IMPACTS OF RECENT disengagement from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) by Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger may not seem apparent immediately, within and outside the sub-region. The long term impact, however, promises to be far-reaching and profound in magnitude. Beyond Africa, there will be clear and unmistakable effects, mostly negative. For France in particular, there are reasons for perplexity as the African rug on which it has been standing ever so firmly for so long is gradually being pulled from under its feet. The disquiet may have already covertly begun and may come to public glare anytime soon. A lot of what France used to get from those three countries under the pretext of offering protection may have already been lost irretrievably as those countries are not leaving France in doubt about their resolve. For instance, in a symbolic move under a new constitution passed with an overwhelming 96 percent votes, Mali dropped French as its official language in July last year and has replaced it with 13 other local languages. In essence, French remains a working language nearly as much as the others now elevated in status.
Mindful of the fact that the official language is a powerful instrument for engagement, the anxiety of France must have begun with the decision by Rwanda to pivot away from French as the official language and the adoption of English instead. The move was strategic and was part of its diplomatic relations policy to reposition Rwanda as a member of the East African Community, an organisation made up mostly of English-speaking countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. However, the shift to education and learning solely in English is part of a wholesale realignment away from French influence that includes applying to join the Commonwealth. It eventually succeeded in hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in June 2022 — an unmistakable sign of allegiance to the British system, away from the French. Rwanda officially switched when, in its educational policy, English replaced French as the official language of instruction in schools in 2008. Although it had never been a French colony, Rwanda fell within the French sphere of influence in Africa (Françafrique) in the past as a result of French language spoken as a language of administration by the Belgian elite rulers of “Rwanda-Urundi” when today’s Rwanda and Burundi were colonies under Belgium.
The listlessness of France about its waning influence on the African continent could be seen in its desperation to affirm its relevance and influence by any means, fair or foul. One of the fair means is in its efforts to renew the use of French language in Rwanda. President Emmanuel Macron’s trip in 2021 was a clear pointer and the first by a French leader after more than a decade. A lingering diplomatic tension between Rwanda and France arose over the latter’s role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda wherein France was accused of supporting the radical Hutu regime against the Tutsi minority. Macron was only too glad to have had an opportunity to bring back the French language to Rwanda during his 2021 visit, with the opening of a new Francophone Culture Centre, seven years after the closure of the state-run French Institute in Kigali.
Rwanda is not the only country where France began to lose ground earlier. France has been having long-running crises with Algeria, a North African former French colony. President Macron had accused Algeria of rewriting the colonial history of the country. Algeria’s move to English was a clear signal of an erosion of France’s sway. In 2022, during his visit to Algiers, the sign on Macron’s lectern at the Algerian presidential palace was written as “Presidency of the Republic” instead of “Présidence de la République” in French must have further unsettled the French diplomats. This is because Algeria was part of the French colonial empire for well over a century. Macron therefore has reasons to be worried.
Although an acclaimed liberal democracy, France has not hidden its political ambivalence and conflicting interests in governments outside its shores, particularly in its former colonies in Africa where it maintains close ties with all types of government without qualms as long as it serves France’s interest well. For instance, France cares less about hobnobbing with the Bongos of Gabon, be it Omar or his son Ali in power. In essence, it is irrelevant to France if a country runs a government called democracy but actually practises a dynasty, despotism or authoritarianism. Again, without qualms, France would visit as well as host the Bongos without asking any question about their system of government. In the same way, France saw nothing odd in Cameroon’s President Paul Biya celebrating his 40th anniversary in office in Paris. It was unclear what France’s definition of democracy with reference to Cameroon is, considering its ally’s continued stay in office while excluding others from access to the prized office over four decades.
Idriss Déby Itno ruled the Republic of Chad as a politician and military officer from 1990 until his death in 2021. Déby, who was killed during the Northern Chad offensive, was immediately replaced with his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, a military officer as a new head of state. That decision effectively ended what Déby was parading in his lifetime as a democracy, a system under which he proclaimed himself as president through elections that could at best be described as sham. Actions and body language of France on Chad were unequivocal. During the state funeral of Déby, Macron was the only Western leader apart from other African leaders in attendance. Before Déby died, Paris did not hide its uncritical embrace of the late dictator by prioritising regional security over human rights. Although his death was an opportunity for Paris to change tack, it was no surprise that France continued to pin its hopes on the country’s new leader and interim-President, Mahamat, thus irking the opposition. It is baffling, however, that France is backing Chad’s new leader who had embraced authoritarianism shortly after succeeding his father as Chad’s transitional government and quickly asserted its power with violent repression.
August 2020 foreshadowed an impending tenure elongation in Côte d’Ivoire when Alassane Ouattara, who had propped up two surrogates as his preferred replacement, later publicly rejected claims by his opponents who said a two-term limit in the constitution bars him from running again. Ouattara’s new announcement came after the death of one of his two preferred successors, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, who died on July 8, 2020. The two successors-in-waiting — Coulibaly and Hamed Bakayoko — died within less than a year of each other as the latter died on March 10, 2021. After Ouattara’s announcement to run again, the Constitutional Council in November, formally ratified his re-election to a third term, for a December election in which Ouattara purportedly won re-election with 94 percent of votes. Macron could hardly defend himself against allegations of complicity in Ouattara’s third term for obvious reasons. Shortly after Ouattara’s victory was declared, President Macron reportedly defended Ouattara’s decision but urged him to hold out an olive branch to opponents, including former leader Laurent Gbagbo, to ease tensions. In a statement published in a pan-African daily magazine, Jeune Afrique, Macron was quoted as saying that, although he initially had misgivings about Ouattara running again, the death of Ouattara’s handpicked successor in July meant that there had been little alternative. According to the publication, Macron said “I really think he ran out of (a sense of) duty. In absolute terms, I would have preferred there to have been another solution, but there was none.”
Politically, the loss of three countries by the eight-member West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) is a big blow to France. WAEMU, one of the world’s oldest modern customs unions, might find it tough to retain Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in its fold after the announcement made a week ago. With their exit, the remaining countries, namely Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, and Togo, are small economies with small markets that may experience further strains, except for Cote d’Ivoire that is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa in addition to mineral resources. The tactless approach and inability of ECOWAS club to browbeat Niger after the July 26 coup d’état of 2023 dealt a further blow on whatever might have been France’s expectations, especially when its recalcitrance about pulling out its embassy official ended up in ignominy.
As the failed attempt to use Nigeria as a proxy to remove the military junta in Niger backfired, the option of dialogue that was initially spurned by ECOWAS has become a difficult one to adopt belatedly, especially as Niger has succeeded in joining alliance with Mali and Burkina Faso to reinforce its resistance. This has cast aspersions on the Nigerian government and strained the diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Niger as a result. It is pertinent to begin to connect the dots on some links between France and Nigeria in an effort to employ back channels to engage with the three countries. The recent visit of Nigeria’s Ahmed Tinubu to France may be anything but private. Even if it is, it could have the trappings of France’s diplomatic subtlety in trying to desperately wing its way back through Nigeria, a venture that may prove herculean for both countries, given the decisions already taken by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It could be to fashion out a way of still working through ECOWAS to restore the lost members, despite ECOWAS posturing that the departing members did not give enough advance notice, an argument that makes no sense in reality. Any thinking or supposition that France or ECOWAS are comfortable with the official actions of these three countries lately is more of diplomatic naivety. It will remain a nightmare for them for a long while.
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