By Yasser Louati, The New Arab, 31 May, 2022
Protest against French military presence in Chad, similar to those in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger over recent years, are making it clear that across Africa, the people want an end to France’s neo-colonial presence, writes Yasser Louati.
The recent demonstrations against France’s presence in Chad have once again highlighted the negative view that Africans have of their former colonial power.
From its overt military presence, to its track record in supporting dictators that have ruled Chad, as well as the constant meddling in internal affairs, France can only be perceived as a nefarious intruder that must be kicked out.
The anti-France protests in Chad are certainly not the first to take place on the continent in the past years. People in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, all took to the streets chanting “down with France”, “France get out” and “No to colonisation”.
That the people of Chad have taken similar action shouldn’t be a surprise, however.
Since Chad’s independence in 1960, the country never really obtained full sovereignty over its territory. The people have since also had little power and right to choose their own leadership.
The country’s borders were drawn up by Germany and France in the 1880s and even after independence, Chad remained under French military control, which continues to this day.
It is not difficult to understand why the country is of such interest to the French. Chad’s location makes it a strategic stronghold for France’s presence in Africa. Though enclaved, the country is at the intersection between the Sahel region and Central Africa and today is home to the Barkhane operations’ headquarters and air force base with operations spreading across the region.
The military cooperation agreement of 1976 solidified the foundations for decades of military interventions.
On paper, the military operations are presented and justified as means of bringing stability to the country. In reality, France’s presence has served as a means to protect their “backyard” in Africa, and to defend whatever subservient regime they wanted in power.
From 1982, two dictators have ruled the country with various degrees of brutality. Before being overthrown in 1992, tried in 2015 and ultimate death in 2021, Hissen Habre had installed one of the most brutal regimes in Africa, leaving behind a legacy of war crimes, crimes against humanity with 40,000 victims and 80,000 orphans.
His successor Idris Deby was certainly no relief, Chadians endured yet another period of authoritarian rule under his leadership.
France militarily supported both regimes. In the case of Habré, he enjoyed active military backing, at least until he expressed that he no longer needed France. Deby in turn was ‘saved’ by French special forces in 2008 when he faced opposition from rebel groups.
His son, Mahamat Deby who “inherited” power, also receives the support from France that his father enjoyed.
In Chad, like in other former colonies, France has so far relied on direct and indirect military involvement or disinformation by funding supportive media outlets through the Agence Française de Development. But communication is no longer a monopoly of governments, social media assures us of that.
This is something France will soon be forced to reconcile with, especially given it is now literally being booted out of the continent both economically and militarily.
As Antoine glazer puts it in Le piège Africain de Macron, France has continued to act as if francophone Africa was its backyard despite rapidly changing international relations. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war has exposed Africa to more than the former colonial power. The US, China, Germany Turkey and even a rogue state like Israel, are now major economic partners for the continent and France is the only one losing ground.
At times, however, Africans are presented with the illusion that France is changing its ways.
One such example is Macron’s Ouagadougou speech which differed considerably from that of Nicolas Sarkozy’s in Dakar in 2007, in which the latter claimed that Africa’s tragedy is that the African man has not sufficiently entered into history.
In an obvious attempt to distance himself from Sarkozy, Macron began his speech by honouring the late pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara and hammered the idea that he wanted to break away from neo-colonial policies in Africa.
He promised Africans, hand on heart that he is “from a generation that has never seen Africa as a colonized continent” and that he “refuses to use outdated representations of Africans”, that to him “the crimes of colonisation are unquestionable and are part of history”. He claimed to want a partnership for the future, but his actions contradicted this entirely because he remained surrounded by the heirs of the France-Afrique era.
This was laid bare when Macron attended Idriss Deby’s funeral and promised France’s support to the current junta in power.
Another strong symbol of this can be seen in Macron’s selection of advisor on African affairs: Franck Paris. He is a distant heir of Jacques Foccart, the French lobbyist who developed the informal network of corruption and coercion to protect France’s access to resources and control of governments after former colonial nations obtained their independence.
In the end, whilst the content of Macron’s speech may have been worlds apart from that of Sarkozy, the result remained the same.
Indeed, across Africa the people are too aware that there is no reason to believe Emmanuel Macron will change policies towards Africa. Afterall, every newly elected French President made a “historic” speech of sorts that promised the advent of a new era in French-African relations.
Whilst presidents may come and go, the old colonial networks and even worse, colonial mentalities, remain intact.
It seems too much to expect France to question why, despite the presence of the US, Malysia and China in Chad, it is the only power being called out by Chadians? Even in Mali where the former colony is being booted out, Putin’s Russia is being welcomed with open arms despite the country’s disregard for democracy and human rights.
Similar to its support of Arab dictators in the midst of the Arab uprisings in 2011, France is once again on the wrong side of history by standing with authoritarian regimes and against rising defiance from African civil society.
The people of Chad, like others across Africa will not cease in their demand for total liberation. France can either choose to listen and do as it’s told, even if it’s for cynical self-interest, or it will continue to face the wrath of generations that carry the fire of anti-colonial movements past and be forced to concede.
Yasser Louati is a French political analyst and head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties (CJL). He hosts a hit podcast called "Le Breakdown with Yasser Louati" in English and "Les Idées Libres" in French.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff or CEMAS.