Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.
After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.
What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?
The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.
As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.
Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.
A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening
For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.
Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.
Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.
Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.
During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.
By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.
Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.
The mercury effect
Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.
By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”
When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.
After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.
In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.
Meanwhile in South Africa
In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.
In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.
South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.
South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.
The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.
By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.
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Africa’s Democracy-Coup Dilemma
The African subject—not necessarily the political elite—is trapped in an endless and heated loop of meaningless negotiations over terms such as democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, and freedoms that are simply masks of (actually superior) economic and political interests of the Western world.
There is a well-known, often whispered fact in Ugandan politics that when an official in government or a prominent businessperson is arrested or publicly humiliated in the national dailies for any crime (say corruption, land grabbing, or building in a wetland or other), the question the public asks is not whether there is evidence to the crime—for evidence abounds and that is a foregone conclusion—but who among the powers that be have they offended for their crime to be brought to life. The tested and proved assumption is that, with minor exceptions, every one of these individuals (the people in government and their associates), is a criminal awaiting prosecution. But their crimes come to life only when the powers that be deem it necessary to make them an issue. Thus, even for angelic individuals, the powers that be can easily come up with one crime to tie onto them, and with evidence easily generated—concocted or real—they’ll be maligned and prosecuted. In all plain speech, everyone is innocent and everyone is guilty as long as the powers that be decide it to be so.
Thinking about African governments in the so-called postcolonial time, this Ugandan experience is not lost on Africans when talking about governance, especially as regards the ways in which the international community reacts when changes in governments occur—often as electoral are juxtaposed against coups. The basic premise is this: in whichever form these governments exist or come about—authoritarian, democratic, coup-driven, monarchic—they are good or bad, not dependent on their character, but dependent on the interests of Western superpowers. These interests then determine the ways in which transitions are narrativized and discoursed in international media, which in turn, carry a great deal of sway on discourses in local presses, and elite circles (at home and abroad). Stated plainly, there are bad and good democracies just as there are good and bad coups. It all depends on the interests at stake. The African subject—not necessarily the political elite—is thus trapped in an endless, heated, and almost violent loop of meaningless negotiations over terms such as democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, and freedoms that are simply masks of (actually superior) economic and political interests of the Western world.
Europe in Africa: a coup history
Coups have always been good for the Western democratic world. Narrating the story of capitalist expansion across the postcolonial world, in his book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel captures the ways in which coups became normal in postcolonial Africa dislodging democratically elected governments—as long as the coup-leaders were favourable to western interests. Hickel narrates that between the 1950 and 1970s, “across the global south, newly independent African states were ignoring US advice and pursuing their own development agendas, building their economies with protectionist and redistributionist policies” (21). Hickel continues that through this period, in the postcolonial states, “incomes were growing, poverty rates were falling, and the divide between rich and poor countries was falling for the first time in history,” (ibid). But as would be expected, these protectionist policies starved the Western world of free raw materials and profits. They weren’t pleased at all and had to do something about it.
“The policies of the global south governments undermined the profits of Western corporations, their access to cheap labour and resources, and their geopolitical interests. In response, they intervened covertly and overthrew dozens of democratically elected leaders replacing them with dictators friendly to Western economic interests who were then propped up with aid.(22)”
The excerpt above captures the immediate postcolonial time going through the 1980s sometimes overlapping with proxy wars of the Cold War period. I provided a periodisation here. But while these coups might look like ancient history, coup-making and execution have been a core part of French control of West Africa to this day—and has made us suspicious that some of these new coups are part of the same scheme. The thing called, Françafrique or “French sphere of influence” resulted in 122 military interventions in West Africa and all French-speaking Africa by the French Military between 1960 and 1998. These included among other things, coups and assassinations of activists and high-profile individuals seeking complete liberation from continued French control. Without entering into the fine details of French military interventions in Africa, French coup plotting has enjoyed the support of the Western democratic world from the United States to Western Europe. In sum, it does not matter whether a government is democratically elected or has come in through a coup. All that matters is that it guarantees the continued flow of cheap raw materials from the African continent to the Euro-America.
The good coups of modern history
An election in 2012 in Egypt ended in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammad Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood coming to victory put the United States in a difficult position especially since Egypt borders Israel, and the American weren’t sure about how the Muslims Brotherhood foreign policy would be towards Israel. Although President Morsi was a product of a democratic process—the much-celebrated adult universal suffrage—this was a bad democratic result in the eyes of the Western world. Not too long, there would be protests in Egypt against the newly elected government. How was that so?
To understand these protests, one has to return to Iran in 1953, when protests against the popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh spread across Tehran. As we learned years later, there was nothing organic about the anti-Mossadegh protest, but the United States and UK plotting from inside the American embassy in Tehran. After one year, President Morsi would be disposed of in a similar Mohammad-Mossadegh manner. On 3 July 2013, through a coup, covertly supported by Israeli and American intelligence, democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown. One would think that the American government, headed by democrats—supposedly willing to die on the altar of democracy—Barack Hussein Obama, refused to call the military removal of President Morsi a coup.
Even when Senator John McCain visited Egypt and actually called the overthrow of President Morsi ‘a coup d’état,’ the Obama government refused to follow the urgings of this eminent American. In response, quoted by CNN, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued: “If the United States formally calls the move a coup, it would have to cut off $1.3 billion in aid… would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces.”
This response openly ignored any claims to the ideals of democracy, but rather focused on the American economic and security interests as is tradition. On the tenth anniversary of the coup, a story published in Foreign Policy magazine on 3 July 2023, confirmed that “Obama gave the Egyptian military what amounted to a green light to overthrow the country’s first-ever democratically elected government.” It did not even matter that the new military government, in the midst of their takeover, openly gunned down 51 people in cold blood in the capital, Cairo for simply chanting support for Muslim Brotherhood. In a normal “democratic” world, this would have caused a major fallout over abuse of human rights. Instead, the US simply urged the new government to quickly return to a “democratic order,” like nothing outstandingly anti-human rights had happened.
Recently, it was confirmed that the United States, working through the Pakistan military pushed for the ouster of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, because he had exhibited friendship with Russia at the beginning of Russian-Ukraine conflict. Imran Khan remains perhaps the most popular—and yes, democratically elected—prime minister in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto. The US-instigated coup against Khan was to balance their political power-play, in which they sought to isolate Russia. It wasn’t about democracy or any human rights claims. In cutting-edge extensive reporting by The Intercept, a document nicknamed “Cypher,” which demonstrated how America directly threatened Pakistan—specifically, Prime Minister Khan—over its radically neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It documents a subtle but clearly effective mode of coup-making: a vote of no confidence, just has happened with Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 Iran. Please note that to remove a sitting president through a “vote of no confidence” in a parliament, actually signals the presence of a strong “democratic culture” and constitutionalism in any polity. Consider then that the United States is actually exploiting Pakistani’s democratic maturity to undermine Pakistan’s stability.
The Intercept, citing from Cypher, reported a meeting between America’s Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Threats to the ambassador were delivered to Prime Minister Khan and members of the Pakistan military, who understood these threats really well, started working around the clock. Donald Lu threatened: “People here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.” Then the Assistant Secretary went on and suggested that “if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister.” Secretary Lu threatened further, “I think it will be tough going ahead,” going on to say Pakistan risked isolation from Europe if Prime Minister Khan remained in office.
This meeting between Lu and Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan took place on 7 March 2022. The following day, March 8, Khan’s opponents moved with a procedural issue towards a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Because he occupied the office of prime minister, Khan received the threat and offered to make them public. While he claimed US involvement in the no-confidence vote, the Pakistan courts—in on the coup—could not allow him to make the documents known to the Pakistan people (again, a bold statement about Pakistan’s matured democracy). Three months down the road, on 2 October 2022, Prime Minister Khan was removed from office through a no-confident vote.
While it is leading opposition figure Shehbaz Sharif who became prime Minister after Khan, the Pakistan Military remains the most powerful entity in the entire pushing and shoving. The Intercept reported that “Shaken by the public display of support for Khan — expressed in a series of mass protests and riots” in the period that followed his ouster, “the military sought to strengthen itself. It “enshrined authoritarian powers for itself that drastically reduce civil liberties, criminalize criticism of the military, expand the institution’s already expansive role in the country’s economy, and give military leaders a permanent veto over political and civil affairs.” You would think these developments would cause the democratic world to issue pronouncements as regards civil liberties and human rights. But alas, neither of this has happened. In a word, the coup against Prime Minister Khan, and the resultant abuses of human rights and freedoms were good for the Western “democratic” world, because, not only did they support it, but all these abuses served to protect their interests, which are above any democratic idealism.
An enduring intellectual-political dilemma
The simple premise that governments are good or bad dependent on the interests of Western superpowers remains difficult to see as it is deftly disguised in plenty of enchanting prose: whenever coups happen—as they have excited the continent in recent times, especially in West Africa—they are derided as bad, should not be celebrated as they are a poisoned chalice; ought to be prevented, and calls are made for an immediate return to a democratic order. I cannot shake off the feeling that these coups have been derided this much because they don’t really represent the interests of the Western world. There are no grey areas but a simple formular: coups are bad, democracies are good—and whatever it takes, we ought to work hard to “perfect” our democracies.
These ahistorical, simplistic, colonial positions are sustained because of four main reasons: (a) Countries and continents have come to be seen as independently contained units and so are the world’s continents. That while local African actors have business and other dealings with the rest of the world, they have incredible levels of agency and need to choose democracy over its problematic opposite: coup leadership. That events in their countries are often entirely products of local ingredients. Consider also that (b) the new technologies and practices of colonialist extraction and control—most of which the coloniser has so deftly depoliticised and extravagantly technocratized appear benign and malevolent. Items such as aid, free trade, banking regimes, WB and IMF recommendations, conservation initiatives, etcetera, all are part of the goodness of the Western world, and need to continue to thrive under a democratic order. The African elite has been conscripted to this depoliticised, disguised colonialism. How do you persuade a corporate individual who earns well from an international conservation body or an NGO worker, or a grant recipient academic that they are involved in a colonial franchise? The other reason (c) is that we are all products of the colonial school, and our education determines the reach of our imagination and dreams, and our vocabulary and eloquence. This has been complemented by (d) the colonizers mastery of popular cultural tools, especially through cinema and the Internet, which crucially control public opinion, and determine what becomes understood as fact or fake news. Even with so many more recent crimes and deceptions of the Western world (not the least Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and earlier ones as Chomsky and Herman demonstrate with what they called “the propaganda model”, a great deal of African political and academic elite still considers the western world, especially the so-called democratic western Europe and the United States as benevolent, generous and truth-talking entities.
It has therefore become difficult to see the reality that democratic regimes, principally, guarantee endless Western exploitation of the continent, the same way an anarchic, or coup-generated regime has been narrativized. Neither government guarantees absolute goodness for the African subject. However, democracies, inexplicably, retain intellectual and media goodwill. In sum, it has become difficult to appreciate the colonial-laden dilemma Africa is presented with when responding to coups on the one hand, and welcoming extractivist democracies on the other—as we endlessly fail to appreciate the fluidity, and ‘possibility of reset,’ and the radical questions that coups enable us to ask—in these moments of restlessness—in the search for the soul of Africa’s independence, and reclaiming the exploitation and use of our resources for our own benefit.
This article was first published by the The Pan African Review.
Wave of Coups in Françafrique: Is Africa’s Oldest Autocracy Next?
With widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions, Togo is ripe for a coup.
In the wake of a series of coups that have jolted Africa, speculation about which nation will follow is rife. The pioneer of coups in Africa, Togo frequently emerges as a prime candidate in these conjectures. The country’s 1963 coup was the first on the continent under the leadership of Gnassingbé Eyadéma. In 1967, Eyadéma orchestrated another coup and held on to power for the next 38 years. Following his demise in 2005, Eyadéma was succeeded by his son Faure Gnassingbé, who orchestrated his own coup before subsequently holding contested elections that resulted in at least 400 deaths, according to a UN report.
Togo’s vulnerability to military coups stems from its colonial past and its long history of autocratic rule. The country also faces the same socio-political turmoil that has precipitated regime change in other African nations. One of Africa’s poorest countries, with a struggling economy, Togo is also grappling with escalating terrorism, especially in the northern region bordering coup-prone Burkina Faso.
The current semblance of stability in Togo can be attributed to its robust militarisation. While a number of African nations have transitioned peacefully to democratic governance, Togo’s regime has craftily manipulated global perception by positioning Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s non-military son, Faure, at the helm, ensuring the perpetuation of his father’s authoritarian legacy. Faure Gnassingbé’s journey to the presidency defies the archetypal dictator narrative. Educated in military schools during his formative years, he pursued higher studies in economics at the University of Paris Dauphine and an MBA from George Washington University in the US. His ascent in Togo’s political landscape has been swift, becoming Minister of Communication in 1998 under his father’s rule, then parliamentarian, Minister of Public Works, and ultimately president.
Togo has suffered decades of oppression in the iron grip of the Eyadéma dynasty. Gnassingbé Eyadéma is particularly infamous, remembered as one of the continent’s most brutal dictators. Mysteriously disappearing opponents and egregious human rights abuses led to a ten-year suspension of European Union aid between 1993 and 2003. Nevertheless, Eyadéma sustained a puzzlingly close relationship with France, the nation’s former colonial overseer that had acquired two thirds of Togo after World War I.
Recent coups in Africa have predominantly taken place in ex-French colonies. While some observers point to Russian influence, many locals accuse France of endorsing their nations’ most tyrannical leaders. Once a foot soldier in the French colonial army, Eyadéma was instrumental in the 1963 assassination of Togo’s first president, Sylvanus Olympio. Ostensibly a result of military integration disputes, the coup was deeply rooted in Olympio’s efforts to distance Togo from lingering colonial ties, including an audacious move to replace the CFA franc, a French-instituted currency, with the Togolese Franc. The unanimous passing of a bill establishing the creation of the Togolese national currency on 12 December 1962 may have precipitated his assassination just a month later.
Following Olympio’s killing, Nicolas Grunitzky assumed power despite his questionable loyalties and overt pro-French inclinations. His reign was short-lived, however. On 14 January 1967, amidst escalating public unrest and calls for new elections, the same military operatives that had ousted Olympio intervened once again. Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s meteoric rise within this framework was evident when he transitioned from a sergeant to a colonel in three years. While Klébert Dadjo was the initial choice as leader post-coup Eyadéma soon took charge, becoming president in April 1967.
During his time in office, Eyadema maintained excellent relations with France under whose contentious neocolonial strategy, Françafrique, French companies flourished, and French politicians reportedly amassed fortunes through murky deals with African dictators that included financial kickbacks, generous campaign funds, and strategic support to secure France’s position in global politics. French manipulation and exploitation in nations like Togo, Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have enriched their ruling families while the majority continue to languish in poverty.
The people of Togo have shown an indomitable spirit in the face of dictatorship and repression and the 1990s saw the historic, student-led Movement du 5 Octobre (M05) culminate in a national sovereign conference and the establishment of a short-lived transitional government from 1991 to 1993. A series of massacres committed in April 1991 continue to haunt the people of Togo today.
The 1991 National Sovereign Conference was a beacon of hope for Togo’s future. With Eyadéma’s authoritarian rule showing signs of weakening, a new constitution was passed that conferred more powers on the prime minister while reducing those of the president, introduced presidential term limits and multipartism. But the political atmosphere took a severe turn in 1992 when soldiers, including one of Eyadema’s brothers, attacked the transitional Prime Minister Joseph Kokou Koffigoh’s office, killing at least a dozen people and igniting months of civil unrest as civil servants and students went on a nine-month-long strike demanding democracy and an end to military rule. The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation. Despite the challenge to his rule, Eyadéma removed the presidential term limit in 2002 but maintained his dominance, securing another term in 2003.
Following Eyadéma’s death in 2005, the Eyadéma dynasty’s stranglehold on Togo has continued under Faure Gnassingbé’s rule. Living standards remain poor, and human rights abuses mirror those committed under his father’s reign. Within Togo, the Gnassingbé family seems to view political power as their birthright; Faure Gnassingbé revealed in an interview with Jeune Afrique that his father had advised him never to relinquish power. The Togolese took this revelation to heart, particularly when he sought a third term in 2015. A massive wave of protests broke out in 2017, demanding the reinstatement of term limits, a move that was met with brutal repression. The widespread protests led ECOWAS to intervene, resulting in a superficial constitutional amendment in 2019. Term limits were reinstated but with conditions that ensured that the terms that Faure Gnassingbe had already served remained unaffected. He then successfully retained power in the 2020 elections, consistent with the Gnassingbé dynasty’s undefeated electoral history.
The repression was so severe that thousands of Togolese people fled the country, creating the first wave of refugees from the West African nation.
The Gnassingbés do not just run elections; they are the elections. The Togolese were engulfed in despair when Faure Gnassingbé secured his 4th term, realising that by the next elections in 2025, the Gnassingbé family would have ruled for 59 years; a staggering 97 per cent of the country’s citizens have lived under the shadow of a single ruling dynasty – only 3 per cent of the population are over the age of 50.
The discontent isn’t confined to the masses; there is a distinct sense of unease within the corridors of power. Several Togolese military and political figures have been ousted over the past year, including Felix Kadanga, the president’s brother-in-law and former head of the Togolese Armed Forces, known for his brutal treatment of dissidents. Appointed just a year earlier, the widow of the president’s elder brother, Ernest Gnassingbé, was also relieved of her position as Defense Minister. These changes, combined with the arrests and house arrests of other military personnel, underscore the turmoil.
The Togolese people’s longing for democracy is poignant. Their quest has stretched across four generations and six decades. Exhausted by the relentless military rule, many harbour a hope inspired by successful coups in other nations. They yearn for an end to the oppressive rule of the Eyadéma dynasty, even if this means enduring continued military governance. A cocktail of factors usually precipitate coups: widespread insecurity, escalating public discontent, an absence of the rule of law, pervasive poverty, and frail state institutions. In Togo’s case, each box is emphatically ticked.
In many parts of Africa, including Togo, the perception of coups is multidimensional. While globally they are seen as a threat to democracy, coups might represent a glimmer of hope for the masses living under enduring dictatorships. In Togo, where democratic ideals like free elections and freedom of speech have been stifled, coups are sometimes seen as potential catalysts for democratic change. The desire for this perspective arises from decades of enduring media censorship, a silenced opposition, and rigged elections. The masses see coups as a possible means of uprooting deeply entrenched autocratic regimes. The fundamental question for Togo and for the other former French colonies is whether such radical shifts can indeed pave the way for true democracy.
Are These the Dying Days of La Françafrique?
The widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa is the result of nearly 200 years of French meddling in the political and economic affairs of these countries.
France ruined Haiti, the first Black country to become independent in 1804. France is on course to ruin all its former African colonies. It is no coincidence that the recent spate of coups in Africa has manifested in former French colonies (so-called Francophone Africa), once again redirecting the global spotlight on France’s activities in the region. And that the commentaries, especially amongst Africans, have been most critical of France and its continued interference in the region.
This is coming against the backdrop of France’s continued meddling in the economic and political affairs of “independent” Francophone countries, an involvement which has seen it embroiled, both directly and indirectly, in a series of unrests, corruption controversies and assassinations that have bedevilled the region since independence. Unlike Britain and other European countries with colonial possessions in Africa, France never left – at least not in the sense of the traditional distance observed since independence by the other erstwhile colonial overlords. Instead, it has, under the cover of a policy of coopération (cooperation) within the framework of an extended “French Community”, continued to maintain a perceptible cultural, economic, political and military presence in Africa.
On the surface, the promise of coopération between France and its former colonies in Africa – which presupposes a relationship of mutual benefit between politically independent nations – where the former would, through the provision of technical and military assistance, lead the development/advancement of its erstwhile colonial “family”, is both commendable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. However, when this carefully scripted façade is juxtaposed with the reality that has unfolded over the decades, what is revealed is an extensive conspiracy involving individuals at the highest levels of the French government. Along with other influential business interests – also domiciled in France – they have worked with a select African elite to orchestrate the most extensive and heinous crimes against the people of today’s Francophone Africa. A people who, even today, continues to strain under the weight of France’s insatiable greed.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s. The decision to give in to African demands for independence was not the outcome of any benevolence or civilised reason on the part of Europe but for economic and political expedience. Thus, when the then president of France, Charles de Gaulle – who nurtured an ambition to see France maintain its status as a world power – agreed to independence for its African colonies, it was only a pre-emptive measure to check the further loss of French influence on the continent. In other words, the political liberation offered “on a platter of gold” as a means to avoid the development of other costly wars of independence which, a France depleted by World War II was already fighting in Indochina and Algeria.
The greed and covetousness that drove the European nations to abandon trade for colonialisation in Africa is as alive today as it was in the 1950s and 1980s.
Independence was, thus, only the first step in ensuring the survival of French interests in Africa and, more importantly, its prioritisation. Pursuant to this objective, de Gaulle also proposed a “French Community” – delivered on the same “golden platter” – as a caveat to continued French patronage. As such, the over 98 per cent of its colonies that agreed to be part of this community were roped into signing coopération accords – covering economic, political, military and cultural sectors – by Jacques Foccart, a former intelligence member of the French Resistance during the Second World War who had been handpicked by de Gaulle. This signing of coopération accords between France and the colonies, which opted to be part of its post-independence French Community, marked the beginning of France’s neo-colonial regime in Africa, where Africans got teachers and despotic leaders in exchange for their natural resources and French military installations.
Commonly referred to as Françafrique—a pejorative derivation from Félix Houphouet Boigny’s “France-Afrique” describing the close ties between France and Africa – France’s neocolonial footprint in Africa has been characterised by allegations of corruption and other covert activities perpetrated through various Franco-African economic, political and military networks. An essential feature of Françafrique is the mafia-like relations between French leaders and their African counterparts, reinforced by a dense web of personal networks. On the French side, African ties, which had been French presidents’ domaine réservé (sole responsibility) since 1958, were managed by an “African cell” founded and run by Jacques Foccart. Comprising French presidents, powerful and influential members of the French business community and the French secret service, this cell operated outside the purview of the French parliament, its civil society organisations, and non-governmental organisations. This created a window for corruption, as politicians and state officials took part in business arrangements that amounted to state racketeering.
Whereas pro-French sentiments in Africa, and without, still argue for France’s continued presence and contributions, particularly in the area of military intervention and economic aid, which they say have been critical to security, political stability and economic survival in the region, such arguments intentionally play down the historical consequences of French interests in the region.
Enjoying free rein in the region – backed mainly by the United States and Britain since the Cold War – France used the opportunity to strengthen its hold on its former colonies. This translated into the development of a franc zone – a restrictive monetary policy tying the economies of Francophone countries to France – as well as the adoption of an active interventionist approach, which has produced over 120 military interventions across fourteen dependent states between 1960 and the 1990s. These interventions, which were either to rescue stranded French citizens, put down rebellions, prevent coups, restore order, or uphold French-favoured regimes, have rarely been about improving the fortunes of the general population of Francophone Africa. French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger. At the same time, its joint military action in Libya was responsible for unleashing the Islamic terrorism that threatens to engulf countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
In pursuit of its interests in Africa, France has made little secret of its contempt for all independent and populist reasons while upholding puppet regimes. In Guinea in 1958, de Gaulle embarked on a ruthless agenda to undermine the government of Ahmed Sékou Touré – destroying infrastructure and flooding the economy with fake currency – for voting to stay out of the French Community. This behaviour was again replicated in Togo, where that country’s first president, Sylvio Olympio, was overthrown and gruesomely murdered for daring to establish a central bank for the country outside the Franc CFA Zone. Subsequently, his killer, Gnassingbé Eyadema, assumed office and ruled from 1967 until his death in 2005 – after which he was succeeded by his son, who still rules.
In Gabon, you had the Bongo family, who ran a regime of corruption and oppression with the open support of France throughout 56 years of unproductive rule. As for Cameroun, its most promising, Pan-Africanist pro-independence leader, Félix Moumié, died under mysterious circumstances in Switzerland, paving the way for the likes of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982. France also backs a Senegalese government that today holds over 1,500 political prisoners, and singlehandedly installed Alhassan Ouattara as president of Cote d’Ivoire.
French interventions have maintained undemocratic regimes in Cameroun, Senegal, Chad, Gabon, and Niger.
Therefore, the widespread anti-France sentiment among the populations of Francophone Africa and beyond is not unfounded, as it has become apparent to all and sundry that these countries have not fared well under the shadow of France. In Niger, where France carried out one of the bloodiest campaigns of colonial pacification in Africa – murdering and pillaging entire villages – and which is France’s most important source of uranium, the income per capita was 59 per cent lower in 2022 than it was in 1965. In Cote d’Ivoire, the largest producer of cocoa in the world, the income per capita was 25 per cent lower in 2022 than in 1975.
Outside the rampant unemployment, systematic disenfranchisement and infrastructural deficits that characterise these Francophone countries, there is also the frustration and anger of sitting back and watching helplessly while the wealth of your country is carted away to nations whose people feed fat on your birthright and then turn around to make judgements and other disparaging comments on your humanity and condition of existence. The people are tired of being poor, helpless and judged as third-world citizens! France is a dangerous country.
It is indeed overdue for France to cut its losses – whatever it envisages them to be – and step back from its permanent colonies to allow the people of Francophone Africa to decide on their preferred path to the future. After nearly 200 years of pillage, the people have good reasons to demand that France should leave. The restlessness and the coups that have become commonplace in the region are symptoms of deeper underlying social, economic and political problems, including weak institutions, systematic disenfranchisement, poverty, corruption and the misappropriation of national wealth. And as we call on France to do the honourable thing and withdraw, we should also rebuke Africa’s leaders who have not only put their interests above those of their people but have also turned the instruments of regional intervention and development (like the AU and ECOWAS) into tools for ensuring their political survival.
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