Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 December 2005
Issue No. 772
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Very much au point

In spite of the political niceties at the France-Africa Summit in Mali, a much more lethal liaison than France's African colonial legacy seems to be brewing, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Chirac and his host, Malian President Toumani Toure (above), and tens of thousands of anti-globalisation protesters march in Hong Kong ahead of the World Trade Organisation meeting next week

France and its former African colonies have always been uneasy bedfellows. In pursuit of dignity and equality in the international arena, African leaders are obliged to meet their former colonial master on a bi-annual basis, alternatively in France and Africa. Summits, after all, have reconciled enemies before and much more can be achieved through free and open dialogue between France and Africa than just the sharing of information and the exchange of ideas. Old habits die hard, however, and as always France seemed to dictate the terms and set the agenda while African countries obligingly acquiesced to French instructions.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure noted that it was Jacques Chirac's first trip outside Europe since he was hospitalised in September because of what was described in the press as a "vascular problem". Chirac's African trip is probably his last participation in a France-Africa summit on African soil. But, the France-Africa summits are not exclusively Francophone affairs. Many Anglophone African leaders attended the two-day African summit, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Liberian President-elect Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf and her South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki.

The core issue of re-inventing African political systems remains paramount, and cementing Africa's democratisation process was high on the list of the Bamako agenda.

On the face of it, there has been a visible change in attitudes and perceptions over the years. When in 1990 the French President François Mitterand said all future French aid would be conditional on democratic advances, many of France's former African colonies paid heed. Several Francophone African countries introduced French-style multi- party politics. But these incremental changes do not necessarily reinforce political transparency and accountability.

As President Chirac called for the dismantling of illegal immigration networks, France revealed her true colours at this particular historical juncture, with the recent race riots spotlighting the fact that France is not a country at peace with itself. Race remains the biggest question mark hanging over the political future of France. And it was difficult for France to brush over the ramifications of the race crisis in France as it interacted with its former African colonies. Moreover, its youthful immigrant communities -- most of whom are poor and unemployed -- identify more with the former colonies than with the metropolitan country they reside in.

African economies are currently growing at an average of five per cent a year, and such an economic growth rate is a substantial improvement on past performances when many African countries registered negative growth rates. However, Chirac, keen to discourage an influx of jobless African youth to France, told his African hosts that such progress was "good, but not good enough to fight poverty".

Some 60 per cent of Africa's 900 million people are under 25 years old, and youth unemployment in the continent has reached frightening proportions. According to UN figures, an estimated 75 per cent of the under-30 in Africa are unemployed. "African leaders are determined to hear and see to it that we can bring, with international cooperation, the responses expected by all these young people," Chirac told his African peers.

For Africa to attract more foreign investment and stand on a par with advanced economies, it needs to successfully integrate into the world economy. This is the message that Africa is being constantly bombarded with. But, in effect Africa is being denied a chance to integrate into the international community. The ruinous African brain drain is a prime example of how the West dictates the terms of African integration into the world economy. Millions of African professionals work in the West, legally, primarily because they are needed. In sharp contrast, tens of thousands of Africans perish trying to cross the Mediterranean. However, at the Bamako summit, the tragic events surrounding the desperate and fatal attempts of African immigrants to enter Europe via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa last October were brushed aside.

France and Britain, the two European countries with the most extensive colonial territories in Africa, have now emerged as the two most vociferous campaigners for African economic development in international forums. Indeed, the France-Africa Summit takes place barely a week before the World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong. The purpose of the Hong Kong meeting is to liberalise world trade. Developing countries want to remove subsidies on Western agricultural produce.

But then again, it is ironic that even as France purports to support African development, it remains the biggest beneficiary of European Union farm subsidies, worth more than $11 billion in 2004. In an attempt to cover up this conflict of interests, France has shifted the blame on to the United States -- the world's largest cotton producer. Cotton, the main cash crop in 33 African countries is currently farmed by cash- strapped peasants. On the eve of the 23rd France-Africa summit, the Association of African Cotton Producers pointed accusing fingers at US farm subsidies, warning that it was ruining African chances of agricultural development. The Malian president did not mince his words: "Are we going to continue sowing cotton to harvest deficits, while others, more affluent, sow the same cotton to harvest subsidies?" he asked.

Europe, which does not produce cotton, has indicated that it will press for a substantial cut in cotton subsidies at the Hong Kong meeting and France has tried desperately to mitigate the negative impact of EU subsidies on African economies. But, it would certainly be foolish to off-load the responsibility for Paris's actions onto anyone else.

The dynamics of this century's Franco-African relationship are still unfolding, and nowhere more poignantly than in the Ivory Coast -- once France's most economically viable colony. Today, its economy lies in shambles. France, the main Western military power in Africa, has 4,000 troops in the Ivory Coast alongside a larger 7,000 United Nations force. The Ivorian government accuses France of siding with the armed opposition groups who control more than half of the territory of what was once the most lucrative Francophone African country. Not surprisingly, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo boycotted the Bamako summit.

But it was as if Paris hadn't registered Africa's animus at all. Then there was the Congo and Great Lakes crises and France's role in it -- which France seems to have avoided addressing in the Bamako summit altogether. Indeed, Paris seems to have avoided the Congolese imbroglio for fear of opening up a nasty can of worms. Whether due to loss of face or bloody mindedness, it is clear that such intransigence threatens to do serious damage to France's African relations.

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