The Battle for Africa

Sarkozy meets Bongo

Sarkozy meets Bongo

The scars of Francafrique are evident for all to see.  Perhaps the greatest irony of Francois Mitterrand’s fourteen years in power was the fact that, despite railing against its evils in opposition, he didn’t dismantle a post-colonial system whereby political control was exercised thanks to arms deals, political influence and blatant corruption – all, supposedly, in the national interest.

Those scars continued to show during the five year term of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who, whilst decrying the apologetic stance of the France of the past, still stood by questionable dictators on the continent.

Yet the progress made by Africa, despite the retrograde European policies in their regard, towards democracy is considerable.  The question of the role that European powers, and in particular the former colonial powers, can play in harnessing that progress, is at the forefront of the current conflict in Mali.  What can France contribute to the struggle for democracy and self-determination in Africa and what does its current intervention in Mali tell us about President Hollande’s attitude towards Europe’s neighbour?

Going In, But Getting Out?

Announcing the intervention of French ground troops into Mali, Hollande stated that the measure was temporary, chiefly linked to the advance by Islamist forces on the capital city of Bamako.  The French were on the ground, he said, to drive back, to stabilise, allowing Malian forces to take over, and then would leave.  Comments by some, such as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a former President who had his own connection with African dictators, who criticised the move as neo-colonial, suggested suspicion at the desire, or perhaps the ability of French forces to make a hasty withdrawal once the initial victory was assured.

Now weeks later, the quick win in the initial battle has had casualties, but has been hailed as a success.  The hard part, holding the territory won, fighting off the insurgency and ultimately creating conditions to allow a free and fair Presidential election in Mali (which would be its first) begins now.  Despite suggestions to the contrary by Hollande and his Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, this will be a long task, and it will be bloody.

It will also be the first time that France has done African nation building along a 21st Century model.  Previous interventions were done to prop up aging kleptocrats, or limited to peace-keeping with significant UN and African support.  This time round there is little African desire to support French troops, and UN forces have been notably absent.  Despite France having the UN’s blessing for its ground intervention, there will be no international force, and no African force, to take the place of French troops in the foreseeable future.  An exit depends largely on France’s ability to train Malian forces to cope on their own, or with limited technical support.

Building Bridges

A key element of the early success of France’s intervention was the change in position of Algeria.  Long the weeping sore of France’s post-colonialist relationships, Algeria has a special animosity towards France, due to a bitter and violent war of independance, continued meddling and the after-effects of a civil war in the 1990s which killed hundreds of thousands.  The hard lives lived by many Algerian immigrants in France, and the social exclusion faced by many of their children, add to an antagonism between the two powers. François Hollande spent part of his early career, including a stint in military service, in Algeria, and has a special fondness for the country.  During his public life he discreetly worked his Algerian connections and many suspected that his attention to Algeria would bring certain breakthroughs.

At the beginning of the French campaign in Mali, Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister, announced to general surprise that the Algerians had authorised the use of their airspace to allow the French to support their ground troops.  This seemingly small act is a huge step forward (and makes supporting the troops logistically much easier, taking the pressure off the French troops in N’Djamena, Chad).  The Algerian government were reportedly furious that their support was made public (assisting the French does not play well in Algerian politics).  But then the terrorist attack in Southern Algeria shifted the focus away from supporting the French to combating the terrorists, and took pressure off the Algerians.

The Future of Nation Building

This first indication of a wider regional consensus around combating the terrorists in Algerian is a sign of welcome progress, and perhaps an indication of the future of French peace keeping and nation building in Africa.  What did for the Iraqi intervention by the Americans, apart from a woeful lack of planning and thought, was the antagonism of the neighbours.  Mali’s neighbours, nervous about terrorism but also the delicate balance of power in the region, need to be held together in support of the goal of stablisation and increased democratisation.  Algeria appears to recognise that it has more to gain that to lose in this process.  If France can hold together that fractious coalition, it can contribute to a new prosperous future in West Africa, and create a new template for nation building for the world.

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