The (Possible) Future of Françafrique

By Philip Giurlando

The overthrow of Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum on July 26th, 2023, captured the attention of commentators around the world, in part because of what it signified. Bazoum was democratically elected, although in a disputed election, and he had aligned Niger with France specifically and Europe generally, signing multiple agreements intended to develop and exploit natural resources, fight jihadists, and control irregular migration. The military officials who overthrew and replaced Bazoum, led by the former chief of the president’s personal security entourage, General Abdourahamane Tchiani, were not only accused of undermining constitutional rule, they also seemed committed to changing Niger’s international posture in relation to major powers, by weakening ties with France and Europe while deepening relations with China and Russia. Moreover, this was not an isolated political event, as the coup followed similar ones among Niger’s neighbours, including Mali in 2021, Burkina Faso in 2022, and Guinea and Gabon in 2023. 

For some commentators, it is not a coincidence that these events occurred in former French colonies; they have been characterized by instability and underdevelopment related to, some argue, French neo-colonialism. Many commentators said this signified the end of the Françafrique, the agglomeration of francophone countries, mostly in the Sahel, which maintained privileged military, economic, and cultural ties with Paris and, by extension, Europe, after the period of independence. However, it will be highlighted below that it is too early to write the Françafrique’s obituary, as economic, cultural, and some political ties may remain in place, at least for the foreseeable future. 

La Françafrique’s Multiple Suitors 

France and European countries are no longer the only important actors in Francophone Africa. Almost all countries in the region have signed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, putting China as the largest creditor and investor, surpassing the West and the IMF. Russia is also a significant player, especially in the provision of security for the authorities and to fight jihadists. The US, as well, is a major actor, especially in Niger, with whom it coordinates its anti-terrorism efforts. Some middle powers are also trying to get a piece of the pie, such as Turkey, which has won many lucrative contracts to build infrastructure (e.g. roads and airports) and is financing schools and hospitals. In some cases, this is helping to win the hearts and minds of locals in viewing positively these new relationships.  

External powers’ different reactions to the coup in Niger highlight their diverse interests. Paris unambiguously called for the restoration of Bazoum, and even threatened military action to achieve this objective—a not empty threat, given that 1,300 French troops were stationed in the country at the time. Washington was more constrained, not recognizing the events as a coup, as this would have undermined its own military assets, which include 1,000 soldiers in Agadez. China, consistent with its tradition of non-intervention, said “we believe that Niger and regional countries have the wisdom and capability to find a political solution to the current situation,” while Turkey said they are following the events “with deep concern.” Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) was divided: Nigeria and Ivory Coast, the two most powerful members, wanted military action, while others were more reticent. An agreement was reached to impose financial and economic sanctions, which seem to have backfired: on Jan 28th, 2024, Niger, as well as Mali and Burkina Faso, announced that they planned to withdraw from ECOWAS.

Eventually, French forces were kicked out of Niger, exactly as they had in Mali and Burkina Faso. On balance, then, France’s and Europe’s position in the Sahel has arguably weakened.  

Françafrique is Not Dead: The Economic Revelators

This does not mean, however, that we are witnessing the end of the Françafrique, especially when we consider how multilayered it is. One of the more important features is the franc Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA), the official currency of 15 former French colonies, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Although these countries have expelled French troops, their expressed wish to replace the CFA with a national currency will be much more complicated, as economic agents, public and private, have much to lose in such an outcome. The West African CFA’s central bank is in Dakar and is managed in cooperation with the French treasury, which guarantees the currency’s stability. Crashing out of the system would mean replacing it with a new currency, which would almost certainly be devalued, leading to inflation and perhaps barter. In turn, this could increase transaction costs domestically and internationally and further weaken their delicate economic position. In practice, this gives France and its allies in the Sahel some leverage in future negotiations.

The Organization Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) is another feature that helps to bind former colonies to France. Paris commits annually 600 million euros to fund various activities including major diplomatic summits, the promotion of development, democracy and human rights, and the adoption of common positions in global governance institutions, including the UN, where it has observer status. For underdeveloped states in the Sahel, membership includes opportunities to gain privileged access to world-class universities in France and Quebec.

Thus, although there appears to be a rupture in military ties, financial, economic, and cultural ones remain in place. Moreover, other countries in francophone Africa, including key members such as Senegal and Ivory Coast, are still committed to the present system. This suggests that the Françafrique will continue for the foreseeable future. Rather than its collapse—which has been proclaimed multiple times, but never realized—the more likely scenario is that African member states will use it to their advantage, even while they develop closer ties to Western rivals such as China and Russia. 

This is a shrewd strategy given the geopolitical competition between the current great powers. As many African leaders recognize, policymakers in Western capitals, especially Washington, but including Paris and Brussels, are obsessed with Russia and China and are willing to expend large amounts of resources to stymie their influence. Meanwhile, Russia and China are seeking opportunities for their firms to gain from the fall of Western-aligned African leaders. For Niger, as well as Mali and Burkina Faso, therefore, completely severing ties with France and the West may not be in their interest; rather, relations with Western powers can be strategically deployed to increase their leverage in relation to other powers who are increasingly active in the region.  

Philip Giurlando is Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Department of International Studies Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. His research interests include populism and international affairs and the formation and consequences of inter-state hierarchies. He has most recently published in International AffairsInternational Studies Review, and Comparative European Politics.

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