Saying the unspeakable

Saying the unspeakable
  • PublishedMarch 12, 2019

Italy’s Luigi Di Maio finally said what everybody knows but pretends not to – that the French pull virtually all the strings in their former African colonies. By Baffour Ankomah

Do you not just love Luigi Di Maio, the Italian Deputy Prime Minister? Since a 34-year-old Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany on 31 October 1517 challenging the Catholic orthodoxy, I think we have not had such European franc-parler as forthright as Di Maio’s on 21 January 2019, when he denounced France’s continued political and economic stranglehold on its former African colonies in no uncertain manner.

Even better, he meant every word of it. “I think that France is one of those countries that by printing money for 14 African states prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts,” the 32-year-old Maio, uninhibited by any diplomacy or European solidarity, said in a statement broadcast live on Facebook.

“We should stay at home,” he continued, “and when I say ‘we’ I talk about those European states, like France, that during these years have had benefits from exports of raw materials by printing a currency for 14 African states. And, with these advantages, also their economy has had benefits. Then the problem is that migrants arrive on our coasts. So, until this problem is solved, we will ask Europe to face the issue of decolonisation of Africa that has never ended.”

Hear, hear! For a long time denial by the Global North of the kind of wrongdoing that Maoi talked about had created the impression that nothing such was happening or had happened in Africa. But the young Italian knew better.

I think that France is one of those countries that by printing money for 14 African states prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts.

Luigi Di Maio, Italian Deputy Prime Minister

What is more, when France pressed him to recant, Maio, like Martin Luther 499 years before him, was unmoving. Rather he repeated his view: “If today we have people who are leaving Africa, it’s because certain European countries, France in particular, have never stopped colonising Africa,” he said on Italian radio, his defiance even sharper.

Then he delivered the coup de grace: “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.”

Wow! Did Maio not make your day? He cannot fathom how the French President, Emmanuel Macron (a young man himself) “first lectures us [on migrants], then continues to finance [French] public debt with the money which he [gets from] exploiting Africa.”

And listen to this one: “I have stopped being a hypocrite talking only about the effects of immigration and it’s time to talk about the causes,” Maio said. “In order to keep the Africans in Africa, it would be enough for the French to stay at home. The EU should sanction all those countries like France that are impoverishing African countries and are causing those people to leave.”

Prize for clear headedness

If Africa had a Nobel Prize for clear-headedness, Maio should be given it. To recant, not on his life! He reminded us all of a brave Martin Luther standing before the Diet of Worms on 17 April 1521 and telling the assembled inquisitors: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”  

Luther’s extraordinary defiance came almost a year after Pope Leo X had issued a Papal Bull in July 1520 describing Luther’s propositions as heretical. His writings had earlier been declared by a second Papal commission to be “scandalous and offensive to pious ears”. Pope Leo therefore gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. The German refused. As punishment, the Pope excommunicated him from the Catholic Church on 3 January 1521.

If today we have people who are leaving Africa, it’s because certain European countries, France in particular, have never stopped colonising Africa.

Luigi Di Maio, Italian Deputy Prime Minister

Maybe there is something about young men. They are audacious and speak their mind. For example, Luther had problems with rich pope asking for public subscriptions to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica. “Why does not the Pope,” Luther wrote, “whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” Only a young man could ask that daring question, and publicly.

Since Maio’s franc-paler, there have been attempts to digest his words with the focus on if truly French policy in Africa leads to migration of the African youth to Europe.

I would not join that debate. Rather I would more broadly restate the facts which Maio compressed in his statement about the French attitude to its former African colonies, especially as concerns the Colonial Pact that President Charles de Gaulle forced on the Africans before granting them independence in 1960.

In a 2013 interview with New African, Mamadou Koulibaly, the former Speaker of the Ivorian Parliament and author of The Servitude of the Colonial Pact, told the world: “Under the ‘solidarity’ independence pact, the 14 former French colonies or CFA countries are obliged to put 65% of their foreign currency reserves into the French treasury, plus another 20% for financial liabilities. This means these 14 African countries only ever have access to 15% of their own money! If they need more, they have to borrow their own money from the French at commercial rates.

“France has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. So even if the African countries can get better prices elsewhere, they can’t sell to anybody until France says it doesn’t need the resources.

“In the award of government contracts, French companies must be considered first; only after that can these 14 countries look elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if the CFA countries can obtain better value for money elsewhere.”

Hideous state of affairs

Since 1960, any Francophone African leader who has attempted to change this hideous state of affairs has seen a coup d’etat organised or instigated by France to overthrow him. Here, Presidents Hamani Diori of Niger (ousted in 1974) and Pascal Lissouba of Congo Brazzaville (ousted in 1997) come to mind. France has used this approach as an intimidatory tactic to silence the African leaders.

The only one in recent years who actually tried to do something about it was the former Ivorian President, Laurent Gbagbo. And it is why he has spent seven years in jail at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In December 2010, Koffi Charles, the Ivorian ambassador to the US, explained it thus:  “The core of the problem in Cote d’Ivoire is a conspiracy by the French government to use any measures necessary to remove President Gbagbo from power because they think he is dangerous and inimical to their interests in Francophone Africa – he will not allow them to control and run our economy on their terms.

“The French virtually control our economy. Some of the secret economic agreements they made with our first President, Houphouet Boigny, are unbelievably unfair. They intimidated the Old Man into signing most of these dubious agreements.

“We are supposed to be an independent state, but when we dig into our own land, after a certain depth, whatever we find must be cleared with the French. Gbagbo is insisting that some of these deals are unfair to us, so let’s renegotiate them. The French, greedy as they are, do not want to hear anything of the sort and have resorted to subversive tactics against Gbagbo.”

Koffi Charles’ view was supported by Augustin Douoguih, Gbagbo’s former legal adviser. “Some people have simply reduced the Ivorian crisis to just an election dispute. No. The election dispute is just the tip of the iceberg,” Douoguih said. “Beneath all the noise going on is a quiet struggle by Gbagbo to free Cote d’Ivoire from French economic exploitation, and a vicious French government trying to bring him down.”

As Prof Douglas Yates of the American Graduate School in Paris explains: “The true value of the CFA franc is not economic. It is political. For the member states of the franc zone have no national monetary policy of their own. The making of monetary policy remains with France. Meanwhile the autocratic puppets placed in political power by Paris have distributed their dependency.”

And people still want to debate if French policy in Africa leads to the emigration of the youth? NA

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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