white on transparent (1)

Karpatské Námestie 10A, Bratislava, Slovakia 


The End of French dominance in the Sahel region? An essay

2024-03-14 11:20

Jan Záhořík

#GlobalDynamics , #SahelShift , russia, china, #EndFrenchRule , #RiseOfChina , #TurkeyInAfrica , #NeoColonialism , #AfricanAgency , #ResourceControl , #CulturalShift , #EconomicChange, #France,

The End of French dominance in the Sahel region? An essay

"Opinion Column: The Sahel Shift - Unpacking the End of French Dominance in Africa and the Rise of New Global Players."

At the beginning, I shall say this piece is meant to be rather an opinion column or short essay based on my experience from several African countries (not only) in the Sahel region, and as a researcher and consultant. Readers may and may not agree with what is being said here. This essay is about why France (and possibly the West as such) is losing the game in many parts of Africa, what the historical roots of this situation might be and how the political, diplomatic and economic context keeps changing (not only) in the Sahel region, and how the dominant position of France is being replaced by China, Turkey, Russia, and other external powers. This essay is meant to be a realistic description and analysis of events taking place in Africa, nothing more. And more detailed pieces will follow. 




For decades since the Year of Africa (1960), France has been present in Africa (in this case we mean West and Central Africa, its former colonial Empire) more than any other ex-colonial power. While other powers such as Belgium, Great Britain and Portugal maintained mostly economic and cultural relations with their former colonies, France remained present politically, diplomatically and militarily. French colonialism was in most cases a colonialism of the so-called direct rule, based on the establishment of administrative structures similar to what existed in France, and the elimination of traditional local forms of government, local hierarchies that had existed for centuries, and their replacement by "modern" officials. The French, as part of their policy of assimilation, had a long-term vision of gradually assimilating francophone Africa over several centuries and creating what was effectively France on African soil, the model of which was Algeria, which won its independence in 1962 only at great sacrifice. This was supposed to happen in a few generations throughout the Francophone region, but it didn't. 



Recent military coups and regime changes in several West African countries – Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – are part of a wider trend which we may put into the context of “changing world order” in which generally the Western dominance in the Global South is decreasing and being replaced by other powers, particularly (but not only) China. In those abovementioned countries, the series of coups had one thing in common, the need to get rid of the French paternalism and neo-colonialism. When talking to people in Francophone West Africa, everyone usually keeps repeating the same, that the French control the extractive industries in these countries, for example, they have access to uranium in Niger and so on. So, it is the same scenario everywhere, where the local people are convinced that money from their country is flowing to France and they have no share in the mining, whether it is uranium or gold or whatever. There is clearly an attempt to get out of this commitment, which is not entirely easy, because the French have their instruments in the form of, among other things, the West African (and Central African) franc, which is essentially a derivative of the euro. 


However, some countries are considering introducing their own currency. Many of them are hampered by natural conditions. They are landlocked countries whose territory is largely desert or in the Sahel belt. It is very difficult to engage in intensive agriculture there and the process of industrialization has barely started. On the other hand, it does not mean that getting rid of French paternalism will automatically bring prosperity and economic growth as there are many other issues at state, such as security, absence of industrialization, indebtedness, huge economic differences between rural and urban spaces, internal migration, and many others. 


Africa today is changing dynamically in the sense that the order that has been in place for generations, in which Europeans were used to mentoring their African counterparts in all sorts of things, is no longer valid. In the atmosphere of a changing world order, new powers have emerged in Africa in the last twenty years, such as China, Turkey, India, but also Russia to some (primarily military) extent, and many others like Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE. The great power game in Africa has expanded considerably and many African governments no longer have any reason to listen to the French (or generally European) politicians because they have many others to choose from who are happy to invest, make interesting deals without any specific ideological conditions. 


Since 2003, China has come in on a massive scale as a major power operating in Africa, but also globally. The Chinese are in a situation where, because they are the second largest economy in the world and a number of state or semi-state companies have the backing of the Central Bank of China - or essentially unlimited financing - they are now pouring asphalt over dirt roads built under colonialism, building factories, hospitals, schools and airports that Europe cannot compete with. In addition, unlike the US or the EU, China does not even declaratively demand any reforms in the area of democracy or human rights from African states, but rather programmatically promotes a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. 



Although Russia, compared to China, has little to offer to Africa, its presence is growing, especially in the Sahel belt, where the aforementioned upheavals are now taking place and the Russians have weapons and mining or power generation technology. The advantage of Russia is that Moscow is now on the course of riding the current wave of local anti-Western sentiment.


Today's Africa is a very important actor in the international arena, for instance in the United Nations, because it has 54 states. Africa has a huge voting potential, 54 votes out of 193. Given the fact that China has high-level diplomatic relations with almost all African states, and Russia is penetrating about a third of them in one way or another, this means a possible tipping of the scales to their side. West Africa and Sahel region in particular has been heavily affected by the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, which is something people do not forget there, and many people accuse the West of significantly contributing to the subsequent chaos which led to series of crises in the region. 


Another key actor that deserves particular attention is Turkey. Over the last ten or fifteen years there has been a huge rise of Turkey on the global map as not only a Middle Eastern regional power competing with Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also as a power playing an important role in the partnership with Africa, for example. Today, Turkish Airlines is the largest airline in the world in terms of destinations/countries served. When one wants to fly anywhere in Africa today, he/she usually uses either Ethiopian Airlines or Turkish Airlines, which together serve the whole continent. At the same time, Turkish has built a number of airports over the last decade, particularly in West Africa. Turkey wants to play in a higher league within the framework of, say, the medium-sized powers.


What all these countries have in common with China is that they do not make trade cooperation conditional on any human rights, gender or other aspects or reforms, so they are naturally doing very well. According to my knowledge, the European Union diplomats are basically obliged to constantly stress the issues of human rights, LGBTQ+, democracy and many other things which in many aspects are sort of a taboo in many African countries or on which the African governments may have (and in many cases do have) a different opinion. This takes a certain amount of credibility away from Europe, particularly with all kinds of double standards seen in international politics, because it only adds to the moralizing and paternalistic treatment of Africa, which many African governments now want to get rid of.  


All of this is damaging to European reputation (and possibly also to business opportunities), which is one of the reasons why countries such as Turkey, China and India are doing better and better in Africa in terms of trade, not having these (we may perhaps say) cultural-moralistic barriers. Of course, we may argue that the level of indebtedness of many African countries is unbearable and that the China-Africa connections have many obvious side effects which we will cover soon in another piece.

Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet