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The French Elections and the Much-Need Change in Relations with Africa (That Won’t Come)

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On February 14th and March 21st, the two front-runners in the French national election to be held in late April and early May of this year, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen (who currently poll at 24 and 19 percent respectively according to Le Point polls) paid visits to Algeria and Chad.

As Francois Hollande, the incumbent President of France, is not running this year, it may well be the case that the next President of France was hosted by one of these countries. But in their visits, they both signalled and then rapidly undermined promises of change to the current relationship between their country and the continent, especially its Francophone parts – a change that is long overdue. Essentially, both candidates proved just how much they do not understand the gross imbalance and asymmetry in the relationship, in which Africa is essentially a pawn, pacified by aid and a heavy military presence, while itself doling out resources and continued fealty.

France has a long history of unequal relations with the African continent; a set of relations which have a fascinating durability, considering their unfairness. From the onset of colonialism in Africa, France was there, carrying away bulky parts of the continent, including the island of Madagascar, as well as huge chunks of Central and West Africa. Reluctant to let go of its colonies on the continent, France was the last of the European powers to grant independence to an African possession – thus Djibouti managed to wrest its independence in 1977 (a whole year after Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak established Apple). The republic’s relations with Africa are usually referred to as “Francafrique,” a loaded term which describes the complicated, informal web of relationships Paris has maintained with its former African colonies and its support, sometimes in the form of military backing for politicians who favour French business interests – previous recipients of French favour include Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (and for a while Emperor when he was crowned in Napoleon-style ceremony in 1976), the exceedingly unpopular Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso who was overthrown in 2014 and Alassane Ouattara, the current President of Cote d’Ivoire whose political opponent, former president Laurent Gbagbo, after arrest by French forces, is currently under International Criminal Court prosecution – and to this day, French boots are on African soil, the latest estimate placing them at well over 10,000 in countries that include Djibouti in the east, Mauritania in the north, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the west of the continent. Nowadays, these military campaigns are largely undertaken in former French colonies under the official reason of protecting national interests or to combat jihadist militancy and secure the stability of southern Europe.

“The [French] far right continues to promote the idea that if there are problems in France, it’s because of the foreigners, especially Africans,” a spokesperson for Chad’s opposition party, Laring Baou, said of Marine Le Pen who made a visit to his country last month. “I remember her father’s words: ‘I like Africans — but only in Africa’.” In her visit that included a meeting with President Idriss Deby, Front National party candidate Madame Le Pen pledged to break with the decades-old “Francafrique” and abolish the CFA franc currency policy that binds France and its former colonies on the continent. “I’ve come to condemn the policy of Francafrique that they’ve carried out. I have come to say I will break with this policy,” she said. This is of course nothing new. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy and incumbent Francois Hollande had also vowed to end the Francafrique policy, but both kept France deeply involved in African politics and security matters.

Her statements the following day to the Chadian National Assembly were already proof that she intended to continue this time-honoured and presidential habit of not keeping her word. Madame Le Pen, whose party is known for its nationalistic views and has been labelled by mainstream media as Islamophobic and xenophobic, categorically stated that if she won the election she would maintain her country’s military presence in the country as well as increase France’s aid to the continent from the current 0.37% of France’s national GDP to 0.7%; promising to hand it over more directly to the governments of Africa rather than through the EU or the United Nations, which is the current French practice. It’s questionable whether this kind of increase would actually take place if she won (France has its own internal citizens in need of this aid, who would probably receive first priority), but even if it did, the implication would essentially mean the continuation of the Franafrique policy which she had decried only a day before – and its being more bilateral, as she promised, would mean a more direct line of dependency from the capitals of Africa to Paris. Furthermore, she stated that she would continue the highly criticised and inefficient practice of handing the donations over to the government as opposed to civil society. A break in the policy of Francafrique as we have known it and a redesign of the relationship with France would require a rollback of the military presence and dealing with terrorism in more civic procedures such as poverty-alleviation through upward mobility (in fact, a recent study by the Institute of Security Studies on Chadian jihadi young men found that many join such groups due to lack of opportunity costs for doing so, and not because of an attraction to fundamentalism; see: https://issafrica.org/research/policy-brief/malis-young-jihadists-fuelled-by-faith-or-circumstance?), less conditional and politicised aid, and a relaxation of France’s and the EU’s subsidies on agriculture which have had a crowding-out effect on African agricultural producers who must also pay heavy tariffs and abide by quotas as a result of the common tariff. Though Eurosceptic (and in any case not likely to do anything to curb EU quotas and tariffs if she takes France out of the EU as she has promised) there is little reason to believe that as an adherent to an ill-defined “economic patriotism”, she would adhere a set of policies which would cut back France’s own agricultural sector to the benefit of African producers. And so aid and troops, which is what she has promised more of, would only mean more of the same; which is not what the relationship needs.

The other key candidate, current front-runner Emmanuel Macron, does not offer much hope either. If Marine Le Pen offers only a slight modification to the relationship, Monsieur Macron offers little else. As an adherent of the EU as it is, in which he intends to keep France should he win, his victory would mean the retention of the CFA franc (the currency used by 14 states on the continent) and its ties to the euro at a fixed exchange rate – with the peg guaranteed by the French Treasury. The EU’s own assessment of the currency, whose acronym had once stood for Colonies françaises d’Afrique (“French colonies of Africa”), noted that “benefits from economic integration within each of the two monetary unions of the CFA franc zone, and even more so between them, remained remarkably low.” Macron, however, has been silent on this question – but I suppose it is rendered mute and the answer needs no uttering. He does not seem to offer revision on other aspects of the relationship either, despite initial glimmers of hope that he would.

In a TV interview during his Algiers visit, the independent candidate said French actions in Algeria, which became independent in 1962 following a brutal eight-year war of independence which is estimated by the Algerian government to have cost about 1.5 million lives, were “genuinely barbaric, and constitute a part of our past that we have to confront by apologising.” He later on went to state that France’s actions there amounted to “crimes against humanity”; a statement which was greeted by some as a first step in France’s coming to grips with its colonial past. (In fact, Algerian political parties, and Algerians in general, have long denounced the refusal of the French authorities to recognise and apologize for the crimes committed by colonial France in Algeria.) But, to his great discredit, he later apologised following heat that the statement generated, including from fellow candidates. Republican candidate and current third-runner on the polls Francois Fillon, who served as France’s Prime Minister between 2007 and 2012, denounced what he termed “this hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic.” And Wallerand de Saint-Just, an official in Le Pen’s party, accused Macron of “shooting France in the back,” while Gerald Darmanin, an ally of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, tweeted the following: “Shame on Emmanuel Macron for insulting France while abroad.”

France has plenty of museums, but to this day the country does not have a single one dedicated to its colonial past. This is telling, and perhaps protest against Monsieur Macron should have been expected among the politicians (while president, Jacques Chirac once tried to make schools teach of colonialism having been positive for the Maghreb region), as well as the general population, of whom some 100 people took to the streets, shouting “Macron, treason!” Before winning the presidency himself, President Francois Hollande suggested it was time to turn the page on France’s Algerian colonial history, but he stopped short of offering the formal apology many in Algeria still want to hear because of the likely uproar it would have given rise to. By the way, France’s definition of “crimes against humanity”, which has been in its law since 2001, includes slavery, which was practiced under French rule in the French West Indies, Saint-Domingue, and Martinique amongst others.

It is clear, then, that among the front-runners, and within French society in general, very few are prepared to peel their blindness to that country’s past in the continent; a notion which can only mean that none among them are ready to be serious and appreciative of the present situation and therefore of the need for a mature revisit of the relations. For that reason, it is apparent that change in France’s problematic relations with Africa will have to come from developments in individual Francophone African countries than from the reform debate in Paris.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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