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Cameroon – France’s Guatemala (Second of a series): Putting Together Francafrique

October 6, 2013


(Part One of the Series)

(Part Three of the Series)

(Part Four of the Series)

Cameroon is a part and parcel of a larger system, set up by De Gaulle and his sidekick, Jacques Foccart during the 1950s and 1960s, the purpose of which was to insure that independence for France’s former African colonies would result in maintaining a French stranglehold over the countries’ resources and markets while feigning respect for African independence. Depending on whose point of view to be believed – it was either an on-going, never-ending success, or it has resulted in more than a half century of poverty, famine, and unending oppression. In fact many French people are quite proud of “France’s accomplishments” in Africa. Not so for many Cameroonians whose fate and sufferings rarely reach European/American eyes.

This is in part out of ignorance. Knowledge of France’s role on the continent is scant. Yes, there was Algeria…but wasn’t the horror inflicted on the Algerian people an exception – many French would ask? The media coverage of some of France’s other African ventures – Madagascar, Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Togo – and certainly, Cameroon – are hardly known. Africans, particularly those who have lived under the system known as Francafrique have a more somber view “France’s contribution to African development.” Wonder why?

Africans, particularly those who have lived under the system known as Francafrique have a more somber view “France’s contribution to African development.” Wonder why?

And some – not many it is true – Frenchmen too, among them Francois Xavier Verschave, whose work I stumbled upon a few years ago (while researching France’s `contribution’ to post-colonial Algeria). Francois Xavier Verschave died of cancer that came on suddenly and laid him low in a matter of months in 2005. In the decade before he died, Verschave founded Survie, an organization dedicated to promoting democracy in France’s former African colonies, to end “the banalization” (trivialization) of genocide in Africa, of which Rwanda is just the most extreme example, and to `re-invent’ international solidarity based on the principle of global welfare.

So…count me in.

As such, Verschave, and Survie in general, have done path breaking research on the nature of French iron-clad neo-colonial grasp of its former colonies, referred to as Francafrique. The best stuff is in French very little of which, unfortunately, has been translated into English but I will cite it anyway. Verschave’s Francafrique (Stock: 1999) is a good overview of France’s Africa machinations; a shorter volume, “De la France a la Mafiafrique” (Tribord: 2004) is a fine condensed version of the larger work. The scholarship started by Verschave has been extended by others. Raphaël Grandvaud’s  Areva en Afrique (Agone: 2012),  on the French nuclear company with a global reach, probe  that companies dubious African  economic, corporate policies .


What is `Francafrique’? Why use this funny expression?

Francafrique is a web – or series of webs, networks – connecting the French power elite with African elites in France’s former African colonies, now formally independent, but still remaining subservient to French economic, political and strategic interests in Africa, in short, France’s very elaborate and sophisticated version of neo-colonialism. Among the networks are those run by a number of powerful post-WW2 politicians – Jacques Foccart (De Gaulle’s African gopher) credited with master mining French secret military African coups for decades, later Charles Pasqua (with his close ties both the Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterand). De Gaulle is quoted as saying of Foccard in private: “Foccart est très pratique: quand je pète, c’est lui qui pue” (translation: Foccart is quite practical: when I fart, it is he who stinks.”[1]

De Gaulle is quoted as saying of Foccard in private: “Foccart est très pratique: quand je pète, c’est lui qui pue” (translation: Foccart is quite practical: when I fart, it is he who stinks.”[1]

Other networks are controlled by French corporations who function with monarchal impunity throughout Africa – ELF, Areva, Bouyges, Bolloré, Castel – who have local partners. There are also military networks. Most of the upper echelons of the French military have cut their teeth in this or that African country.

France trains a large percentage of African military officers who become strategic connections in times `of difficulty’ (ie. when local leaders challenge French economic interests).  There is also extensive intelligence cooperation between French intelligence, counter-intelligence agencies (DGSE, DST) and their African counterparts. In some African countries the DGSE literally controls each of Africa’s “French black-skinned governors.”

Francafrique is a distinctly post-colonial arrangement.

At the end of WW II there was great pressure on France to give up its colonies. Pressure for liberation from colonialism was pervasive. Charles De Gaulle found himself in an uncomfortable position when he returned to power in 1958. A supreme realist, De Gaulle recognized that the anti-colonial tide of French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa (and elsewhere) was virtually unstoppable.  But at the same time that he publicly endorsed independence, he instructed his `right arm’, his `man in the shadows’ – Jacques Foccart, head of the Gaullist party, to finance underground, secret services, to do exactly the opposite: that is to construct as many ways as possible to keep France’s former colonies dependent upon France economically and politically.

And this is what happened. On the one hand the former French colonies would gain their formal independence; at the same time they would be remain tied to France economically and politically more closely than ever. Since achieving such results was both illegal and completely unethical, explains why these results had to be achieved in a hidden, secret manner. In one of Verschave’s speeches,[2] he likens Francafrique to an iceberg, the bulk of its mass lying underwater, with only the tip appearing above the surface. 90% or more of the relationship – that ensemble of mechanisms put in place to maintain French domination in tandem with African elite allies – is hidden, submerged below the surface.

And so the sordid history of Francafrique was begun.

Why Francafrique

Put bluntly, De Gaulle was anxious to sacrifice the “independence of Africa” – which he never believed in and only supported most grudgingly – for “the independence of France”.  Anyone who has followed France’s negotiations with its former North African colonies of Algeria and Tunisia knows how resistant De Gaulle was to offering either place real independence. The French president and World War II hero much preferred neo-colonial arrangements. In Algeria’s case, no doubt the discovery of oil in the Sahara in the 1950s and the prospect for using Algeria for French nuclear testing were key factors. Although De Gaulle was willing to give Tunisia some degree of independence, France tenaciously held on to its military base in Bizerte, from which it could monitor and if necessary, control maritime traffic between the eastern and western Mediterranean. It was only ceded in 1961 after a three day military confrontation that resulted in the deaths of up to 1500 Tunisians, [3]who protested the base’s continued existence.

The Magreb’s proximity to France, the intensity of the French colonial presence there, particularly in Algeria, perhaps helps explain French reluctance to offer full independence. In the case of France’s sub-Saharan colonies, some of the same, and some different factors were at work. Among them:

–          De Gaulle, worried about the decline of France’s post WW2 influence wanted strong support for France in the United Nations, needing a coterie of countries that vote along French lines. This was an integral part of De Gaulle’s program for France to re-emerge as a world power.

–          Access to strategic and raw materials, was and remains, central in French thinking. African supplies of oil, uranium, wood, cacao, coffee, etc. were essential to the French economy. Concerning oil, France had been iced out of controlling the oil of both Iraq and Libya during the period between the two world wars. It was determined to have a supply independent of U.S. (and/or British) control after WW2.

–          Less known (Verschave uncovered a good deal of this) – and to a degree sometimes difficult to believe – French political parties in general and certainly the Gaullist parties at the end of WW2 were dependent upon diverted African profits to fund their political activities – both legal and illicit (of which there were/are many). An unknown but seemingly huge amount of money has been diverted from the profits of different French African ventures – with the acquiescence of Francafrique’s African partners – to fund public and private activities.

–          Unappreciated as well, has been the role of France’s colonies and France itself in supporting the United States in the Cold War against Communism. Although it often appeared that France and the United States were at odds with each other (and were to a certain degree where their interests clashed), when it came to the essentials of fighting radical nationalism and Communism, France was always, sometimes openly, more often than not, more quietly, doing Washington’s dirty work in Africa.

Francafrique…how it worked..”France’s Black-skinned governors” (gouverneurs á la peau noire)

The pattern set up by Foccart in the service of De Gaulle would essentially remain intact until today. A number of so called “friends of France” were `selected’ to become African heads of state. Having an African head of state in the service of French interests was useful has it created the mirage that the countries involved were actually governed by their own people, hiding their more prominent role of serving – quite faithfully – the interests of the French government. Some of them had dual nationality and it was not unusual for a number of them, like Omar Bongo of Gaban, were members of the French secret service.

There was for the French a minor problem involved in installing their regional satraps, little detail: throughout French Colonial Africa there were burgeoning nationalist movements whose goal was not merely ending formal colonial rule but beyond that, ending the structural core-peripheral economic and social relations that had long existed between colonizer and colonized. These movements and their leaders had no intention of `serving France’ – either openly or covertly. Their programs included developing their national economies along lines that most probably would have threatened French interests. It was convenient for France to stigmatize them – as Belgium did with Patrice Lumumba in the Congo – as `communists’, `tools of Moscow’, `terrorists’, etc.

At the height of the Cold War – in which France kowtowed to Washington, such labels stuck, at least in the American and French press. But the fact was virtually none of them were communists but instead radical nationalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, with anti-communists like the Dulles brothers and De Gaulle in power, no differentiation was made. For Foccart, the task was simple and clear: eliminate such movements and their leaders and he proceeded to do just that, brutally, systematically with virtually not a peep of protest from French public opinion – from right to left. Indeed as Mongo Beti repeated reveals in Main Basse sur le Cameroun,  the French media in its overall majority was complicit.

And so it was that one after another, the leaders of African national movements – before or after independence – were picked off: assassinated, `disappeared’, driven insane, among them (as mentioned in Part One) were Cameroon’s Ruben Um Nyobé, Togo’s Sylvanus Olympio, the Central African Republic’s Barthélémy Boganda, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara and many others.

And so it was that one after another, the leaders of African national movements – before or after independence – were picked off: assassinated, `disappeared’, driven insane, among them (as mentioned in Part One) were Cameroon’s Ruben Um NyobéTogo’s Sylvanus Olympiothe Central African Republic’s Barthélémy Boganda, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara and many others.

What did this mean for Cameroon?

Why was Cameroon, specifically, so important to France in the first place that Paris would be willing to conduct such merciless warfare against its people in order to maintain control there? There were a number of key reasons.

  1. First and foremost is the strategic importance of port of Douala as the natural outlet for the Cameroon as well as for Chad and the Central African Republic.
  2. The economic importance of Cameroon in terms of its natural wealth should not be underestimated. The region surrounding Douala is rich in export crops: bananas, coffee, cocoa, palm oil; it is referred to as “Africa’s fertile crescent”. The French invested heavily in these export crops. France’s investment in Cameroon – both in public and private sectors – during the colonial period was greater than anywhere else. Then there is offshore oil.
  3. Cameroon enjoys a natural strategic location between what used to be called French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, providing the French military with a logical base for its troops, Cameroon being a transit area from one part of the empire to the other. Paris could control the entire empire from Cameroon, and if opportunity presented itself, extend its reach.

For Cameroon, French policy meant nearly two decades of under-reported and all-out war against that country’s liberation movement – the Union des populations de Cameroun (UPC). Two decades of sustained torture, killing on a genocidal level, the torching of complete villages (particularly in the country’s southwest region), the setting up of relocation centers, ie, all of the same methods used to try to destroy the National Liberation Movement (or as its French acronym, the FLN) of Algeria.

Along the way, the UPC’s founding fathers were assassinated, all public figures critical of the colonial regime and the post-independence French controlled `independent’ Cameroon repressed. The numbers killed will never be known but the figure I have seen from Cameroonian opposition forces (which I trust more than the French sources) suggests that as many as 400,000 people lost their lives and another million, caught in the crossfire were either wounded or displaced.

In place of a Ruben Um Nyobé, Félix Moumié, Ernest Ouandié, Albert Ndongmo, a mostly illiterate from Cameroon’s heavily Moslem North, one Ahmadou Ahidjo was `tapped’ for the position; he proved to be the perfect tool of French interests and was kept in power until 1982. More on the mechanics of Ahidjo’s rule, the role of the UPC in Part Three of the series.

[1] Francois-Xavier Verschave. De la Françafrique à la Mafiafrique. Editions Tribord: Brussels: 1994, p.42

[2] ibid

[3] Most English language/French sources cite 650 dead…Tunisian sources that I have seen give a figure of around 1500 though

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2013 12:38 pm

    Reblogged this on Piazza della Carina.

  2. October 10, 2013 12:40 pm

    Reblogged this on ΝΕΑ ΧΩΡΙΣ ΦΙΛΤΡΟ ΦΕΛΛΟΥ.

  3. October 10, 2013 12:45 pm

    It appalls me the respect Americans have for Winston Churchill. Oh yes , he saved ihs nation in WW II but his British Empire this and British Empire that, he was an imperialist and colonial repression
    master just like French DeGaulle.

    • October 10, 2013 1:45 pm

      Carl D: good point. I have read one very critical biography of Churchill which exposes him for the overrated politican that he was and includes his support for eugenics, his sending Australians and New Zealanders to the slaughter at Gallipoli, his role in shaping the modern Middle East (Cairo Conference in the early 1920s)…first class British imperialists and blowhard…Forget the author, the book is at home. I’ll post the citation later. Remember that the author, after the book’s publication, got death threats at the time…
      Sometime later, I’ll deal with Churchill in detail, agree he needs demystification…but for now I am concentrating on De Gaulle and his sidekick Foccart…who committed crimes against humanity, for the most part, unnoticed in Africa for decades…cheers, rjp…


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