By Jibrin Ibrahim
Today, President Muhammadu Buhari starts his state visit to France, an occasion to push for more cooperation on security, on the economy and a gentle reminder to our good friends in France to continue to nudge our Francophone neighbours to keep up the regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. As is well known, the best routes to Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin Republics are through Paris.
Thirty years ago, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, then foreign minister to Muhammadu Buhari popularised the phrase that “while France is a power in Africa, Nigeria is an African power.” This rivalry has endured for a long time. The two countries have had difficult bilateral relations from the onset of colonialism when France took the decision to marginalise the Hausa population in Niger to nib in the bud any possibility of teaming up against France and Western interests.
It was for this reason that Djibo Bakary was prevented from democratically coming into power in Niger in 1958. Let us recall the words of Senator Bong, special French envoy to Niger in 1958. “One must be mad to think that we, the French, shall let Niger go (through) the referendum of opting out of the French Community. In losing Guinea, we lost its wealth. That could be replaced. But if we lose Niger, we lose Algeria and we could open opportunities for Nasser. WE WOULD ALLOW THE CREATION OF A GREAT ISLAMIC STATE FROM LAGOS TO THE ALGERIAN BORDER…Djibo Bakary is not only an agent of international communism; he is also a fanatic Muslim of the Sanussiyya brotherhood. He is in connivance with Nasser and the English inspired Nigeria leadership.”
France had always had the fear of a large scale “Islamist Mahdist revolt” destabilising their interests in Africa. They also had at that time a more immediate fear referred to above of the then Northern Premier, Ahmadu Bello/Northern Peoples’ Congress linking up with Djibo Bakary/Sawaba Party in an alliance that could challenge the French who were about to begin nuclear tests in the Algerian desert. When the tests finally occurred, Nigeria broke diplomatic relations with France between 1961 and 1965. Shortly after diplomatic relations were re-opened, the French strongly supported the Biafran secession and worked hard to break up Nigeria.
Way back in 1903, a French colonial officer, E. Fallot, published a book on France’s “civilising mission” in Africa. They are in Africa, he explained, as a “civilised people” coming to transform “inferior civilisations”. He assured the world that France would succeed because they were not like the British who have a less idealistic and more utilitarian approach to colonial policy. The reality of French “idealism” has however been a strong paternalistic approach combined with strong arm tactics which ended up becoming a more successful utilitarian model than that of the British.
Shortly after the Nigerian civil war, French economic interests overtook that of the United Kingdom in Nigeria. France, from the beginning of Charles de Gaulle’s era took the decision that Africa was too vital to French interests to be left in the hands of the French Foreign Ministry. An African Command Centre was established by de Gaulle in the Elysee Palace under Jacques Foccart so that the French President could directly monitor and control African affairs. Francois Mitterrand took over as a socialist President and even worsened the paternalism by appointing his son as his African envoy, known at that time as “Papa m’a dit de… Daddy told to tell you…”.
When negotiating the Rome Treaty of 1957 that established the European Economic Community, France obtained the right to maintain its “special relationship” with its former colonies and that translated politically to France being NATO’s gendarme in Africa. Currently, with the concentration of its assets and personnel in Ndjamena, France has effective military control over West and Central Africa with a command base in Ndjamena known as Operation Barkhane that controls 6000 troops and an impressive array of military assets including Rafal Mirage jets and attack helicopters. It took over from Operation Serval, which organised the 2013 war in Mali.
President Buhari arrives in Paris at a time when Nigeria is a weakened African power while France has become a stronger power in Africa. This new realty was best expressed when Islamist insurgents carved out Northern Mali for themselves, ECOWAS reacted immediately threatening to deploy forces on the ground to combat and chase them out. It was largely an empty threat that the insurgents ignored it. Unlike in the past when Nigeria established its leadership in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean crisis by sending in troops first and doing diplomacy and bringing in the United Nations later, our country was silent this time.
No other country in West Africa appeared capable of acting. The insurgents got a clear message that no one was ready to act for a full year following the United Nations decision that one year was needed to do human rights training for the troops that would be sent to liberate Mali. The insurgents therefore decided to move to takeover Bamako and the rest of the country. Eventually, it was ECOWAS that called on the then acting Malian President to appeal to the French to save the country.
I remember visiting Mali shortly after the intervention and seeing French flags all-over the place. Above all, what was being said was that Nigeria and ECOWAS could not save Mali but the French did. The former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan got the message and went off to Paris to appeal to France to get our neighbours to cooperate in the war against Boko Haram. President Buhari came into office very conscious of this reality and on his fourth day in office following his inauguration, he embarked on the trips to our immediate neighbours, Niger, Chad Benin and Cameroon, and more recently to Ghana. Today’s trip to France completes this round of shuttle diplomacy. The French President, Francois Holland, is a key powerful player in our region.
Of course in addition to the security issue, France would be keen to be part of President Buhari’s economic recovery plan. Nigeria remains France’s most important economic partner in Africa and French interests here are strongly represented by such companies as Total, Elf, LaFarge, Peugeot, Societe-General and SCOA. France would like to be a key partner in President Buhari’s plan for the diversification of the economy and the placing of emphasis on agriculture and mining as a strategy of liberating our economy from the near total dependence on petroleum. In the cultural field, France would be keen to promote the use of the French language in our educational institutions.
As Nigeria engages France, our strategic interests cannot be served by becoming a member of the French family. We need to recover our position as an African power and France might not be the country that would be keen to see that outcome. What is important at this time is that both Nigeria and France have a common interest in defeating terrorism and insurgency and bringing peace to the Sahel. We must improve cooperation to enable us do those. At the end of the day, it is our own responsibility to rebuild the strength of our armed forces and our economy.
Jibrin Ibrahim, PhD, is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Nigeria.
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