Stephen Smith has recently penned an article in the LRB describing France’s decline in its former stomping grounds: la Françafrique. For those who aren’t familiar with Smith, he’s a French journalist of (I believe) Germano-American background who has covered Africa for years for Libération and Le Monde. He’s also written several books on Africa, including those with such charming titles as How France Lost Africa and Negrology: Why Africa is Dying (Smith’s short answer: she’s committing suicide).
In this piece, Smith gives us a bellwether for the decline of French influence in Africa: the inability of Robert Bourgi, the inheritor of former regent Jacques Foccart‘s Franco-African résaux, to get Ali Bongo, son of the defunct Gabonese big man Omar Bongo, to let Smith into the country before the former was to stand for election to replace his dad, who had reigned since independence in 1960:
‘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’.
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.
He goes on to give us a summary of the decline of the house of Elysée in its erstwhile colonies, giving some interesting information about African policy under Sarkozy, which, despite the latter’s speech in Benin back in 2006, has kept much of the shady personal touch that characterized past policies under Sarkozy’s predecessors.
Stephen Smith comes to the subject, he’d like us to know, as someone with a lot of “tough love” for Africa. Thus, his insider accounts often read a lot like an account of the inner workings of the mob by a former mid-level wiseguy. So it is that we get some outrage about outrageous policies, but also more than a little bit of nostalgia. It’s clear that even if he recognizes the negative effect it’s had on most of its inhabitants, Stephen Smith is very much at ease in Françafrique.
It is on this background, then, that Smith paints a picture of the ruins of a Gallic empire in Africa, and how that empire was maintained, how the French decided to “partir pour mieux rester,” leave so as to better stay. And while he gives us a nice little introduction to French neo-colonialism, that faint nostalgia guides his hand when describing some of the mess in Africa today.
For example, Rwanda:
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’)…
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.
This is a dishonest sleight of hand that’s clearly meant to absolve Paris of its share of responsibility for the Rwandan genocide. First of all, while it’s true that “historically,” Rwanda was in the German and then Belgian zones of influence, as an ostensibly Francophone country, France has had drawn a lot of water for a long time in Rwanda, and by the 1990s, France was the primary backer of Habyarimana’s regime.
To pretend that France didn’t understand Rwanda is to ignore history. Anti-Tutsi violence was not invented in 1994. In fact, even before independence from Belgium, the “Hutu revolution” of 1959 saw many Tutsis killed in pogroms and many more forced to flee to neighboring countries. Again, in 1961, anti-Tutsi violence led to many Rwandan Tutsis being turned into refugees in Uganda, Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. By the time the RPF rebels invaded in 1990, the Habyarimana regime had begun to stir up anti-Tutsi sentiment by painting the country’s minority as a fifth column that would betray the nation to the Tutsi rebels invading from Uganda.
If anything, Paris shared such a racialist view of the conflict, although with a linguistic twist that the RPF in Uganda wanting to establish an anglophone “Tutsiland,” according to Mitterrand. The evidence documenting France‘s involvement in the run-up to the genocide is clear cut and indisputable. Accusations that French soldiers helped the regime in Kigali draw up extermination lists and participated in the genocide are much murkier.
That said, it is beyond dispute that Paris armed and trained the genocidal regime and later allowed that regime to escape into the former-Zaire, where it helped destabilize the Kivus, which was a catalyst to the Congolese wars that have caused literally millions of deaths. Furthermore, since Paris has a permanent seat on the security council, it is unlikely that Elysée was unaware of Roméo Dallaire’s famous genocide fax. Moreover, if Washington, which had much fewer intelligence gathering resources on the ground, had a good idea of what was about to go down, then it is unthinkable that Paris would be in the dark. For example, this Pentagon document from April 11, 1994 (5 days after the assassination of Habyarimana) states, “Unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process, a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue that would likely spill over into Burundi.”
So it’s not just France’s bad reputation in Africa that has led to accusations of French malfeasance in Rwanda. They’re due mostly, well, to French malfeasance in Rwanda. And it’s a shame that instead of exploring that, Stephen Smith uses the LRB to whitewash France’s responsibility.