Africa’s neocolonial era ending as US and France seek new partnerships

(By Deutsche Welle) For generations, Africa’s fate lay in the hands of self-interested foreign powers. Today, the US and France promise a fresh approach to the continent that puts Africans in charge of their own security and development.

During the post-World War II period, the world’s major powers championed African independence in word, but undermined it in deed. As the Cold War broadened, the two superpowers manipulated the continent’s liberation movements for their own political ends.

Meanwhile, former imperial powers such as France pushed a hidden agenda that turned newly independent colonies into de-facto protectorates. Although African independence existed on paper, in reality the continent’s fate was still decided in foreign capitals.

The consequences of this neocolonialism are far reaching. In a continent politically engineered by foreigners, national borders often are not worth the map they are drawn on. Many African states, designed in the mind of a European, cannot maintain legitimacy before competing indigenous interests. Some have become failed states in which government authority often does not reach beyond the capital city.

This instability has bred transnational crime and terrorism that jeopardize global security. The US and France have responded by initiating a strategy that seeks to stabilize the continent by strengthening African institutions instead of undermining them. In the 21st century, African unity – not division – serves the interests of world powers.

Drift into chaos

As the Soviet Union careened toward collapse, the governing principle of US policy in Africa became obsolete. Washington no longer needed to cultivate African allies to contain Moscow’s influence on the continent. As a result, the US began to refocus its involvement on humanitarian assistance.

But a policy driven by humanitarianism proved unsustainable after the botched Somalia intervention in 1993, in which 18 US soldiers died. Washington pulled back and remained aloof from African affairs even as genocide gripped Rwanda.

“After the Cold War you could say Africa was basically very low and this was strongly reflected by the management by the Clinton Administration,” Roland Marchal, an expert on Sub-Saharan Africa with the Center for International Studies and Research at SciencesPo Paris, told Deutsche Welle. “For the European Union the situation was never like that because of the colonial past.”

While US policy drifted, France maintained a neo-colonial relationship – called “Francafrique” – with Francophone Africa. Paris had cultivated a quid-pro-quo agreement with its former colonies, supporting questionable regimes with its military in exchange for access to economic resources.

As the US and France tended to their own interests, many African states slid into disarray. The world hardly lifted a finger as countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia and the Congo imploded in violence.

Partnership with Africa

The US received a shot across its bow in 1998 when al Qaeda bombed its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The link between state collapse in Africa and international security became clear. And September 11 underscored the global reach of transnational terrorist organizations that take refuge in failed states.

“If you look at US policy globally at all levels, I would say that Africa still has the bottom priority of all the major regions around the world,” Ambassador David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, told Deutsche Welle. “Africa has increased somewhat in importance, first because increasing amounts of US oil are imported from Africa, and second the counterterrorism angle. That has clearly elevated Africa in US interests.”

As result, the US quietly reengaged the continent. It began training militaries in West and East Africa to combat local terrorist organizations that claim ties to al Qaeda. In 2007, Washington established a separate military command for the continent called Africom. The command is designed to emphasize development aid and public diplomacy in addition to military cooperation.

“There was a lot of suspicion about Africom when it first rolled out,” Richard Downie, an expert on Sub-Saharan Africa with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Deutsche Welle. “There were worries because of the colonial experience, that we’ll have troops on the ground and sort of a neo-colonial experience again. I think it took a lot of persuasion to convince the African players that Africom is not threatening, [that] it’s something that could be beneficial.”

While US strategy was finding direction, many French policymakers had already recognized that a policy based on old colonial ties made little sense in a world full of emerging economies. Paris broadened its engagement beyond the Francophone countries and adopted a multilateral approach that included Anglophone Africa as well as its European partners.

“There is currently a diversification of interests,” Tobias Koepf, a doctoral fellow with the Middle East and Africa Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. “France is less focused on historical ties and more on economic interests.”

As France modernizes its economic engagement in Africa, it is also taking a greater interest in the continent’s long-term stability. According to Koepf, Paris has begun to close ranks with Washington in its approach to terrorism, particularly against organizations such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabab in Southern Somalia. French nationals have been targeted frequently by AQIM in recent months, provoking Paris to declare war on the group.

France and the US are now working through multilateral institutions such as the African Union (AU) instead of unilaterally pursuing their interests through lopsided bilateral ties that have unintended consequences. They are helping the AU establish a 10,000-strong Standby Force, which will give Africa the ability to resolve crises on its own initiative.

New pitfalls

Although the US and France are modernizing their Africa policies, the growing emphasis on cooperation with African militaries could lead to new pitfalls.

“The problem is when you want to implement this policy you understand that on the civilian component you don’t have the money, while on the military component you have the money,” Marchal said. “The balance between civil and military activities won’t be taken very seriously.”

A lopsided focus on security could jeopardize the civil institutions that the US and France claim to support. African leaders could use security – combating terrorism for example – as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties and broaden executive power at the expense of fragile democracy. That would signal a return to the irresponsible, exploitative policies of the past.

“With all the talk of building up institutions and building democracy, the democratic picture in Africa is not as positive as it was at beginning of the millennium,” Downie said. “Security priorities tend to override democratic priorities. You’re seeing some negative trends at the moment in countries like Ethiopia, where the elections were pretty disastrous. [We’ll see] whether the US and France will put their money where their mouth is in terms of democracy instead of paying lip service.”

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