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  Opinion   Columnists  07 Oct 2023  Manish Tewari | African coups: China pips France to Big Bully spot

Manish Tewari | African coups: China pips France to Big Bully spot

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Oct 8, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Oct 8, 2023, 12:05 am IST

India can become a true partner to West Africa by treating it as an equal and investing in its development without any strings attached.

Through such partnerships, based on trust and fairness, India can contribute to the development and stability of West Africa. (Photo: Wikipedia)
 Through such partnerships, based on trust and fairness, India can contribute to the development and stability of West Africa. (Photo: Wikipedia)

A recent report in the Washington Post underscored the ostensibly direct involvement of the British royal family in the grotesque practice of slave trade. The royals of Great Britain are not the only ones complicit in the rapacious exploitation of the African and Asian continents. Many other royal households in Europe derive their continued wealth from their past involvement in such and other dreadful atrocities. The Europeans have unfortunately never paid reparations or apologised sincerely ever to the peoples of Asia and Africa for their extractive and exploitative occupation that drained the human and material wealth of these lands for over two centuries or more.

The recent coups across a host of West African nations colloquially referred to as the coup belt have once again focused attention on continued European interference in Africa. There is another player whose equally predatory behavior is finally now raising hackles across Africa and that is the People’s Republic of China. However, first an overview of France, for the role of France in Africa, a leading European colonialist of the yesteryears, with a continuing African hangover, may just be in order.

Niger has become the penultimate country in West Africa where the army has seized control after Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani’s successful coup d’état. Niger follows Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Chad and was succeeded by Gabon in late August 2023. They are all former French colonies. Sudan, a former British colony, had also witnessed a military overthrow in October 2021. 

Interestingly, in all these countries except Sudan, the ostensible raison d’être for the coup is the continuing French economic and military influence over the region. There has been an upsurge of anti-French sentiments across its former colonies in Africa. 

West African countries have demanded that French troops leave the region and stop interfering in their internal affairs. Consequently, there have been protests and attacks on French embassies, and military barracks. Due to the increasing animosity from the local populace in Mali and Niger, the French were compelled to leave their embassies and scale down or mitigate their military presence in the region. 

Before understanding the reason for this uptake in such anti-French sentiments in the region, and its possible implications on India, some historical context is imperative. The French empire was one of the most powerful empires in human history. At its zenith it controlled almost ten per cent of the world’s land area, stretching all the way from Southeast Asia to West Africa.

The French influence, particularly in West Africa, was predominant in comparison to any other European power. Almost 17 modern-day nations of West Africa were colonies of the empire. France oversaw a rather ruthless occupation of this region as was the case with other colonial powers, too, of those times. It exploited the human and natural resources of these areas for the benefit of the “motherland”.

Post Second World War, as decolonisation commenced, the French apprehending that they may lose these regions coerced its colonies to sign a “Cooperation Agreement”. Accordingly, in exchange for foreign aid the now-erstwhile colonies were compelled to provide France access to its natural resources and allow it to maintain a military foothold in the region. Moreover, the French insisted that, rather than having their own currency, they were to use the franc of the Financial Community of Africa (FCA) that was pegged to the franc (and subsequently the euro). This ensured a continuing economic leverage over these countries.

Though the French ordained these measures were optional, any defiance was met with strict retaliation. When under President Ahmed Sékou Touré Guinea decided to withdraw from the FRA and the Cooperation Agreement the French cut off all foreign aid to Guinea and did everything to destabilise that government. Moreover, in order to ensure that the region doesn’t fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, the Americans extensively supported the French in their colonial pursuits. This unofficial policy of the French to ensure that its former colonies would remain dependent on France and be maximally advantageous to the French was known as Françafrique. 

The rise of China in Africa has had a significant influence on shifting the balance of power in Francophone Africa. France's share of African trade has declined considerably. China has filled the vacuum by becoming Africa's largest trading partner. Moreover, the inability of French forces to combat the rising Islamic radicalism in the region, along with increasing allegations of corruption against Francophile elites, has intensified anti-French sentiments in the region.

 As a consequence, countries across Africa are now opting to hire Russia's Wagner Group that provides the requisite military muscle without imposing any political or diplomatic imperatives. Essentially, they are guns for hire — carpetbaggers largely content as long their monetary contractual obligations are honored.

President Macron's recent efforts to ease tensions and offer concessions to the region are seen as too little, too late to address the issue. Many mega economic players in Africa are now supportive of military coups that are surreptitiously if not allegedly sponsored by Russia and China as an alternative to the Françafrique system.

There has been a growing demand from the West, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to impose sanctions on Niger and other countries where military coups have occurred. Furthermore, there is an increasing call for military intervention in these countries by other ECOWAS member states. If this were to occur, it might potentially ignite a full-scale war in West Africa.

The changing circumstances in the region have opened a Pandora's Box for India. As part of India's engagement with ECOWAS it had in 2006 provided a Line of Credit (LoC) worth $250 million to the group. Furthermore, India has made significant investments in the energy, telecom and transportation industries of ECOWAS countries. Any escalation of geopolitical tensions in the region will pose a significant threat to Indian investments in the region. Moreover further augmentation of China’s economic and military influence in Africa including establishment of Chinese military bases would only work to India’s detriment.

The European model still anchored in colonialism, extraction and oppression and the Chinese model predicated upon debt trap diplomacy should not be the sole alternatives for Africa.

India can become a true partner to West Africa by treating it as an equal and investing in its development without any strings attached. Through such partnerships, based on trust and fairness, India can contribute to the development and stability of West Africa, paving the way for a more prosperous future for both. India's initiative to include the African Union in the G-20 can serve as an excellent springboard for this endeavour.

Tags: manish tewari, west africa, china