Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Shakespeare vs Voltaire

One of the major conflicts structuring the African continent has been the rivalry between the Francophone and Anglophone countries

Shakespeare vs Voltaire
Al-Ahram Weekly

African leaders usually try to appear unified in the face of challenges, although this has not always been the case. In fact, disputes have been more frequently the behaviour of many African countries.

During the post-colonial period, personal competition and the left-right conflict generated by the Cold War dominated African politics and the fate of the African peoples. Personal competition appeared natural. The leaders of the various African independence movements saw themselves as unique, essential, and not to be overshadowed by others.

The pull between the former USSR and the US was another cause for conflict, even if some of the reasons for allying with this or that camp may have had to do with the purely personal reasons of a particular leader, such as rivalry or jealousy of the others. At all events, no sooner did the Cold War end and the third wave of democratisation begin in some African nations than more deeply rooted differences emerged between the constituent countries of the continent.

‘History will one day have its say; it will not be the history taught in the United Nations, Washington, Paris, or Brussels, however, but the history taught in the countries that have rid themselves of colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity… ’ Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, Pauline

The fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the rise of Nelson Mandela to the leadership of his country gave Pretoria an opportunity to move to the forefront of the continent. The values of the new South African leadership and the history of its struggle against apartheid, the democratic system of government that it established, and the exceptional economic might of South Africa compared to other countries in the continent were huge assets in this regard.

However, the new leadership faced major challenges. 1994, the year in which Mandela became president, brought the Rwandan Genocide, killing more than 800,000 people in the space of just 100 days. The international indifference to these massacres at the time is one of the darkest stains on the conscience of the international community.

Towards the end of Mandela’s term as president, the Second Congo War (also known as the Great War of Africa) erupted. Lasting from 1998 to 2003, what has been described as the deadliest war in modern African history involved nine countries, among them Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Rwanda, as well as the government of Laurent-Désiré Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, assassinated by one of his guards in 2001 and succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila, and armed insurgency groups. By the end of the war, 3.8 million Congolese had died.

The end of the Cold War was an indirect cause of the collapse of the state in Somalia upon the fall of the regime of Siad Barre that had lasted from 1968 to 1990, as well as Eritrean independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

In the western part of the continent, Liberia collapsed under the predations of warlord Charles Taylor, and Sierra Leone plunged into a civil war that left next to nothing of an already meagre infrastructure intact.

For Algeria, the 1990s was a decade of a gruelling war against the terrorism of the militant religious movements. At the same time, Libya was under a blockade, and Sudan erupted into civil war when the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood came to power through the coup staged by Omar Al-Bashir and planned by the leader of the Sudanese Islamists Hassan Al-Turabi.

In spite of such adversities, South Africa remained at the helm of the continent due to the sweeping political transformations that made it possible for democratic elections to be held in more than 20 countries. At the same time, there was no form of conflict or cold war between the African democracies and dictatorships, perhaps because the continent’s democracies were not authentic.

The widespread poverty on the continent compelled the democracies to turn to China along with the dictatorships that were evading Western pressures to improve their performance on human rights, democracy and transparency.


LINGUISTIC DIFFERENCES: In fact, the most salient conflict was between the Francophone and Anglophone countries in Africa, or the “Shakespeare versus Voltaire” conflict, as one might call it.

These two groups represent two-thirds of the countries on the Continent. The remainder are the Arab countries, or are former Portuguese colonies, in addition to Ethiopia, which was never colonised.

Since the 1990s, these two blocs have vied with each other to dominate the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and then its successor the African Union (AU) and other regional organisations. In 2012, the South African candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma won the chair of the African Union Commission with a Kenyan vice-chairperson. This gave the impression of an Anglophone monopoly in the AU, and as a result it was only natural that she would be succeeded by Chadian foreign minister Moussa Faki Mahamat after the Francophone countries combined forces with the majority of the Arab and Portuguese-speaking countries.

The declining status of South Africa in the AU was obvious. In addition to losing the chair of the AU Commission, the return of Morocco came as no small blow to Pretoria, which had supported Algiers and the Polisario Movement against Rabat.

In spite of the fact that the AU later approved the South African and Burundi proposal to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the decision was non-binding. Many countries opposed the decision, including Nigeria, Egypt and Senegal. Since the resolution was optional, only its two sponsors, South Africa and Burundi, abided by it, again marking a decline in Pretoria’s status.

As South African influence ebbed, Morocco and its ally Senegal were making an equally noticeable ascent. Rabat’s strong economic presence on the continent for more than a decade is what has enabled it “to return to the African home”, as Moroccan King Mohammed VI has put it.

Senegal also has a powerful presence in West Africa, which was seen during the recent crisis in Gambia when its former dictator Yehia Jammeh refused to abide by the results of the country’s presidential elections and hand over power to victor Adama Barrow. Senegal also became a model for fellow African nations after the Senegalese parliament under current President Macky Sall passed a range of laws to combat corruption and limit the powers of the presidency and reduce his term from seven to five years.

Liberia, too, has become a model under its current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Sirleaf brought her country back into the international community after a devastating civil war. The fact that her government succeeded in overcoming the recent Ebola virus epidemic has added to her kudos, making it difficult for other African nations to put pressure on her. Liberia also played an essential role in resolving the Gambian crisis, as did Nigeria.

The Ivory Coast offers another model of successful recovery. President Alassane Ouattara managed to steer his country back to normality after the ravages of civil war and an extended struggle for power. The country became the recipient of major Chinese and Western investment, and African and sub-regional organisations returned to the Ivory Coast’s economic capital Abidjan, as did the African Development Bank which had earlier established its temporary headquarters in Tunisia.

To the east, more than a decade of rapid economic growth in Ethiopia was instrumental in Addis Ababa’s rise in the region, especially after its success in isolating its neighbour Eritrea. Ethiopia also remained firm in the face of the terrorism of the Shabab Movement in Somalia, earning it a special place in US strategy in East Africa. It also became a major recipient of Chinese and Western investment in textiles, food production and infrastructure development, elevating its economic status considerably with respect to other African nations.

Kenya, a loyal Anglophone member of the British Commonwealth, has become a leading African democracy, and it has held regular elections in spite of the eruptions of violence that have marred some polls. It, too, has a promising future as a destination for Western and Chinese investment. Like Ethiopia, Kenya’s prominent role in the war against terrorism in Somalia has earned it a unique status in US and Western strategy in the continent.

Nigeria continues to wage a long war against the terrorist group Boko Haram. At the same time, the Nigerian economy has risen to first place in Africa, surpassing that of South Africa, a G20 member. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has also initiated measures to fight the rampant corruption in his country. These factors have made Abuja a major recipient of Chinese and Western investment, significant proportions of which are expected to go into non-petroleum related fields.

These emergent nations, together with others such as Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia, as well as Libya which may soon regain its stability, rule out one-country African leadership along the lines of the South African leadership in the 1990s or the Egyptian leadership of the 1950s and 1960s when Cairo led a leftist coalition against countries that had chosen to remain in the Western camp.


ECONOMIC QUESTIONS: Of course, coalitions still exist, but on the basis of solidarity between equals. The Francophone countries, for example, share the feeling that they are smaller economically, demographically and militarily than the Anglophone ones.

In West Africa, Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa and with a population of over 170 million and the second-largest army in the continent after Egypt, carries a weight roughly equivalent to over half the other countries in its region. Most of the countries in West Africa are Francophone.

The largest economies in Africa are either Anglophone (Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya) or Arab (Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Libya) or Portuguese (Angola). This naturally gives the Francophone nations further incentive to ally. Of particular help to them under these circumstances is France’s active economic and cultural involvement in Africa and, indeed, its military involvement. The French intervened in Mali in the face of a separatist insurgency and a wave of terrorist attacks several years ago, for example.

However a new form of rivalry has emerged at the regional level, and two relatively successful models of this have appeared in the West and the South.

In the West, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries have succeeded in solving a number of important problems, the most recent being the crisis in Gambia. In the South, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has proved relatively successful in helping Zimbabwe out of numerous economic difficulties.

However, such regional or cultural groupings have not yet evolved into larger alliances or pacts that divide the continent. There are still common, if not stable, shared interests and, hence, relationships as well. Overlapping tribal affiliations, the war against terrorism and the famines that have struck several countries in the region have been greater determinants in how countries have behaved, whether cooperatively or antagonistically, than their membership of particular groupings.

While the pressures of poverty, on the one hand, and of the new middle classes, on the other, have propelled most countries on the Continent to follow relatively similar policies, their competition over foreign investment has at the same time generated a kind of cold war. But if there is one thing that all the countries of the continent fear, but that most likely will not reoccur, it is the tragedy of the Congolese War, because of its innumerable casualties and fears that any such recurrence would jeopardise the stability and development that many African countries have been able to attain.

It appears that the economic factor will prevent further full-scale regional wars. If it does not stop domestic conflicts, it will guide competition among the African countries to turn attempts to resolve them into a race for development in order to attract investment. The economic factor may also prevent a kind of cold war breaking out in Africa over positions in international or continental organisations.

add comment

  • follow us on