This week’s “ESC Carte Blanche” editor is Tom!
“Hello, my name is Tom, I’m 25 years old and I’m French and English. I’m doing an ESC at OCC because I’m hoping to gain experience to work in the future in the third sector. I believe OCC is a wonderful organisation, full of great people working towards a very important cause.”
“I wrote this article about democracy in West Africa, and the declining French influence in the region, because what happens in this region is key to understanding migration flows from sub-saharan Africa to Europe. Additionally, I am very passionate about West Africa, I have travelled to the region on multiple occasions, and have studied it extensively at university. I hope you will find my article interesting!”
“Africa is suffering from a governance model that has been imposed on it… a model that is good and effective for the West but is difficult to adapt to our realities, our customs and environment”(Reuters, 2023)
These are the words of Mamady Doumbouya, the military leader of Guinea’s junta, currently in power. Democracy is definitely a concept which is fading in francophone West Africa, as over the last 3 years, four of France’s old colonies in West Africa (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger) have seen military regimes take over from (arguably) democratically-elected governments.
So, is it true that “democracy” does not correspond to West African realities and customs?
To understand why this is a question and to understand today’s situation in France’s old West African colonies, it’s important to first look at the post-colonial era of control France inflicted in sub-saharan Africa, which is commonly known as “Françafrique”. This name was given as France kept a very strong and covert (or not!) control over its former colonies by controlling important natural resources such as crude oil (in Gabon) and uranium (in Niger). It started in 1958, following the independence of Guinea, the first of France’s African colonies to gain independence. From that date on, using its secret services, the French government supported coup d’états, and helped overthrow regimes to replace them with those that were welcoming towards French policy (Bovcon, 2011).
From 1960 to his death in 1997 (acting publicly from 1960 to 1974 and 1986 to 1997, and in the shadows during the in between years), all of France’s actions were orchestrated by one man, Jacques Foccart, otherwise known as “Monsieur Afrique”. He was a very close adviser to Charles de Gaulle, the French president at the time, and all the Presidents that followed (Whiteman, 1997). Thus, following their independence, although some of these ex-French colonies were seen as “democracies”, they never really were and never had the freedom to be so.
Today, “Françafrique” is mostly dead in most of France’s old colonies, due to influences from countries such as China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, in recent years, Russia, but still with some aspects remaining (Shurkin, 2023). One aspect which remains present though, is the wish to control migration in West Africa by the EU and the French government through the externalisation of borders. The EU and the French negotiate, lobby and influence West African governments, often with threats linked to financial aid, to impose often brutal migration laws on their own citizens and those of neighbouring countries (Shurkin, 2023). These laws often clash with the constitutions of these “third countries”, such as in Niger in 2020, where the country had to limit the freedom of movement of people from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries to ban them from accessing the north of the country. This constitutes a strong form of neo-colonialism.
Now, to come back to the original idea of an influenced democracy.
This means that European countries have the power to blackmail and impose ideas which suit their own personal agenda on “less powerful” countries. This creates an external threat meaning that West African countries often cannot choose their own migration policies, thus threatening their democracies (Bøås, 2021).
Due to all these factors, West African societies are questioning democracy more than ever, as they assimilate Western influences to democracy.
In response to this, most West African countries who have an unelected military regime in power have turned to Russia and its Wagner group, under the pretext they fight imperialism (which they assimilate to democracy) (Parens, 2022). Russia has supported the recent military coups, and has been implementing large scale “fake news” campaigns and more, backing theories against democracy.
Although the arrival of the Russians will be positive for the Juntas over the short term, as the Wagner group offers protection to those in power, and their arrival seems to be a popular measure within their populations, this also comes at a cost. Over the long term, we could see a repetition of Western neo-colonialism, as Russia and Wagner take control of a country’s natural resources in exchange of security services protecting those in power (Parens, 2022). Countries such as Burkina Faso or Niger should lean upon their natural resources to benefit their own development and improve the lives of their citizens, and not exchange them against an offer for security services. This means that Russia and the Wagner group have no interest in stopping the conflict in the Sahel, as their presence in the region depends on it, and their presence means access to resources which used to be exclusively accessed by the French and the West (Parens, 2022).
France’s old West African colonies, which are still bearing the strong effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism, need to turn towards new democracies to improve the lives of their citizens (Yabi, 2023). This does not mean closing the doors of West Africa to all foreign countries, no, this means levelling out relations with foreign countries, and developing mutually beneficial relations with them. This is also the case for Western countries, which need to learn to level out relations for mutual benefit.
The exploitation of the rich resources of their countries, needs to be beneficial to the whole population and not just to those in power and their foreign partners, whilst respecting the rich biodiversity we find in West Africa. Additionally, they must also stop foreign powers from influencing them in their democratic systems which are currently extremely fragile, in order to create more just societies. Western countries and West African elites have, for too long, been enriching themselves on the resources of the continent, and the benefits of these should be shared out within local populations and not European ones!
These ideas are not new, as mentioned previously, many leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah or Thomas Sankara tried to follow these principles, but were defeated by the strong machine of influence and geopolitics in the era of the Cold War (Archives d’Afrique, 2023).
These leaders back democracy. But, democracy can only be considered a democracy when not interfered with or influenced by outside sources. As we’ve seen by looking at history and current influences in the region, democracy in France’s old colonies is not free. As such, real democracy has never really been tried and has never had its chance in France’s old West African colonies (Yabi, 2023). It is therefore impossible to say that democracy is incompatible with “West African customs” as Mamady Doumbouya says.
Each West African from every nation in the region has the future in their hands, and they must be the ones deciding what it is made of. According to this opinion piece and following the Pan-Africanist principles of Sankara, Nkrumah and others, the future could be a new concept of democracy, created and adapted to West African realities creating a localised democracy which benefits West Africans.
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