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INTERVIEW

We must not despair of Africa

We must not despair of Africa
  • PublishedMay 13, 2024

Dov Zerah is a former Director General of the French Development Agency, and a great connoisseur of the African continent. He has just launched a think-tank on Africa, La palabre sous le Baobab, to stop feeling sorry for the state of France’s relations with the continent.

Why this think tank on Africa? How would you like it to contribute to the debate on France and African issues?

Our initiative is based on a simple observation. Recent events between Africa and France have given rise to a deep sense of failure. My friends and I have devoted part of our professional lives to promoting Africa’s economic development and defending African countries in French and international government forums, and we have the impression that it’s all been for naught!

At the same time, the mobilisation of social networks against France and the spread of a certain disenchantment with France have left us feeling hurt and challenged.

This feeling is accentuated by the absence of debate on the subject. Perhaps wrongly, the subject of Africa does not seem to interest many people, except on the one aspect, which could not be more reductive, of immigration.

I was born in Africa, in Tunis, and I got to know African countries, both in the Maghreb and in sub-Saharan Africa. I love Africa. I didn’t see myself as a mere spectator of events. With friends who share this feeling, this need, we’re going to try to provide food for thought and debate.

We cannot ignore the people of Africa. Obviously because of our historical responsibility, our cultural links…, but above all because they are our next-door neighbours.

To move the debate forward, there is a need for truth: to name the ills and dysfunctions. How do you intend to do this?

We simply want to ask questions and encourage collective debate. Let’s take a concrete example.

In recent years, several countries in the Sahel-Sudan strip – Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Niger and Chad – have experienced one or more coups d’état.

Why did we accept some and reject others?

Was this the right approach?

How can “realpolitik” be reconciled with a concern to defend human rights and democracy?

Should we continue to try to change modes of governance?

Why did we leave Niger when the United States and many European countries accepted the coup d’état?

Can sanctions be applied to an African country when many other countries, including China and Russia, do not apply them?

Can we describe all troublemakers as Islamist terrorists? We have and are confronted with Islamist terrorist movements, but also with nationalist, independence-seeking and mafia groups. Can we act as if there were only radical Islamists? Our discourse and modes of action need to be adapted accordingly.

Should we maintain official development assistance to an unfriendly country?

France economic presence, military bases and cultural influence in Africa seems to be under threat. How can we  innovate in a complex and difficult geopolitical context?

One of the first observations of our circle is that there can be no single answer. The diversity of African situations must be taken into account. Three groups of countries can be identified.

Two areas of Africa have been experiencing crises for some twenty years: the Sahel-Sudan strip and the Congo region. These are areas of violence, war and coups d’état, probably because economic development has been lacking. Despite the funds mobilised, the international community has not succeeded in setting in motion a real process of real growth, of nominal growth higher than demographic growth in order to achieve per capita growth.

On the other hand, some countries, such as Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, have managed to take off and position themselves on a real growth path.

Finally, some countries are still in between.

Without going into the targeted responses for each case, two sectors should be given priority by development players: agriculture and education.

The exceptional demographic growth that Africa will experience over the next 25 years means that we need to concentrate our efforts on developing agriculture and enabling the continent to feed itself.

The second pillar is education. Only an increase in the level of knowledge will facilitate the opening up to modernity and progress. It will enable the emergence of a class of managers capable of promoting growth. Finally, we know that education, especially for women, is a powerful brake on birth control.

The challenge is complicated by the fact that certain players, such as China, Russia and Turkey, are pursuing objectives that are totally in line with their own interests. Increasingly active in Africa over the past 20 years, they see the continent either as a source of raw materials to be recuperated to ensure the sustainability of their own development, or as a market to be conquered; their approach is bilateral and they refuse to cooperate with any multilateral approach. In this respect, the most characteristic example is China, which has no hesitation in indebting African countries by not applying the rules recognised by the international community and using them to subjugate their debtors. Let’s not forget the religious proselytism of countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Despite all its development and growth problems, Africa is a continent of the future. Will France be able to meet the aspirations of young Africans who have no complexes and are looking for a new relationship?

I hope and pray that Africa will be a continent of the future. Let’s not forget that just after independence in the 1960s, the widespread feeling was “Africa’s off to a good start, Asia’s off to a bad start”! Similarly, after the decade of structural adjustment that gave rise to Afro-pessimism, there was a consensus at the beginning of the millennium that Africa was an El Dorado. Twenty years on, the situations are more varied.

Nevertheless, we can neither despair of Africa nor lose interest in it! Let’s find the ways and means of sustainable development for Africa.

Should France open up a debate about the CFA franc?

Yes. Given the number of errors I hear and read about the CFA Franc, it is urgent to open a major debate on the subject.

Let’s not forget that this currency grants an enormous economic advantage to the member countries of the three zones: having a currency that is indefinitely convertible thanks to the unlimited guarantee of the French Treasury. With this incomparable advantage, member countries can always finance their imports. No franc zone country has ever found itself unable to take delivery of a shipment of oil or rice!

In return for this unlimited French guarantee, the reserves of these countries were deposited in an operating account with the Banque de France. Contrary to what has been said or written, these resources are not at France’s disposal! They are and remain the property of the member countries of the zone.

In return for being able to finance their imports without limit, these reserves are used as collateral to draw on the French Treasury. Between 1989 and 1994, before the 1994 devaluation, the Treasury lent out billions of francs before cancelling them.

Protecting these reserves from temptation was all the more important as they had been misappropriated in the past.

Now that the deposit rule has been abolished, the Treasury is all the more at risk as it no longer receives a commission for this guarantee.

To be criticised for providing a service is the last straw. There is an urgent need for debate, especially as the question now arises as to whether France can take such a risk for the West African monetary zone, which includes three countries that are openly hostile to Paris.

The African diasporas should have been a powerful vector in the relationship between France and Africa?

Yes, indisputably. It’s an uncharted territory that needs to be ploughed, and one that holds many opportunities.

At the same time, a renewal of Franco-African relations must involve mobilising the French communities in Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you look at Europe-Africa cooperation, it’s not much better. How can this be explained?

 

Your question raises a very delicate issue. Since the Yaoundé Accords, 50 years ago now, we have always been advocates of European development policy and of increasing the resources of the European Development Fund.

 

The lack of success stories and the operational difficulties of European aid naturally raise the question of whether  this aid should be rationalised and improved.

Written By
Hichem Ben Yaïche

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