The Growing Instability in French-speaking Africa and its Geopolitical Implications

  At the end of August 2023, a coup occurred in Gabon, a French-speaking African country. The current president Ali Bongo was placed under house arrest by the Republican Guard. This is the second military coup in Africa in more than a month, following Niger. Looking at the past three years, starting from 2020, there have been more than ten coups and attempted coups across the African continent. Among them, five French-speaking African countries (Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon) encountered their own military seizures of power.
  The transitional area between the Sahara Desert and the southern savanna in Africa is called the “Sahel” zone, and is now also known as the “coup belt”. From a historical perspective, this is France’s traditional sphere of influence, and many countries were formerly French colonies. Today, countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Benin, Central Africa, Chad, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire are core members of “French-speaking Africa”. The frequent political and economic turmoil in “French-speaking African” countries has not only impacted the international reputation of France, one of the EU’s twin engines, but also brought setbacks to the EU’s right to speak on the international stage.
A big setback for “French-speaking Africa”

  Starting in August 2020, first in Mali, and then in many West African countries, such scenes appeared: a large number of people held up a French flag that had been graffitied beyond recognition, spitting and shouting “French people get out” slogan; it didn’t take long for high-ranking military officers and soldiers in these countries to launch armed coups and overthrow the governments that had previously been recognized by the international community. Al Jazeera used the term “Spring of Turmoil in French-speaking Africa” ​​to describe the political turmoil that has swept through many former French colonial countries in the past three years.
  Most of the countries in central and western Africa that became independent during the decolonization movement after World War II, although they obtained the status of sovereign states, had to rely on their former colonial masters because their economies were in a state of abject poverty. From the beginning of President Pompidou’s term to the Macron period, the French government has also long operated a brand called the “Alliance Française” that seems to be linked to “soft power” such as culture and language. “French-speaking Africa” ​​is its core part: currently, more than 30 countries in Africa regard French as the first or second official language, and a total of about 170 million Africans use French and its various variations. It is expected that by the mid-21st century, the number of people who use French as their first or second official language will surpass the English-speaking population, which means that French will become the largest language in Africa.
  In 2017, Macron, who had just come to power, made redefining “French-speaking Africa” an important part of his foreign policy. That year, Macron chose Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, as the venue for the “Alliance Française” summit, and set the theme of his speech as “How to use the French language to provide creativity to Africa”; a year later, it coincided with the ” On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Alliance Française, Macron announced in the North African country that a large sum of money would be allocated to “promote the influence of French on a global scale.” At that time, Macron tried to persuade the French Congolese writer Alain Mabanku to serve as the director of the project of “Francophone Africa”, but he was publicly and high-profile rejected by the latter. Mabanku even issued a public statement, believing that “‘French-speaking Africa’ has unfortunately become part of France’s continuation of its colonial policy.”
  An important reason why “French Africa” ​​has been resisted by a considerable number of people in central and western Africa is that France maintains a certain economic unequal relationship with these former colonies. No matter how the French government uses various “creativity” and “diversity” as soft packages, there is always a huge gap in the economic relations between France and “French-speaking African” countries. Among them, the most criticized one is the use of the “CFA franc”.
  There are actually three types of CFA francs that maintain a fixed exchange rate with the French currency, the euro, but they are all used in countries that are former French colonies. The eight countries that are members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union use the African Financial Community franc (also known as the West African CFA franc); the six member countries of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community use the Central African Financial Cooperation franc ( Also known as the “Central CFA franc”); Comoros, an island country in the Indian Ocean in Africa, uses the “Comoros franc”.
Without the intervention of French military forces, the government forces of these countries struggled to deal with various extremist organizations using guerrilla tactics, and finally found the Wagner mercenaries from Russia.

  Whether it is the “West African CFA franc” or the “Central CFA franc”, the exchange rate between the euro and them has remained at 1:655.957 for a long time. For a long time, the “CFA franc” has been considered an important anchor for maintaining exchange rate stability in these countries with underdeveloped economies and long-term political turmoil. But from another perspective, the “CFA franc” also provides a back door for France to control the financial systems of these countries. For example, African franc zone countries need to deposit 50% or more of their foreign exchange into designated accounts established by the French Ministry of Finance. This not only limits their control over foreign exchange, but also provides many French multinational companies with opportunities to seize original resources and develop in Africa. market convenience.
  A report from a British university shows that compared with Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, the three North African countries that have withdrawn from the CFA franc zone and issued their own currencies, the per capita GDP, economic growth rate and quality of economic development of most CFA franc zone countries seem to be still poor. Quite a difference. If “exchange rate stability” is an important reason for local economists and government officials to maintain the CFA franc policy for a long time, then this “stability” for a long time has resulted in financial sovereignty being suppressed by the former colonial power. , natural resources are sold at low prices and plundered, and the domestic market is plundered.
  In recent years, the myth of “exchange rate stability” brought about by the CFA franc has begun to be shattered. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic and extreme climate change, most countries in central and western Africa have experienced food shortages and rising prices. According to the website of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, food shortages in central and western African countries have worsened sharply after 2020, with a total of 20 million people facing food shortages in the region. Among them, in Niger, which suffered a military coup this year, half of its total population faces the threat of famine. The deterioration of the basic living environment has led the dissatisfied people to point their fingers at the country with the highest appearance here – France.
Extreme armed forces in conflict

  According to United Nations data, half of the total global deaths from terrorism in 2022 will come from central and western Africa. Many terrorist organizations that have declined in the Middle East, such as the “Islamic State” and “Al Qaeda”, have spread in the sub-Saharan region over the past decade, and have found soil to survive or even grow again in central and western Africa. Their influence spreads across countries such as Niger, Mali, Chad, Cameroon and Central Africa, taking advantage of these countries’ fragile institutions, uncontrollable border areas and complex internal ethnic conflicts to gain a foothold. Especially after the civil war broke out in Libya in 2011, the area in southern Libya bordering Niger and Chad has been an important channel for international extremist organizations to enter from the Mediterranean coast to the south of the Sahara Desert.

  During the coup in Niger, the soldiers who participated in the coup gave a speech on television, and one of the points they mentioned was that “the elected elites failed to fulfill their security promises.” In the past, Niger government forces, with the support of French troops, once suppressed the forces of extremist terrorist organizations that fled from the Libyan civil war. However, in 2020, the living conditions in the northern border areas of many countries in central and western Africa have deteriorated, giving multiple terrorist organizations room to grow again.

  By 2021, Chadian President Idriss Deby, who once led the “Five-Country Counter-Terrorism Alliance in the Sahel”, was killed in the civil war. The “Five-Country Counter-Terrorism Alliance in the Sahel”, with France behind it, was on the verge of collapse. Coupled with its deteriorating public support in the Sahel region, France decided to end its joint anti-terrorism operations with the five Sahel countries in the first quarter of 2022, and withdraw from the remaining four countries except Niger.
  In March 2022, after the French army’s strategic contraction, terrorist attacks in the Sahel region increased sharply. Within a month, about 2,000 civilians died in terrorist attacks, and the death toll reached a historic peak since 1997. Without the intervention of French military forces, the government forces of these countries struggled to deal with various extremist organizations using guerrilla tactics, and finally found the Wagner mercenaries from Russia.
  Coincidentally, Russia launched a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February of this year. More than a year later, as the war reached a stalemate, there were almost no obvious signs of movement on the front lines. Russia then hoped to provide support for Western forces in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Creating new “trouble zones”. The fragile situation in the countries in the Sahel region has created new hot spots for Russia in the “rear area” of the EU and NATO, distracting the public opinion and social attention of many Western countries from the Ukrainian frontline to other regions, providing some kind of exploitable condition.
  Live television footage of the coup in Niger showed people waving Russian flags, which may have increased the concerns of Western government decision-makers. But at the same time, the Niger coup military also sent a vague signal: it only asked the French troops to withdraw, but did not issue the same “expulsion order” to the more than 1,000 US military officers and soldiers also stationed in the country. After the death of Wagner chief Prigozhin, some Western analysts believe that Russia’s influence in the Sahel may have suffered some kind of setback. However, the coexistence of US and Russian armed forces in Niger and the sad exit of France have added some confusion to the political situation in the Sahel region.
Similar to the coup patterns in many Sahel countries, the coup in Mali was mainly initiated by a group of middle-level military officers aged 30 to 40 years old. They have a very high support rate among people aged 14 to 20 years old.
Fear of new wave of refugees

  Countries in the Sahel region have long been labeled as “coup-prone zones.” The “coup wave” in these countries once subsided in the 15 years after the end of the Cold War. However, in an era when the global order produced in the post-Cold War period is fading, the “coup wave” has reappeared, which has also added to the security pattern on a global scale. variable.
  Due to the political turmoil and harsh natural conditions in the Sahel region, it is difficult to guarantee basic survival rights such as food supply in areas outside the city. Therefore, it has always been an important source of refugees. According to the report of the Bipartisan Sahel Senior Study Committee of the U.S. Congress, the epidemic, coupled with climate change and the coup crisis, may cause 4 million people in the Sahel to become displaced refugees.
  These refugees from the Sahel region who are forced to leave their homes often choose to cross the Sahara Desert into North African countries, and then use smugglers to illegally board dangerous smuggling ships in the Mediterranean to enter Europe. This is exactly what EU policymakers are most worried about when facing a new round of turmoil in Africa after experiencing the refugee crisis ten years ago.
  However, from the perspective of the gap in population growth rate, Europe, with its weak population growth, is unable to cope with Africa across the sea: the Sahel region has the fastest population growth in the world. In Mali, where a coup broke out in 2021, about half of the population is under the age of 15, and the total number is expected to double by 2035.
  Similar to the coup patterns in many Sahel countries, the coup in Mali was mainly initiated by a group of middle-level military officers aged 30 to 40 years old. They have a very high support rate among people aged 14 to 20 years old. However, the frequent occurrence of coups will continue to worsen the economic and security problems that dissatisfy young people, eventually causing a large number of young people to leave their hometowns, trying to find better opportunities in what they consider the “land of plenty.” EU countries are being targeted by refugees from the Sahel region, whose population is growing rapidly, which may be the bitter pill of no solution for a long time.
  As one of the twin engines of the EU, France is losing ground in the African chess game. It is not only facing the fall of the flag of “French Africa” ​​and the humiliation of the EU on the international stage, but may also have to withstand a new wave of violence in the near future. The refugee flow has put the country to the test.

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