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Francophone Africa: Bloggers On Colonialism's Enduring Influence

In recent weeks, several Francophone African bloggers have grappled with their countries’ colonial legacies and the power history has to shape the present and the future. For them, independence is an illusion and in ways both psychological and material, Africa remains a colony of the old empires.

All stress the importance of honestly and soberly examining history, and the need for France to recognize its past wrongs if a new future is to be built.

Gabon's “Pseudo-independence”

Je suis simplement Gabonais takes France, Gabon's former colonial power, to task for its manipulation of post-independence politics to suit French national interests. He reposts “Françafrique m'a tué” (“Françafrique killed me), an article primarily about Omar Bongo, president of Gabon since 1967, that also describes France's long history of manipulating Togolese politics for its benefit.  The article charges that after independence, in Gabon, as in other former colonies, France put in place officials who would assure that the natural resources and geopolitics of the country would always benefit the former colonial power.  Françafrique is a derogatory term for France's sphere of influence in Africa.

Pour un peu plus d'un million d'habitants, le Gabon dispose de richesses exceptionnelles : pétrole, uranium, bois, manganèse, lithium… Dès la pseudo-indépendance du 17 août 1960, la France signe des accords de coopération qui laissent à Paris le droit de s'accaparer les richesses minières du Gabon. Léon M'Ba président vassal de la françafrique n'hésite pas à promouvoir un article faisant du Gabon … un réservoir français de matières premières .

For a country of a little more than one million inhabitants, Gabon possesses exceptional riches: oil, uranium, wood, manganese, lithium…Since the pseudo-independence of August 17, 1960, France has signed cooperation agreements that leave Paris monopoly right over Gabon's mineral riches.  Léon M'Ba, vassal president of françafrique did not hesitate to issue a law making Gabon … a French reservoir for raw materials.

The law in question obliged the government of Gabon to keep France informed of all of its projects related to the exploitation of materials and strategic products outside of Gabon and required Gabon to give preference to France in all of its foreign sales.

The article also accuses the French government of being complicit in the assasination or overthrow of democratically elected leaders, and of supporting dictators friendly to French national interests.

En février 1964 Léon M'Ba est démis suite à un coup d'état. Mais le 19 février 1964, les parachutistes français rétablissent par un putsch Léon M'Ba, le président déchu, dans ses fonctions. Bongo est nommé aux affaires étrangères, puis au cabinet du président Léon Mba. Très vite Bongo est dans les petits papiers du seigneur des néocolonies françaises : Jacques Foccart, tandis que le président-général Charles de Gaulle le décrit comme un « type valable ».

A tel point que Jacques Foccart, conseiller de Charles de Gaulle, songe à lui pour succéder à Mba, miné par un cancer. Voilà comment, en1967, après le décès de Léon M'Ba, et suite à un bricolage constitutionnel, le «type valable» de 32 ans devient le plus jeune chef d'Etat du monde. C'est d'ailleurs à Paris, dans l'enceinte de l'ambassade du Gabon, que l'élu des Français prête serment.  Albert Bongo est une pure création néocoloniale mis en place à la tête du Gabon par Jacques Foccart sous la bénédiction du général de Gaulle pour assurer le relai militaire français dans la guerre du Biafra qui fera 1 à 2 millions de morts.

In February 1964 Léon M'Ba was deposed by a coup d'etat.  But on February 19, 1964, French parachuters reinstated the deposed president, Léon M'Ba, by force.  Bongo was appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then to the cabinet of Léon M'Ba.  Very quickly, Bongo became close to the lord of the French neo-colonies Jacques Foccart, while President Charles de Gaulle described him as a “stand up guy.”

At which point Jacques Foccart, counselor to Charles de Gaulle, thought of him to succeed Mba, who was wasting away with cancer.  This is how, in 1967, after the death of Léon M'Ba, and following some constitutional tinkering, the 32 year-old “stand up guy” became the youngest head of state in the world.  Moreover, it is in Paris, in the bowels of the Gabon embassy, that the swearing in ceremony of the French protege takes place.  Bongo is a purely neocolonial creation, put in power in Gabon by Jacques Foccart, with the blessing of General de Gaulle, to take over militarily for the French in the war of Biafra that would result in 1 to 2 million deaths.

Togo's Nostalgia for German Rule

Togo was, at various times, a colony of the Germans, the British, and the French.  When Germany lost its “Togoland” in 1914 during World War I, Togo was divided into two administrative entities, one British and one French.

In his blog, Kangni Alem, a Togolese writer, describes how some in Togo continue to set apart and glorify the German period of their colonial past.

Alem writes that the “history books of Togo are filled with the bloody facts” of German rule, giving by way of example the German practice of cutting off the thumbs of young fighters so they could no longer use their bow and arrow, and of the 25 lashings that would be given as punishment in honor of the Kaiser.

Even in light of its brutality, that history, Alem observes, has been subject to a revisionism, especially on the part of older generations. They feel nostalgia for the Germans who are remembered as a different kind of colonial master, better than the French and the English who were responsible for dividing Togo after the end of World War I.

Alem describes a recent Togolese piece written by Sami Tchak, “The German Bridge”, that was part of a collection of short stories called Latest Short Stories of Colonialism:

Sami Tchak y raconte l’histoire d’un vieux pont décati, vestige de la colonisation allemande dans la ville de Sokodé, que les habitants du coin n’ont de cesse de comparer au nouveau pont construit par les Français, l’avantage de la comparaison étant bien sûr au tas de rouille symbole de la vigueur et de la solidité allemandes. Dans la même ville de Sokodé, dit-on, au quartier Tchawanda, existe un cimetière allemand, où l’on peut voir, scellées dans le ciment, les chaînes des prisonniers enterrés sur place.

In it, Sami Tchack tells the story of an old, deteriorating bridge, vestige of German colonialism in the town of Sokonde, that people on the street continuously compare to the new bridge constructed by the French, the favor of the comparison of course going to the rusty pile that symbolized the vigor and strength of the Germans.  In the same town of Sokonde, they say, in the Tchawanda neighborhood, there is a German cemetary where one can see encased in the cement, the chains of prisoners who were burried there.

Alem wonders if this glorification of the German period of colonial rule does not come in part because Germany's loss in the war has made it easier to romanticize.

Facing the Colonial Past to Confront the Challenges of Immigration

Jules Ferry. From Wikipedia.Jules Ferry

Kofi Yamgnane is the Vice President of the General Counsel of Finistère (a region in northwestern France) in charge of water management. He was involved in French politics for quite some time, holding positions in a variety of ministries, but decided to return to his native Togo in 2005 to run for president.

In his blog, Yamgnane criticizes the tendency of some – especially certain members of parliament who are part of the UMP, a conservative, center-right French political party – to look at French colonial rule of Togo as an act of benevolence:

La colonisation n’a été ni un ballet rose, ni une promenade de santé ! Quand les dirigeants d’un pays décident de soumettre, de dominer et d’exploiter tout un peuple, cela ne peut pas se faire sans violences ni sans violations des droits humains les plus élémentaires. Il n’y a là aucune place pour un rôle positif !

Pour moi l’objectif principal des Français n’était pas d’éduquer les Togolais, malgré la mission civilisatrice mise en avant par Jules Ferry puis par tous les gouvernements de la troisième république, relayés par les manuels scolaires et la plupart des intellectuels d’avant 1939.Tout ce qui a été fait et que revendiquent les colonialistes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui, l’a été pour le seul bénéfice du colonisateur ; il en va ainsi des pistes, des ports, des hôpitaux et même des écoles, afin que l’indigène reste en permanence au service de son « patron ».

La colonisation n’est que le prolongement de l’esclavage : c’est l’esclavage transporté sur place !

Colonization was neither an orgy, nor a stroll in the park. When the leaders of a country decide to oppress, dominate, and exploit an entire people, violence and the violation of fundamental human rights must be involved.  There is no room for a positive role!

For me the principal goal of the French was not to educate the Togolese, despite the “civilizing” mission previously established by Jules Ferry and then by all of the governments of the Third Republic, and disseminated by textbooks and the majority of intellectuals prior to 1939.  All that was done by the colonialists of yesterday and today, was done solely for the benefit of the colonizer; and it was to serve their interests that the roadways, the ports, the hospitals and even the schools came, all so that the native would permanently remain in the service of his “boss.” Colonization is nothing but an extension of slavery: it is imported slavery!

Yamgnane considers himself a “typical product” of this system, which has “cut [him] off a not insignificant part of [his] culture.”  He writes that it is imperative that France recognize this history, not because it should be a “prisoner” to it, but because it continues to have an impact on France and on the French people.  This is especially true now that France is becoming more and more a country not just of native French, but of immigrants, many of whom are from France's former colonies.  Past colonization and current immigration are fundamentally linked:

…personne ne demande à la France de se lever tous les matins en se battant la coulpe ! Il faut seulement qu’elle reconnaisse et assume son histoire, en l’inscrivant dans ses manuels scolaires et en l’enseignant aux générations présentes et à venir ! Quelle est la légitimité de la présence de tous ces métèques sur son territoire national ? C’est à elle de l’expliquer afin que les Arabes et les Noirs, les Vietnamiens, Cambodgiens, Laotiens, tous les ressortissants de « l’Empire français » qui se sont battus ici pour sortir la « mère-patrie » des griffes de l’Allemagne, marchent tête haute dans ce pays. 

C’est la connaissance de cette histoire qui facilitera le « vivre-ensemble » de tous ceux dont le sort et le sang ont été historiquement mêlés !.

Aujourd’hui nous devons tous accepter l’existence d’une société multiculturelle et métissée. Les colonies ont débarqué dans la métropole. Nous ne sortirons de notre malaise que lorsque les enfants d’immigrés, nés en France, ne se diront plus seulement Algériens, Tunisiens ou Maliens, mais Français.

…no one is asking France to wake up every morning proclaiming her guilt!  Only that she recognize and accept her history, and write it in textbooks and teach it to current and future generations!  What is the basis for the presence of all of these foreigners on French soil?  It is up to France to explain that so that its Arabs, Blacks, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, all the nationals of the “French Empire” that fought here so that they might free the “Mother country” from the grip of the Germans (i.e., during World War I and II), walk with their heads held high in this country.

It is the recognition of this history that will facilitate a sense of community for all those whose fate and blood have been historically entangled.

Today we must all accept the existence of a multicultural and multiracial society.  The colonies have landed in the metropole.  We will not emerge from our troubles until the children of immigrants, born in France, no longer call themselves only Algerian, Tunisian or Malian, but French.

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