A second independence?
On the 50th anniversary of so many countries’ independence, sub-Saharan Africa is at a crossroads. Some Africans are calling for a "second independence", especially for former French colonies, while others prefer to speak of a new phase in the history of postcolonial Africa.
The face of Africa in 2010 is very different from that of 1960.
France is no longer an eldorado for people on the African continent. Until the late 1980s, la Métropole was a point of reference, even a second home, real or virtual, for many Africans.
Nowadays, in Dakar, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Douala, eyes are often fixed on the United States, Canada or South Africa. Of course, there are large communities from francophone African countries in France. But something has definitely changed.
France’s introduction of restrictive immigration laws in the 1980s is part of the explanation. The tightening of border controls has forced emigrants looking for work to turn to other European countries, like Italy and Spain. At the same time, French universities, once the natural choice for many students from sub-Saharan Africa, have lost their monopoly. France is still one of destination for them. But many prefer to go to Canada, the United States or Morocco, or stay at home for their studies.
Discouraged by red tape, more and more intellectuals and professors from African universities travel or go to teach in Quebec, the United States or South Africa instead of coming to France. So, over the years, African elites have gradually distanced themesleves from France and opened up to the rest of the world. At the same time, they have become more securely anchored in their own culture.
Renewal of identity
The change would probably not have been as significant without the revolution in communication technologies. Gone are the days when television viewers in Benin, Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon were captive audiences for programmes donated by France to their national television networks. The emergence of satellite television and the internet has shaken up benchmarks and frameworks.
Although the rural population is still largely impoverished, the ever-increasing urbanisation of the African continent is allowing a marger proportion of the population to have access and be connected to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, inexpensive digital video technologies have made possible the creation of more local television programmes, which contribute in their own way to a form of identity renewal.
The famous Brazilian telenovelas are still watched by millions, but they are now competing with successful local series such as My family in Côte d'Ivoire and hundreds of made-in-Nigeria productions, broadcast on television and sold in the streets on DVD.
Furthermore, the liberalisation of the airwaves in many countries since the early 1990s has put an end to the quasi-monopoly of national radio and international radio stations such as RFI, which now face competition from a myriad of high-quality private stations.
On a political level, France continues to play a role in Africa, notably in Chad, where its support has recently been decisive in the survival of Idriss Deby’s regime.
But the future of the continent is no longer decided in Paris. France became painfully aware of this in Côte d'Ivoire, where the 2002 crisis was finally settled through a compromise between President Laurent Gbagbo and his Burkinabé counterpart Blaise Compaoré.
Fewer French in Africa
Paris has also reduced its military presence on the continent, with the closure of its bases in the Central African Republic and Côte d'Ivoire.
And there are fewer French expatriates in Africa. In the mid 80s, there were 200,000 living on the continent, some 50,000 in Côte d'Ivoire alone. Twenty-five years later the figure is almost half that. And for the period 1994-2001 alone, the number of civil and military coopérants (assistants sent by the French state) decreased from 3,200 to 1,899.
On an economic level, it’s a far cry from the time when French companies were assured of obtaining contracts in the African backyard.
Nowadays they face competition from American, European, Chinese, Saudi, Iranian and South African companies. The same is true as regards development assistance. Although France remains one of the largest donors to francophone Africa, aid is increasingly provided via the EU and other international bodies such as the World Bank.
In addition, African leaders are happily turning to new partners like China, the Gulf Emirates and Iran, who are less concerned about human rights and good governance. As for the businessmen and traders of francophone Africa, they have long ceased to deal exclusively with mainland France.
Five decades after officially obtaining their independence, African states haven’t turned their backs on France. For critics of Françafrique, who denounce the meddling of Paris in Chad, Gabon and Guinea-Conakry, French interference is still far too commonplace.
However, the exclusive relationship with the former coloniser has given way to opening up to the whole world, and diplomatic contacts decided by the interests of the moment.
Perhaps Africans' relations with France have just become unexceptional.