France’s reckoning in Africa

Charlie Hebdo has antagonised Muslims in West Africa and galvanised opposition to French interests.

French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by heads of state attends the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris
The resounding silence over the atrocities in Africa was alarming, writes Piet [Reuters]

France is walking on a thin line in West Africa, between its freedom of expression dogma and the preservation of its geopolitical interests.

As the world’s media extensively covered the death of 12 members of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, under the fire of religious extremists in Paris, a few voices adamantly complained about the lack of attention given to the Baga massacre led by Boko Haram.

The attack was perpetrated on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, on the Nigerian-Chad border. It led to the loss of up to 2,000 civilian lives and the abduction of more than 500 women and children. This was disturbingly overshadowed by the shootings in Paris.

While the events in Paris were quickly and rightly labelled as an important attack on freedom of speech, the second generated far less interest, fuelling claims that global powers are keen on rallying in the streets of Paris but turn their eyes away when the very same type of terrorism impacts African countries.

Same kind of terror

The Listening Post – Lead story: Covering Baga: A forgotten massacre?

Both acts were committed by violent groups hiding behind religion and violating the values of Islam for personal gain.

It is the same kind of terrorism: Just as Boko Haram’s assault on freedom of religion – targeting anybody suspected of opposing their efforts to establish an African caliphate – the killing of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists was an attempt at placing one religion above others, even though the publication targeted all faiths alike.

Yet, at the gathering of world leaders in Paris – ostensibly to protect freedom of the press – there were some whose own records on the matter are far from stellar. The resounding silence over the atrocities in Africa was alarming, especially from France, which has always pitted itself as a champion of human rights and which often boasts of special relations with West Africa.

However this simplistic reading should be revisited as the contradictions are not as blatant as they seem. Since the beginning of Francois Hollande’s administration, French foreign policy towards Africa has experienced a sharp turn, aiming both at reinforcing the French position in the region and preventing the development of a terrorism hive in West Africa.

During the Paris march following the Charlie Hebdo bloodshed, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was strategically placed at the right of the French President to reaffirm that France's recent interventions are two sides of the same comprehensive strategy against a common monster.


During the Paris march following the Charlie Hebdo attack, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was strategically placed at the right of the French president to reaffirm that France’s recent interventions in the region and the reactions to the terrorist acts in Paris are two sides of the same comprehensive strategy against a common monster.

France is witnessing a rise in extremist movements in several parts of its traditional sphere of influence in Africa. In Mali, an Islamist insurgency created havoc in the northern part of the country and gained momentum over the institutional failures of the central government.

Resurgence of conflicts

Even after a French military intervention praised by the United Nations, led to successful elections in the country, the situation is far from stabilised with the recent resignation of the government.

The entire continent has experienced a resurgence of conflicts favoured by the rise of religious fundamentalism and the easy access to weapons to challenge central authorities in several countries.

The Charlie Hebdo incident and the reaffirmed support from French authorities to place freedom of the press above religious dogmas has antagonised Muslim communities in West Africa, providing fertile soil for radical movements. It has also galvanised opposition to French interests, leading to several demonstrations and the torching of French flags in several countries.

The most violent events occurred in Niger where civilians were killed and churches ransacked.

Niger is a key country both in terms of French interests and the fight against fundamentalist movements. Niger’s important uranium resources are paramount to the French nuclear energy sector and to its energy and foreign policy independence.

The value of freedom of speech seemed far less of a priority when French nuclear consortium Areva tried to muzzle green activist Stephane Lhomme’s allegation that the company helped Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou purchase a private jet worth about $16,927,500.

Niger is also central to the fight against Boko Haram as the country borders the original bastion of the Islamist sect in Nigeria.

Gaining momentum

Extremism seems to be gaining momentum in the southern part of the country where Boko Haram has been known to regularly attract recruits among local gangs. Niger’s institutional weakness is similar to that of Nigeria and Cameroon, two countries incapable of protecting their territory and in dire need of regional help.

In this context, Chad has swiftly become an essential player in African geopolitics. Hollande and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, last July and November, to encourage the development of a pan-African military force.

If Paris is already engaged in the pacification of Mali and Central African Republic, it would much rather delegate the task of fighting Boko Haram to African nations, both because of the cost of an additional ground operation as well as to prevent being portrayed as having neo-colonial ambitions.

Emerging in front of the embarrassing ineptitude of the Nigerian military forces, Chad is seizing the opportunity to position itself as a regional power. Idriss Deby, the Chadian president, far from being an icon of democratic rule himself, has everything to gain from his involvement in the crisis, silencing international critics on his own domestic rulings and social contestation in N’Djamena

Therefore, if France’s counterterrorism strategy is consistent, adopting a comprehensive approach from international conflict and nation building in Africa to promote freedom of speech domestically, its implementation is far more contradictory.

On the home front, Paris has to silence critics of friendly heads of states, such as in Niger, while promoting the international prominence of a Chadian president who is undeniably weary as Deby’s domestic performance and involvement in the Central African Republic have regularly been criticised in France.

Even if this position is quite uncomfortable for Hollande, the French approach to Africa and contribution to its institutional development has greatly improved in comparison to the patronising and shameful speech by Nicolas Sarkozy on the African man’s supposed failure to embrace progress.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.