ECOWAS, Françafrique & France


From its founding in Bamako in May 1975, ECOWAS – Economic Community of West African States comprising 15 member states – strived to create a community of people, breaking colonial barriers towards economic integration. It was seen as a model on the continent. From free movement to coining a single currency for its 400 million people to a free trade zone, ECOWAS was on its way to transform the subcontinent. However, these “noble” ambitions ran contrary to the interests of France and Ivory Coast.

By Abdoulaye Dukule, [email protected], Contributing Writer

Charles De Gaulle was president in France when the winds of independence blew on the continent. In 1958, he toured Africa to tout his concept of a French Community, where colonies would get some sort of autonomy while staying under French supervision. Several of the new African leaders had served dating back to 1936 in the French Government as part of the concept of “assimilation.”  With the exception of Guinea of Sekou Touré and Mali under Modibo Keita, the former colonies became independent but maintained strong ties with France. While the political leadership was “nationalized” the economy  and security remained in the hands of France.  

The result of this flawed decolonization was that former colonies took over the burden of funding social services and security without any control over the economy. France maintained military bases and “advisors” in the new governments. De Gaulle created a special cell on Africa, led by Jacques Foccart, who roamed the continent, ensuring the “stability” of friendly regimes and removing those opposed to France. Part of the profits of French companies served to fund what became known as the Françafrique.     

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand attempted to change the policy. In 1990, at the Baule, during a France-Africa Summit he called on former colonies to adopt multi-party democracy. There were some attempts. But Mitterrand was also friend with autocrats on the continent, from Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan to Paul Biya in Cameroon. Françafrique lived on. In every francophone country, from Dakar to the Congo, opposition leaders are either in exile or in jail or, when lucky, in court. Without exception.

Nicholas Sarkozy became president of France in 2007.  His Africa policy followed the De Gaulle play book. He found “partners” in Dakar, Abidjan, Conakry, Ouagadougou, and Bamako as well as Niamey. The Françafrique returned in full force. From the flawed elections in Cote d’Ivoire to the fight against terrorists in Mali, Sarkozy “spoke” for Africa, aligned the “international community” behind his positions.

In the past decade, ECOWAS leadership has been dominated by Francophones, principally Burkina Faso, Senegal  and Côte D’ Ivoire. The special relationship of France – Sarkozy doctrine – and its former colonies found its way into ECOWAS. Slowly but surely, the regional body started to follow the dictate of the Françafrique. Nigeria, the biggest economy in the region remains quiet, not wanting to bully its partners. Other countries – Ghana and Liberia – seem to have also attracted the Françafrique virus.

Francophone countries have a sort of integrated economies, through their usage of the CFA, the colonial currency maintained in “decolonized countries.” From Central Africa to West Africa, about 19 countries use the CFA, controlled by the Bank of France. It is the largest economic bloc on a continent where 90 percent of the countries have their own currency. The CFA runs from Dakar, Senegal to the Congo and Equatorial Guinea.  

In West Africa, the CFA zone gives Cote d’Ivoire  a controlling role on the economies of the other member countries, accounting for 40 percent of the GDP of the West African Monetary Fund and a port of entry for French interests.  Both France and Cote d’Ivoire have interest in maintaining the CFA rather than subscribe to a subregional currency where Nigeria would become a leader. The ECO, as envisaged by ECOWAS would end France’s control as well as the sub-regional leadership of Cote d’Ivoire among CFA countries. With military  bases in Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, and now Mali, France took over the security of the region. The francophone countries again have no interests in investing in a regional force as long as they maintain tight security arrangements with France.

By the time Nicolas Sarkozy left the presidency in 2012, he had completed the triangulation of France dominance in the region,  in every area, politics, economy and security. He used the UN – and the “international community” – with the acquiescence of the AU and ECOWAS to directly intervene in the Ivorian 2010 postwar elections. He followed this with a similar intervention in Libya to remove Moammar Gaddafi. The war in Mali is a direct consequence of the Libyan debacle. Rather  than strengthening West African forces as it happened since the intervention of ECOMOG in Liberia, France sent its own troops in Mali and, again, built an international coalition around its agenda.

Through the francophone leaders, such as Alassane Ouattara, Macky Sall, Blaise Compaore, Faure Gnassingbe, France under Sarkozy would enter ECOWAS policy space. Ten years after he left the presidency and convicted for fraud – he is supposed to be wearing ankle bracelet for a year – Sarkozy is still received in West Africa as very VIP, driven directly from the airport to the presidential palace. As last week in Abidjan, in company of Bollore, the group that manages 19 airports, 26 ports and grows palm oil and rubber. Bollore was fined five million Euros in France for corrupt practices in Togo and Guinea in acquiring port management contracts. The group organized concerts and media events for the recent and last campaign of Professor Alpha Condé in Guinea.

Emmanuel Macron tried to reform the policy. He said colonization was a crime against humanity. He opposed the third tenure of Ouattara until he was confronted with “crucial national security interests of France.” He did not support Condé in his constitutional reforms to go for a third term. But French prestige and interests trump reforms of a system where everyone is a winner… The current minister of Foreign Affairs of France, Yves Le Drian served as minister of defense under François Hollande. His greatest achievement was to boost France’s exports of arms, from $4 billion to $23 billion in a few years. Those arms go to Africa. He is said to be the new Jacques Foccart.  

Now, as Macron is experiencing it, Françafrique is primarily maintained in place by African leaders, who create a system of patronage that also benefits the occupant of the Elysée. Francophone leaders have great powers, more than their colleagues such as in Ghana or Nigeria. They can pass amendments and reset the electoral calendar. Macky Sall of Senegal, recently elected Chairman of the African Union, is said to be contemplating a third run, after making amendments. Besides Senegal and Benin, and Congo briefly, francophone countries do not have a culture of peaceful transfer of power.

ECOWAS needs serious policy reforms to adapt  to current realities. More and more, it is becoming the shadow of what it once aspired to be. Politics is overtaking economic integration. The free movement of people only works in airports. It must review priorities set in 1975, at the height of the Cold War. It must mitigate the various interests in the region, especially how to deal with Françafrique. Coups and instability will continue in the region as long as Francophone leaders can easily perpetuate their reigns by simply making a constitutional amendment. There has been a major demographic shift on the continent – education, budging middle class, urban migration, and poverty – and that affects governance. Along with these issues, ECOWAS must mitigate France’s presence in the region.