The 26 July coup in the West African nation of Niger, which threatens to undermine French and US military presence in the region, has shed light on the historical exploitation and continued practices of Francafrique – the term used to describe the persistent exploitation by the former French Empire in Africa.
France heavily relies on nuclear energy, with 68 percent of its power coming from nuclear plants. It obtains 19 percent of the uranium required to run these plants from Niger. Despite this significant contribution toward France’s energy needs, only 14.3 percent of Nigeriens have access to a power grid, and even that is often unreliable. This stark contrast highlights the disparities and ongoing exploitation by rapine foreign powers throughout the African continent.
The Legacy of Francafrique
Francafrique has been known for its exploitative systems designed to profit from African resources, using pressure, capital, and frequently outright force to maintain control over its former empire. As a result, many African states, including Niger, continue to face poverty and underdevelopment.
Burkina Faso’s young, charismatic leader Ibrahim Traore recently spoke at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg and decried the fact that Africa is resource-rich, but its people are poor, and criticized African leaders seeking hand-outs from the west, as they perpetuate dependency and poverty. He also described what is being imposed on Africa as a form of slavery, stating:
“As far as what concerns Burkina Faso today, for more than eight years we’ve been confronted with the most barbaric, the most violent form of imperialist neo-colonialism. Slavery continues to impose itself on us. Our predecessors taught us one thing: a slave who cannot assume his own revolt does not deserve to be pitied. We do not feel sorry for ourselves, we do not ask anyone to feel sorry for us.”
France’s inability to justify its presence in Africa with a coherent narrative further complicates the situation. Paris cannot openly confess its greed, feign a “civilizing mission,” or admit to any responsibility due to its past crimes. This lack of purpose weakens French power on the continent, leading to violence and poverty in its wake.
West Africa’s drive for further independence has left Atlanticists concerned about the opening this leaves for Eurasian powers like Russia and China to increase their influence in Africa. The west’s reaction reflects a lack of respect for the sovereignty of African countries, viewing the continent merely as a theater to maintain global dominance.
Since the Ukraine war’s onset in early 2022, Atlanticists have expressed alarm over the unwillingness of Global South states to support the west’s anti-Russia policies, a trend further amplified by the shift to multipolarism everywhere. This weakening of western hegemony has opened a path for many nations to avidly explore their geopolitical options and diversify their economies.
A report from the Munich Security Conference held in February highlighted this very real schism with the west:
“Many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of an international system which has neither granted them an appropriate voice in global affairs, nor sufficiently addressed their core concerns. To many states, these failures are deeply tied to the west. They find that the western-led order has been characterized by post-colonial domination, double standards, and neglect for developing countries’ concerns.”
Fleeced by the CFA Franc
The aftermath of the Second World War marked a significant shift in global power dynamics, and the victorious powers sought to establish a new world order that would maintain peace and promote economic balance.
In the context of African colonies, where colonial troops played a major role in the allied victory, the victorious powers, including France, aimed to retain economic control and benefit from their former colonies even as the world moved towards decolonization.
This included the establishment of new currency systems, with French leader Charles De Gaulle creating two currencies collectively known as the CFA Franc in 1945 for former colonies in the Western and Central zone.
As the push for political independence grew stronger in the late 1950s, France organized referendums in its African colonies to vote on accepting a constitution drafted by the French.
Guinea, led by former trade unionist Sekou Toure, opposed accepting the French constitution and voted overwhelmingly against it. In a furious response, De Gaulle’s government withdrew all French administrators from Guinea and took action to sabotage the country’s infrastructure and resources. The harsh measures by Paris aimed to serve as an example of what would happen to any former French colony that resisted France’s agenda.
During the Cold War, the Communist states exploited such actions by presenting themselves as liberators and allies of African countries that sought independence from European influence. This stance has led to some Africans viewing countries like Russia as more equitable partners compared to France.
Over the years, France has demonstrated a pattern of intervening militarily – over 50 times since 1960 – in African countries to secure governments that remain compliant with French economic interests, particularly related to the continued use of the CFA Franc.
The system by which the CFA Franc operates has historically been one of a fixed exchange rate where the currency has unlimited convertibility but is permanently pegged to the French currency, previously the Franc and then the Euro.
African currency under French control
This means that African countries cannot influence the value of their own currency, and the difference in value makes it so that France can buy African products artificially cheap while Africans are able to buy fewer goods with the money they exchange.
Worse yet, France had requirements to store, and thus profit from, the foreign reserves owned by its former colonies, though the requirement of holding 50 percent of their foreign exchange reserves in a French-ran bank was dropped for the western zone in 2019.
Under this scheme, African states received a nominal amount of interest, but the bank benefited from lending that capital out at higher rates and attaining massive profits off of African resources and labor. This is despite the fact that many countries in Francophone Africa are major gold exporters and thus have a multitude of options for storing wealth to back a currency in alternative central banks.
While the CFA Franc system has provided some benefits in terms of stability and preventing Zimbabwean-style hyperinflation, it has also come under scrutiny for imposing requirements on African countries that are not placed on more powerful nations. The lack of control over their own currency has hindered economic growth and made these countries vulnerable to global economic shocks.
Northern African states such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco chose to leave the CFA Franc upon gaining independence and have experienced relatively higher prosperity. Similarly, Botswana’s success with its own national currency demonstrates that proper management can lead to stable democracy and economic growth, even for less developed nations.
Exclusive rights and privileges
The CFA Franc system has been the geopolitical equivalent of one’s father insisting he manages their savings while leaving them out of his will. There are benefits to having a trade and currency zone, such as the current ECOWAS union that covers the Western part of the continent, but by design under the CFA Franc system, independence has been an illusion by which France has fleeced these countries.
France has been dependent on Africa for its status as a world power for more than a century. Among other privileges it has carved out for itself in post-colonial treaties, France has had the exclusive right to sell military equipment to former colonies, and enjoys the first right to any natural resources discovered. Paris makes great use of these privileges: as just one example, 36.4 percent of France’s gas is sourced from the African continent.
Moreover, a vast network of French business interests, which include major multinational companies, dominate industries such as energy, communications, and transportation in many African countries. France’s government also supports French businesses in Africa in several ways, including through an enormous public company called COFACE which guarantees French exports into these underdeveloped markets.
Towards independence and self-reliance
This economic dependence has contributed to the perpetuation of a system where African states remain weak, pliant, and reliant on resource exports, primarily benefiting French companies and interests. Additionally, African states are obligated to ally with France in any major conflict, further eroding their national sovereignty.
The African continent suffers from many ailments, but perhaps the most persistent and nefarious are a lack of sovereignty and access to capital. Meanwhile, much of Europe’s prosperity has been derived from looting the Global South for centuries.
The case of Brussels, built on the wealth derived from the brutal exploitation of the Congo under Belgian King Leopold II, is a stark reminder of the deep-rooted impact of colonialism. When the monarch’s crimes against humanity were discovered, he was ultimately forced to bequeath the majority of his fortune to the Belgian state upon his death.
Not wanting to do so, he embarked on an enormous series of public works to spend his ill-gotten gains, creating modern Brussels. Now the EU and NATO meet there and audaciously give disingenuous lectures about universal human rights while surrounded by the profits of some of the most brutal cases of oppression in human history.
While military governments often face challenges in achieving their stated goals, it is evident that western-backed “civil democracies” have also struggled to significantly improve the security and well-being of the African public.
The path to solving Africa’s problems lies in transformative leaders who can shrug off the legacy and remaining shackles of colonialism and enable the continent to carve out a genuine, homegrown path to independence and self-reliance.