By Graham Aiken
In the latest in a series of coups sweeping West Africa, military personnel in Gabon wrested control of the nation from the dynastic Bongo regime on August 28, 2023. This seizure of power marks the 9th coup since 2020 in Western or Central Africa. Notably, each of these coups—with Sudan being the sole exception—have taken place in former French colonies. Among these nations are Burkina Faso (twice), Mali (twice), Guinea, Niger, Chad, and the aforementioned Gabon. While the levels of professed anti-Western and anti-French sentiment vary from regime to regime, many of the juntas’ cited causes for their takeovers— widespread terrorism, economic stagnation, a lack of national sovereignty over politics and resources—bear some connection to French policies towards Africa in the post-colonial era.
To be sure, these coups are not attributable to French intervention in Africa alone; to assert as much unjustly reduces the diverse cultures, conditions, and struggles of the African people to a monolith. This article, however, will primarily focus on the role French neo-colonialism played in creating the conditions for these coups for two primary reasons. Firstly, France’s former role as a predominant colonial power in Africa and its continued influence across the continent in the post-colonial era has deeply shaped the internal politics, cultures, and economies of the African nations it has exploited. Secondly, France’s more conventionally colonial practices in Africa, including its violent toppling of defiant governments and its extensive military presence aimed at cementing a pro-French regional order, are conspicuous causes of recent coups. France has withdrawn or suspended the activities of its troops stationed in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger at the behest of these countries’ respective leaders, making abundantly clear that France’s destabilizing military presence throughout Africa’s Sahel and sub-Saharan regions was a major motivator of their latest coups. By contrast, the connection between these coups and France’s non-military influence on Africa’s political and economic arrangements is less overt. Thus, elucidating this connection is of particular importance for those who wish to understand France’s role in Africa’s ongoing wave of coups.
By the middle of the 20th century, the era of formal European colonialism was on its last legs. The immense costs of World War II combined with the proliferation of national consciousness throughout the Third World made Europe’s colonial possessions too costly and thorny to maintain. However, the same fundamental impulses that originally catalyzed Europe’s colonial conquest—namely, paternalistic racism and the insatiable capitalist thirst for resources, labor, and monetary domination—persisted beyond the period of decolonization. As a result, many of the former colonial powers in Europe sought to maintain their privileges in their previous colonies through more subtle, less outright violent means.
For France, this desire most clearly manifested itself in the practice commonly referred to as Francafrique— the French promotion of political, economic, security, and cultural ties with its former colonies in order to secure its continued domination over them. Far from allowing its former colonies to realize the full extent of their new independence, France pursued a relatively covert yet hands-on approach to influence the domestic political and economic arrangements of these nations. By violently installing and providing security for pro-France African governments, controlling their former colonies’ currencies, and exploiting their former colonies’ natural resources, France ensured that, regardless of their newfound independence, the African nations it once colonized would remain dependent on it both politically and economically.
Latent within these neo-colonial practices, however, is one glaring contradiction: that the theft of a people’s resources, their independence, and their dignity creates conditions so intolerable and degrading that revolt is nearly inevitable. In other words, neo-colonialism creates the conditions for its own demise. Take, for instance, France’s energy policy in the nation of Niger, a central African country whose pro-French leader was deposed this past July. As of 2022, Niger was the world’s 7th largest uranium producer and was France’s 2nd leading supplier of uranium, significantly bolstering France’s large nuclear energy sector. While Niger’s rich natural resources are being utilized by France, less than 20% of the Nigerien population retains access to electricity. This exploitative arrangement, in which resource wealth flows into the hands of local elites and French multinationals instead of the Nigerien people, typifies the “bad…economic governance” that Nigerien Col. Amadou Abdramane has directly cited as a catalyst for the military takeover of the Central African nation.
France’s contributions to the underdevelopment and economic instability that have, in part, contributed to Africa’s latest string of coups are not limited solely to its resource extraction in Niger. Indeed, the focal point around which French and African economic relations involve— fiat money itself— is deeply implicated in France’s neo-colonial practices. Throughout the decolonial period, France signed treaties with its African colonies stipulating that in exchange for independence, they must— among other measures designed to further entrench French control— use a currency minted by the French known as the CFA (African Financial Community) Franc. As of 2023, 14 nations across two blocs— the Central African Economic and Monetary Community and the West African Economic and Monetary Union—use this currency. Twelve of them are former French colonies, and five of the six Francophone African countries that have experienced coups since 2020—Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon, and Chad— use the CFA Franc. Guinea, a former user of the CFA Franc, abandoned the use of the currency in 1959, leading to massive destabilization efforts by France.
While France touts the CFA Franc, which is currently pegged at a fixed exchange rate to the Euro, as a means to promote “stability” in the nations that use it, the use of the CFA Franc severely constrains the development of its African users while helping to line the coffers of French firms and the French government. Because France has devalued the CFA Franc against the Euro—and previously the Franc—its African users have incentive to operate an economy dependent on exports to and capital investment from the Eurozone. While the CFA Franc was nominally intended to promote regional trade blocs across Francophone Africa, evidence suggests that the use of the CFA Franc has spurred little regional trade and growth.
Furthermore, the Central Banks of the two CFA Franc blocs are required to keep 50% of their foreign exchange reserves stored in the French treasury. This means that African countries using the CFA Franc are effectively barred from using half of these assets for domestic development and social spending. France implemented this policy in order to guarantee free convertibility between the Euro and the CFA Franc, but this, too, brings little benefit to regular people in Francophone Africa. Only local elites and French business interests who have a need for streamlined access to currency exchanges benefit from the policy.
In total, then, the CFA Franc can be viewed as a tool that, while bringing macroeconomic stability to the countries that use it, almost exclusively benefits French firms and local African elites. Under the CFA Franc regime, African governments’ ability to finance national development, to use expansionary monetary and fiscal policy to stimulate economic activity, and to make spending decisions independently of the Eurozone is severely constrained. At the same time, the monetary stability provided by the fixed exchange rate between CFA Francs and Euros (alongside the devaluation of the CFA Franc) ensures that CFA Franc countries remain a perpetual outlet of cheap labor and imports for France. This, in turn, facilitates the transfer of profits made in Africa to European banks on the part of French firms and local elites in nations using the CFA Franc.
For all the benefits to French and local elites, however, the use of the CFA Franc has benefited the masses of its nations very little. Of the 14 nations that currently use the CFA Franc, 11 of them are considered “LDCs” (least developed countries) by the UN. Furthermore, 4 nations that use the CFA Franc— Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger— rank among the 10 countries with the lowest HDI (Human Development Index) globally. While the causes of coups are too multifaceted to reduce purely to economic underdevelopment, a lack of economic opportunity greatly contributes to the sociopolitical dysfunction out of which coups tend to arise. In underdeveloped nations, governments often lack the financial means to bankroll social spending and carry out basic governance. This, in turn, tends to generate discontent and feelings of powerlessness amongst the masses of these nations. In social environments characterized by widespread desperation and broken government, violence and social conflict—often in the form of military coups—are far more likely to break out.
In this way, many of the several recent coups that have taken place in Central and Western Africa represent the proverbial chickens coming home to roost for France. Through its colonization of much of Africa and its continued neo-colonial practices, France has contributed significantly to and perpetuated underdevelopment across the continent. In doing so, they have helped to create something of a “perfect storm” for coups to take place throughout its current and former sphere of influence in Africa.
This article is not intended to be a commentary on the political desirability of these developments, as only time will tell if and how the juntas rising to power across Central and West Africa will respond to the needs of their citizenry. Regardless of what ensues, however, one thing is clear: neo-colonialism and Western hegemony are experiencing a reckoning on a scale not seen in decades. The center of global power is shifting, and all signs point to a shift towards the South.
Graham Aiken is a MAPA intern and a third-year student at Northeastern University.