Colonial Guilt?

Francophone Africa

The last French colony in Africa to achieve Independence was the former French Somaliland, now known as Djibouti, in 1977. Post-colonial French/African relations had begun to normalize after the end of Françafrique Policy in the 1990s. However, in the last few years, there has been a sudden resurgence of French involvement in Africa, sparking questions of French intentions. Arguably the event that set the stage for the resent spate of interventions was the failure of UN Peacekeeping Forces (some of them French) in Rwanda to prevent genocide. The counterpoint would be that the French failed to intervene in multiple genocidal situations in Africa between Rwanda and the Ivory Coast.  While not likely a causal incident, it may  certainly provide some of the impetus behind French activities.

The recent uptick in French involvement in Africa really begins with French intervention in 2011. The dominoes of the Arab Spring began ticking over quickly after that, and the opportunity to intervene on behalf of rebel forces in Libya presented itself that same year. The surge of Tuareg fighters fleeing Libya and returning to Northern Mali provided kindling for the start of a civil war in Mali, which the French responded to by sending ground troops to pacify the situation in favor of the Mali government in early 2013. France is currently reinforcing a badly under supported AU Peacekeeping Mission in the Central African Republic in an effort to prevent all out sectarian violence on a near genocidal scale. All but Libya were former colonies of the French Empire, and the manner in which the French have consistently taken the lead as part of an International coalition, or even gone in alone has begun to raise eyebrows over neo-colonial tendencies.

At the end of the day, it may be irrelevant whether or not France has increased its role in African interventions in order to protect national interests, out of humanitarian good will, out of guilt for colonial mistakes, or in the interest of restarting the exploitation of the continent in a neo-colonial fashion. The fact is, Francophone Africa is indelibly scarred with the legacy the French left behind. The key take away here is that as well intentioned as Western efforts in Africa may be, there is a significant possibility that they will not be perceived to be as innocent as intended. As Western states attempt to facilitate democracy promotion, program implementors and diplomats must be cognizant of the legacy that their state has left in the reason, and recognize that their actions will be interpreted through that lens. This does not make it impossible for Western states to do good things in the realm of democracy promotion. Rather, the implication is that we must be very careful in the way that our actions are framed, and requires a healthy dose of humility.

It is equally important, however, to be willing to engage, or re-engage the Continent, in spite of past sins. The re-engagement effort  that France has undertaken in the past few years has probably saved many lives and dramatically improved humanitarian situations in several African States. Interventions are not un-problematic, but they can have very positive outcomes if handled appropriately. Regardless of why France has re-engaged, it is probably a positive development overall, and some of the problems that many post-colonial states are tied, at least in part, to the failed policies of colonizing powers. A little guilt motivated intervention might be just what the doctor ordered.


About waljemr

Matt Walje lives in Denver, CO with his wife Tessa where he works as a Project Coordinator for the Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) project. He is a Sié Fellow at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where he is projected to graduate in June with a Master's in International Human Rights. He is an alum of William Jewell College with BAs in International Relations and Political Science.
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