How France is losing Africa

How France is losing Africa
Coups and lingering resentment to its colonial rule mean France is rapidly losing its influence in Africa, and Paris is finding that difficult to swallow. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 4, 2023

France is rapidly losing its influence in Africa as country after country rebel against their former colonial master and rally to the new BRICS bloc that is emerging.

Resentment of colonial rule has become palpable as the East-West clash has catalysed long-standing tensions as countries increasingly are being forced to choose sides. For most African countries the choice is easy. Russia is one of the few countries that never had any colonies in Africa, as detailed in bne IntelliNews’ deep dive into Russia in Africa, and indeed, supported many of the independence movements during the Cold War that have led to the governments of today.

Those resentments were on display when French President Emmanuel Macron went on a four-country tour through Francophone Africa in April, trying to rally countries to the Western cause and limit Russia’s rapidly growing clout in Africa, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been actively touring the entire continent since the start of the war.

In many of the capitals he visited he was greeted by protests outside the local French embassy denouncing French colonialism, and he even got roasted on live TV by Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a joint televised press conference in April. “This must change, the way Europe and France treat us, you must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way,” Tshisekedi said. “You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were already absolutely right and we were not.”

Macron has only added fuel to the fire with another speech following the coup in Niger on June 26 and another coup in Gabon on August 30 saying on French TV: “If France hadn't intervened, if our soldiers hadn't fallen in Africa, if [the military operations against Islamic terrorism] Serval and then Barkhane hadn't been decided, we wouldn't be talking about Mali, Burkina Faso or Niger today," said Macron, referring to countries that were all former French colonies. Macron's comments will be taken by the Kremlin as evidence of France's continued sense of entitlement in Africa.

The anger with France is also fuelled by the appalling state these countries are now in, amongst the poorest in the world and plagued by endless coups d'état and jihadist extremist group violence. The coup in Niger brings the total number of coups in the Sahel region in central Africa to nine in the last three years alone.

Tensions between Paris and Niamey, Niger, have been rising in the last week after the new military junta first ordered the ambassador out of the country in 48 hours. When he refused to go, as Paris said it didn’t recognise the authority of the Junta to break off diplomatic relations, the junta barricaded the embassy and cut off supplies of food and water.

Then on September 1 Niger's military junta instructed law enforcement to remove France's ambassador from the French embassy by force. Tempers were further inflamed on August 11 following an order by the junta that closed Niger’s airspace as France flew a military jet into Niger from its base in Chad anyway, as reported by bna IntelliNews, our African news service.

It also repudiated all military agreements that allowed France to maintain a base with 2,000 French peacekeepers in the country. Social media was reporting on September 3 that crowds had attacked the base after they too refused to depart.

The result of these tensions and Russia’s active diplomacy to undermine whatever influence France has left in Africa is proving to be very effective.

The West’s attempts to limit Russia’s influence are also falling on stony ground. In July, the Kremlin organised the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg. The US lobbied aggressively to prevent heads of state from attending, and only 17 presidents did make the trip in the end. However, the number of countries that sent their prime ministers or foreign ministers totalled 49 from the total 54 countries in Africa, that was three more countries than attended the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019.

Africans are very interested in co-operation with Russia, which is a major source of grain, commodities, fertiliser, nuclear technology and arms. The combination of the ennui from Western bullying coupled with indifference to their fate and the cornucopia of gifts that Moscow is bearing has made for an attractive offer most African nations cannot ignore.

The collapse of diplomatic relations between France and Niger also comes with a practical headache. While France has diversified away from Niger’s supply of uranium in recent years which it has used to fuel its nuclear power plants (NPP) that provide 80% of France’s power, Niger is still one of the biggest exporters in the world and remains a significant source of uranium. France will now be more dependent on the US for supplies of nuclear fuel, which last week admitted that it has doubled the import of nuclear fuel from Russia in the first six months of this year and is at least five years away from breaking its nuclear fuel dependency on Russia. Not only is Russia a major producer of raw uranium, but it dominates the global business of refining uranium into the burnable U235 “yellow cake” isotope used as fuel in NPPs.

Currently France is using all its diplomatic tools to try to depose the military junta in Niamey, but with little success. According to recent local polls, the Nigerien population largely support the ousting of President Mohamed Bazoum and his replacement by General Abdourahamane Tiani, the former of Niger's presidential guard, who was appointed the new head of state on September 1.

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has a mandate to bring an end to the interminable coups in the region, has imposed sanctions and put its military forces on standby, but has yet to act. ECOWAS has announced that it has an “ultimate deadline”, after which it will intervene militarily but has not announced when that date is and is reportedly divided by internal disputes, as few want a new war in central Africa.

While the Biden administration has called for a return to the constitutional norms and sent Acting Deputy Secretary of the State Department Victoria Nuland to Niamey in August, it is reportedly reluctant to get involved militarily and has few levers over the situation, despite maintaining a very large drone base in the country.

The story is similar in Gabon, a major oil producer and member of OPEC+ and formerly the jewel in the French colonial crown, where the president Ali Bongo has been ousted and also replaced in the last week by the former head of the presidential guard.

Gabon is another loss for the West of raw materials, as in addition to its oil it is also the world's second-largest manganese producer and plays a crucial role in global steel production and other vital mineral resources. While it remains to be seen if the new leadership in Gabon reaches out to Russia, the Kremlin already has good ties with the country, which was one of the 17 African countries to abstain from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly vote in March last year.

Macron began his African tour this year in Gabon and was warmly welcomed by Bongo, so his ousting is a painful blow for Paris and the loss of an ally.