On 6-7 December 2013, French President François Hollande will host over 40 African Heads of State and Government at the presidential palace, the ElyséeinParis. Oddly, the President of Africa’s largest economy and France’s most important African bilateral economic partner, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, will not make the trip. Apart from the new and old barons of Francophone Africa, a high-level crowd is expected, including the UN Secretary General, African Union Commission Chairperson, and senior World Bank and International Monetary Fund Representatives. The event will seek to marry France’s bilateral engagements with strong institutional support from these premier institutions of global and continental governance.
Like his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande promised last year that France’s role in Africa would be markedly different, based on common interests and mutual respect. Thisimpliedless military interventionin African affairs, consistent the French Socialist Party’s views..But after this Elysée summit, what will African leaders have gained?
Two important institutional changes have recently occurred. First, President Hollandehas liquidated the Africa Cell at the Elysée, whose end was announced by Sarkozy. With it went many ‘official emissaries’ who navigated the incestuous milieu of politics and business which reflected poorly on French behaviour in Africa. Second, the ministry of cooperation has been replaced by the ministry of development under Pascal Canfin who has a broader, multilateralvision of developmental challenges. These institutional evolutions have been underwritten by repositioning French forces, validated by the country’s 2013White Paper on Defence.
However, the substance of French engagement with Africa remains constant.This summit follows two French military interventions in Africa. Hollande authorised Operation Serval in Mali in January 2013, which led to democratic elections in July.And the UN Security Council has agreed in principle to a French-sponsored resolution mandating an enlarged AU peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic. Moreover, France is in the process of sending an additional 600 soldiers to Bangui as support to a battalion already in place.
So while France has signalled retreat through extensive reorganisation of its military presence, the country remains the most effective gendarme and fire-fighter in (mostly Francophone) African conflicts.Thus,theElysée Summit on Peace and Securityoccurs against the backdrop ofa redefined, but confident French military role in Africa. .
Dealing with Africa’s peace and security problemshas been a cornerstone of French foreign policy for more than half a century, with over 50 military interventions in Africa since decolonisation, sometimes with disastrous consequences for Africa’s democratisation and development. Furthermore, a great deal of France’s activities at the UNSecurity Council havebeen dedicated to African issues, including resolutions authorising the use of force.
Even if the summit will include issues important to African leaders such as economic development and climate chang, the focus will be strongly on peace and security.Notwithstanding the recent involvement of a Southern African Development Community Military Brigade in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the future of that country remains uncertain with a weak state in Kinshasa. In Mali, Operation Serval under French command and the presence of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Missionseem to have provided a temporary solution to complex challenges. The Sahel remains unstable with violence not abating in Kidal and the new determination by the Islamists to return to arms. The Central African Republic on the other hand is a failed state.
Heavy French involvement in dealing with all of these crises should give African leaders pause for thought as to why Africa struggles to deal with its own security challenges.
This summit takes place after France has recently rescued Mali and the CAR from total failure and collapse, bringing into question the AU mantra of ‘African solutions to African problems’. As France reflects on its future role (and possibly not its interests) in Africa, African leaders must strategise on how to best tackle security problems, with all their limitations. This would allow key African states, to think about how best security and other public goods can be delivered in Africa with the help of external powers.
Threekey issues ought to be considered. First, South Africa and key African states, including Nigeria should think about an expanded (and not a restricted) notion of ‘African solutions to African problems’, that includes external actors such as France as essential pivots to a peaceful Africa, especially considering the UN Security Council’s peace and security mandate, and France’s pro-Africa stance in that body.Moreover, in the absence of African rapid military reaction capacities , the void is being filled by external powers with positive outcomes. Second, anchor states, notably Nigeria and South Africa, should work more closely on African security issues. Urgent crises cannot be resolved when Africa’s big powers offer divergent solutions. In this regard, Nigeria should sign up to the South Africa sponsoredAfrican Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). With underwhelming buy-in into ACIRC, the absence of Zuma from the summit is a missed opportunity for selling the scheme..Third, France should seek a more solid rapprochement with Africa’s anchor states when it formulates its positions to African crises, including its interventions.
The Elysée Summit and the security context under which it occurs suggest that the gendarme has never left Africa. It is up to African leaders to think how best France can work within a framework that is defined and driven by African concerns.