PARIS, France – The period of European colonialism began in the 1500s and lasted for centuries. It was a dark era in which powerful Western empires justified the conquest and economic exploitation of resource-rich regions in the Americas, Asia and Africa, where the inhabitants were unprepared and ill-equipped to ward off an invasion from the mightiest military powers in the world.
It is well known that colonialism ended in the early 1900s, when a wave of liberation movements swept through colonized countries, and the countries that once claimed them as their colonies finally relaxed their hold. But the decades following the officially recognized independence of former colonies were not easy, and the people never gained complete independence from their former colonial masters, who often continued to play an instrumental role in the politics and economics of these countries, for better or worse. A recent-three part documentary released by Al Jazeera America titled The French African Connection focuses on France’s post-colonial history, and asks whether their current role in Africa is a continuation of the past.
In the late 1950s, many African colonies were still a part of the French Empire, but successive uprisings prompted France to grant them independence. Under President Charles de Gaulle, the French government concluded that energy independence through their oil holdings in former colonies must be protected. In order to maintain their global superpower status, France continued to shape the policies of the newly independent African countries to suit their economic needs in the post-colonial era. This was accomplished through a nefarious relationship between the French secret service and African politicians dubbed Francafrique.
This secretive policy of intervention in former colonies rich in oil and mineral resources would alter Africa’s future. Acting outside of the realm of public and parliamentary control, and under total secrecy, French agents worked to destabilize currencies and topple leaders while picking new ones. In these circles, they even referred to the African presidents in former French colonies as “black governors,” since they continued to wield control over these puppet governments. Little had actually changed in the post-colonial era.
In 1962, France lost their primary source of oil when Algeria became the last former colony to gain independence. For France, having no outlet for energy independence was not an option. Since oil extraction is a long process that takes several years before visible results, France needed to establish long-term relationships with oil-rich countries in Africa. The two men who President de Gaulle entrusted with French-African relations were to answer directly to him: Pierre Guillaumat, the CEO of Elf, France’s publicly owned oil company, and Jacques Foccart, Chief Advisor on African Affairs. Foccart unofficially headed a secret service cell, whose job it was to directly influence African affairs.
France was unsuccessful in ousting the elected president of Guinea after he offended de Gaulle, which they attempted to do by ruining their economy by disseminating counterfeit currency, and training rebel fighters. France handpicked the president of Cameroon, who reigned unopposed after his Marxist opponent died of poisoning after having coffee with members of the French secret service. Gabon would become the epicenter of France’s oil economy, even though the country had been independent since 1960. President M’ba supported France’s interests, and in return, France supported his presidency. But in 1964, a group of African rebels stormed the palace, accusing the President of perpetuating colonialism and being a puppet ruler of France which forced M’ba’s resignation. The French military soon found M’ba, returned him to the capital to resume his presidency, and set up guards to protect him.
When President M’ba fell ill, Foccart asked him to amend the constitution and choose a vice president to ensure stability in their top oil-producing country. Once M’ba died, Omar Bongo would become the un-elected president of Gabon. He is just one of many unpopular rulers who France supported in exchange for access to Africa’s oil. Bongo ruled with dictatorial powers and became one of the world’s wealthiest men through rampant corruption, while his people lived in poverty. He would serve as president for 41 years, as his immense wealth from oil profits afforded him the ability to buy off any political opponents.
As the demand for oil grew in recent decades, France’s exclusive access to Africa lessened. With many wealthy countries and corporations vying for Africa’s resources, African politicians could choose who to do business with. France’s Elf oil company was forced to privatize in 1994 after the scandal which revealed corruption at the highest levels, with the public company’s wealth funding regime changes in Africa, and some extravagant living for the top perpetrators, who were jailed for their crimes. Many believed this spelled the end for Francafrique, but that is still debatable.
Africa’s longest serving president, Omar Bongo, died in 2009. President Sarkozy and high ranking delegates from France were all in attendance at his funeral. With his immense wealth, he funded French politicians of his own choosing in the last decades of his presidency, an ironic reversal dubbed “reverse colonization” by French politicians. His son, Ali Bongo, would succeed him as president, after winning just 37 percent of the vote, according to the former chief of the French secret service and other high ranking officials.
Although it was well known that the election was rigged, France remained silently in support of President Ali Bongo. Earlier this year, 4,000 French troops were deployed to Mali to combat rebel fighters accused of being aligned with terrorists. French President Francois Hollande stressed the necessity of intervening in the former colony, saying to the people of Mali, “France will remain with you as long as it is necessary.”
– Jennifer Bills
Photo: Global Voices