvert his election is a severe warning to Gbagbo, and Sarkozy welcomed it. “I welcome the unanimous Security Council declaration which calls for the respect of Ouattara’s election as president of the Ivory Coast” he said. He went on to thank for Russia’s cooperation in getting the resolution voted despite Russia’s affinities with Gbagbo.
This is the clearest sign for years that France is finally emerging from its past policy of jealously protecting illegal financial and political connivance in Africa. That policy is being scrapped and replaced by another, that of alignment with international opinion on African affairs, and it is to be welcomed.
Nicolas Sarkozy has also demonstrated his willingness to help the UN and other international efforts in the Sudan, Chad and Togo as well as parallel efforts to combat Islamic terrorist organization in North Africa.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts make a welcome change from France's murky past delings in Africa and they deserve to be applauded.