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Global Left Midweek – Africa and France

A deep dive into the many sharpening contradictions in de-colonized Africa

A protester holds a sign that reads, 'No to France the thief of Africa' as people gather to show their support to Burkina Faso's new military leader Ibrahim Traore, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Jan. 20, 2023. Credit, Reuters

Portside note: For this week only, Global Left Midweek is shifting its usual format to bring your attention to this important article on the crises facing Africa and France, as the vestiges of colonialism crumble to dust. It was translated from French by Portside. You can read the original, with footnotes and charts, here.

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian historian, political theorist, and public intellectual who is a research professor in history and politics at the Wits Institute for Social and Economy Research at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

Africa-France: nine theses on the end of a cycle

Achille Mbembe / Le Grand Continent (Paris)

How should we interpret the long-term transformations that are currently taking place in Africa? How do internal factors enter in? What are the key contradictions induced by the new political economy now in the process of crystallizing on the continent? [...] This exercise in collective intelligence is all the more urgent if we are to address the issue of security, peace and stability on the continent in the most useful way possible, and also to open up new avenues for future relations between Africa, France and Europe.

1. Africa is turning on itself

It is important to affirm from the outset that the seizure of power by the military in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon, as well as other more or less bloody conflicts in the African territories formerly colonized by France, are only symptoms of a deep shift that has long been hidden, whose sudden acceleration takes many observers by surprise. In formulating a policy for the future, these symptoms should not be mistaken for causes.

In order to avoid making such a mistake, we must return to a historical perspective. In this regard, many historians want to see, in recent or current events, the last agonized jolts of the French model of incomplete decolonization. These struggles are, for the most part, carried out by eminently endogenous forces. If anything, they herald the end of a cycle that began in the aftermath of the Second World War and has lasted almost 80 years.

This historical perspective enables us to understand in context a dogma that many continue to nurture, namely the permanence of a system of relations between Africa and France that combines official mechanisms, either assumed or claimed, with shadowy logics. Erected by France against the African peoples, with the consent of some of their elites, Françafrique continues to prosper despite promises of a break with the past. This argument is far from totally false. But equally true - and decisive - is the fact that despite the permanence of many vestiges of a bygone era, France is no longer in a position to make every decision in its former colonial possessions. Most of the military, monetary or cultural tools it uses to maintain its presence and safeguard its interests in Africa are now obsolete or lack legitimacy. It’s time to get rid of them. [...]

In the historic turning point now underway, France, like its other competitors, is no longer more than a secondary player. Not because it has been ousted by Russia or China, scarecrows that its enemies and local critics know only too well how to conjure up in order to hold it to ransom; but because, in an unprecedented and perilous move towards refocusing, the full extent of which many are struggling to grasp, Africa has entered another historical cycle. Driven by forces that are essentially endogenous, it is in the process of turning in on itself. In the new historical cycle, the struggles between Africans themselves and between the ruling classes and their societies will be more decisive than any external factor. If we want to understand the deep-rooted causes of this shift, the multifaceted struggles it entails and its long-term implications, we need to get away from conventional wisdom, change our analytical framework and start from other premises.

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Above all, we must begin by taking seriously the understanding that African societies themselves now have of their own historical life. The continent is undergoing multiple and simultaneous transformations. Of varying scale, they affect all levels of society. In concrete terms, they result in a cascade of ruptures. At the top, the ruling elites who had profited from the colonial revolution sought to consolidate family fortunes and secure rents by privatising the State. From below, the struggle for access to the means of existence intensifies. With the advent of a multi-party system, mass issues are back while new inequalities continue to grow and new conflicts appear, especially between genders and generations.

The arrival in the public arena of those born between 1990 and 2000 in particular, who grew up in a time of unprecedented economic crisis and insecurity, is a pivotal event in this respect. It coincides with the technological awakening of the continent, the growing influence of diasporas, an acceleration in the processes of artistic and cultural creativity, the intensification of practices of mobility and movement, and the relentless search for alternative models of development drawing on the richness of local traditions. As a result of the gaping demographic divide, Africas demographic, socio-cultural, economic and political issues are now intersecting, as evidenced by the challenge of the political and institutional structures that emerged in the 1990s, changes in family authority, the silent rebellion of women and a worsening of generational conflicts.

2. From pan-Africanism to good governance

This first groundswell has been joined by another, the rise of neo-sovereignism, an impoverished and adulterated version of pan-Africanism.

This trend dates back to the 1990s, when, under the so-called structural adjustment plans and on the initiative of international financial institutions, heavily indebted African states were called upon to unleash market forces. The idea was simple, at the time. The strategy of increasing public and social spending financed by debt had shown its limits. The idea was to revitalise stagnating capitalism by using, paradoxically, a new form of functional state.

In order to breathe new life into capitalism in Africa, states had to be brought into line with the financial markets and the continent had to be more closely integrated into the global economy. Above all, it meant freeing up the processes of economic value creation. Thus, in the context of globalisation, the choice was made to stabilise the economy, consolidate state finances, restore solvency and rebuild the institutional and material infrastructures of economic prosperity. At the political level, the so-called good governance approach prevailed.

In a word, the primary objective of the ideology of good governance was to impose and protect, at the national level, a free global market by using states as the engine of this transition. Such a state had to be strong, that is, capable of reducing the extent of the social controls on capital. It had to be able to finance public spending not through more debt, but through taxation, by tightening the distribution policy for the benefit of companies in the long term. In the paradigm of good governance, it was legitimate that, since their solvency had ceased to inspire confidence, indebted states should be placed under the surveillance of the international financial industry in proportion to their indebtedness, in a structural dependence on their creditors. National governments were now to serve as relays for implementing reforms at the national level.

From this point of view, good governance was a political and economic theory based on market freedom. This freedom had to be guaranteed by the state, which could legitimately use state means of coercion to achieve it. In Africa, the notion of a free economy dependent on a strong state very quickly degenerated into a justification for states capable of resorting to anti-democratic practices. This vast social engineering effort had two direct consequences: the neutralisation of the democratic agenda, despite it being one of the great aspirations of social movements in the early 1990s; and the endorsement, including by international institutions, of a multipartyism without democracy, that many researchers at the time described as an authoritarian restoration. The second consequence was the emergence, in the 1990s, of the neo-sovereignist movement.

3. From good governance to neo-sovereignism

Originally, neo-sovereignism is an intellectual response to the diktat of international financial institutions. In particular, it takes the form of a refutation of the World Banks theses on the conditions for African growth and calls for an endogenous model of development on the continent. It also appears in the form of a critique of liberal democracy itself and its feasibility in the African context.

Around 2010, with the defeat of second-generation citizens' movements, a populist version of neo-sovereignism emerged. In the current context of ideological disarray, moral disorientation and crisis of meaning, this is less a coherent political vision than a grand fantasy. In the eyes of its proponents, it acts first and foremost as the catalyst of an emotional and imaginary community, and this is what gives it all its strength, but also its burden of toxicity. Its main battalions are recruited from the fringes of continental youth present on social networks, but relatively few from within formal institutions. It also draws on the immense reservoir of diasporas. Often poorly integrated into the countries where they was born and raised, and sometimes treated as second-class citizens by the countries that welcomed them, many young people of African descent readily equate their ordeals with the great post-war pan-Africanist battles against colonialism and racial segregation.

Yet neo-sovereignty is not the exact equivalent of pan-Africanism. What has not been sufficiently emphasised is the extent to which anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism contributed to the deepening of three major pillars of modern consciousness: democracy, intrinsic human rights and the idea of universal justice. But neo-sovereignism is precisely at odds with these three fundamental elements. First, taking refuge behind the supposed primordial character of races, its supporters reject the concept of a universal human community. They operate by identifying a scapegoat that they erect as an absolute enemy against whom anything goes. Even if it means replacing them with Russia or China, neo-sovereignists believe that it is by pushing the old colonial powers out of the continent, starting with France, that Africa will complete its emancipation. They are also opposed to democracy, which they see as a gimmick, a Trojan horse for international interference. They prefer the cult of strong men, proponents of virility and critics of homosexuality. Hence the acceptance of military coups and the reaffirmation of force and brutality as legitimate ways of exercising power.

This populist version of neo-sovereignism is rampant in a context marked by a significant weakening of civil society organisations and the collapse of intermediary bodies, against a background of the intensifying struggles for livelihoods and the unprecedented interweaving of class, gender and generational conflicts. In a perverse result of the long years of authoritarian deep freeze, informal approaches have spread to many areas of social and cultural life. A striking sign of this development is that individual charisma and material wealth are now favoured at the expense of the slow and patient work of building institutions, while transactional and clientelist visions of political involvement are taking precedence over voluntary work.

Faced with a tangle of seemingly inextricable crises, electoral democracy no longer appears to be an effective lever for the profound changes to which the new generations aspire. Permanently rigged, the elections themselves have become the cause of bloody conflicts. Recent democratic experiences have done little to curb corruption. On the contrary, they have fed on it, legitimising the perpetuation in power of old elites who are also responsible for the current impasses. Under these conditions, coups détat increasingly appear to be the only way to bring about change, to ensure a form of alternation at the top of the state and to speed up the generational transition.

Disorientated and without a future, a significant proportion of young people born in the 1990s and 2000s experience their condition as an interminable blockade that can only be ended by violence and direct action. This desire for cathartic, even purgative, violence is gaining ground at a time of extraordinary intellectual stagnation among the political and economic elites and, more generally, the middle and professional classes. Added to this are the effects of mass cretinisation brought about by social networks. In most countries, the media sphere and public debates are colonised by representatives of a generation plagued by functional illiteracy, a direct consequence of decades of under-investment in education and other social sectors.

What else can we say about the absence or narrowing of autonomous spaces for alternative reflection likely to enrich public deliberation? In fact, the entire sub-region has been ignored or even abandoned by the major international private foundations that, since the 1990s, have contributed to the consolidation of civil societies in Africa. Hasn’t the bulk of the international funding in support of democracy been allocated as a priority to English-speaking Africa?

4. Generations sacrificed

In addition to these sociological markers, it is important to consider the political economy itself. In all African countries, the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first have been marked by an intensification of predation and extractivism.

A frantic race to privatise soil and subsoil resources has begun. Important regional markets for violence have emerged, involving all kinds of actors in search of profit, from multinationals to private military security services. Their main function is to exchange protection for privileged access to scarce resources. Thanks to these new forms of barter, Africas ruling classes are able to maintain control over the state, secure major areas of extraction, militarise trade with distant countries and consolidate their links with transnational networks of finance and profit.

This new phase in the history of private accumulation on the continent has been matched by the brutalization and downgrading of entire sections of society, and the establishment of a regime of confinement that is more insidious than in the colonial era. The main victims of this downgrading and the confinement that goes with it are the social cadets [family members deprived of inheritance claims], a waste of men and women condemned to perilous migration. It also led to pronounced social fractures. The generation sacrificed during the period of structural adjustment (1985-2000) has been joined by another, blocked within by a rapacious gerontocracy, and barred from external mobility as a result of European anti-migration policies and archaic border management inherited from colonisation. Thus, the child soldiers of yesterdays predatory wars were replaced by crowds of adolescents and minors who today have no hesitation in cheering on the putschists - when they are not in the front ranks of the urban riots and looting that follow.

5. Coups détat for nothing?

The coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger or the palace revolution in Gabon will not be the last. It would be an illusion to think that they have put an end to democratic regimes.

They have not. The facts that paved the way for these events have been established by research since the 1990s. Very early on, numerous works described the contradictory dynamics and ambivalences that have characterised the trajectories of democratisation on the continent. They also highlighted the long-term restructuring that has been made possible by the opening up to pluralism. Despite the popular unrest, however, there has been no radical upheaval in the balance of power between the state and society. In some cases, transitions were simply aborted and the status quo ex ante was more or less restored. In other cases, the aborted civil changeover and the end of the democratic experiment were followed by a long cycle of repression and an exacerbation of predatory practices. However, despite the muzzling of frontal opposition, the most repressive practices were able to coexist with the dynamics of pluralisation.

On the other hand, the coups détat will not necessarily put an end to the logic of predatory practices. All African states are characterized by a more or less strong grip of the military on positions of power and accumulation. In many places, state violence is exercised through the police apparatus, paramilitary organisations and business circles, which are themselves linked to criminal circles. The relative autonomy of the security apparatuses encourages their involvement in all kinds of trafficking, and turns them into legitimate economic operators.

6. The struggle for a new African order

We have just shown how, thanks to the structural adjustment plans of the 1990s and the reforms under good governance, we have moved from military and single-party regimes to a multiparty without democracy. In response to the failure of the transitions of the 1990s and the attempts at authoritarian restoration, authoritarian counter-movements began to appear at the turn of the 2010s, at the same time as the so-called citizen movements. In most cases, these have taken the form of a defence of local and group-interested orders. Good governance reforms notwithstanding, much of Africa entered a period of institutional stagnation from the 2000s onwards. During this period, as the waves of protest waned, the ruling classes sought to free themselves from a web of obligations, apart from those they had chosen themselves. Where they had acquired sufficient autonomy, they used a considerable amount of political repression within their respective borders.

However, the political economy of the state imposed in the early 1990s has run out of steam. This explains the resurgence of tensions within the ruling blocs. It also explains the exacerbation of criminal and punitive practices, the resurgence of ethnicity and factional struggles, the worsening of rentier management of the economy to the detriment of competing networks, and even political assassinations. Another African state order is in the making. It will take a long time to crystallise. Two countries in particular have shown the way: Ethiopia and Sudan. They each tried to shape a nation through the war. This emerging state and social order will be determined in large part by endogenous forces. This new order will be made up of blocs of states that will have to coexist together. Not all of them will be able to claim to be democratic states.

The battle to crystallise this order will be a long one. But it has already begun. Not all existing national states will survive it.  Nor will the borders inherited from colonisation. Several configurations will emerge. It is therefore important to identify the tectonic plates, and especially where they rub against each other, the areas of future conflict. In the immediate term, the danger is that Africa will be transformed into a place of confrontation between powers on the decline and others on the rise, in the wider context of the global conflict currently unfolding between the United States and China.

For example, the European Union dreams of stability where the younger generations of Africans, tired of waiting, swear by radical change. Paradoxically, what many European leaders call instability is precisely what is being celebrated today in African capitals and deep in the villages, where the desire for coups détat (in Cameroon, Côte dIvoire, Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere) has replaced the desire for democracy in its electoral form. Why? Because for many people, coups détat appear - wrongly - to be the only way to break the deadlock. Furthermore, over the last thirty years, support for substantive democracy in Africa has not been one of the EUs strategic objectives. This is still the case. Europe has never ceased to endorse the kind of multiparty system without democracy that has become the norm against which the younger generations are now rising up. Europe is not primarily interested in the articulated interests of Africans themselves. Europe has its own interests, starting with migration control, border management, the fight against terrorism, and the fight against the presence of Russia and China on the continent.

7. A substantive democracy

Repeating the same response to each putsch, namely economic sanctions accompanied by the threat of military intervention, is hardly sustainable. Such coercive measures simply do not attract the support of African populations. Trying to justify them in the name of defending the constitutional order ultimately undermines the cause of democracy and only serves to consolidate the neo-sovereignist current, which will only become more radical. On the other hand, it is important to understand why, in a spectacular reversal against the 1990s, the demand for putsches replaced the demand for democracy. 

Instead of fetishising elections, we need to focus on a substantive democracy, which will have to be built step by step and over time, by rearming thought, by rehabilitating the desire for history instead of the desire for new masters, and by drawing on the collective intelligence of African men and women. It is this intelligence that must be awakened, nurtured and supported. This is how new horizons of meaning can emerge, since democracy in this planetary era only makes sense if it is ordered towards a higher purpose, which is the repair and care of the living.

Such work involves inventing new ways of relating to each other on the ground, on every site. So its not just a question of relieving debts, increasing market share, building dams, bridges, schools, clinics and wells, or financing projects, but of initiating a long-term grassroots movement backed by new social, intellectual and cultural coalitions. 

8. An appropriate distance: saving the relationship between France and the African continent

France has a place in this project to reanimate the movement, provided that it sheds the trappings of the past and its illusions of grandeur. In practice, it is faced with three options. The first is the choice of colonial stubbornness. Taken to its logical conclusion, such blindness should lead to repeated military interventions or, at the very least, to an endless series of external operations conducted by special forces. It is difficult to see what the long-term objectives of this policy of force would be. In the current climate, it would be the exact equivalent of (self-)sabotage.

The second option is to break away unilaterally. This scenario was implemented in 1958 in Guinea at the time of decolonisation. A soft” version is underway in Mali, where France is no longer at the centre of the game. For the time being, it is reflected as concrete action on the ground in a beginning of a drying up of rents of all kinds (military rents, official development aid rents and humanitarian rents). For the moment, it is difficult to measure the consequences on both sides. Once the purge is over, may opportunities arise to rebuild something different, on a different basis?

The third option, which the times demand, is to consciously forge another path, that of appropriate distance. This would make it possible to salvage what could still be salvaged on both sides. A long period of reinvention could then begin, with new cultural, intellectual, social and economic coalitions on both sides.

To achieve this, France will have to reconstruct its entire diplomatic toolkit on the continent. It must also turn its back on a static and decontextualised vision of peace, security and stability. As important as it is, the fight against jihadist groups cannot be the alpha and omega of human security on the continent. Nor can it be seen solely in terms of European interests, prioritizing the protection of the Union's external borders and the transformation of the continent into a double enclosure.

Moreover, effective protection of Europes borders paradoxically depends on guaranteeing and extending Africans right to mobility and movement within the continent. Mobility on the continent cannot be secured in a system made up of closed entities. It is impossible to ensure the reproduction of activities linked to movement, such as pastoralism, within closed territories. To meet the new spatio-demographic challenges, Africa needs new territorial assemblages that incorporate corridors, nodes, portals - in short, the full range of relational functions inherent in an open space. Whats more, everything points to the fact that stability and security will not be achieved by repeated military interventions, or by supporting inveterate tyrants, or by untimely sanctions whose only effect is to further wound populations already on their knees, but by deepening democracy.

This raises the question of the meaning and purpose of Frances military presence in Africa. Its not just a question of reorganising the presence, particularly in the Sahel. The time has come to radically question the justification for this presence, for its legitimacy is being called into question by the younger generation. In this respect, the strategy of locking the doors will not suffice. Leaving Mali to settle in Burkina Faso, then Burkina Faso for Niger, and eventually Chad, without an in-depth examination of the reasons for the successive failures and the moral and intellectual defeat suffered by France in Africa, amounts to applying a poultice on a wooden leg. Military reason and civil reason have always found it difficult to coexist on the continent.

In the long term, stability and security will require the effective demilitarisation of all areas of political, economic and social life. This means tackling head-on the deep-rooted movements that feed the forces of entropy and encourage violent breakdown. Hence the importance of a fresh look at the state-form. One of the distinctive features of African states is that they encompass numerous communities. If they are to be governed in a more or less egalitarian and democratic way, they must be capable of balancing community and class interests.

We also need to relaunch a new cycle of institutional and constitutional innovation, and carefully identify the social forces that have a stake in it. Transforming the existing forms of the State requires a policy on a scale that goes beyond decentralisation. If people are to regain a modicum of control over how they live and what they do, new concepts of territory and locality are needed. In many cases, centralised authority is not enough. Hence the need to grant specific rights to the communities that these state entities encompass.

9. Setting up a new agreement

Old societies, which France and Europe played a major part in forging, have come to an end. The challenge is to create a new configuration. This is not just a matter for Africans. We cannot continue to follow, without questioning, political and cultural patterns that are historically outdated and no longer relevant. Powerful stakeholders are beginning to realise that things cannot go on like this.

If no decisive steps are taken, the situation will become increasingly intolerable for France and the West. It will become ever more costly for them to delay with improvised temporary solutions. As crises follow one after another at such a pace that there will be no respite, there is a real risk of getting bogged down in a long-term tug-of-war that is as consuming as it is paralysing. If this scenario were to materialise, it would pave the way not for a new global consciousness, but for the partition of the world.