As the new military regimes in Niger and Gabon capitalize on the prevalent anti-French sentiment in their countries, the French influence in its former African colonies can be seen declining. Seven West African countries have seen their governments toppled by the military coups in the last two years. In all these coups and countries, the feeling of resentment against the French colonial legacy has played a major role. The emergence of new and more powerful players, China and Russia, has further dispelled the notion of France being the “Gendarme of Africa”.
After dethroning the democratically established regime of the President Mohamed Bazoum, the junta in Niger ordered the police to expel the French ambassador Sylvain Itte from the country. The cynical military officials in Niger have used the anti-French sentiment in the country to gain the popular support of the citizens. There were also reports of attacks on the French embassy by the coup supporters. The attacks, however, were alleged to be plotted by the junta officials with the help of the Russians, who, in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts, are scrambling to oust Americans and French from the continent.
It had only been a month when another coup d’état got underway in another former French colony- Gabon. The Bongo dynasty in Gabon has ruled the country for more than half a century since its independence. The family has been closely associated with the French and have received their support in strengthening their hold over the political space in the country. After the President Ali Bongo Ondimba was re-elected in the elections marred by the allegation of ballot rigging and bribery, the military declared the election results illegitimate and invalid, placed him under house arrest and imposed the military rule in Gabon. This was another instance where the French had to face humiliation and defeat.
It will be naïve and bias to hold France responsible for the democratic backsliding in the region, where, till recently, it held great influence over polity, economics, culture and language. However, one cannot possibly invalidate the obvious linkages that can be established. When we look closely at these linkages, we understand the root cause of anti-French protests in Africa.
The relationship between France and West African nations has largely been government-to-government and there has been very little efforts in the direction of public diplomacy. Further, the financial aid is mainly used in fighting terrorism and insurgency, instead of investing in public infrastructure and people’s welfare. The French have aided and armed the governments of these countries. In the name of counter-terrorism and anti-Jihadist struggle, the government authorities have robbed the state-exchequer of millions of dollars that came from French and American aid. The corruption and maladministration have helped the military in winning the support of citizens against the elected governments and the French neo-colonialism.
New “Scramble For Africa”
There have also emerged new players on the African geopolitical scene. China, Russia, USA and Turkey have their eyes set on the large natural reserves and geopolitical significance of the region. For instance, some protesters in an anti-French rally in Niger were seen waving the Russian flag. According to some analysts, Russia is playing an active and substantial role in fuelling the anti-West sentiments in the region. Further, China is doing what the France rarely focused on: large-scale investments in public infrastructure and development of people-to-people contact with Africa. Therefore, there seems to be emerging a 21st-century form of classical “scramble for Africa“
In the rapidly changing geopolitical world, we are witnessing the rise of new actors and the fall of old ones. The Russia-Ukraine war has reinvigorated the Sino-Russia relation dynamics which are now playing out in Africa and Europe. There is also India, whose welfare and people-centric democracy in recent times has brought the country even closer to the people and the government of Africa. On the other hand, we have France- a decaying power in Africa.