I arrived in West Africa in the 90s. I moved across all the former French colonies and most people whom I used to deal with were young (the oldest were children at the time of declarations of independence). As for their colonial past, what remained were the official language, the educational system, borders (African states are the outcome of the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 when European governments divided Africa into zones of influence). Governors’ buildings remained too, and hotels, churches, fortresses, city corners, neighborhoods. In some cases, almost entire cities remained (like Saint Louis du Senegal). And then photographs and antiques in museums.
In Lomé, Togo, reproductions of colonial pattern helmets were on sale at a market stall. The seller wanted to sell me one at any cost. He repeatedly invited me to wear it. For some reason, he believed I should like it. Possibly, I showed some enthusiasm for that narrow strip of land on the Gulf of Guinea – sort of. In reality, after surviving unscathed a nighttime shooting with robbers while driving my van in the Savanes region, about a hundred kilometers from the Burkina Faso border, very few things enthused me in that country: my breakfast with huge pineapple that I chopped with a machete, the meetings with Prince Mlapa Rigobert in Togoville, my girlfriend Sylvie, an Air Togo hostess who often accompanied me and had the kind of physique that doesn’t go unnoticed. Obviously, the country was going down the drain and nobody believed that President Eyadéma, who’d been in power for 30 years and just been re-elected, were interested in implementing whatever political change.
It has been over twenty years since then, and after the death of Eyadéma, the installation of his son as president by a military coup (not condemned by France), the restoration of the multiparty system, EU meddling, and 40,000 refugees fled to neighboring countries, Togo is still one of the least developed countries in the world. Even today, 36,9% of the population has no access to a safe source of drinking water.
Togo is one of the world’s top five producers of phosphates, which are used in fertilizers, but it imports fertilizers from France, along with most of the food, medicine, perfumes, machinery, and vehicles. And since 2017, such imports have increased 12,1%. It is also an exporter of limestone, marble, coffee, cocoa, maize, groundnuts, and cotton, which is the most important cash crop. How’s possible a country with such a well-developed export sector cannot guarantee its 7.6 million citizens the vital good of every living being? How’s possible that it’s able to produce only about a third of its electricity consumption, and must import the rest from Ghana and Nigeria?
In Niger, 41,8% of the population has no access to a safe source of drinking water. France has extracted uranium from Niger subsoil for forty years. While in France more than two bulbs out of three are lit up by Niger uranium, Nigeriens have always undergone a shortage of electricity. But in return, they have gotten an incalculable amount of radioactive waste in the mine site area, with which houses and roads have been built, the draining of the aquifer, and uranium concentration in drinking water 4 times higher than recommended by the World Health Organization.
West African countries are rich in raw materials of enormous strategic value, which they sell on the international market in dollars. But no economy can develop by relying only on the export of raw materials. Revenues from exports must generate investments to stimulate entrepreneurship. Thus, the process of specialization of human capital and the development of middle class begin. Hence the transformation of society itself.
I happened to tour all former French colonies in West Africa and it was clear that this was not the case (and in comparison to other African countries, they were considerably poorer). Industrial goods and services were imported mainly from France. Almost everything on supermarket shelves was from France. In terms of productivity, those countries were still, and it seemed it couldn’t be otherwise. I used to hear white Europeans and Americans say, “Africa’s like this! Africans are like this!”
In fact, once political sovereignty had shifted into the hands of Africans, collective development and welfare should have been natural consequences. That hadn’t happened.
That hasn’t yet happened as of today.
At the end of World War II, France found itself weak and indebted, and various parts of the French empire were occupied by foreign powers, especially the U.S. and Britain. General de Gaulle managed to gradually reestablish control, but suggested it was time for France to take “the road of a new era”. The colonial system was replaced by the French Union, a political entity combining mainland France with the overseas territories into a “greater France, inhabited by French citizens, and blessed by French culture”. In the mid-fifties and early sixties, the defeats in Algeria and Indochina, whose states had withdrawn from the Union, persuaded France that it was wiser to grant nominal independence to its African colonies.
What actually happened was that France switched status from brutal overseer to absentee landlord, and succeeded in keeping a tight rein on the former colonies up to nullify their independence. And the ultimate means through which such confiscated, perverted sovereignty was secured was being handed around any day: it was those crumpled, grimy banknotes I had in my pockets, on which it was written, ‘Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest’. This Dakar-based bank is the institution issuing the West African CFA franc (franc de la Communauté Financière en Afrique), a common currency of eight countries (Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin).
The first time I asked myself questions on this currency was when I was due to fly to Cameroon, and I was warned not to bring CFA francs with me. I was told that once there we would have changed French francs to Central African CFA francs (franc de la Coopération Financière en Afrique centrale), which were issued by the ‘Banque des États de l’Afrique Centrale’ based right in Yaoundé and were the common currency in five other countries (Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic). Though the exchange rate to the French franc was the same, the bills were different from one zone to the other, and the two currencies were not inter-convertible. This meant that the states of the two currency zones couldn’t trade directly with each other. They had to buy French francs first. Thereby, France would monitor entirely their trade.
Before moving to Africa, I had read a bunch of books written by scholars, researchers, and journalists, but none went beyond a mere quote of the CFA franc. It took me years to delve into the matter and see things clearly.
The CFA franc is France’s property and was officially created in 1945 by a decree of General de Gaulle. As of today, the French franc no longer exists and the CFA franc is pegged to the Euro. France coins it and guarantees its convertibility into Euro at a fixed exchange rate. That means every time these countries want to convert CFA francs into Euro, the French Treasury will make it possible. In reality, the African countries have accumulated enough foreign reserves and don’t need France as an intermediary. The CFA franc is a valuable tool to make sure that these African economies don’t grow so that they cannot emancipate themselves from France.
Since 2005, the two African central banks have been required to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in a special compte d’opération controlled by the French Treasury (not by the Banque de France). Immediately following independence, this figure stood at 100%, and from 1973 to 2005 at 65%. In the case of export of raw materials, half of the proceeds collected on the international market (in U.S. dollars) are deposited in the operations accounts. Thereby, the French Treasury acts as a bank and directly obtains hard currency revenues.
The African countries’ reserves may be invested in the stock exchange or used to purchase French government securities, thus helping finance the French debt. Only a limited group of French officials know exactly the amounts of these operations accounts and where the funds are invested. The African countries don’t know how much of the pool of foreign reserves belong to them as a group or individually, and don’t have access to this money. No wonder they have never had sufficient liquidity to boost economic growth and alleviate poverty. France allows them to borrow from the reserve at an interest rate from 2% to 6%, but the limit is fixed at 20% of their public revenue in the preceding year.
Moreover, if any country lends money to a former French colony, since it’s a hard currency, the amount is also deposited at the French Treasury, which then gives the CFA franc to the African country. The same applies to any type of humanitarian aid or donation that anyone sends to these countries. Any amount goes through the French Treasury and half gets stuck there.
The two African central banks have no monetary policies of their own. French officials sit on the boards and they are voting members. As decisions must be taken unanimously, it suffices that these officials don’t participate and no decision can be taken. Thereby, France holds a de facto veto on the conduct of these countries’ monetary policies.
The central banks can’t grant loans to serve as a stimulus to entrepreneurship. Therefore, there is no means to transform raw materials, which continue to leave Africa and return as high value-added products. In this way, the African peoples remain mere consumers.
But the monetary policy implemented by France affects its former colonies also in exports. The same guarantee that stabilizes the currency has also limited growth because the value of the CFA franc is fixed against the Euro, rather than being determined by the market. A strong currency is not viable for countries mainly exporting raw materials, as the high price lowers their competitiveness on the market (lest we forget, raw materials’ global prices are quite volatile). A fixed exchange rate prevents them from devaluing the currency. Conversely, it benefits French companies and those involved in the import business.
The sole player to rule the currency is France.
In 1994, purporting a loss of competitiveness as the French franc appreciated against the currency of major trading partners, France devalued the CFA franc by 50%. There were two consequences: the French could buy African products at 50% of the price, the purchasing power of Africans halved.
Through the CFA franc zones, France controls the money supply, financial regulations, banking activities, credit allocation, and budgetary and economic policies of these nations. Economic development is impossible in such circumstances, as is the creation of a political system that meets the needs of the citizenry. Enact a law requires economic coverage, and therefore those who hold monetary sovereignty decide policies. If the president of a country in the CFA zones no longer meets the requirements of France, the French Treasury blocks its foreign reserves and thus banks close. Before any Council of Ministers, these countries must notify Paris, which will ratify which issues can be debated. It’s no wonder these African countries haven’t grown to their full potential.
Ex-French President Jacques Chirac believed that ‘without Africa, France would slide down into the rank of a third-rate power.’ He also stated that the French should accept the fact that a large amount of the money in their banks comes precisely from the exploitation of former African colonies.
In 1957, his predecessor François Mitterrand had prophesied that ‘without Africa, France will have no history in the 21st century.’
Since the time of false independence and up to the present day, France has never hesitated to jettison African heads of state who tempted to withdraw from the system.
In 1963, Togo’s first president Sylvanus Olympio decided to issue Togo’s own sovereign currency backed by the resources of the country and guaranteed by Deutsche Bundesbank. Two days before he was due in Paris to sign the withdrawal agreement, he was killed in a military coup staged by France. The 25-year-old French Army Sergent Eyadéma claimed to have personally fired the shot that killed Olympio. Four years later, he installed himself as president (yes, he’s the very same Eyadéma that I mentioned before).
In 1966, Cameroonian resistance leader Osendé Afana was beheaded. He had denounced the enslavement of African countries through the use of a currency over which they had no control and called for an African currency. In 1984, his fellow countryman, economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi was poisoned for writing ‘Monnaie, servitude, liberté: la répression monétaire de l’Afrique’ (Money, Servitude, and Freedom: the monetary repression of Africa).
In 1962, Mali’s first president Modibo Keita, who leaned toward a socialist economy, decided to part with the CFA franc and created the Malian franc. In 1968, he was a victim of a coup d’etat.
In 1987, Burkina Faso’s president and revolutionary Thomas Sankara was assassinated. He had spoken of the CFA monetary system as a weapon of French domination.
Countless other examples abound. Over the past 50 years, there have been 67 coups d’etat in 26 African countries; 16 of these 26 countries were former French colonies.
Moreover, the “WikiLeaks Clinton Files” revealed that the invasion of Libya in 2011 was largely due to France’s fear of Qaddafi’s drive for an African Union with a single currency based on the Libyan golden Dinar.
In recent years, from a taboo subject raised only by a handful of African intellectuals and politicians, the CFA franc debate has begun to attract the attention of many activists. During his presidential campaign, Macron stated that the decision to move away from the currency was for African countries to make.
Really? Sounds too good to be true.
In 2017, Beninese activist Kemi Seba was arrested on charges of burning a 5,000 CFA banknote in Dakar, during an anti-CFA demonstration. For the youth who attended the protest, his act was a legitimate sign of defiance against a currency they consider as a symbol of France’s domination. Many pro-democracy movements in West Africa have made the scrapping of the CFA a key plank in their campaigns.
African leaders are often accused of being corrupt and not working in the interest of the citizen. Indeed those are the leaders who stay in power. As long as they comply with Paris’s diktats, they’re allowed to rule as long as they please without fearing the slightest rebuke. Like Cameroon’s octogenarian President Paul Biya, who’s been in charge for 36 years (after being PM from 1975 to 1982).
The CFA franc is the prime issue they must never call into question.
Senegalese President Macky Sall describes the CFA franc as ‘a currency worth keeping’. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said, ‘We have a stability envied by many.’ In fact, Mali has remained poverty-stricken for many years and can lay claim to have half the population living below the poverty line, malnutrition issues, lack of education, lack of access to clean water, one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, and conflict areas. In Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara said that currency is ‘a matter for experts and not a subject for democratic debate’. He really knows his stuff. In 2011, his predecessor Gbagbo Laurent decided to part with the CFA franc and the then French President Sarkozy did not hesitate to bomb the country for 10 days (including the presidential palace in Abidjan). They let Ukrainian mercenaries in to attack a French military position so as to get a pretext to intervene militarily. The French managed to dislodge the elected president Gbagbo and replace him with Ouattara, a puppet from the International Monetary Fund.
Gbagbo’s government wanted also to build a third major bridge to link Abidjan’s business district (called Plateau) to the rest of the city, from which it’s separated by a lagoon. A French company quoted an astronomical price to be paid in Euro or U.S. dollars. A Chinese company offered to build the bridge at a third of the price, and the payment would be in cocoa beans, of which Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer. Unsurprisingly, France forbade the deal.
In fact, the requirement to use the CFA franc is only one of the shackles fastening the former colonies to France, as per the “Colonial Pact” signed by African leaders who gained power with France’s help at independence.
African governments are required to give preference to French companies in the field of public procurement. This means all projects with a need for foreign financing must be presented to French companies before any other party. No setting up of a tender procedure. African countries can deal with companies from other countries only if France is not interested in the project. As a consequence, in the former colonies, all major economic assets are in French hands: water, electricity, telephony, air/land/maritime transportation, ports, banks. The same is for commerce, construction, and agriculture.
France has a first right to exploit any natural resource discovered on the territory of its former colonies. Also in this case, only after an explicit non-interest from France, they’re allowed to seek other partners.
The former colonies are forced to pay for the country’s infrastructure that France takes credit for building during colonization.
France has an exclusive right to supply equipment and training to African military officers and to intervene militarily and deploy troops permanently in its former colonies, which are prohibited from looking for any form of military cooperation and protection outside of that offered by the French government.
The EU has done little to nothing to address this foul neocolonial scheme. Yet the forced underdevelopment of African countries is the primary cause of migration – and today, nothing splits Europe as refugee policies do. Possibly, the European elites rather than allowing Africa to develop and give natives the opportunity to work in their countries and get a decent life, prefer to benefit from the migration business? Open-doors Chancellor Merkel, who has the Africans’ lot at heart, asked to transfer the CFA franc revenues from the French Treasury to the ECB. The French plunder of Africa would turn into an EU asset. A progressive proposal, right?