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The West African coups and the CFA franc – anti-French feelings exploited by military juntas

By Salvador Ousmane

D 8 juin 2024     H 22:14     A Salvador Ousmane     C 0 messages

Analysing the recent anti-French coups across West Africa, Salvador Ousmane argues that opposition to French imperialism is not a panacea for the region’s poverty and crises. Ousmane also argues that calls for a new currency are overstated, and instead urges collective action against the military juntas and old ruling elites across the region by the working poor in their trade unions.

The key problems for the working poor in most countries across West Africa are the same, poverty, inequality, and corruption. However, the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have managed to divert attention from these key challenges by whipping up anti-French feeling over the presence of French troops and the continued use of the CFA franc. As a result, they have gained a measure of popular support.

There is no military solution to insurgency

Across the Sahel, the all-pervasive poverty, made worse by climate change, was the underlying reason behind the armed insecurity led by Islamic militants. It was the failure of previous governments to quell such violence that led to the military coups in recent years.

French troops also failed to contain the Islamic militants. This failure and isolated incidents where French forces shot dead local people led to widespread opposition to the French military and their eventual exit from these countries. Yet this enforced exit demonstrates that their national governments had far more control over the French forces than many people imagined.

However, military solutions were never likely to be successful. The underlying causes of poverty, inequality and corruption must be addressed before insecurity can be significantly under-minded.

Anti-French campaigns bring juntas popular support

The military juntas have benefited from, and encouraged, the wave of anti-French feelings and this also helped the opposition to win the presidential elections in Senegal in March. Anti-French nationalism has provided a certain focus for the bitterness of the mass of workers, peasants, and the middle classes over their economic plight. But it also restricts the political demands of these groups to those demands that do not ruffle the feathers of the ruling classes across the region.

Expelling the French military from these countries does nothing to reduce poverty, inequality, or corruption. In addition, there is an ideological conservatism which accompanies these anti-Western feelings. So, there are moves against women’s rights, and against protections for LGBT people etc. Opposition to French imperialists in West Africa is certainly not necessarily progressive.

CFA franc now controlled in West Africa

The second issue which has emerged is the CFA franc, the currency that remains a hang-over from the colonial era in the French speaking countries of West Africa. The military juntas have also gained a level of popular support from promises to move away from the CFA and this was one of the main planks in the success of the opposition in the Senegalese elections earlier this year. The currency clearly remains a symbol of the former colonial power.

However, at least for West African countries, almost all former aspects of the CFA were removed in May 2022 when the remaining foreign reserves, previously held by the French Central Bank, were repatriated to the common central bank, the BCEAO, in Dakar. In addition, French representation was reduced to only one member on the 27-person Monetary Policy Committee. There is now no representation at all from France on the main board of the BCEAO Central Bank.

Does this finally signify the decolonisation of the currency ?

Rich benefit from CFA franc

However, there are benefits, especially for the rich elite, from the common currency and its parity with the euro. It means the imported goods for the rich are cheaper, it is easier for them to transfer their looted funds out of the country and their savings do not dwindle due to the low rate of inflation.

The workers of Senegal, at least, also benefit from this low inflation as the minimum wage, for example in Nigeria – where I am writing this blogpost – has not increased over the last five years, but over the same period inflation in Senegal has been the same as Nigeria over the last six months. Economic stability is a major factor in the quality of life of the working poor in the region.

The anti-French coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have shown that they can successfully demand that French soldiers leave their country (and more recently in Niger which also saw the forced removal of US troops). These new governments are also in a position to break from the link to the Euro, if the governments decide, but given the advantages indicated above they may not actually decide to go ahead with these changes.

West Africa has gone beyond flag independence

In 1960, when countries of West Africa gained independence from France, this may have just been flag independence, but nearly 65 years later things have changed. Even in terms of trade, France no longer dominates. In the two main economies of the region, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, the largest trading partners are now China and India rather than France.

French multinational firms still form 10 of the 20 largest firms in Senegal, so they clearly remain highly significant, but they no longer totally dominate the economy. For example, the 13 largest French controlled firms only provide 3.3% of formal employment in Senegal. So less than one worker in 20 in the formal sector in Senegal works for a French controlled company. This is a major change from 1960.

Benefits of Françafrique for local rulers

Our understanding needs to be nuanced, as the relationship between France and its former colonies in West Africa can also be extremely beneficial for the leaders of these countries, if they are prepared to support France in international arenas.

So, for example, the then French President, François Hollande admitted that the French made arrangements for former president Blaise Compaoré to leave Burkina Faso for the Ivory Coast when he was overthrown in 2014 by a popular uprising. In 2019, the French foreign minister admitted that French warplanes had struck a rebel convey in Chad to prevent a coup d’état against the former President Idriss Deby. France then supported the current dictator when he took power after the death of his father two years later. In Côte d’Ivoire, the president Alassane Ouattara has received firm support from France after being elected in contested elections for an unconstitutional third term in December 2020. A former French president attended the swearing-in ceremony.

No doubt Françafrique is fighting hard to hold on.

But swapping French and US troops for mercenaries from Russia will not reduce insecurity across the Sahel. The root causes of poverty, inequality and corruption must be addressed by robust trade union action, and the mobilisation of working people. Across the region, changing the currency or supporting an apparently anti-imperialist coup will not ensure the poor majority can buy enough food to eat.

Salvador Ousmane is a Nigerian socialist who has spent years involved in activism, socialist organising and the development of radical organisations and ideas for an anti-capitalist future in Africa.

Featured Photograph : Banner at a demonstration against the coup d’état, held on 26 March in Bamako, Mali in 2012. The sign reads, ‘Military to the front lines, power to the people’.

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