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Travels in Niger--Part Two

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

The French In Africa--It's Complicated

French and North African soldiers in the "Army of Africa," WWI
French and North African soldiers in the "Army of Africa," WWI (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

France in Algeria

The French connection to Africa dates back to at least the seventeenth century, but it began in earnest with the invasion of Algiers in July 1830 and the toppling of Ottoman rule in Algeria.

The French troops are invading Algeria at the capital Algiers
French troops invade Algiers, July 1830. Litograph. (Image: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

French rule over Algeria lasted 132 years from 1830 to 1962, during which time European settlers flocked to the country. The French settlers were called colons or pieds-noirs. The history of French Algeria is complex, and won't be explored in detail here, but it was characterized by cycles of violence and mutual incomprehension between the rulers and the ruled. In 1878, when the French ostensibly made Algeria part of Metropolitan France (rather than a colony as such), that didn't make circumstances any better for the indigenous Algerians because it allowed the pieds-noirs to send representatives to French parliament, thus consolidating the two-tiered system that accorded rights to the pieds-noirs while denying the same to Algerians.

Ongoing conflict culminated in the Algerian War Of Independence, 1954-1962 Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched armed revolts in 1954 all over Algeria, issuing a proclamation calling for an Algerian sovereign state. The pied-noirs formed "vigilante committees" against the revolutionaries.

In 1956, the FLN, in an attempt to bring international attention to the Algerian nationalist struggle, used three women to plant bombs in public places in Algiers. Thus began the Battle of Algiers. One of the most brutal and vengeful conflicts, it's portrayed in the classic film The Battle of Algiers, and somewhat in the novel Kamila.

At last, on 5 July 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France after millions of Algerians had been killed or turned into fleeing refugees. France's military deaths numbered 25,000 to 30,000, and by 1962 when the Algerian war was wildly unpopular in France, they had little to show for it. As is often the case (see: Afghanistan) where a military power tries to enforce itself on an indigenous population with a patronizing sense of superiority, France failed miserably. Revolutionaries fight harder than the ruling power because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Scramble For Africa, aka the Partition of Africa

In the 1870s, European nations controlled only ten percent of the African Continent. It was Portugal who instigated a meeting called by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1885 among thirteen European powers and the USA to agree on how to divide Africa up for colonization. In addition to resolutions passed to end slavery, the conference established a "Principle Of Effective Occupation," which meant a colonizing power had to demonstrate that it had political and/or administrative control. As a result, the colonial powers made a frantic dash to establish dominance over African territory instead of simply having coastal trading posts, hence the term, scramble for Africa. The figure below shows how those coastal trading relationships up until 1885 morphed into vast territorial land grabs by the mid-1910s. Only Liberia and Ethiopia were free of the European control. It wasn't necessarily a cakewalk for the Europeans, though. The Asante, Moroccans, Ethiopians, Dervishes, and Zulus resisted strongly, and in some cases defeated the invaders.

Comparison map of Africa 1880 to 1913 after the Partition of Africa (Image: Wikimedia/Somebody500)
Comparison map of Africa 1880 to 1913 after the Partition of Africa (Image: Wikimedia/Somebody500)

France in sub-Saharan Africa

Although the French established a trading port as early as 1659 at St. Louis in present day Senegal, they didn't push into the interior until the later parts of the nineteenth century as European powers began the partition of Africa (see above.) France established colonies in the eight modern nations of Benin (formerly Dahomey), Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal. (Togo was originally Togoland, a German protectorate and colony until Britain and France invaded in WW I, leading to French and British Togoland, the latter choosing to join Ghana later at Ghana's independence.)

Map of French West African Countries (AOF)
French West Africa (AOF)

The citizens of these eight countries were considered "subjects," meaning they had no rights under the law, including the right to own property, travel, dissent, or vote. The exception was in the Four Communes of Senegal (Saint Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque), whose inhabitants were granted equal political rights. France ruled all the colonies either as part of the Senegal administration or independently through French Army officers. The first governor-general of Senegal was named in 1895 and the territories he was overseeing were designated French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française, AOF).

French colonization, 1895 - 1913

Make no mistake, colonization led to the shedding of the blood of millions of Africans. Gloria Emeagwali states, "Colonialism was essentially a process of administration which denied Africans political and economic autonomy while subordinating them to the dictates of an evolving global capitalist ethic and world market controlled by a Euro-American elite."

In her book, France and Its Empire Since 1870, Alice L. Conklin discusses how France's colonial officials implemented--or tried to--the French notion of mission civilisatrice, "civilizing mission," based on the idea that with enough influence, "barbaric peoples" could learn to become civilized, and that the civilization was fundamentally French. It was the official ideology of France's Third Republic. This was markedly different from the attitude of the British, who felt that no one could become British if they weren't of that heritage.

One of the more progressive governors-general in Dakar, Senegal, was Ernest Roume, from 1902 to 1907. His zeal for improving sanitary conditions and public health in the colony was flawed by concentrating on the diseases most affecting Europeans: yellow fever and malaria, but not on the deadly sleeping sickness (Trypanosomiasis), which was rapidly killing the Africans. In 1914, the then governor-general's scheme of moving "unsanitary Africans" away from the Europeans to a "model town" called Medina lead to equally insalubrious conditions. Ultimately, as Conklin notes, the science and technology in which the French had excessive pride was a poor fit for Senegal, a scenario that persists to the present day in which western solutions are inappropriate for the tropics.

The French believed absolutely in their superiority in the social, moral, cultural, and scientific realms. Conklin writes how a component of the mission civilisatrice was mastery over nature, i.e. over the human body, geography, climate, disease, and despotism. In the view of the French, inhabitants of the non-European world had failed to master these phenomena, and therefore they were barbarians in need of civilizing. Third Republic journalist Gabriel Charmes wrote, "If France were able to establish itself permanently in North Africa . . . to make its influence felt in the entire Sahara . . . if in these immense regions where only fanaticism and brigandage reign today, it were to bring--even at the price of spilled blood--peace, commerce, tolerance, who could say this was a poor use of force? . . . Having taught millions of men civilization and freedom would fill it with the pride that makes great peoples."

These views were consistent with the prevailing notions of "social Darwinism," which is that competition between groups and nations drives societal progress, but those on the defined "bottom" (non-Europeans) will never really rise to the top (Europeans); the white man's burden (Rudyard Kipling's eminently dreadful poem) the duty of white peoples to imperially conquer non-whites in order to "civilize" them; and the imperial gaze, the attitude of white people in their observation of "the other" that whites are good or normal, while non-whites are not.

Cartoon of the White Man's burden. This cartoon depicts a representation of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem The White Man's Burden. Originally published in February, 1899 the poem's philosophy quickly developed as the United States response to annexation of the Philippines. The United States used the "white man's burden" as an argument for imperial control of the Philippines and Cuba on the basis of moral necessity. It was now the United States' moral duty to develop and modernize the conquest lands in order to help carry the foreign barbarians to civilization.
The White Man's Burden (By Victor Gillam - “The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling)” Judge, April 1, 1899 Public domain:, from The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

In exercising and maintaining hegemonic power over their territories and colonies, France and other Euro powers sought buy-in from their citizens via human zoos, which held public displays of black people (and others of color) in cages or open enclosures. These were common from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. What these zoos purported to do was show Europeans how strange and sub-human BIPOC were, sometimes referring to them as "the missing link."

White people gazing at black children
"At the Black Village--a little of Blacks, lots of Whites." Exposition in the city of Orleans, France, 1903, displaying black children to French gawkers (Original image source unclear)

"Dahomey [now Benin] Village" at Paris Exposition 1900 (Image by Underwood & Underwood)

France, Germany, and Belgium were at the forefront of these human zoos, but other countries were guilty as well, not least the United States. In 1904, white explorers kidnapped an Mbuti man (author note: "Pygmy" is a controversial word and is probably best avoided) in the Congo and brought him to the US to be displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (world's fair) along with some of his countrymen.

After the fair, Benga was moved elsewhere. In 1906, the New York Times reported, Bushman shares a cage with Bronx Park Apes. In a cage with a chimp, parrot, and orangutan to demonstrate an example of "the/a missing link,"( i.e. between ape and man, but closer to ape, of course), Ota was laughed and jeered at and spat upon.

In part due to the publicity furnished by the NYT article, thousands descended on The Bronx Zoo to see this "missing link." Perception is everything of course, but how a smooth-skinned Ota with fine African features even remotely resembles a hairy chimpanzee with a completely different facial structure is impossible to fathom.

Ota Benga, Congolese, holding chimpanzee.
Ota Benga with chimpanzee at The Bronx Zoo, 1906 (Image: Library of Congress)

French West Africa (AOF) and WW I

By 1914, AOF was contributing little to the economic development of France, the bulk of whose trade was with Algeria, the oldest colonial trading partner. French businessmen, less enterprising than their German or British counterparts, were not reaping the rewards of trading in coffee, cocoa and tropical fruits. By 1920, with the scarcity of French naval vessels, AOF's supply of foodstuffs to France was less than it had been in 1913.

After WW I, colonialists urged that France do more with its colonies with a view to rebuilding France's thrashed economy, but taxpayers and their parliamentary representatives balked at the bill. WW I marked the end of France's colonial expansion and in the years following, the importance of the colonies died. With the onset of WW II, some of the "win-with-the-Empire" sentiment was revived, with the French asserting that they could raise a mighty army from the "Empire." That notion died ignominiously with the Blitzkrieg of 1940.


More than a million African soldiers contributed to the defeat of Nazism and Fascism in World War II, a contribution often ignored or underestimated by France. Additionally, Ghana's port of Takoradi, an RAF base, was used as an assemblage site for Britain's warplanes, which then set out across the Sahara on a hazardous flight to Egypt. As France collapsed under the Nazi invasion of June 1940, the German army carried out a series of massacres against African soldiers in the Lyon region. The mostly Senegalese soldiers were taken to a field and gunned down in cold blood by the machine-gun wielding German army. The Germans' hatred of Black soldiers dated back to WW I.

After the Free French Government failed to provided African soldiers back pay on their return from the Western Front, an uprising in a military camp outside Dakar took place and was brutally quelled by the French.

France's Neo-Colonialism

In 2019, Luigi Di Maio, Italian deputy prime minister declared, "The EU should impose sanctions on France and all countries like France that impoverish Africa and make these people leave, because Africans should be in Africa, not at the bottom of the Mediterranean... If people are leaving today it's because European countries, France above all, have never stopped colonising dozens of African countries." Undaunted, Di Maio went on to say that France was manipulating the economies of 14 African countries that use the CFA franc, adding, "If France didn't have its African colonies, because that's what they should be called, it would be the 15th largest world economy. Instead it's among the first, exactly because of what it is doing in Africa."

This is a serious accusation, but there are solid reasons for making it. Writing in their book Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story, Ndongo Samba Sylla and Fanny Pigeaud note that France replaced the old, unsustainable direct-rule colonial arrangements with Françafrique, a kind of political and economic scaffolding on which to build control, subjugation and exploitation of supposedly sovereign African states--Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, to name a few--by their former colonial master, France.

In 1945, the French introduced a common currency for several African colonies called the CFA franc (franc des colonies françaises d'afrique) supposedly to protect the colonies from inflation arising from the devalued French franc. That France would actually give a damn about black people in its colonies is about as nonsensical as a pedophile claiming to care about the children he assaults on a daily basis.

In her article, Gloria Spagnol states: [France] controlled the strategic raw materials of the countr[ies]; it stationed troops in the countr[ies] with the right of free passage; it demanded that all military equipment be acquired from France; it took over the training of the African police and army; it required that French businesses be allowed to maintain monopoly enterprises in key areas (water, electricity, ports, transport, energy, etc.).

The CFA franc is issued in two currency blocs by two distinct African central banks, but the French can veto their decisions. Monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank. The CFA is pegged against the euro (originally the French franc) and the French Treasury guarantees convertibility with the euro at the cost of the African countries having to deposit fifty percent of their foreign reserve holdings with the Treasury.

Dominations of CFA franc (Shutterstock)
Dominations of CFA franc (Shutterstock)

The tyranny of this arrangement can be clearly seen by France's vengeful mob-boss type of reaction to Guinea deciding to issue its own national currency in 1960. France sabotaged Guinea by sending in service secrets agents, flooding the economy with false banknotes, and disrupting everything it could. Two years prior to that, after Guinea rejected France's rule in a referendum, the petulant, vengeful French pulled out of Guinea in their thousands, took whatever property they could and destroyed the rest: schools, public buildings, medicine, cars, books, research institute instruments, and farming equipment. The icing on the cake was to kill animals and poison or burn food in warehouses. Such a classy bunch.

Plans to change the CFA

For a couple of decades, there has been a plan afoot to change the CFA franc to the "eco," obviously a contraction of ECOWAS (Ecomonic Community of West African States). However the process has been stalled several times, the most recent projection being 2027 for release of the new currency. So far, however, a minority of West African countries have met the criteria for eligibility to join the new currency, e.g. an inflation rate no higher than five percent.

In addition to the CFA change, a second modification planned is that French representatives will no longer sit on the boards of the Central Bank of West African States; and the third is the removal of the obligation to deposit 50 percent of foreign exchange reserves into the French Treasury. Nevertheless, Fanny Pigeaud says, "the main link will remain. These countries will still have to report to France daily by virtue of the 'convertibility guarantee,' which is France’s promise to lend as many euros as needed by the Central Bank of West African States — a promise on which it does not deliver."

France, West African security, and Niger

The deadly attack that killed eight at the Kouré Giraffe Reserve (mentioned in the last blog) is cited as an example of terrorism that occurred outside the conventional "red zone" in Niger, prompting the French government to declare the entire country of Niger a "red zone" (except Niamey, which remained "orange") evidently without consulting with Niger before issuing the warning. This demonstrates not only how France still adopts a domineering attitude toward its ex-colonies, but also how it continues to be inextricably linked with West Africa's fragile security status.

France has about 5,100 troops in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane, which was formed in 2013 after French forces helped stop extremists from seizing the capital of Mali in 2012. In June 2021, France announced that Operation Barkhane would come to an end, with troops withdrawn and refocused toward an international counterterrorism effort in the Sahel. Is this enlightenment, or another slick twist in strategy? France has faced a difficult task, for good reason, trying to persuade other countries, e.g. Germany and the US, to take up more than just a supportive role.

Whatever the outcomes, it seems likely that Niger could play an increasingly strategic role in the region. The United States apparently sees it that way and has built a $11o million base outside Agadez, Niger. Another issue is that Niger is rich in uranium, and France relies heavily on nuclear energy for its power supply. However, the role Niger has in supplying France with uranium is said to have diminished somewhat in importance.

Out of the eight AOF countries, seven fall below a GDP per capita of less than $1500, behind Cape Verde ($3600), Nigeria ($2200), and Ghana ($2200). Only Côte d'Ivoire ($2300) makes the cut, undoubtedly due to its towering cocoa production. Ultimately, France must face an existential question: Would you be in this inextricably tangled mess in West Africa if you hadn't kept your knee pressed politically and economically on the neck of the colonies? You've made your bed, and unfortunately for you, now you have to lie in it.

Next blog: great images from Niger

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