Skip to main content

Association with France’s colonial history and neocolonial policies are likely to handicap Washington throughout Africa in the medium to long term.

By Ken Opalo, An Africanist Perspective —

I: Important lessons from the Cold War

After World War II the United States of America (U.S.) faced a dilemma regarding its Africa policy. On the one hand, it was allied with European imperialists in the region. But on the other hand, it feared losing influence in postcolonial African states to its Cold War geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union.

From the perspective of Africans, the Soviet advantage over the U.S. was both material and ideological. It was also a circumstantial advantage made possible largely because there were few other options (and was not without its own challenges). Moscow sent cash, recruited students to study in the Soviet Union (with increases after 1960), provided weapons and trained liberation fighters, among other forms of assistance. On the ideological front, Marxist-Leninist conceptions of self-determination had long trounced the Wilsonian idea of self-determination (Wilson was barely read in the region anyway). The former was explicitly anti-imperialist (and anti-capitalist), while the latter did not deem the majority of non-Europeans to be worthy of self-determination. Thus Marxist-Leninist critics of colonialism emerged as the most-cited theorists of decolonization. In general, the instrumental use of anti-imperialist ideology in Africa avoided contradictions such as Russian imperialism in Eurasia or America’s own “hidden” empire. The Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization after 1917 also played a non-trivial role in inspiring developmentalist independence leaders and thinkers.

It is no wonder that Leftist politics dominated decolonization movements, with nearly all countries in the region developing their own versions of “African socialism” after independence. This included even countries like Kenya that were governed by ideologically right wing administrations.

Moscow’s material and ideological head-start meant that Washington had to reckon with the potential geopolitical costs of supporting European imperialism in Africa. In the end, circumstances forced the U.S. to lean on its European allies to abandon formal colonialism even as it continued to support abhorrent racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia as well as Portugal’s imperial delusions under Salazar’s dictatorship.

A 1950 U.S. policy document titled the “Future of Africa” reflected this deliberate balancing of the needs of the broader Western alliance against the challenges posed by potential spread of Soviet influence in Africa:

The European Nations administering areas in Africa are extremely sensitive to anything which might in their opinion tend to lessen their influence or weaken their positions in Africa. The United Kingdom, France and Belgium have recently displayed varying degrees of increasing resentment over the part played by the United Nations with respect to non-self-governing and trust territories. In addition, they have not been entirely happy about the role of the United States. There have been numerous signs recently that some French Government officials and responsible opinion are not only apprehensive but also suspicious of United States intentions with regard to French North Africa and French West Africa. While these suspicions on the part of the European powers are unfounded, they nevertheless continue to exist. The differing views of the United States and the colonial powers on the colonial question have become a source of irritation between ourselves and the Western European nations which should be removed in so far as is possible.

Even if only cosmetic, the tactical differentiation of U.S. Africa policy (and that of smaller European countries) from European imperialism whilst also maintaining a united Western opposition to Soviet influence in the region proved successful. American (and Scandinavian) influence in major institutions of global governance — like the United Nations system, the Bretton Woods institutions and the international aid industrial complex — further blunted the impacts of the hierarchical post-war/postcolonial global system and provided material incentives for African countries to ally with the West (or profess neutrality). Cohen is right to observe that:

In essence, the image of the United States in the minds of the embryonic African independence movements during the 1940s and 1950s was as the free world’s champion of self-determination. This was in stark contrast to the absence of enthusiasm on the part of the European colonial powers for the idea of an early transition from colonialism to self-determination in the midst of their struggle to achieve reconstruction from the devastation of world war.

The brief John F. Kennedy administration and its short-lived effort to tie the civil rights movement to African liberation and invest in meaningful US-Africa partnerships helped cement goodwill towards Washington in much of Africa. Even though eventually Kennedy could not overcome the legacies of men like George Kennan who saw African states as mere pawns in the struggle to contain the Soviet Union or a Congress that was willing to cede influence in the region to European colonial powers by refusing to fund robust foreign aid, the U.S. was nevertheless able to build on the early 1960s momentum to secure passably cordial relations with the majority of African states (albeit with not much to sing about).

Tom Mboya and former U.S. president John F. Kennedy in late July, 1960. Kennedy was an enthusiastic booster of US-Africa relations. Congress and later his assassination essentially stalled any meaningful advancement of US-Africa relations.

Tom Mboya and former U.S. president John F. Kennedy in late July, 1960. Kennedy was an enthusiastic booster of US-Africa relations. Congress and later his assassination essentially stalled any meaningful advancement of US-Africa relations. (Source: Des Moines Register.)

The current moment presents the U.S. with a similar dilemma to the one it faced in the late colonial period. The last decade has seen a steady spread and consolidation of popular anti-French sentiment (ressentiment anti-français) in much of Africa. Under the circumstances, there’s a distinct risk that anti-French sentiment may evolve into a wider anti-West sentiment which in turn would erode America’s standing in the region — and sour its relations with individual African countries. Adding to the risk is the fact that America’s geopolitical rivals have been savvy at waging information campaigns founded on African publics’ legitimate grievances over centuries-long humiliation and dispossession under European imperialism.

A combination of negative opinion of the U.S. and increased salience of sovereignty in the region would impose both ideological and electoral constraints on African elites’ ability to forge strong and mutually-beneficial ties with Washington. In this regard, the recent public communications debacle that accompanied threats from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to invade Niger after last month’s coup is instructive. In my view, ECOWAS is struggling to win over African publics for their proposed intervention to restore “constitutional order” in Niger due to the perception that they are being used by enemies of African sovereignty in the Sahel (read France and the United States).

A world in which politicians have to publicly distance themselves from both France and the United States would not be ideal for African states. Despite its checkered diplomatic history in the region, America has the potential to be a useful ally in service to African states’ economic and geopolitical agendas. It has the potential to spend lots of cash on allies, great technology, world-class universities and talent, and a big rich market. And in the spirit of maintaining African agency, the U.S. can be a useful balance against China and other major powers that African states engage on the global stage. For these reasons, a decoupling of America’s Africa policy from France — a move that would likely strengthen Africa-U.S. relations from the ground up — stands to benefit both African states and the U.S.

II: The flaws of Paris

Several factors explain the recent rise in anti-French opinion across Africa (see here for a deep dive in the specific case of the Sahel). First, there’s the objective fact of decades of French colonial and neocolonial exploitation and humiliation (in collusion with venal African ruling elites). A combination of new academic and journalistic research, social media reach, and incumbent government’s policy failures over the last 30 years have increased the salience of the structural historical roots of the current economic, political, and security problems in francophone states. Consequently, France has found itself on the receiving end of a lot of frustration (much of it deserved) over state weakness, the failure of democratic consolidation, rising insecurity, economic stagnation, and endemic poverty.

Charles de Gaulle in Abidjan in 1958. As the architect of francafrique, de Gaulle secured decades of French interventionism and neocolonial influence in Africa.

Charles de Gaulle in Abidjan in 1958. As the architect of francafrique, de Gaulle secured decades of French interventionism and neocolonial influence in Africa. (Source: News in France)

Second, the failure of three decades of electoralism to improve governance and material conditions in the region has been blamed on elites perceived to be French puppets. In this rendition (largely not backed up by facts), democracy promotion became viewed as a deliberate effort to keep African societies running around in circles and dependent on France. It does not help that the same Paris that cynically backs military rule in Chad, electoral malpractice in Gabon, the Republic of Congo, and Togo or third-termism in Cóte d’Ivoire (not to mention decades before of outright support for autocracy) also tries to pretend that it cares about democracy in the region. Reasonable people see this for what it is: (misguided) naked pursuit of French interests and power politics; while unreasonable people are more likely to construct all manner of conspiracy theories founded on half-truths. The latter are also more likely to be used by nationalist/sovereigntist domestic political entrepreneurs or France’s geopolitical rivals and therefore spread more extensively.

Third, French interventions in the Sahel since 2012 provided a focal metric against which to evaluate French regional designs in the eyes of the general public — and France failed the test spectacularly. The sprawling insurgency was objectively difficult to contain militarily, especially across the vast expanses of the sparsely-governed Sahel. In addition, France blundered by globalizing the counter-insurgency efforts and denying African governments any initiative (e.g., by leaning on its local partners not to negotiate with insurgents and refusing to send them weapons); empowering subnational groups that weren’t always loyal to their capitals (e.g., the Twareg in northern Mali); and backing governments whose counterinsurgency policies fueled violence against civilians. Regardless of actual French intentions, these actions were seen as nefarious attempts to control Sahelian states’ security agendas, erode their sovereignty, prop up oppressive governments, and perpetuate France’s geopolitical stranglehold on the region.

In the broader historical context, France’s post-Gaddafi military interventions and the sheer scale of violence that accompanied them were the proverbial last straw that forced a collective public reckoning with dozens of such interventions since 1960 and their effects. According to a BBC count in 2010:

Making discretionary use of its right to intervene, France has staged over 40 military operations to save, or sometimes topple, African regimes since 1960, mostly during the Cold War.

Anti-French protests in Mali. A lot of analysts have erroneously focused on the presence of Russian flags in these protests, to the neglect of the underlying drivers of anti-French sentiments.

Anti-French protests in Mali. A lot of analysts have erroneously focused on the presence of Russian flags in these protests, to the neglect of the underlying drivers of anti-French sentiments. (Source: Financial Times)

Fourth, France’s gross mishandling of public diplomacy over projected an image of an out of touch neocolonial power uninterested in either listening or making amends. Perhaps lulled by their perceived cultural hegemony in the region (which in any case is restricted to a small sliver of elites) and assurances from dependent leaders in client states, French policymakers dismissed brewing mass anti-French sentiment founded on legitimate grievances as the result of Russian propaganda. As expected, many thinking people in the region took offense at the insinuation that West Africans needed Russian coaching to understand their own historicsl grievances agsinst France. Especially in the Sahel, the waving of Russian flags and affiliation with Moscow came to be viewed as expressions of patriotism and defense of sovereignty. Ironically, the symbolism of the Russian flag acquired even greater potency after Russia invaded Ukraine and ignited a global discourse on sovereignty and the right to self-determination.

It is unclear if Paris can undo the damage that has already been done. For instance, official French reaction to the recent coup in Niger suggests that Paris is unwilling or unable to learn or change course. For this reason, both the U.S. and the rest of the West stand to lose in the court of African public opinion if they continue to let Paris take the lead on Western approaches to the many challenges facing francophone states (especially in the Sahel). Few things activate Pan-Africanism like populist rejections of neocolonialism.

III: America’s opportunity

As noted above, African states stand to benefit from an America that is interested in forging strong alliances founded on mutual-respect and serious attention to material outcomes. The U.S., too, would benefit from such an outcome in its broader geopolitical competition with rivals like Russia and China (the most likely major power beneficiaries of anti-Western sentiment in Africa). To this end, Washington would benefit from differentiating its Africa policy from former European colonial powers in the region — especially France.

Cross-national public opinion data is scarce, but the available evidence shows that the United States would lose little from decoupling its policy from European states with imperialist histories in Africa. For example, Afrobarometer surveys from 34 countries show the U.S. to be well ahead of former colonial powers as the preferred model of economic development (see below). The survey question did not explicitly ask respondents to rate individual countries’ overall policy posture, but given that respondents likely didn’t think/know of the actual economic policy differences among the available options one can infer that their choices partially reflected general sentiments — with the U.S. ahead of the pack.

In comparisons between China and the United States, respondents are more likely to prefer China’s model of development in former French colonies.

In comparisons between China and the United States, respondents are more likely to prefer China’s model of development in former French colonies. (Source: Afrobarometer)

Interestingly, the breakdown of individual country survey results reveals that respondents were more likely to pick China as the preferred model of development in francophone countries (see below). All francophone West African countries were above the average level of preference for the Chinese model of development.

In comparisons between China and the United States, respondents are more likely to prefer China’s model of development in former French colonies.

In comparisons between China and the United States, respondents are more likely to prefer China’s model of development in former French colonies. (Source: Afrobarometer)

A number of factors may explain this pattern of cross-country distribution of preferences. Language is certainly a factor, with anglophone countries perhaps more likely to be exposed to American media and entertainment, and therefore more partial to the U.S. It might also be that over the last 20 years China has been more visible or Chinese investments have had greater impact in francophone states — especially those that are resource dependent and/or had little foreign investments besides limited legacy in-flows from France. Recall that, on average, francophone states’s economies have under-performed the rest of the region. But even after accounting for these other potential explanations, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that perceptions of France colored individual respondents’ perception of the United States.

If it’s true that perceptions of France colors perceptions of the U.S. (and the West more broadly) in West Africa, then Washington has strong incentives to engage the region more directly and to visibly differentiate its policy posture from France. The same would be true for the European Union and its individual member states.

In decoupling its Africa policy from France, the first symbolic step ought to be for the U.S. State Department to shut down the African Regional Services in Paris (an Africa-focused public diplomacy desk with a U.S. $3m budget) and move its personnel and operations to Kinshasa. Next, the State Department should ensure that the process of French language training for its Africa officers doesn’t produce reflexive francophiles who only see the region from the perspective of French policymakers, media, and academics. The U.S. should also ensure that France does not remain the gatekeeper of francophone affairs at major international institutions — including the United Nations Security Council, the wider United Nations system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, among others. Such a reorientation would lay the groundwork for better and fact-based policymaking in Washington and Brussels, not to mention meaningful direct engagement with francophone governments in West and Central Africa. Importantly, these changes would also earn the U.S. goodwill beyond francophone African states.

IV: Conclusion

For a long time major global powers approached their engagements with African states as if public opinion did not matter. Whether it’s American oil companies in Equatorial Guinea, Chinese miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or French trade and logistics firms in West Africa, cynically partnering with unaccountable elites who oppress their people and pillage whole economies became the norm.

Two factors suggest that things will have to change moving forward — and should therefore convince the U.S. to decouple its Africa policy from France. First, the enormous economic, political, and security challenges facing African states mean that foreign powers will increasingly need to have capable allies in the region. The era of gatekeeper client states that barely existed outside their capitals is over. In a competitive multipolar world, major global powers will need allies that can amplify their economic and military powers. In such a world, what is the use of allies that experience perennial political instability, cannot run a functional modern economy, and are too weak to deter/defeat insurgencies or effectively coup proof? Stated differently, the cost of having weak allies that cannot stand on their own feet is only going to keep rising.

Second, domestic public opinion will increasingly intrude on African government’s foreign policy choices. The ubiquity of social media, knowledge of foreign policy options available under multipolarity, not to mention information wars among great powers, mean that it will be impossible for governments to ignore their populations’ ratings of potential allies. Under the circumstances, great powers that engage in cynical power politics and the cultivation of weak client states that only exist to facilitate the wanton pillaging of natural resources will most certainly lose out.

Source: Ken Opalo / Substack

Featured image: Anti-French protests in Mali. A lot of analysts have erroneously focused on the presence of Russian flags in these protests, to the neglect of the underlying drivers of anti-French sentiments. (Source: Financial Times)


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.