For Freedom of Movement & Fair Development!

The african guest

By Bernhard Schmid

France plans to increase its economic presence in its former African colonies, and this fact was discussed on the Africa-France Summit in Nice. Meanwhile African NGOs and French sans papiers tried to raise awareness for other subjects by means of an ‘anti summit’ and a march from Paris to Nice.

Everything must change to basically stay as it is: this phrase once coined by the Italian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is also true for the relationship between France and the African continent. The Africa-France Summit, which took place for the 25th time on Monday and Tuesday and was held in Nice, provided some examples of that fact earlier this week.

All the African states were represented; that is to say, not only the countries of the former French colonial zone but also those of English and Portuguese-speaking Africa – with two exceptions. Zimbabwe stayed away because its president, Robert Mugabe has been declared persona non grata and is denied entry to the European Union. Madagascar did the same because it is going through a serious state crisis at the moment. Those were the only two out of 54 African countries which did not send any representatives. 38 were represented by their head of state or head of government in person.

So the event attracted more high-ranking representatives than ever. For the first time since the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, in which France had been involved on the side of the old regime which was overthrown in July 1994, Rwanda's government, which has been in power for 16 years, was present in Nice. State President Paul Kagamé appeared in person. Only a few years ago Kagamé called the French-African summits a 'neo-colonial masquerade.'

However, his colleagues from the neighbouring countries of Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, Joseph Kabila and Pierre Nkurunziza, had not come personally. Burundi is in the middle of an election year; it has just held its communal elections and is preparing for the parliament and presidentship elections. So the ’fireside chat’ about the situation in Central Africa's 'Great Lakes' region which French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to have could not take place. All the same, the official reconciliation, which was agreed upon in November but especially since Sarkozy's visit to Rwanda in February 2010, is now definitely set. From the Parisian point of view its purpose is to avoid any more explicit reproach from Kingali regarding France's part in the 1994 genocide. Kagame's travel to Nice is an important symbolic and political victory for France. The price to be paid is to disturb the peace for Rwandan perpetrators of genocide in 1994 living in France, who have found it a safe haven for many years. Last Wednesday Eugene Rwamucyo, a doctor and alleged perpetrator of the genocide, who had been living in Belgium since November, was arrested at a friend's funeral close to Paris. Until last autumn Rwamucyo lived in France undisturbed. A member of the governing party UMP and the cabinet of the Minister of the Interior actively tried to achieve a residence title for him. However, in November Rwamucyo’s identity was revealed by a nurse in the hospital of Maubeuge where he was employed. He thereupon withdrew to the neighbouring country. Now it seems that things are getting seriously uncomfortable for the architects of Rwandan genocide.

The Nice summit is the first of its kind in three and a half years; the last time it took place was in Cannes in February 2007. The original idea was to hold a summit in the Egyptian beach resort of Sharm el-Sheik at the beginning of the year. However, the Egyptian government would have invited Sudan's President Omar el-Beschir, something which the countries of the European Union found unacceptable.

The event in Nice takes place at the same time as the 50th anniversary of the independence of 14 African countries, all of which used to be French colonies and gained formal sovereignty in 1960. As African critics of his policies and intellectuals have pointed out repeatedly during the past days, it seemed bizarre to them that this anniversary of supposed 'emancipation' was celebrated more intensely in France than it was in the former colonies. At the beginning of this year France pompously introduced a festival committee under the leadership of Jacques Toubon, who used to be the Minister of Justice in Jacques Chirac's government. In March and April this committee, which has arranged a couple of debates, shows and TV programmes, was the subject of some polemic discussions concerning the fact that it had hardly any budget. However, more important is its head. Toubon was more than the Minister of Justice; he also was a key figure in the so-called Françafrique.

Only a few years ago it was practically taboo to publicly mention the neo-colonial downsides of the French-African relationships. Critics called them La Françafrique, a term coined by the late writer and NGO activist François Verschave in the mid-nineties. Verschave in his turn referred to a quote from Félix Houphouët-Boigny, pro-French dictator of the Ivory Coast, who was in power from 1960 to his death in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny used the term to express the alleged undying love of the African people to their former colonial power. Critical NGOs and solidarity organisations such as the NGO Survie, which was founded by Verschave, rather use the expression to describe a continuous control France exerts on its former colonies.

The governing bodies and middle-class media dismissed this as a conspiracy theory or called it a mere repetition of stale news from past historical periods. However, the public attitude towards the expression and concept has changed. During the past two to three years almost all the important media in France have used the expression Françafrique – but they nearly always added the statement that this type of postcolonial special relation was definitely over and done with. When Omar Bongo – president of the scarcely populated oil republic of Gabun, who had ruled it autocratically for 42 years and over the course of his life financed nearly all the established political parties in France – died in June 2009, many middle-class newspapers stated that a key figure of the Françafrique had died and that the phenomenon itself would soon be over as well. After the latest debate about the 50th anniversary the expression has returned – once again followed by statement that this relation was breathing its last now. The attitude towards the concept has become relaxed; it has turned into an accepted part of the established jargon. This does not mean that postcolonial control over Africa has disappeared.

Toubon, for example, only recently played an important part in stabilising dictatorships, whose leaders were chosen and equipped by France in order to maintain an – indirect – control especially on commodity-rich countries. This has gone on continuously from 1960. In 1997 Denis Sassou-Ngessou, the former autocrat of the oil-rich republic Congo-Brazzaville, who had been democratically voted out of office five years earlier, regained power in an extremely bloody putsch. The fact that France and especially its leading oil company, Elf, now part of the Total company, had equipped him in this was stated clearly in some French media in October of that year. In 2002 Sassou-Ngessou had his power confirmed in elections that were generally perceived to be heavily manipulated. Toubon and his party friend Patrick Gaubert were on location as election monitors. International observers noticed that in many electoral offices urns were unlocked and employees of the public authorities had access to them at any time. Toubon's dry comment was that after all it was “more difficult to find a padlock in this country than in a Parisian shopping centre”. Toubon and Gaubert maintained that the government had carried out the elections correctly. Everybody knows that the interests of the Sassou-Ngessou clan are connected to those of France more closely than to those of the Congolese population. The president and his family have 113 bank accounts in France.

And there's more to come. On the national holiday, July 14th, the presidents and troup units of 14 former French colonies in Africa will join a military parade on the Champs-Elysées. Among them will be the so-called Cobras – short for Combattants de Brazzaville – a brutal group of mercenary soldiers, who were integrated into the Congolese army after the 1997 putsch. They played an important part in Sassou-Ngessou's attack on the elected president, Pascal Lissabou, and massacred the civil population in combat zones. The mere fact that 14 African heads of state – dismissively referred to as roitelets (small kings, dependent on the emperor's grace) by their opponents – will parade on the Champs-Elysées, should be the best denial of their countries' alleged 'independence.'

Not all the African heads of state comply as willingly as those of the French-speaking area. During the informal meeting prior to the opening of the summit, which took place in the night from Sunday to Monday, there was a heated argument. The states of English-speaking Africa, such as Tanzania and South Africa, clamoured for a better representation of their continent in the UN security council where the 54 African countries altogether have only three seats as non-permanent members.

This year's summit they all came for was mainly dominated by economics. It was the first time that high-ranking economic delegates – 80 CEOs from France and 150 from various African countries – participated officially. On Monday there was a discussion of a 'charter' for companies operating in Africa, a codex of honour to maintain social and ecological minimum standards. However, this is a PR gag of French industry, members of which actually composed the relevant document.

Various French companies have been under criticism for years – e.g. Total because of its massive environmental destruction in Nigeria; wood company Rougier because of its clear felling in Cameroon and occasionally Gabun; transport company Bolloré because of its monopolist practices in all the West African ports. Now they think they have found the perfect solution – a list of voluntary pledges. The plan is being intensely discussed in the media at the moment.

However, some changes have actually taken place. For example, the international NGO campaign Publish What You Pay has been exerting considerable public pressure since 2002. Its aim is to force companies, such as oil concerns, operating in Africa to publish the amounts they pay to local regimes. On one hand, the purpose is to stop corrupt dictators and concerns from agreeing upon commodity prices that are too low – a practice that harms the countries and benefits those who receive huge bribes and that existed in nearly all the oil states of the continent over decades. On the other hand, the campaign also aims to survey the use of income within the countries.

Brice Makosso arrived last week for a French-African anti-summit held by civil rights activists in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers. He describes his activities for the campaign in Congo-Brazzaville. Prior to 2003, he says, it was a matter of principle that income from oil exports was not counted as state income, but paid directly to the president's accounts abroad. Now that the campaign has gained power and was officially supported by the British government under Tony Blair, oil money is for the first time being paid into the Congolese national budget. “Now the concrete struggle in the town districts will begin,” adds Makosso. Money used to go into government functionaries' pockets automatically. “Now the government justifies itself by claiming that the money is used to, for example, build a school in the district. So it is possible for us to organise the local population and develop pressure through protest: now where is the school that you promised us but that is nowhere to be seen?” During the last anti-summit against European policies concerning Africa that was held in France, Brice Makosso was put under house detention in Pointe-Noire. This year he could attend. Things change slowly but sometimes they do change.

Another group that tries to create pressure is that of the sans papiers, the 'illegalised' migrants in France, many of whom come from African countries. Since October 6,000 of them have been on strike continuously to achieve their 'legalisation' but in many places they are stopped by rigorous reactions of the government and public authorities. About 80 sans papiers accompanied by 15 supporters marched through France for weeks, making their way from Paris to Nice. Everywhere they passed – they made 35 to 40 kilometres per day, the main part on foot and about a third by train – there were support events and demonstrations, organised locally by French left-wingers, solidarity initiatives and some trade unions. Next Saturday there will also be a demonstration in Paris to mark their return to the capital.

They reached Nice on Monday. They want to make the heads of states aware of their situation. And they want to stop African consulates from issuing 'diplomatic passes' that make it possible for the French authorities to deport people without valid travelling documents like identification papers. The consulates of most African countries are very willing to give in to French demands. In this they differ from, for example, some Latin American states whose left-wing governments – led by Ecuador under Rafael Correa – declared one and a half years ago that, as a matter of principle, they would no longer cooperate in the deportation of unwanted immigrants from Europe.

At the time of going to press, most African potentates had not reacted to the protesters' demands. However, the government of Mali in west Africa was willing to meet the demonstrating sans papiers, some of whom came from their own country. Mali, which has also been one of the few positive examples of a working democratisation 'from below' since its population kicked out dictator Moussa Traoré in Spring 1991, resisted French pressure to 'take back' unwanted immigrants several times during the last years. France tried to organise the signing of a retraction agreement half a dozen times and was always refused by Mali. There are several local civil initiatives working on the issue, supporting migrants who were forced to return and exerting considerable pressure on public authorities.

On Monday afternoon Denis Sassou-Ngessou stated that he, too, was 'open' to the requests of the sans papiers. True enough, coming from the Congolese potentate this sentence is purely demagogic. However, it proves the fact that the actions of the 'illegalised' people attract remarkable attention.