Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word
Boubacar Boris Diop Correspondent
Intellectuals from countries like Nigeria, Kenya or Mozambique may not be familiar with the composite neologism Françafrique. It’s not only because it’s a French invention. Actually, Françafrique refers to a unique and absolutely fascinating political phenomenon: the continuous subjugation of supposedly sovereign African states – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, to name a few – by their former colonial master, in this case France.
The process started in the mid-50s and early 60s, when defeats in Indochina and then in Algeria persuaded Paris that it was wiser to grant nominal independence to its colonies in Sub-Saharan African while keeping a tight rein on them.
Gradually, the French Empire switched from brutal overseer to absentee landlord.
The word Françafrique itself has met with a fate most bizarre. It is readily associated with François Xavier Verschave, a brilliantly lucid French intellectual who dedicated most of his life to exposing France’s rollback and nullification of African independences through foul neo-colonial schemes.
Although I co-authored “Négrophobie” with him and Odile Tobner, we never met in person.
Verschave died from cancer in June 2005, just five days after our book was released. But I knew he was so reviled by the elites of his country that for decades moneyed intellectuals, newspaper hitmen and digital media hacks from all quarters feigned to ignore his existence, to the point of never mentioning the portmanteau word he coined, i.e., Françafrique.
This hardly mattered to Verschave. Undaunted, he kept on exposing unpleasant truths, claiming loud and clear that Françafrique is “the longest scandal of the Fifth Republic.’’
Verschave was not just another disgruntled intellectual descrying a conspiracy, but a relentless file-comber.
His flawless arguments were therefore backed by well-documented facts and figures, and “well-sourced” quotes.
Thus, for several years he painstakingly took apart, piece by piece, joint by joint, the mechanisms of Françafrique.
On the one hand, African heads of state were hand-picked by Paris, after two “ job interviews,” first with Jacques Foccart, General de Gaulle’s trusted advisor on African matters, then with de Gaulle himself, if the first screening was conclusive.
Nothing was ever said on record, of course, but the African president thus “elected” was neither foolish nor foolhardy, and knew what was expected of him: to put the resources of his country at France’s disposal and routinely vote alongside the latter at the UN.
To put it bluntly, this politician should never forget that he was nothing but a puppet, or that he must consider a foreign country’s interests before taking any decision or signing any bill.
This approach is how France has maintained, since the 60s and up to the present day, its status as a “world power” wielding a modicum of clout, and feels more . . . independent vis-à-vis its powerful American ally! As long as the terms of this “gentlemen’s agreement” are complied with, the African president can toss his political opponents to the sharp-toothed, flesh-hungry crocodiles frothing in his private pond, crown himself emperor, embezzle and deposit billions in Swiss accounts, all without fearing the slightest rebuke. In any case, the well-oiled engine runs only through back channels and shady networks.
Huge, eye-popping bonanzas are shared among African and French leaders, money that the beleaguered economies of poor countries can ill-afford to lose. True, de Gaulle and Foccart, men of integrity who acted out of a keen sense of patriotism, never coveted, let alone profited from this neo-colonial treasure-trove, but the same cannot be said of their successors.
Three examples, among countless others, will be enough to make the point: Bokassa’s diamonds; the ELF Affair; and the notorious Robert Bourgi scandal. The latter, a French lawyer of Lebanese descent, who had served for decades as an errand boy for Françafrique’s marquee figures, decided suddenly in September 2011 to tell the Journal du dimanche how he used to carry from Abidjan, Libreville or Brazzaville briefcases stuffed with millions of francs he gave at the Elysée to Jacques Chirac, adding even in this interview: “I saw Chirac and Dominique de Villepin count the money in front of me.’’
In any other European country, such revelations would have resulted in a huge political earthquake. In France, nothing happened at all.
All this proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that some French presidents have shamelessly enriched themselves through such shenanigans. But Françafrique also entails more sinister aspects, like an orgy of political violence. For the truth is, Paris does not shy away from eliminating those who stand in the way, nor from intervening militarily, with boots on the ground if necessary, when popular revolts go overboard or when an unauthorised military coup threatens to put one of its precious stooges out of power.
I won’t say that ordinary French citizens underwrite what their politicians are doing in Africa: they know how this neo-colonial system can be unfair and even criminal, but they are also convinced that, without France’s involvement, the situation in its former colonies would be much worse.
To be frank, the meek silence of Francophone African intellectuals is the main reason why French public opinion thinks there is nothing wrong with Françafrique.
Verschave’s chief contribution is to have connected the dots between all these loose ends, between seemingly unrelated political events in Africa and tabloid infotainment, so that the public is enlightened as to what and who is behind all this.
Ultimately, his dogged adversarial journalism has helped him to prevail against all odds, to the extent that ordinary language has adopted the neologism he forged.
The clearest indicator of this moral victory is that his enemies, such as Stephen Smith, the racist author of “Négrologie”, are trying to deny him ownership of the term, claiming that it was Houphouët-Boigny who invented it.
They are beating a dead horse, and throwing bones to the pundits for pointless debates and endless media trivia.
In actual fact, the Ivorian politician purported to highlight the osmosis between France and former African colonies.
However, the funniest thing occurred when chroniclers who have denied the reality of Françafrique for decades, hastened to pronounce it dead as soon as Nicolas Sarkozy arrived on the scene.
Yet it was Sarkozy who ordered his military to use their tanks to dislodge Gbagbo, the elected Ivorian president, from his palace. Why? Because he was suspected by Paris of being increasingly defiant. Unlike Alassane Dramane Ouattara and Guillaume Soro to whom he was turned over by French soldiers.
Further, all that has been done and said by French authorities in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring’’ – the infamous assassination of Gaddafi in Libya and the occupation of Mali – is consistent with the political rationale behind Françafrique.
France also heavily weighing in on the Gabonese presidential election that took place on August 28.
As it is, the system has strongly adjusted itself to the new multi-centric geopolitical environment and is therefore still very much in place.
As Brecht said of Nazism after 1945, “the bitch is still in heat”.
A Janus-faced entity – one African, the other French – Françafrique is the ultimate symbol of a confiscated, perverted sovereignty.
Worse still, it is currently begetting little monsters, as one speaks, every now and then, such as Chinafrique and even Canadafrique.
Nevertheless, this singular coinage perfectly illustrates France’s dogged refusal to decolonise, and that’s why it is in that country, and nowhere else, that it rings true. There are many signs that the situation is changing.
France is no longer the great world power she used to be three decades ago, when Paris could easily topple an African head of state without too much fuss.
Now, she needs the “approval’’of the UN – and the money – to do so. Moreover, most of the new African leaders were born after these strange “independences’’ their fathers threw so cowardly to the dogs.
Even though many of these young presidents still have a slave mentality vis-à-vis Paris, some of them refuse to act as its obedient lackeys.
Ironically, these “resisters” are the ones who will, at last, decolonise France, a country still haunted by its colonial past – tragicomically at times. – New African magazine.