Climate change and a new great game in Africa

france losing its grip in Africa
(Photo: Ai-Generated)
France’s Africa hands must be scratching their heads. How did France, which for decades maintained strong economic, political, and military ties to its former African colonies, come to lose so much influence on the continent so quickly?اضافة اعلان

The coup in Gabon in late August led to the overthrow of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, a longtime ally of France. Gabon’s shake-up followed a coup in Niger the previous month, the seventh such event in a Francophone African country since 2021. Burkina Faso underwent two coups last year and Guinea Bissau weathered an attempted one. Guinea, Chad, and Mali all experienced coups in 2021 (as did Sudan, a former British colony).

The impact on France’s relationship with the continent has been catastrophic. Mali pushed out French troops last year and the new regime in Niger is looking to do the same. The French also have faced protests in Chad. In yet another sign of France’s declining influence in Africa, Gabon and Togo joined The Commonwealth, a group of mostly former British colonies, in June 2022.

Given that Francophone Africa dominates the list of recent coup-affected countries, questions have been asked about the role of France’s colonial legacy in creating instability and weak governance. Certainly, anti-French sentiments have been expressed in coup-hit countries and beyond.

Belatedly, the French government has taken notice. During a tour of four Francophone African states in March, French President Emmanuel Macron promised that France would no longer seek to interfere in Africa in pursuit of its own strategic interests, claiming the era of “Francafrique” was over.

Macron wasn’t the first to make such promises, and perhaps therein lies a problem: African leaders and citizens have heard similar pledges before. But in places like Gabon, the role of the French state in propping up Bongo was growing more and more unpopular. Changes in rhetoric haven’t been followed by changes in practice, and France has continued to treat Francophone Africa as its own backyard.
France’s Africa hands must be scratching their heads. How did France, which for decades maintained strong economic, political, and military ties to its former African colonies, come to lose so much influence on the continent so quickly?
French doublespeak has created opportunities for others, and not only coup leaders. Instability across the wide belt of Francophone Africa has opened the door for Russia to renew its own influence on the continent. For instance, when French forces left Mali, it was Russian led Wagner troops who took over.

While the Soviet Union long played a role in Africa, Russia has only sought to renew its engagement on the continent in the past decade. The war in Ukraine accelerated these efforts. Today, with its global influence challenged, Russia is seeking to establish control over strategic raw materials and to build a block to counter what it sees as Western dominance of international organizations. Two trips within nine months by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov included formal meetings in 11 African countries.

One attraction of Moscow for African governments is Russia’s willingness to provide military and other forms of assistance with a promise not to interfere in internal politics or, as China has been accused of, to create debt-traps that can be traded for increased control over vital assets. Russian support appears to come with fewer strings (though whether ceding control over key export sectors might be a trap of another kind remains to be seen).

Russia’s legacy in Africa is different to that of former colonial powers. During the Soviet era, Moscow was the main critic of empires in forums like the United Nations; it provided armed and other support to freedom fighters in struggles against colonial powers, including in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. President Vladimir Putin may see Africa through the lens of Russian interests, and the memory of Russian (and Soviet) solidarity across Africa has made it easier to execute his agenda. Immediately after the recent coup in Niger, for instance, tailors couldn’t keep pace with demand for Russian flags waved by supporters.

In the 19th century, the struggle for power in Central Asia between Britain and Russia was described as a “Great Game.” So, is the power struggle between France and Russia in Africa a transposing of that contest? As France’s influence wanes, Russia has rushed to capitalize.

But to view current events only as the result of external politics is to miss important underlying issues. Place a map of the Sahel belt over a political map of Africa, and the alignment becomes clear: ecological disaster, drought, desertification, and resultant conflicts over land and resources have fed national and regional conflicts more than competition between foreign powers.

Simply put, the underlying causes of instability and insecurity are the internal, regional tensions created by a precarious ecological zone. The increased impact of the climate emergency will further stress regional stability.

To see the region’s crises as a renewal of the Great Game alone is to fail to note the impact of a worsening climate and the social and economic instability it creates. A new Great Game may continue, but the success of France or Russia won’t resolve the challenges that citizens of these countries face. For them, political uncertainty is anything but a game.

Michael Jennings is a professor in global development at SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development. Twitter: @mikejennings101

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