Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What America Can Learn from France’s Mistakes in Africa
What America Can Learn from France’s Mistakes in Africa

What America Can Learn from France’s Mistakes in Africa

Bottom Line

  • In recent years, France has suffered geopolitical setbacks in Africa. Tensions with Burkina Faso and Mali over French counter-terrorism operations led Paris to withdraw its troops from both of those countries.

  • Russia is exploiting France’s failure to defeat terrorist groups in Africa as well as the feeling among many Africans that Paris exerts undue influence over its former colonies.

  • The United States should learn from France’s mistakes and strive to build partnerships in Africa based on mutual respect, rather than focus too directly on competing with Russia or China.

France Moves Out, Russia Moves In

On January 23, 2023, the military junta in Burkina Faso confirmed its decision to end the accord that allowed French troops to fight terrorist groups in the country. That decision came a few weeks after the junta requested the departure of the French ambassador. Burkina Faso’s junta, similar to their counterparts in Mali, aims to dramatically diminish France’s influence in their country. One consequence of the deterioration of France’s relationship with its former colonies is the growing presence of the Russian Wagner Group in Francophone Africa. 

Two main factors explain the increased approval of Russia and the Wagner Group in Africa—the failure of a rapid eradication of violent extremist groups and the desire of a new generation of African leaders to diversify their international partners. The latter appears to be mainly motivated by French leaders’ arrogant attitudes towards Africans, and the double standards many African countries accuse France of applying in the way it approaches international affairs. For instance, France supported non-democratic dynastic successions in countries such as Chad and Gabon, but cited democratic principles in calling for sanctions against the Guinean and Malian juntas.

The lack of results in the fight against terrorism, even with the presence of French troops, is one of the factors that led to military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. The juntas criticized the approaches of their respective governments to the war against terrorists. Local armies, military assistance from France and other Western countries, and the United Nations forces have been unable to neutralize the terrorist groups. Moreover,  countries such as Mali have accused France of providing intelligence and weapons to armed groups operating on Malian territory, an accusation that has not been substantiated. 

France signed military agreements with many French-speaking African countries after independence that have borne little fruit. These countries’ armies are poorly trained and ill-equipped, and must rely on France for almost everything. To many Africans, it is in French national interests to keep countries dependent on it. Abdoulaye Diop, Mali’s minister for foreign affairs, said, “The difficulty we had with France was that it was not a sincere partnership that allowed Mali to evolve, to ensure its security.” He went on to say, “it was a scheme of dependence.”

Exchanging One Evil for Another

The solution to the security problem, for the Central Africa Republic and Mali, seems to be turning to Russia and the Wagner Group as partners to effectively train their military forces, and most importantly, to provide the military equipment they need to fight extremists. Leaders of those countries consider the Wagner Group’s control over gold mines in exchange for their military support no different than previous French practices in their countries. 

France, through commercial entities, still controls significant mines and oil fields on the continent. The French company, Orano, operated a uranium mine in Niger that provided nearly 25 percent of the European Union’s uranium supplies in recent years. However, investment in the development of the community around the mining site is almost non-existent, and people are exposed to levels of radiation above the limits internationally recommended. 

Russian propaganda in Africa is sophisticated and potentially dangerous. However, in Francophone Africa, the Russians merely take advantage of a situation created by French actions. More than sixty years after its former colonies gained their independence, France seems bent on maintaining them in a state of dependency. The use of CFA currency by its former colonies and its support to dictators on the continent remain tools France uses to advance its commercial and geopolitical interests. 

The argument that French military decline in Africa is a result of Russian propaganda—and Chinese influence in Africa, as well—fails to acknowledge France’s actions vis-à-vis its former colonies. Paris’ decline and Russia’s simultaneous rise in Africa are rooted in the perceived disdain that French leaders have shown for Africans’ concerns and their unwillingness to create a shared, determined, and clear-sighted partnership with former colonies. So, to many Francophone African leaders, Russia is left as the only reliable foreign military partner to help them deal with extremist aggression.

French Lessons for America

African leaders believe their continent is increasingly important in the great-power competition between China, Russia, Europe, and the United States. African countries are open to new relationships based on partnerships that take their needs and goals into account, not patronage relationships with countries seeking to impose their ways. Africans want relationships of mutual respect and shared strategic goals, and the right to choose their allies and destinies.

As the Biden administration sends a cascade of high-level officials to Africa, including Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Jill Biden, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, some African analysts doubt the sincerity of its engagement with the continent. They argue that the United States is more driven by fear of losing influence and leverage in a changing global order, where African countries are increasingly asserting their autonomy and diversifying their partnerships.

Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist and philosopher, writes, “Africa has no catching up to do. It must no longer run on tracks laid down by others, but rather walk firmly on its chosen path.” The United States should take note of this sentiment and adopt strategic policies that make it a reliable partner for Africa, not a patron. The recent US-Africa leaders’ summit set the tone for a reset in this relationship, but the United States needs to bring forth actions instead of just words. Washington should not engage with the continent only to counter Russian (and Chinese) influence. Instead, the United States should work to bring generations of Africans and Americans together to learn from each other and to work together in a mutually respectful way to face this century’s global challenges in pursuit of development and prosperity for all.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

Image: Defense Department