For the better part of a half-century after the French ceded independence to most of their colonies in the 1960s, the relationship between the newly sovereign states and the ex-mother country was relatively benign and uneventful.
President Charles de Gaulle’s rough treatment of Sekou Toure’s Guinea – cutting off communications and any economic and institutioinal assistance when it insisted on immediate independence in the wake of the independence of the anglophone African territories − provided a lesson to others in not going against the mother-country’s projections for the grant of full self-government. And when that came, the French, for quite a while, assumed themselves to have a right of ‘intervention on request’ in those states, in times of domestic difficulties.
With the subsequent grant of independence on a negotiated basis, the French ensured the continuation of a substantial economic and institutional (including military) presence on the continent, partly based on the advent to power of individuals with a long familiarity with the French political system. Politicians like Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast, among others, who, like the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire, had served in the French Parliament, felt a certain comfort in ruling with the knowledge that French protective intervention was available in times of difficulty. And in those circumstances, quite a few of the initial inheritors ruled without interruption over decades.
Exceptions to this close relationship with France were two countries, though this did not inhibit their subsequently experiencing prolonged one-man rule. First among them was Guinea, whose leader Sékou Touré voted in a French-sponsored referendum for immediate independence and was immediately discarded by de Gaulle, and then Modibo Keïta who was also less inclined than others to accept French tutelage.
Since then, there have been periodic limited French interventions in times of difficulty for their presidential protégés on the continent, the most recent of which, before current events, was President Sarkozy’s intervention in the post-Houphouët-Boigny Ivory Coast, in favour of alternative, but pro-French contenders, to the presidential throne, thus facilitating a smooth transition to office.
What has been somewhat surprising in the case of the present French intervention was that it was undertaken by the Socialist Party President Hollande, whose support in recent times for this has been no more than tepid. But observers will easily recognize that this intervention has been undertaken not in terms, as they have been in the past, of protecting French interests or political associates, but in a context that gives the intervention a universality – the counter-intervention in a former French territory by pro-Islamist or pro-al Qaeda forces. And in that context, Hollande has been able to link this French intervention to a wider Western concern with the apparent growing influence of such forces over the continent as a whole.
On the back of recent events of Islamist interventions in Yemen, but more significantly for African rulers, in Somalia, the allegations that the attack on the US Ambassador in Libya was undertaken by pro-Islamist forces, a circumstance somewhat related to what appeared to be Islamist penetration of the revolt in Syria, permitted the French to ensure that their current intervention in Mali would not be seen simply as self-interested as in the post-colonial past. It was portrayed as a part of a necessary fight – now deemed a global one − against the threat of radical Islamism.
So fortuitously, the Islamist attack in Algeria has given the French government’s action a wider legitimacy than might normally have been the case, as the Algerians, usually distancing themselves somewhat from French adventures in Africa, have now had to be grateful for their help.
It is not surprising that the major Western powers have been quick to support the French action. Prime Minister Cameron has been quick in this, arguing that what he has called “the ungoverned spaces” (desert areas) in Africa into the Middle East, cannot be allowed to be overrun by the Islamists. Then, Secretary of State Clinton has argued, as the United States has done in relation to other areas, that “this is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat… we are in for a struggle, but it is a necessary struggle.” This, it is being argued, reconnects to the earlier justification for intervention in Sierra Leone, generally deemed successful, by Tony Blair’s government in Sierra Leone, resurrecting an old tradition of, and justification for ‘humanitarian intervention.’
In a sense, these justifications link the events in Mali and Algeria to the continuing indeterminacy of the anti-government revolt in Syria. For this is a situation of major concern not only to the West but to Russia (traditional backers of the incumbents there), and joins countries that might previously have been hesitant, to supporting a possible need for some form of intervention in Syria.
What many governments must also be well aware of is the increasing re-emergence of the African continent as a source of raw materials, in particular oil. North Africa is, of course, a major source of both oil and gas, and recent and increasing discoveries on the African continent (Ghana for example), relink the continent in a new way to the Middle East.
The major growth of investments from Western countries, a potential relief from excessive dependence on the Middle East proper, and the increasing interest of China in these spheres, in addition to a Russian sense of the need to avoid isolation in a period when its integration into the Western economy is becoming more and more intense, suggests a concern on the part of the powers to protect shares. It is not hard to conceive that this concern is in their minds, even while we can accept the case for humanitarian intervention in the various formerly neglected colonial spheres of the world.