Posts Tagged ‘François Hollande’

Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

Yes, you noted that correctly. Inevitably, as a piece like this develops and new ideas come up, it gets longer. And I don’t want to bore you to tears with endless screeds, so I cut it up one more time. This one’s a bit longer than the others but the last two will be brief – again. Here goes: 

Now, let’s take a closer look at events in the place where the Dutch have their camp. Gao.

Not looking promising and there is little hope that the end is in sight. We are still not entirely clear what caused this particular outburst but previous experience tells me that Minusma will not have a clue. The military are often dilligently unearthing info they deem relevant – only to find it gathering dust in a civilian drawer. An age-old UN problem. In addition to that, those that are supposed to do the gathering should master five or six local languages; Dutch and English will not do. (But then the Dutch government does not tell its citizens why it is in Mali. I refer my Dutch readers to some of the observations made by Mali veteran Aart van der Heiden in that respect.)

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Then there is Kidal, north of Gao, where the CMA (the Azawad independence movement’s umbrella) is in a precarious standoff with a pro-government militia called Gatia, after a series of deadly clashes in July. This was not the first time Kidal burst into flames.

In May 2014, Prime Minister, Moussa Mara made a tactically sound move to prove to the world that the Malian state was in charge of all its territory. This was, after all, the job that Minusma had come to do: help Mali in its effort to regain control of all the terrain inside its formal (be it colonial and deeply flawed) borders. The Malians had put General Alhaji ag Gamou in charge of the storm troops headed for Kidal;. Not a wise move: Gamou does not like Kidal and those who run it, which, as it happens, was the Tuareg independence movement MNLA at the time. Gamou decided to take them on, on behalf of himself (first and foremost) and Mara (second).

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

Kidal sees frequent clashes between groups that hold differing allegiances and have different opinions about whether or not an independent Azawad is possible or even desirable. At the same time, there are tensions among family-based tendencies within the Touareg community (the Ifoghas are in charge of Kidal and Imghad like Gamou want to capture the town) and almost inevitably these outbursts are also manifestations of clashing business interests. Some of this can be traced back all the way to French colonial shenanigans last century.

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Ah oui, les Français! Let’s talk about them for a bit.

When jihadists crossed the line at Konna in central Mali, French president François Hollande ordered Operation Serval. This was in January 2013. Serval was warmly welcomed and restored some semblance of order.

Its objectives were to: (1) secure Bamako and the French citizens living there and (2) ensure that nobody (in principle) departed from Mali with the intent to throw bombs and shoot people in France. It succeeded in the first objective; the jury is out on the second. Still – and this is the point: having secured Bamako and French passport holders, Serval should have been on the next plane home.

Instead, it was folded into the much larger Operation Barkhane, based in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, at the pleasure of François Hollande’s newfound friend, a ruthless autocrat by the name of Idriss Déby Itno, now in is fifth uncontested term as president of Chad. As is the case with the Dutch (and the Americans for that matter), we have some idea of what Barkhane is doing, but not much. Do we have to wait, Libya-style, until one of their aircraft comes down and they will have to explain (in part at least) what the hell they are doing in their former backyard? The answer is, unfortunately: yes. 

***

Malian suspicions the French troops are enormous. ‘Do you know that half of their so-called military are geologists?’ I hear this frequently. Can you blame them? No. Neither can you be at odds with Burkinabè when they tell you that French troop presence attracts terrorists and that they resent the implicit assumption that Burkinabè troops are unable to secure their own country.

In Mali, the French are, to all intents and purposes, the boss. When Air Algérie Flight AH5017 came down just inside Mali (close to the border with Burkina Faso) on 24 July 2014, French warplanes went looking for the aircraft, French ground troops secured the area; they then recovered the flight recorders and sent them to…Paris. A great way to make new friends.

Masters of the game

April 5, 2014

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.