The Republic of Mali’s recent expulsion of French diplomatic agents will come as a huge blow to Françafrique – France’s decades-long aspiration to cement its postcolonial influence over its former West African colonies. Mali has, in many ways, reignited the spirit and furore of anticolonial resistance that promised to sweep through the region following the Republic of Guinea’s shock rejection of membership among the French community.
Guinea’s 1958 constitutional referendum saw it vote ‘no’ alongside Niger in joining the French Community, an association of former colonies whose capital would be in Paris and governed by a constitution that limited the African nations’ independence. France retained influence over the realms of controlling currency, managing domestic and foreign affairs, as well as certain raw materials. The President of the French Community was also the President of France, to further illustrate the institutional neo-colonialism that the French Community represented.
The French Community was France’s response to the May 1958 Crisis, when a handful of military generals attempted a coup d’état following what they saw as the government’s supposed abandonment of Algeria. France had wanted to integrate Algeria as an interior department of metropolitan France, totally colonising what was still a majority African nation and leading to the events of the Algerian War of Independence, a brutal and deadly conflict that saw French settlers – known as ‘Pieds Noir’ – lynching Algerians in brutal mob attacks as many innocents were suspected of being a part of the anticolonial FLN rebels fighting for freedom. The French Community was a doomed project, but one that shows France’s refusal to grant its former colonies total liberation.
When Guinea refused to join the French Community, France launched Operation Persil, where they actively attempted to destabilise Guinea by flooding the nation with counterfeit notes following Guinea’s refusal to accept the CFA Franc – a currency that requires African nations to deposit half of their gold reserves in Paris as well as extending French influence over the currency’s regulation. French colonists were ordered to take everything with them upon their exit, including desks, pens, papers, lightbulbs, and a range of other items – ‘leave nothing behind’ was the message, and that even included hospitals where even medicinal supplies were burned rather than being left behind. This wrath was a warning message to any other African nations like Mali, who may decide to reject French neo-colonialism.
Mali gained its own independence initially as a self-governing territory within the French Community, affording it a stronger degree of control over its own political affairs but still somewhat limited by the French Community. Mali, like Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and several other former French colonies, accepted the CFA franc as their national currency and still use it to this day. Eventually the nation left and faced its own constitutional crisis; initially a federation consisting of the present-day Mali and Senegal, the Mali Federation only lasted two months.
This history from decades ago is important because it shows us how Mali never truly had total freedom and liberation from France to begin with. Mali gained its ‘independence’ with conditions, accepting French pre-eminence (especially when it came to awarding contracts for companies seeking to survey for mineral wealth or extract already established resources) and not being able to even control its own currency. This history of French neo-colonial dominance over Mali and its neighbours, preceded by direct French dominance through colonialism and prior to that, European chattel slavery, makes Mali’s 21st century defiance all the fiercer and more spectacular.
The Malians’ rejection of the French language, rejection of French military and diplomatic presence, and hopefully soon-to-be rejection of their French neo-colonial currency, echoes the spirit of Guinea’s independence in asserting African particularity, strength, and hopefully unity if its neighbours are to rally around Mali in the same way that Sweden and Denmark have rallied around France in condemning the actions of Mali.
Perhaps there’s an economic factor at play in regard to European nations condemning Mali’s stance against its coloniser – Sweden profited hugely from producing chains to be used in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Denmark had imperial ambitions that manifested into the Danish West Indies. Two nations that are often overlooked and forgotten when the topic of slavery and western imperialism comes up, have unsurprisingly used their weight and influence to suffocate the blossoming freedom of a West African nation that is striving for total liberation, for true decolonisation, for its own independence.
Westerners living not only in France, the UK, Spain, Portugal and other traditional Imperial agents, but also peripheral imperialists like Sweden and Denmark – Westerners living in these countries must do all they can to pressure local representatives and legislators into keeping their #HandsOffMali and recognising the independence and the right of the Malian government to do as they please, to govern their nation in line with popular beliefs, principles, and yearnings for anticolonial freedom. Westerners in France in particular must not forget Operation Persil, the French response to Guinean independence; France will not leave Mali quietly, not without a fight. It’s on those of us with the ability to show our solidarity to Mali and its anticolonial actions by making it difficult for our governments to continue the policies of neo-colonialism that have decimated, stunted, and choked the aspirations of freedom and development for the wider region of West Africa.
As for the Republic of Mali, I would strongly urge it to abandon the CFA Franc system and extend its cutting of ties with France to the economic realm too – nationalise French-owned business, especially those that gained a foothold through colonial or neo-colonial means. Refuse to recognise France and French passports in the same vein that France refused to recognise the sophisticated political systems, cultures, and states of precolonial Africa, or in the same vein that France refused to respect the independence of Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and the very long list of other former colonies in which France has meddled and influenced affairs – as far as even assassinating leaders such as Thomas Sankara. Those are just my suggestions, however – it is the spirit and the will of the people of Mali that must be first and foremost listened to and prioritised.
The African masses have long had their voices silenced; their aspirations left unheard. The government led by Colonel Goïta has the chance to prove itself to be the first in centuries to empower disempowered African voices and truly be a government of the people, for the people, by the people.