Nodding and Winking

Stephen W. Smith writes about the French retreat from Africa

‘Sorry, but it’s no longer the way it used to be. There’s nothing more I can do for you. Under Bongo Senior, this would have been unthinkable. But Bongo Junior doesn’t have the same grip on the situation – and nor do I, nor does France. We go through the motions but we’re no longer in control.’ I received this text message on 9 August 2009 from Robert Bourgi, known in Paris as ‘the attorney of la Françafrique’. It’s probably not the last word on France’s incestuous relationship with her former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, but it put an end to my four-day wait at a rat-infested border post, where I’d hoped to be allowed into Gabon. I turned on my heel and went home.

Bourgi, the legatee of France’s notorious African networks – les réseaux, as they’re known – had tried to help me. He was on holiday in Florida at the time but he’d rung up the top brass in Libreville, including Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son and likely successor of Omar Bongo Ondimba, Gabon’s ruler for 42 years, who’d died a few weeks earlier. In 1967, Bongo Sr, then 32 and an early recruit to the French secret services, had been installed in the presidency by Jacques Foccart, the linchpin of les réseaux and the irreplaceable Africa hand at the Elysée, first under De Gaulle, then Pompidou and finally Chirac. But times have changed and sub-Saharan dynasties require electoral anointment in order to persist in power: Omar Bongo’s would-be successor was more preoccupied with garnering votes and forging local alliances than rendering petty services to a post-colonial godfather.

‘Do you really think Ali could lose the election?’ I’d asked a staff sergeant at the Doussala border checkpoint. ‘Of course I do! Many people hate him.’ This was three weeks in advance of an unprecedentedly open election: for the first time since Gabon’s independence from France in 1960, there was no incumbent preparing for a big party. Although Ali Ben Bongo had been minister of defence in his father’s cabinet for ten years, and despite the fact that the country – often referred to as ‘Bongoland’ – is dominated by the extended ruling family, there was real suspense. The frisson of a possible change at the top was running through the ranks of the army. To a lesser degree, this had been the case in 1993, when Bongo Sr confronted challengers in a presidential contest after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, the incumbent had won the run-off with 51 per cent of the votes ‘by slightly forcing the hand of destiny’, as Foccart put it. This summer, two months after the death of his father and political role model, Bongo Jr carried the day with less than 42 per cent of the vote. In the interim, the electoral law had been modified. According to the losers, the vote was rigged. Like father, like son?

In the view of Bourgi and others, Ali’s electoral success can no longer be attributed to the powerhouse known as Françafrique. France still has assets in Gabon: a military base with a thousand ‘forward-deployed’ soldiers, 10,000 expatriates (in a country with a total population of only 1.5 million), plus a sizeable stake in Gabonese oil and the local economy more generally. Yet here and elsewhere in former French Africa the sway of the ex-colonial metropolis is no longer unrivalled. Gabon has acquired many friends in recent years, including China, the US and a number of wealthy Arab regimes. Beijing is courting, hosting and assisting African leaders, with very few conditions, much as France used to do, and while they may not fight to the death for real democracy in their country, Gabonese nowadays rise up in revolt at the idea of a leader being ‘elected in Paris’. France’s backing has become a mixed blessing for the son of its late satrap.

Before he was elected, Ali Bongo was seen by some in the French capital as a liability. Even Bourgi, his staunchest ally, privately admitted that he mightn’t be ‘up to the task’. In the early 1990s, he was known for his nocturnal exploits in Libreville, where he cruised the town in a pink Rolls Royce, sometimes accompanied by François Mitterrand’s eldest son, Jean-Christophe, then in charge of Africa at the Elysée. ‘Our interests would be better served if someone more competent, with fewer genetic links to the old regime, were to take over in Gabon,’ a French minister confided last summer. Off the record, Sarkozy’s African advisers sounded a similar note. ‘For Ali to succeed his father is good news neither for Gabon nor for France,’ one of them said. ‘Sooner rather than later, dynastic rule can only lead to a shake-up in Libreville – and that’s the last thing we want.’ In fact, the shake-up happened in Paris. In September, after the election in Gabon, Bruno Joubert, Sarkozy’s main Africa hand, was shunted off to the embassy in Morocco. Here he may well have reminisced about a meeting he had had, shortly after his arrival at the Elysée, with Eric Silla, then deputy officer for Africa at the US National Intelligence Council. Joubert had spoken excitedly about Sarkozy’s promise of a ‘break’ with Françafrique, whereupon Silla, who had said nothing, put the simple question: ‘Will your president ask Bongo to prepare the ground for a democratic succession?’

Sarkozy did nothing of the kind. Many had believed him when, as a presidential candidate, he committed himself to a postcolonial clean-up in a speech in Benin in 2006: ‘We must rid Franco-African relations of the networks of a bygone age, of informal emissaries who have no mandate other than the one they invent for themselves.’ There would be no more nodding and winking, no more ‘secrets and ambiguities’: ‘Relations between modern states can’t simply depend on the quality of relations between heads of state but must hinge on square and honest dialogue.’ Yet since he took office, Sarkozy has perpetuated France’s time-honoured tradition of parallel diplomacy in Africa. One set of advisers presides in public over the official business of l’Afrique de jour, while Robert Bourgi, in tandem with the Elysée chief of staff, Claude Guéant, is in charge of l’Afrique de nuit, where the lucrative, personalised politics that Sarkozy denounced during his presidential campaign continue to thrive. Guéant is not shy about this division of labour. ‘The president has the freedom to draw water from all wells,’ he told me. ‘Robert Bourgi enjoys top-level contacts that are important for international relations.’ It would be wrong, he added, to think of international diplomacy as ‘cold’ and ‘disincarnate’. Nonetheless, the shady elisions of public and private, the permutations of continuity and broken promises for which Sarkozy and his people have settled, are anachronisms, at odds with the reality of shrinking French engagement – both government and private – with sub-Saharan Africa. Françafrique has run its course, even if the day of reckoning has been postponed.

This year, all France’s former colonies – except for Guinea, which achieved sovereignty under Ahmed Sékou Touré in 1958 – will commemorate the first half-century of independence. Thirteen countries will recall the curious trajectory that led them from participation in the liberation of their colonial master from Nazi occupation to what the former French prime minister Edgar Faure, an artisan of the French brand of decolonisation, called ‘independence as interdependence’. About 250,000 African soldiers fought Hitler’s Germany for la France Libre (on the beaches of the Mediterranean the African contingents chanted: ‘We’ve come a long way to free France’). But in December 1944, a mutiny of demobilised African infantry in a camp near Dakar was brutally avenged by the French: clearly African hopes of independence were to be sacrificed on the altar of a reinvigorated French grandeur. Then, in May 1947, Léopold Senghor, the great exponent of Négritude, spoke out against what he called ‘kollaboration’ with the colonial power.

There was no royal road to liberation in French sub-Saharan Africa, nor much ‘armed struggle’ for that matter (insurrections in Cameroon and Madagascar were summarily put down): France’s colonies had to wait until 1960 for formal independence. African leaders, who had previously been elected members of the French Assembly and sometimes senior ministers in the metropolitan government, now took over the reins of power in their countries. De Gaulle envisaged the new arrangement as a ‘French system where everyone plays his part’. It was to be based on elite co-optation, within what the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon calls the ‘Franco-African state’. This was not a formula involving a series of relationships between the erstwhile colonial power on the one hand, and the newly independent states on the other, but a unitary Jacobin entity, with big brothers and smaller brothers governing and an unmistakeable centre of power, Paris.

In 1960, Senghor became the poet-president of Senegal and was happy to maintain close ties with France. The initials CFA, which identified the common currency of the Colonies françaises d’Afrique, remained the same, and crucially so did the currency itself, the CFA franc – only now the wording changed to Communauté financière africaine. Six months into Cameroon’s independence, the French army – five battalions, an armoured unit and a fighter squadron – intervened to finish off the only revolutionary rebel movement in a former French sub-Saharan colony. At least 3000 partisans of ‘real independence’ were killed. In 1962, the French army rode out to the rescue of Senghor’s regime without firing a shot. In 1964, the Gabonese president Léon M’ba, toppled but not killed, was reinstated by yet another French military intervention. A further 37 such operations would follow before the end of the Cold War.

In its African backyard, Paris professed a doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’, just as Brezhnev was doing in the satellite states of Eastern Europe. Mobutu, the inheritor of the Belgian Congo, a CIA ally but also very much France’s man, was propped up, along with other dictators, until the bitter end; the ‘emperor’ Bokassa was ousted only when he made overtures to Gaddafi. In the bipolar world of geopolitical rivalry, democrats were in short supply, and not only in ‘neo-colonised’ francophone Africa. Across the subcontinent throughout the three decades prior to 1989, only one leader – the Mauritian prime minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolan in 1982 – relinquished power in the wake of an electoral defeat.

The most impressive aspect of the French military shield was its breadth: it wasn’t simply a protection for lackeys and minor potentates. Between 1960 and 1990, 40,000 people are believed to have died as a result of internecine violence in French Africa, half of them in Chad; by comparison, roughly two million died in former British Africa, another two million in former Belgian Africa, 1.2 million in the former Portuguese colonies and another million in the residual category that includes Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea. A different indicator, which corrects for demographic imbalances, confirms the value of the pax franca: the number of ‘victims of repression or massacres’ is put at 35 per 10,000 inhabitants in ex-French Africa, 790 in postcolonial Anglophone Africa, 3000 in the Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, and a staggering 4000 in the Portuguese colonies, which didn’t achieve independence until the mid-1970s.

In 1960, De Gaulle entrusted the affairs of the newly independent African subcontinent to Jacques Foccart, the leader of a World War Two resistance network, born in 1913 in Guadeloupe. There was no point, he told Foccart, in dwelling on the loss of Indochina. ‘Our positions in Algeria,’ he went on to say, ‘have been squandered by plentiful mistakes, bloodshed and suffering. Only Black Africa is left and here the decolonisation underway must succeed as a friendship, with us accompanying the people of these countries. This is what I ask you to be in charge of.’ Officially referred to as ‘co-operation’, the Franco-African postcolonial entente resembled the partnership of a rider and his horse.

The motto of French decolonisation, ‘partir pour mieux rester’, was not a fantasy. In the first ten years after independence, the number of expatriates in the ‘former’ colonies more than doubled. In the mid-1980s, 50,000 French coopérants (dispatched by the French government) and private-sector entrepreneurs ran Ivory Coast and its economy. If you went to interview an Ivorian minister in those days, you shook hands with the holder of office and sat down to question his French adviser. Pro-consuls rather than accredited diplomats, France’s ambassadors in Abidjan were like senior civil servants in French overseas departments. It was possible to move back and forth between the civil service and an African administration, making a career in the Franco-African state without compromising one’s promotion and pension rights.

The Cold War provided geopolitical cover for France’s tutelary presence in her neo-colonies. South of the Sahara, the French army remained an auxiliary of the ‘free world’, despite the odd humiliation at the hands of Washington. During the Cold War, Africa’s gendarme was not just a policeman: he was an overseas administrator, a state-tethered businessman prospering on sweetheart deals and, more than anything else, a longstanding addict of an old imperialist hallucinogen known as la plus grande France, or Greater France. The fall of the Berlin Wall meant cold turkey. It also precipitated the erosion of a comfortable trade surplus of around €2 billion a year – between two and three times the revenue from a far greater volume of trade with the US.

Until the end of the 1990s, French revenue from exports to Africa was roughly twice as high as its export earnings in China. French energy security, in oil and uranium, was guaranteed by supplies from Gabon, Congo and Niger. Elf Aquitaine, the state oil company, was nicknamed ‘Elf Africaine’. In 1980, the proportion of the UK’s overseas capital investment directed to Africa stood at 29 per cent, West Germany’s at 19.5 per cent and that of France at 35 per cent. By 1995, Britain’s proportion had dropped to 3.8 per cent, West Germany’s to 2.4, but France remained exposed and assertive at 30.4 per cent (most of it to non-francophone countries, including Nigeria, Angola, Kenya and South Africa). France was shrewdly diversifying beyond its former sub-Saharan possessions.

It’s hard to date the death of Françafrique precisely: the exquisite corpse still haunts many minds, and ghost stories are a lucrative business. Even so, three events in 1994 adumbrated the end: the (unprecedented) devaluation of the CFA franc and with it the crumbling of the monetary wall around the Franco-African enclave economy; the genocide in Rwanda, which left blood on the hands of Africa’s gendarme (having failed to understand a country outside its historical zone of influence, France had thrown its weight behind ‘Hutu power’); and finally, the state funeral of the Ivorian president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the sub-Saharan godfather of Françafrique and an enthusiast of the ‘Franco-African state’ – indeed, it was Houphouët who coined the term at a party congress in 1973.

His last rites were conducted in the basilica of Yamoussoukro, a building taller than St Peter’s, which he’d financed from his own ‘private fund’. It was here, I suspect, that the Franco-African state was laid to rest in the presence of the remaining dramatis personae: two generations of French and African heads of state, prime ministers, ministers, missi dominici, merchants and minions. Jacques Foccart, by now in his eighties, was wheeled out for veneration like a relic, or a fetish. Everyone present had a gnawing intuition that the end had come, hastened by the lethargic trusteeship of Jean-Christophe Mitterrand in the early 1990s, acting for his terminally ill father. Mitterrand fils hadn’t even attempted an aggiornamento.

Demography, democracy and the collapse of the bipolar world had put paid to the old order. Paris was quick to seize the peace dividend after the Cold War. Between 1994 and 2000, development aid to sub-Saharan Africa fell by 55 per cent, even more abruptly than aid from the US (34 per cent), Japan (27 per cent) or Germany (23 per cent). Since the early 1990s co-operation has been steadily dismantled: the number of technical assistants in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from around 6500 to fewer than 1500; there were 925 military advisers on the continent in 1990, only 264 by 2008; in the same period the budget for military assistance was halved (it’s now roughly €60 million). ‘Forward-deployment’ alone appears to belie this massive disengagement: there are still about 10,000 French soldiers deployed in Africa. But compare that with the 30,000 in 1960 or the 15,000 in 1989 and bear in mind that in any case the current overall figure conflates temporary and permanent deployments. Once you’ve subtracted the first from the second, only 5300 military remain. Three out of six permanent bases have been closed since 1989.

The private sector has retreated in tandem with the state. Since 1990, the number of French expatriates in sub-Saharan Africa has been halved, from more than 200,000 to 100,000. Here again, the overall figure masks a migration to other, often non-francophone countries and the fact that a high proportion of French in Africa have dual citizenship. The most spectacular example is Ivory Coast: from 50,000 in the mid-1980s, the number of French has fallen to 8000, of whom only an estimated 1200 are not Franco-Lebanese or Franco-Ivorians. Not incidentally, French direct investment flows to Africa have plummeted. They are now consistently below 5 per cent. Then why not issue the death certificate of Françafrique and turn the page? Because neither successive French presidents – from the Socialist Mitterrand to the post-Gaullist Sarkozy – nor francophone Africa’s heads of state, especially the remnants of the old guard, want to let go. Too much is at stake, namely the political survival of the heads of state and the status of French diplomacy. France remains a last resort for weak regimes under threat in Africa, while francophone Africa is still an echo chamber for France’s international pretensions.

Yet the elite consensus on which the Franco-African state was built a half-century ago has degenerated into a collusion between French and African elites with no basis in the realities of everyday life. Not that Françafrique had ever been really popular at grassroots level, especially not in Africa. But, since the mid-1990s, anti-French feelings have run high in the former colonies and, as Laurent Gbagbo has masterfully demonstrated in Ivory Coast, this groundswell of anger provides a political resource for African ‘patriots’ touting a ‘second independence’. Even more so now that French public opinion has sunk deep into indifference or postcolonial shame, as a disconsolate ex-empire averts its eyes from the past or licks its wounds. Both attitudes translate into paralysing self-consciousness. Once again, the realities on the ground – the ‘Africa of the Africans’ – do not count for much. French public opinion, which with rare exceptions did not object to the neo-colonialism of the trente glorieuses, is once again narcissistically absorbed – nowadays it’s either lack of interest or self-punishing remorse. How many inglorious decades will go by before Paris redefines the means and ends, in what is left of its presence in Africa?

The continued career of Robert Bourgi, who failed to ease my entry into Gabon last summer, proves that there is a kind of afterlife for Françafrique. Bourgi was born in Senegal in 1945, the son of a wealthy Lebanese trader and a native child of Françafrique. After teaching law in Abidjan, where he met the current Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, he moved to Paris in the early 1980s (the Socialists were in power and setting up their own networks in Africa). Foccart’s memoirs depict him as a dedicated subaltern, who did the necessary legwork in Africa as the master himself grew older. He has been a member of the bar for almost 30 years, but has never appeared in a courtroom. In France, he pleads off-piste for African presidents, and in Africa for France. His profitable vocation allows him to avoid any unseemly conflict of interest.

He is on first-name terms with many francophone heads of state, who know him as ‘Bob’; he used to address Bongo Sr as papa, and refers to the Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, as tonton, or ‘uncle’. His office, in the 16ème arrondissement, is a museum of Françafrique. A bronze bust of Bonaparte sits on his desk, radiating the imperial ambitions of Greater France. The sculpted beak of a 17th-century galleon sunk off the Corsican coast protrudes from the corner of the room: it was a gift from Foccart. Bourgi is surrounded by photographs, autographed for their friend by two generations of French and African leaders. Mobutu’s bears the legend, ‘For Robert, my accomplice.’

Bourgi was close to Chirac, who passed him on to his putative successor, Dominique de Villepin, but Bourgi’s instinct told him that he was onto a loser: in 2005 he staged a run-in with Villepin and threw in his lot with Sarkozy. Bourgi told me Villepin had failed to keep his word on debt relief for a couple of unnamed African presidents, and on the judicial immunity requested by Eduardo dos Santos, the Angolan head of state, for his proxies Pierre Falcone and Arcadi Gaydamak, who were involved in illegal arms sales to Angola in the mid-1990s (as Lara Pawson reported in the LRB, 7 February 2008). Last October, the French courts sentenced both men (Gaydamak in absentia) to six years for their role in ‘Angolagate’. Bourgi says Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, welcomed him with open arms. ‘You look like a man who has been humiliated,’ he’s supposed to have said, ‘I know how it feels.’ Claude Guéant was shown in, and at the end of the conversation Bourgi pledged his allegiance to the future president and the most influential member of his inner circle.

Until Guéant moved into an office at the Elysée next door to the president, his only experience of Africa was five months’ military service in the Central African Republic. Since then, he has shot past many old Africa hands thanks to a stream of ‘visitors’ introduced by Bourgi. Guéant’s callers would not be seen by the diplomats officially in charge of African affairs, who work out of rue de l’Elysée, an adjacent side street, but then why would informal middlemen, the scions of African heads of state or, for that matter, presidents themselves care about an official Africa ‘desk’ when they can meet privately with Sarkozy’s confidant in the antechamber of power? Once General Mohammed Ould Abdelaziz had atoned for his putsch in Mauritania in 2008 – by holding, and of course winning, an election a year later – he went straight through to the president’s office.

Bourgi is more influential now than he was as Chirac’s man, and he has more time in the limelight than Foccart ever enjoyed – or sought. Sarkozy personally awarded him the Légion d’honneur in 2007. The ceremony was attended by a select group of sub-Saharan presidential offspring – Pascaline Bongo, Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, Karim Wade – and emissaries from Africa, including the head of the Angolan state oil company, Manuel Vicente. The award was another stab at Chirac, whose Africa adviser, Michel de Bonnecorse, had struck Bourgi’s name from an earlier honours list. Always regarded as a ‘friend of Africa’, Chirac had offered to write off only 5 per cent of the Gabonese and Congolese public debt to France, though the presidents of both countries had asked for 30. Here too, Sarkozy has set matters back on course: in his first weeks in office, despite resistance from the ministry of finance, he wrote off 20 per cent of the debt owed by each of the two Central African oil emirates.

Yet Bourgi is deeply pessimistic about France’s future in Africa and his own as a go-between. ‘This time it really is over … The French no longer grasp what’s happening on the continent,’ he told me. ‘And, frankly, does anyone in Paris still care? As for the Africans, the majority are very young. For them, France is just another foreign country, when it’s not a convenient scapegoat for their many woes.’ Bourgi’s Françafrique, by tacit admission, is a Potemkin village. A general I spoke to recently in Paris – a figure whose long history of postings and interventions resembles a political map of the continent – thinks much the same. ‘During the Cold War, we were a power to reckon with in our part of Africa,’ he said. ‘Since the 1990s, we’ve been moving out. That’s now visible to the naked eye. There’s not much left to show for our presence and no political will at home. And we no longer have the means. But we maintain the fiction of our “presence” and endorse the course of events we no longer determine. Which is the worst of all policies.’

In a handful of European countries – Germany, Holland, Poland or Spain – where a bad Africa policy is thought to be better than none at all, France’s leverage on the continent is still admired. Their own approach is confined to the ritual expression of ‘grave concern’ in government press releases and the application of humanitarian band-aids to the continent’s open wounds. But seen from Paris and put into perspective, France is bound to become as irrelevant to its former colonies as Belgium is to Congo, 80 times bigger and seven times more populated than its former coloniser. When Ivory Coast gained independence in 1960, Abidjan had 180,000 inhabitants, while six million people lived in Greater Paris. Today the number of Parisians has been multiplied by 1.6, the population of Abidjan by 22, bringing it up to four million. Over the same period, the French population increased by 44 per cent, the Ivorian by 600 per cent.

Elf, the Franco-African piggy bank, has been shattered and French policy in Africa has fallen into disrepute. The state oil company was swallowed in 2000 by its privately owned sister Total, and in due course, like the arms deals and kickbacks of Angolagate, the institutionalised ‘petro-corruption’ of the Franco-African establishment came under the full scrutiny of the French public and the judiciary. All the while, France remains an easy target for Kigali’s charge of ‘complicity in genocide’. Since Rwanda severed diplomatic relations with France in November 2006, Françafrique stands accused, and the dubious, often criminal character of the Franco-African era means that the accusation tends to stick.

The former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing celebrated the death of Bongo Sr last summer by alleging that the deceased had financed at least one electoral campaign of Giscard’s lifelong enemy, Jacques Chirac. Chirac, of course, denied it. Who was telling the truth? Hadn’t Giscard accepted diamonds as personal gifts from Bokassa when he was in the Elysée? Wasn’t Chirac rumoured by well-placed sources to have received ‘suitcases of cash’ from Gabon? Françafrique has deep pockets, though how deep is difficult to prove. In March 2008, Sarkozy replaced Jean-Marie Bockel, his junior minister in charge of Africa, who had spoken out against Françafrique and criticised, to no avail, the aid money pumped into Gabon. Omar Bongo had publicly demanded Bockel’s head, and received his successor in Libreville – who was accompanied by Guéant and Bourgi – as if the inaugural visit were a rite of passage. Did Sarkozy replace Bockel in order to appease an important, irascible ally in Africa? Or did he comply because Bongo had contributed to his election campaign in the hope that the favour would be returned, perhaps in the form of generous debt relief?

In the fifth volume of Journal de l’Elysée, Foccart’s memoirs, the entry for 20 February 1973 records a routine meeting with Pompidou in the run-up to a legislative election in France that was by no means a foregone conclusion for the party in power. It reads:

As for Houphouët-Boigny, who is fretting like many other African leaders about the French elections and their outcome, he has sent me quite a hefty sum of money … to help us with the campaign. It’s not the first time he’s done it. I’ll keep part of the amount for the campaign and give him back the rest … Houphouët is an extremely nice person.

Foccart was the first of a series of presidential right-hand men who built the Franco-African state in the 1960s, an avatar of Greater France. But De Gaulle’s heirs could not resist the temptation to forage for personal gain on the sidelines of the Fifth Republic. When the Gaullist movement split and lost its monopoly on power, the pillage in Africa was democratised. The Foccart ‘network’ was torn apart, becoming a patchwork of smaller, rival networks: réseaux Pasqua, réseaux Balladur, réseaux Chirac – and in 1981, réseaux Mitterrand. Bourgi, who describes himself as ‘a one-man-network’, appears to be the last survivor of post-independence French policy in Africa, but this may turn out to be an illusion. For as long as there are footholds in the state apparatus, in France and in Africa, there will be réseaux. To the surprise of many people, Sarkozy has given them a new lease of life.