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As the former French colonies of Africa head to Nice to celebrate the 25th France-Africa Summit at the end of May, Sanou Mbaye questions the enduring legacy they’re honouring. Following decades of political and economic tyranny forged by French politicians, the citizens of former colonies continue to absorb the impact of chaotic and ruinous policies left over from their imperial history. ‘As long as these psychological wounds are not rooted out of black consciousness, the road to mental emancipation will still be a long way off’, Mbaye writes.

The late French president, General Charles de Gaulle, foresaw the wave of nationalism, political freedom and revolution that swept across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War. He circumvented the tide by proposing to the leaders of France’s African colonies a negotiated settlement for their independence.

The colonies had to agree, among other things, to allow the stationing of French troops on their territories to guarantee their security, provide France with a steady supply of raw materials at pre-determined prices, endorse the transfer to their newly independent states of all debts contracted by France for their exploitation, keep the African Financial Community (CFA) franc as their common currency within the franc zone, and grant to the French Treasury a right of veto in administration of their regional central banks. De Gaulle got what he wanted and granted independence.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has invited the leaders of these countries to come and celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence in Nice for the 25th France-Africa summit on 31 May 2010.

Half a century is a good time span to assess whether France and its African allies have something to celebrate. With regard to security, African-based French troops have been active on several occasions in Chad, Gabon, Zaire, Central Africa, Togo and Ivory Coast protecting complacent, corrupt, undemocratic and incompetent leaders, removing recalcitrant ones, or curbing civil unrest. In Rwanda, dark clouds still hang over France with regard to its presumed responsibility in the 1994 genocide.

On the monetary front, the member countries of the franc zone dismantled the federal structure that united them during French occupation and erected trade barriers between them instead. The CFA franc is issued separately by Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) and the Banque des États de l'Afrique Centrale (BEAC) –the two sub-regional central banks – and is not interchangeable. As a result, the pre-colonial economic integration of the region disintegrated and regional trade became stifled. The ensuing economic difficulties were exacerbated under President François Mitterrand whose prime minister, Pierre Bérégovoy, pursued a strong French franc – a policy that ultimately led to a massive 100 per cent devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994. And the euro’s appreciation against the dollar from 2002 until very recently meant that the shift in the exchange-rate peg of the CFA franc from the French franc to the euro caused a repeat of that scenario. With the bulk of their exports denominated in USA dollars and their imports priced mainly in euros, chronic structural deficits have wrecked the economies of the franc zone, and the prospect for a second devaluation looms larger by the day.

Still more appalling, the CFA franc is freely convertible in hard currency. This convertibility was guaranteed by France on condition that all fifteen member states of the franc zone surrender 100 per cent of their foreign external reserves to the French Treasury. This amount, deducted directly by France from members’ exports earnings, was reduced to 65 per cent, and then 50 per cent in 2005. However, the mandatory 20 per cent foreign exchange cover stipulated in the conventions signed with France in 1962 stands nowadays at 110 per cent. This capital drain is reinforced by a foreign exchange control enacted in 1993 that restricts free capital flow to France, the unique destination of the massive capital flight that bleeds the economies of the region and erodes their competitiveness.

This is a shame because the overall economic situation of the African continent has been improving steadily over the last few years. Inflation has been halved since the 1990s and exchange reserves have increased 30 per cent. Public finances surplus represented 2.8 per cent of GDP in 2008 compared to a deficit of 1.4 per cent for the period 2000-05. Savings rates stand between 10-20 per cent, and the level of external debt has decreased from 62.4 per cent of GDP in 1998-2001 to 23.1 per cent in 2005-2007. Return on investment averages 35 per cent. Since 2000, sub-Saharan African countries have achieved economic growth of five to seven per cent. In 2008, Africa has been spared the twin woes of financial turmoil and economic downturn. The economies of the continent experienced a slowdown, but not a recession. According to McKinsey & Company, Africa was the third contributor to world economic growth in 2009, after China and India.

This revival has been achieved mostly in Eastern and Southern Africa, along with further economic integration within the sub-regional groupings: the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Sadly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the sub-regional grouping in West Africa, is not as effective. It is customary among African intellectuals to state that there are two superpowers in ECOWAS: Nigeria and France. With the establishment of ECOWAS, the franc zone member countries created two sub-regional groupings, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), in a bid to curb Anglophone and Nigerian influence in the region.

As a result, West African countries are missing out on the first signs of economic rejuvenation in Africa for decades. Controversy about France’s role in the crisis that plagues their economies and the need for change will continue and is likely to be exacerbated by the prospect of a prolonged period of stagnation in the eurozone.

The imbalanced relationship between France and its former African colonies would beggar belief if one did not take into account the psychology of African leaders who initially signed this deal fifty years ago. These were the Senegalese president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, a strong believer in white supremacy to the extent that he wrote ‘Reason is Helen, Emotion is Negro’; Leon Mba, the first Gabonese president, was such a Francophile than when he died, he bequeathed his personal fortune to France in order to finance the construction of a hospital in Paris; as for Ivoirian Felix Houphouet- Boigny, he coined the word ‘Françafrique’ to underline the total osmosis between France and its former colonies. His support to France’s politics in Africa led him to establish diplomatic ties with the apartheid regime of South Africa and make his country a supply-transit point for the Biafra secessionists. These leaders were unlikely to dispute France’s diktat.

Their heirs are not different. Indicted French child abductors were freed by Chad at France’s request. In Mali, several suspected terrorist members of a local branch of Al Qaeda were set free in exchange for a French hostage. Senegalese politician Abdoulaye Wade labelled the CFA franc a colonial relic when he was a opposition leader. Now elected president, he considers it to be the best currency in the world. Like the late Michael Jackson, a few among these African leaders went as far as bleaching to whiten their skin. The attitude of these leaders reflects badly on the wider public, especially among the young generation.

As long as these psychological wounds are not rooted out of black consciousness, the road to mental emancipation will still be a long way off. Hopefully, with the balance of world economic power shifting to emerging countries and with the emergence of new black role models and a new generation raised in a globalised world, coming of age ready to take over the mantle of leadership, there are good reasons to be optimistic.


* Sanou Mbaye, is a Senegalese economist, a former member of the senior management team of the African Development bank, and the author of ‘L’Afrique au secours de l’Afrique’ (Africa to the rescue of Africa).
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