The recent visit by the young French President, Emmanuel Macron, is a good opportunity for some soul-searching on the actual intentions of France in its unsavoury foreign policy in Africa. For Nigeria, it is difficult to ascertain whether France is a reliable partner or not considering the fact that as a colonial empire it has openly supported the balkanization of Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s. It was on record that France has indeed supplied arms and military advisers to the Biafra secessionist forces.
The fear of France was then over Nigeria potentials to provide leadership to francophone West Africa, especially in the post-independent phase of West African history. Nigeria has a population manifold the size of France’s entire colonial holdings in West Africa. This is coupled with the abundance of natural resources and skilled manpower. Should Nigeria become cohesive, formidable and focused through the positive realization of its points of strength in human capital and resources, it would have effectively put an end to the French stranglehold on Francophone West Africa. However, that was not to be. Even France must have by now realized the worthlessness of expressing anxiety over a giant country that is not conscious of its strategic potentials. Postcolonial Nigeria is a country that is unwilling to play its historical role in Africa due to its own internal weaknesses, corruption and lack of seriousness.
The relations of colonial inequality between France and Africa have been in existence since the 17th century with the establishment of trading posts off the Atlantic coast of Senegal, especially after the initial foray of Portuguese and Dutch along the entire coastal line of West Africa. And as a competing European colonial power in the later part of the 19th century, France has cornered for itself large chunk of territories in different parts of Africa in the name of colonies. In West Africa, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Togo, Benin Republic and Niger. As a matter of fact, Francophone countries of Benin, Niger, Chad and Cameroon have effectively surrounded Nigeria, the most populous African country, and the British colonized Anglophone West African nation.
Colonial experience, of course, differs between French and English territories on the African continent, with France attempting to directly control the affairs of its African colonies through the so-called policy of assimilation. Unlike the English colonies that were in some cases ruled indirectly, the French culture and ideas became deeply entrenched in France’s colonial enclaves. This was done through France’s own model of linguistic violence and engagement with the being and consciousness of colonized subjects. France did everything possible to integrate its colonies into the political, economic, cultural, scientific and intellectual structures of its metropolitan center. Consequently, it became very difficult for those Francophone countries to resist French control.
Although French African policy has been largely influenced by its colonial ideology, from time to time it was remodelled on the basis of the exigencies of the moment in international relations. In the earlier days, it was the desire to reproduce Africans in the image of French men and women through the assimilation processes but now difficult to sustain by subsequent French governments. Then there was the period of direct socio-political control to shore up the French economy through its imperialist quest for power and glory and stiff competition with other European powers in Africa.
CFA France as the monetary means of exchange in trade and commerce was introduced in West Africa and Central Africa to continue to dictate the economic activities of those countries. Different French leaders have defined areas of interests in their relations with Africa. But the cornerstone of their foreign policy options was to basically dominate the affairs of francophone countries. In recent times, Nicolas Sarkozy was concerned with the problems posed by African economic immigrants to France while Francois Hollande was the one that engineered military interventions in Cote D’Ivoire and Mali. In pursuing their goals, they disaggregated the social structures of Francophone African colonies in such a manner that the African neocolonial elites in those countries were reprogramed to do the bidding of the colonizer without question. Herein lies Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s notion of francafrique. Ideally, this concept expressed a constructive partnership between Africa and France in wide-ranging fields of economic growth and development. In reality, however, it conceals the brutal realities of French domination through the instrumentality of neocolonialism.
Francophone West Africa is for all intents and purposes under the complete control of France in the area of infrastructure development, markets, telecommunication, electricity supply, roads, railways, harbors, airports, and their domestic and foreign policies. But as the new complex realities of ISIS terrorism unfolded in post 9/11 West Africa, France had correspondingly ordered the building of military bases all across the Sahel, particularly in the territories of its former colonies. French military intervention in Mali readily comes to mind here. Philippe Hugon, a French Africa expert, once admitted to Deutsche Welle, the German global cable television network, “French engagement in Africa is shifting”.
“France is now less involved in trade, finance and investment, but it is maintaining its influence on monetary policy and its military presence”. There were, however, other more subterranean reasons why France was in such a frenzy to establish military bases all over the place. The two most obvious ones are China and lately the United States of America. The two countries have set out to compete for the spaces that had once been the exclusive rights of France. Both China and the U.S. are interested in scarce natural resources that can be found in any part of the world. For China, it is mainly the necessity to search for resources and markets, while for the U.S. is its undying desire to slow down the rise of China into global prominence, at least by checkmating its voracious appetite for raw materials and markets.
It was in the midst of the fight against the threatening menace of ISIS terrorists to the security of the entire Sahel region that encouraged Emmanuel Macron to throw his weight into the mix. During his campaign, he revealed his intention to review the entire French African policy. In theory, he wanted to see Francophone African countries become independent, and also relieved them from the strictures of total French control, but the realities of the day could not allow him to achieve anything tangible. In his style of leadership, Macron might have epitomized the existential contradictions currently gripping France in its moment of transition to neoliberal economic practices, but some of his ideas of weaning Francophone Africa from total dependence on France are quite laudable. It was to his eternal credit to have started a campaign on the need for African young people to be given quality education, even if for reasons of discouraging them from leaving African shores to Europe in search of their dreams. Economic migration is bringing untold hardship to those Africans that think their futures lie in Europe rather than at home in Africa.
The future of Africa, he believes, lies in having its future generations getting a good education. Increasingly, Macron is being associated with the promotion of qualitative and functional education in Africa where he called upon African leaders to expand as much as 20% of their income on education. This campaign he christened Global Partnership in Education Initiative.
Nigeria, with its sheer size, resources, demography, diversity, geography and history, should, by all means, cash in on Macron’s initiative, which must be seen as the golden opportunity to genuinely reintegrate West Africa economically, culturally, educationally and scientifically despite their differences in terms of inherited colonial cultures and languages. African unity significantly depends on what Nigeria is able to do in this regard. There is, therefore, no reason whatsoever why Nigerian foreign policy should not be reviewed to have as its main focus the need to integrate West Africa, without which of course even African unity shall remain a pipe-dream that it still is.