Libreville, Gabon – “Traditional polarity is changing and with that Gabon must also change,” Michael Moussa-Adamo, Gabon’s foreign minister, told Al Jazeera shortly before the Central African country joined the Commonwealth last month. Along with Togo, it became the latest Francophone African country to join Britain’s club of mostly former colonies, despite the duo having no historic links to London.
The two African countries were once considered “France’s back yard”, ruled by dynastic dictatorships supported by Paris.
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The pivot to the Anglophone community is therefore seen as the latest blow for France in Africa, coming on the back of successive coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso to overthrow pro-French leaders.
“It is certainly not good news for France,” said Gilles Yabi, Dakar-based economist and political analyst at West Africa think-thank (WATHI). “It perceived as a blow, as a confirmation of an evolving relationship with France and the fact that France is no longer necessarily the kind of exclusive and special partner of these countries.”
Both countries said that a key motivation to join the Commonwealth was exposure to the Anglophone world of business and development partners. Many people living in former French countries believe that Britain’s former colonies have developed at a much faster rate than their Francophone counterparts.
“People are extremely excited,” said Nima Yussuf, senior project manager at ESP, a fund investing in Gabonese entrepreneurs. “They see the likes of Rwanda, which used to be Francophone but is now part of the Commonwealth and the sort of benefits that it has had for the country. They are excited about investment, visibility and partnerships”.
Anti-French sentiment worries leaders with ties to France
Another reason is that African leaders with strong ties to France are keen to distance themselves from Paris, to ward off civil society and opposition groups levelling criticism against governments across the region because of these connections.
The military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea enjoyed widespread popular support because they deposed leaders that profited from strong relations with France, paying less attention to rising economic and security issues. When Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré was overthrown by the army in January it was reported that France offered to evacuate him from the capital city of Ouagadougou.
Kémi Séba, a leading anti-colonial figure in Francophone Africa, said these events in the Sahel have reverberated across Francophone Africa, solidifying anti-French sentiments.
“The example of Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have created a buzz in Francophone Africa and will help similar ways of thinking in other countries across the region,” he said. “I think that by the end of the year and the beginning of next there will be one or two more regime changes.”
This will be of some concern for the presidents of Togo and Gabon who have benefitted enormously from links to France. Both leaders inherited power from their fathers who used links with France to quash rebellions and keep a tight grip on power. Indeed, since 1967, the Eyadema and Bongo families have held the presidency uninterrupted in Togo and Gabon respectively except for a five-month gap in 2009 in the latter.
The relationships were often very personal, characterised by direct links to several presidents in France’s management style of its former colonies known collectively as “La Françafrique”.
“The leaders of Togo and Gabon are definitely following the situation and the perception of the young generation that is very negative towards France,” said Yabi. “The specific move of going towards the Commonwealth may actually bring some popularity to the Togolese and Gabonese government because of the current anti-French sentiment in the region.”
An outward shift?
The question now is how the shift away from France in certain African countries will affect others in the region. Two of the last remaining strongholds for French influence are Senegal and Ivory Coast – Francophone Africa’s largest economies.
The leaders of both countries remain strongly tied to France and will likely be of even greater importance to Paris after the loss of other allies. French officials have made few public comments about Gabon and Togo joining the Commonwealth but off-record sources told Al Jazeera that Paris is not happy.
Historically, France has been willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and dictatorship in exchange for influence and power. Some analysts are concerned that a loss of power in the region will reinforce France’s support for questionable leaders who remain faithful to Paris.
The situation in Senegal will be a good indicator of France’s next move, where President Macky Sall is toying with the idea of running for a third term.
“When have we ever seen France go up against a third term,” said Kah Walla, a Cameroonian activist and politician who ran for president in 2011. “I see hardly any examples in history where France has played a favourable role in democracy in Francophone Africa”.
Senegal’s leading opposition figure, Ousmane Sonko, is far more anti-France than incumbent Sall which increases the likelihood that Paris will turn a blind eye to future electoral trickery, analysts say. Sonko has drummed up scorn for the president by claiming that Sall and his family have enriched themselves through several dodgy contracts with French companies.
France made no comment when the government barred key opposition candidates, including Sonko, from running in legislative elections next month, on flimsy grounds. It remains to be seen how France will react if Sall announces he will run for a third term, which is still not certain.
In 2020, similar events in Ivory Coast saw president Alassane Ouattara extend term limits to win a third term with little objection from France.
A new game plan
Analysts believe that more Francophone African countries may join the Commonwealth and there is a chance of further regime change in Sahelian countries like Niger and Chad which are tied to France.
“I think that French officials will be asking themselves a lot of questions right now and maybe trying to design a new policy,” said political analyst Yabi.
“They did not anticipate the extent of the rejection in Mali and what is happening elsewhere in the region. I’m not sure we have a clear view of what they will do next, in terms of a relationship with these countries. But I don’t think they will stop support for key allies like Macky Sall in the region”.