French Colony in Africa: A History of Blood and Brutality -Abdullah Abu Umair


“O France, the time of reproof is over
And we have ended it as a book is ended;

O France, this is the day of reckoning
So prepare to receive from us our answer”

These inflammatory verses from the song “Qassaman” written by Algerian poet Moufdi Zakaria by his own blood on jail’s wall is the only national anthem that has other country’s name in it’s lyrics. Though all the verses of the song have been declared as “immutable”, it merely represents a portrait in the gallery that exhibits the colonial oppression of France in Africa till date. In the age of colonization, that refers to early 16th to late 19th century and which is addressed as “age of discovery” in the Europe, France started to tighten its grip on African continent in the name of Christianization and development. In this process they colonized about 12 million square kilometer of African land that made them the second largest colonial power following the British. In next three centuries French colonial power plundered thousands of artifacts and precious metals worth of billions, unopposed collected natural resources as raw materials to cope up with the increasing demand of industrial revolution. The incredible terror, slavery, rape and brutal genocide over locals are attempted to be removed by the ex-colonial European powers from the history books written by them. The sufferings that the green continent had to endure in its dark ages of colonization can’t be even imagined now.

In both of the world wars millions of the African soldiers from France’s colonies were sent to frontline to absorb the first and the fiercest blows of axis powers in the battlefield. Today’s article is being dedicated to those unnamed, unsung millions of African heroes who were subject to brutal persecution of colonial powers.

France’s economy was badly hit at the end of the World War II. France had to devalue its currency franc before being fixed to the US Dollar under Bretton Woods’s system to support the recovery of the damaged economy. Following this, the colonial currency was devalued more against the franc by the colonial power.

As part of the Bretton Woods agreement, therefore, a new currency was created for those colonies called the ‘Colonies Françaises d’Afrique franc’ or CFA franc. Since the colonies have become independent states, the meaning of CFA has changed, and today it stands for ‘Communauté Financière Africaine’ in West Africa and ‘Coopération Financière en Afrique Centrale’ in the Central African States. The CFA franc used to be the official currency of two economic communities, the ‘Communauté Economique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale’ or CEMAC and the ‘West African Economic and Monetary Union’ or WAEMU. Currently, CEMAC consists of the following countries: Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. WAEMU comprises Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Twelve of these countries are former French colonies. In 2019, WAEMU has been renamed as Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and adopted their new currency as Eco.

When the CFA franc was first created, it was pegged to the French franc at 50 CFA francs to 1 French franc. It was devalued in 1994 and then remained at 100 to 1 Franc till France adopted the Euro in 1999. At that point, the French franc was converted to the Euro at 6.55957 to 1. The CFA franc’s currency exchange rate thus became 655.957 to 1 euro, where it remains pegged to this day. The newly adopted currency of ECOWAS, named Eco, still is pegged to Euro. Whether it’s CFA or ECO, the economic condition of these former French colonies doesn’t differ. All 14 countries are being economically oppressed by France through a deceptive pact.

After the end of World War II, it was clear that France with its fragile political and economic condition due to war will not be able to keep its grip over the colonies longer. Frequent riots in the colonies and the generally agitated population were too much to handle for the colonial administrators, so the colonial powers had to withdraw them. But, France was not ready to give up its most profitable source of income and enormous amount of natural resources.

Guinean people, supporting their leader of independence Ahmed Sékou Touré, voted against the referendum proposed by the French power on whether to join the CFA monetary economic union in 1958. Following the poll result, the then Charles de Gaulle’s government immediately pulled out more than 4,000 civil servants, judges, teachers, doctors, and technicians, instructing them to destroy every single infrastructure, research institute and farm they built in Guinea declaring those the “benefits from the French colonization”. The cattles from the farms were either killed or poisoned.

The reason for this immense act of violence and destruction was committed in order to send a warning to the remaining French colonies that if they decide to reject France it will share the same fate. But the other French colonized countries weren’t intimidated by that for too long, and so in 1960 the Republic of Togo decided that it was not going to be part of the French empire anymore.
The first president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, found a middle ground solution with the French. Aware of the violence and destruction his country would have to suffer for wanting to be independent, he agreed that Togo would pay an annual debt to France for the so-called benefits Togo got from French colonization. Based on this, the “colonial pact” was signed between the 14 colonies and France.

Some of the obligations that France subjected to ex-French colonies under the colonial pact include:

l Paying for the infrastructure France built during colonization.
l Keeping their foreign reserves in the French Treasury.
l France has the first right to purchase any natural resources discovered.
l Senior military officers are trained in France.
l France has the right to deploy its military in the African countries
l Countries have to make French the official language and the medium of instruction in educational institutes.
l Ex-colonies cannot enter into military alliances with other countries without approval from France.
l Ex-colonies are required to join forces with France during war or global crisis.

Not surprisingly, the ‘colonial pact’ wasn’t meant to be the bill of independence for the African people. The amount demanded by France to cover as colonial debt was so huge that the annual repayment of the so called “debt” was close to 40% of the country’s budget in 1963. The financial situation of the newly independent Togo was so unstable that to get out the situation, president Olympio decided to get out the devalued French colonial money CFA and issue the county own currency. A group of French trained and France backed soldiers killed the first elected president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio. Later, many other political leaders who determined to be out of the French colonial empire shared same fate including Modiba Keita, the first president of the Republic of Mali.

The so called “colonial pact” forces the ex French colonies to put 85% of their foreign reserves in France’s central bank under the French Minister of Finance control. The CFA and ECO countries have reach over only 15% of their very own reserve. If any of the country wants to use more than of that, it has to borrow from France’s central bank. The latter never disclosed an exact amount that how much does the CFA economic union pay as “homage”. But, the approximate amount is around $500 Billion a year according to economic intelligence sources.

Apart from neocolonial economic exploitation, the list of the African states where France intervened with itss military power is far lengthier. While in ’60s the French colonies were gaining Independence, France paved its way to keep its influence unchallenged through the colonial pact. In this case, France received a loud backing from the ambivalent US since the latter wanted an Africa free from Soviet influence. These arrangements allowed France to establish itself as a guarantor of stability and hegemony in the continent. Consequently, the French army intervened directly or indirectly backing French trained African Legionnaire for more than 120 times from 1960 to mid 1990.

The coups in Togo (1963), Burkina Faso (1966), Central African Republic (1966), Mali (1968), Benin (1972), Senegal (1962) that overthrew the elected governments of the countries were organized by French Legionnaires and directly backed by French authority. Moreover, Operation Verdier in Benin (1991), Operation Barracuda in 1979 and Operation Almandin in 1996 in Central African Republic, Operation Bison in Chad in 1968, Operation Tacaud in 1978, Operation Manta in 1983 and Operation Epervier in 1986, Operation Oside in 1989 and Operation Azalee in 1995 in Comoros, Operation Leopard in 1978 in Democratic Republic of Congo, Operation Artemis in 2003 in Zaire, Operation Requin in 1990 in Gabon, Operation Licorne in 2002 in Ivory Coast, Operation Lamantin in 1977 in Mauritania, Operation Pelican in 1997 in Republic of Congo and the list is still not finished.

Since 2013, French forces have been operating in Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso to fight militants under Operation Barkhane. But, after nearly a decade battling insurgents in West Africa, France is now winding down its largest overseas military mission and potentially unwinding decades of deep involvement in its former colonies. Many experts are considering this as France’s president Emanuel Macron’s policy to strengthening bondings with Africa instead of exploiting them. And in this process, he supported the phasing out of CFA in ECOWAS bloc countries, some believe.

But, Political scientist Thomas Guenole said otherwise in an interview given to RT France. “The French military presence in Mali is by no means to fight terrorism and to defend democracy. The real motives are not what we are told. It’s simple; it’s to protect the access of certain large French firms to the strategic resources of the Sahel,” he said.

During operation Barkhane, more than 30,000 civilians have been killed while at least 370,000 more have been displaced. Yet, the French troops are being withdrawn amid increasing violence. In less than a year, Mali has experienced military coups two times, Chad’s president Idris deby was killed by the militants, Burkina Faso has seen more than 2,000 civilian deaths in this period of time. Despite heavy intervention of French and local armed forces, the death toll is heavily rising in the Western Africa. It is a common belief in the region that French soldier’s inhumane and careless activities rather paved the militants’ way for recruiting and it’s hurting more rather than helping.

At this time, out of the blue France’s president Macron’s declaration on withdrawal of troops has thrown the civilians’ hope into abyss. With the decision of closing down operation Barkhane, Paris is seeking for its allies and NATO partners to take over Sahelian region under Operation Takuba— Special force to replace Operation Barkhane. But most of the NATO allies and the U.S. Africa command have not said anything yet in favour of joining. Seems the French allies have turned themselves away from fighting for France’s cause. Even the French political experts are considering this as the diplomatic failure.

Reason behind this conclusion brings forth three important probable players of this regional game in near future. Among them China is increasing its economic activities throughout the region rapidly. As example, the amount of investment has been increased to 400% in Niger and 750% in Chad.

In Mali, public opinion increasingly looks at Moscow as a potential security partner if France takes a real step back, said Mady Ibrahim Kante, a researcher at the University of Legal and Political Sciences in Bamako. Recently, Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with several Sahelian countries. This will in turn become an opportunity for Russia to have its influence over the green continent.

The third among these factors is Turkey. It is trying to make its first base of advancement in Senegal where the Turkish investors are becoming loud. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has visited three times in the country in between 2016 to 2020.

Years of exploitation, systematic genocide, neocolonial tax, insolent treaty, economic and military intervention couldn’t help France to tighten its grip over the green continent. The new currency Eco is expected to be the first step towards having a mitigated impact of colonial France. Sudden closure of Operation Barkhane delivers a signal of French military intervention. Former french president Jacques Chirac once acknowledged that “Without Africa, France will slide down into the rank of a third world power.” The statement may seem exaggerating but the effect of losing influence over Africa in near future will be costly for France.

As for Africa, the green continent will revive from the ashes of colonial fire using the unbending proud African spirit. The question is, how fast.

Abdullah Abu Umair regularly writes on international issues, politics etc. His some scholarly articles have been published in dailies, magazines.