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Africa Vera
Brian MacGarry
Gesuita dello Zimbabwe
Republic or Empire?

A two-part series on the French-African connection on Al Jazeera will probably be repeated. Watch out for it. Here are a few of my scattered observations.

The periodic meetings of leaders of «La Francophonie» are somewhat different from the Commonwealth Heads of States meetings, mainly for former British colonies. For a start, the Commonwealth has suspended the membership of rulers who came to power by unconstitutional means. Coups in Pakistan and Fiji led to suspension; Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe announced he was leaving the Commonwealth to forestall his government's suspension. South Africa left in 1960 because the other members opposed apartheid, and was welcomed back after Nelson Mandela's election as President of South Africa in 1994.

Nobody has ever been refused a place in the meetings of «La francophonie» because they disregarded human rights. As long as they serve French political and economic interests, and vital materials such as Gabon's oil and Niger's uranium keep flowing, nobody asks too many questions about rigged elections, or political prisoners. Solidarity with France is rewarded; in one case in the 1960s, one of France's loyal clients (I think it was Fulbert Youlou, President of Congo-Brazzaville) was more surprised than anyone else when, after his military deposed him and he fled into the jungle, French paratroops, whom he had not invited, followed him to bring him back and reinstate him in office.

The French grouping is something of a dictators' club, dictators who were once seen as modern-style French governors, but they need to be well paid to keep their loyalty. French presidents indulged the fantasies of a president of the Central African Republic who declared himself emperor and staged a coronation ceremony with crown and robes modelled on those of  Napoleon Buonaparte. Some have grown so rich that they reverse the power relationship. For example, President Bongo of Gabon paid so much into Sarkozy's presidential election campaign fund that he probably swung the election in Sarkozy's favour.

Some observers would warn that no country can maintain democratic institutions at home and imperial aspirations abroad at the same time. Either a democratic spirit at home restrains imperial ambitions, as happened when the “wind of change” that brought nominal independence to Europe's colonies blew through Africa in the 1960s, or those who cling to imperial ambitions, whether French, British or American (I don't mention Chinese here because they don't pretend to be democratic) will sooner or later see their democratic institutions going the way of the ancient Roman Republic.

And, as the Bongo-Sarkozy relationship shows, in an empire the relations between patron and client can get switched.