Masters of the game

A review of AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu by Antoine Glaser

Between France and Africa, who calls the shots?

France, assert the conspiracy theorists, who see a concerted, coordinated, well-orchestrated and successful effort on the part of the French to keep their former colonies (and a few others) well in line and on board. Reality, as always, is rather less clear-cut and a lot murkier. Antoine Glaser is very well placed to shed a light on a few corners of this large French-African village; for thirty years he edited La Lettre du Continent, the confidential repository of the inner workings of this large and complex web.

But who calls the shots? In his new book, AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu, Glaser asserts that the balance of power has shifted. Moreover, this is not even something new. It has always been the case that France needs Africa more than the reverse. For diplomatic assistance, i.e. votes in the United Nations. For some of its enterprises, like France Télécom, Bouygues and Bolloré (all manner of transport, agribusiness, infrastructure). And for its famous force de frappe; uranium from Niger fuelled France’s status as one of the few nuclear powers in the world; it still fuels France’s power stations that bring light to millions of French homes. The French firm Areva runs one of the biggest uranium extraction operations in the world in Niger.

So what has changed? Two things spring to mind as Glaser takes you from Côte d’Ivoire to Gabon to Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea and five others. First, France is no longer the only game in the village; there is healthy competition from the likes of China, North America, Brasil, India and Turkey. All have their designs on the continent and especially in a business sense they are giving the former colonial power a run for her money. Second, France now has to deal with a generation of African leaders who do not hesitate to use their leverage to get what they want. If France does not comply, they go elsewhere.

Cover Glaser AfricaFrance

And third, if you like, the nature of their personal relations has changed. There used to be an axis that essentially consisted of two people. On the French side: Jacques Foccart, the spider who weaved his elaborate web of personal relations over a long period, from before independence in the 1950s until his death in March 1997. On the African side: Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the aristocrat from Yamoussoukro in the heart of Côte d’Ivoire, a former minister and member of parliament in Paris and at the helm of the richest territory in former French West Africa from 1960 until his death in December 1993. They were on the phone daily. Friendship apart, they had a joint interest in keeping French dominance in the region in place; after all, Houphouët-Boigny is credited with the term that symbolises this symbiosis: La Françafrique.

They stopped at nothing to maintain French dominance in the region and this included tearing West Africa’s nascent superpower, Nigeria, apart. Glaser is adamant that the idea to support the secession movement that triggered West Africa’s bloodiest war came from the Ivorian president. Houphouët-Boigny and Foccart, with the permission of General De Gaulle, the French president at the time, set up an elaborate secret operation that circumvented the Nigerian blockade of what the federal government there considered a renegade state and sent arms and humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Biafra. They certainly prolonged the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, cost one million lives and traumatised countless more.

Biafra. The story, so movingly recorded in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Half of a Yellow Sun, needs much closer study because it is at the origin of a highly pernicious modern-day confluence of cynical geopolitical designs and interventions touted as humanitarianism, with modern media (press, radio and most of all television) as the vehicle to get the “correct” message to the masses. Media consumers were made to think of the people of Biafra as helpless victims of a merciless war machine. Volunteers were flown in to help heal the wounded; they may or may not have been aware of the larger designs of which they were a part (including secret arms deliveries) but they certainly were aware of the power of the media. It is no coincidence that Biafra launched the career of a man whose unauthorised biography I am currently reading, one Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of what became Medicins sans frontières.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

There is no chapter on Mali in Glaser’s book but twice he mentions current French president François Hollande’s exclamation on arrival in Bamako in February 2013, as his army is removing jihadists from the North of Mali: ‘Today is without any doubt the most important day of my political life.’ De Gaulle would not have dreamt of saying something like that. Times have indeed changed in some respects. The Gabonese president Ali Bongo, son of another departed pillar of La Françafrique, Omar Bongo Ondimba, prefers London as a place to do business, as does Alpha Condé, president of Guinea who spent most of life in exile – in Paris. And Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who re-conquered the presidency of Congo-Brazzaville after a vicious civil war that was fuelled on his side by French oil money, clearly is the Africa-French patron today. He calls the shots in Paris. A picture emerges of a French president who, when told by his African counterparts to jump, responds with: how high?

However, the clean break with the past that has often been promised by incoming French presidents, fails to happen. This would mean getting rid of the various webs of opaque, unaccountable, dodgy and at times downright criminal relationships between the movers and shakers in France and Africa. Reading the book you get the impression of watching a film with an endless cast of shady characters that appear, then disappear (sometimes for good) or re-appear in another guise. What to think of the richissime businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, recently breathlessly lionised by the usual suspects (BBC, Guardian, Independent et al) for his untold part in the liberation of the late Nelson Mandela and the creation of post-apartheid South Africa. Well, he has his cameo in Glaser’s book too: as the best friend of Denis Sassou-Nguesso and an ally of Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Ollivier is also a friend of yet another one of those characters, Michel Roussin, formerly a big shot in the French secret service, then minister for development cooperation and a special advisor to big French businesses with interests in Africa. He has a handful of African presidents on speeddial.

It takes a bit of prior knowledge of the African/French village to appreciate the extent and the depth of these and other networks. They persist, unless countries just break off ties altogether, as post-genocide Rwanda did. But there is another constant here. While it is fascinating to read about all this intrigue, this real-life feuilleton, you must realise that this is a game of the 1%. The vast majority of Africans on whose life some of these games have impacted directly, have an idea of what is going on but no means to influence events. And that is the real travesty of La Françafrique, or Africa-France.

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2 Responses to “Masters of the game”

  1. Liz Adamo Says:

    Hi Bram, Great review. I’m currently researching this topic and this book has not been reviewed by many academics unfortunately. Yours was very helpful.

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