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IN FOCUS | Macron’s visit to Africa: Three Takeaways

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly #54, Vol. 2, No. 10

7 March 2023


Macron’s visit to Africa: Three Takeaways
Macron’s visit to the Central African countries is a clear attempt to redefine France’s Africa policy and revive its influential position. It aims to renew the lost ground, but challenges lie aplenty ahead.
by Trisha Roy

What happened?
On 4 March, French President Emmanuel Macron completed a four-day tour of Central Africa starting from 1 March 2023 wherein he visited Gabon, Congo, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The tour comes against the backdrop of France’s failing reputation in the continent and a renewed scramble for Africa. The visit has been termed an attempt to ‘reset’ or ‘redefine’ the erstwhile colonial power’s engagement with the region. However, this reset will require a non-armed approach, with a touch of humility.

During France’s presence in the region, security conditions deteriorated, plummeting its popularity. Shifting away from its former colonies, Macron included visits to other non-French colonies such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Moving away from regions brewing with anti-French sentiments is strategically important for France if it wants to remain a key player in the region.

The visit launched a strategy of reduced military presence in the African countries. This comes after the setback France faced in Mali and Burkina Faso, where it launched ambitious military interventions to tackle terrorism. 
Macron has tried to shift the focus away from politics by announcing French humanitarian aid to eastern DRC, including support for agriculture and forests. Recognising the increasing influence of other powers in the geo-strategically important continent, Macron pointed that "Africa is a theatre of competition. It has to be done in a fair framework ... We have our role to play, neither more nor less."
The visit follows several important developments bearing a significant impact on France - a renewed push from the United States of America to strengthen its economic ties after a lull of over a decade, build up of Russian presence in Sahel, particularly of its private military contractor Wagner Group and China’s diversified interest in Gabon and Angola. These have been coupled with France’s exit from Mali and very recently Burkina Faso, breaking up of age-old military ties of these countries and a deepening security crisis in West Africa’s Sahel region. 

What are the major takeaways?
The following three takeaways can be identified.

1. Need to win hearts and not wars
The African theatre is increasingly becoming more complicated and competitive. What used to be a stronghold of France decades ago has gradually eroded. The anti-French sentiments in these African nations have brought a lens of scepticism through which the erstwhile colonies look at France. Given these underlying sentiments, an attempt to renew France’s strategy will be difficult. 

After a failed decade-long fight in the Sahel, France’s capabilities and its intentions have begun to be questioned by the region. Jean Gaspard Ntoutoume Ayi, vice-president of Gabonese opposition party Union Nationale said there was no political or strategic coherence to this four-day trip. Hence, to win this war of influence, France will have to be a winner of the hearts of the new target states, alongside improving relations with countries it has already been engaged with for decades.
2. Jostling for influence 
The tour comes at a juncture when global politics witness another war of influence, with different actors this time. Macron’s visit follows several high-profile visits to the continent as each tries to expand its sphere of influence. China is known to have decades-long presence and deep-rooted economic ties, albeit often criticised for its debt-creating development projects across Africa. Russia is another entrant, which has been ousted with sanctions from Western countries for its year-long war in Ukraine. Russia has been eyeing Sudan, which was kept out of the Second US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, for its strategic location next to the Red Sea and has a swaying influence over Sahel, a region where France had strategic interests up till now. The Wagner Group, Russia’s private military contractor, is said to have entered regions where France has had influence. But anti-French sentiment has pushed France to withdraw from Sahel with Macron stating "France's role is not to fix all the problems in Africa.” The tight rope on which France is walking on now needs to be tread with a balancing act.

3. Resetting a long due Africa policy 
Macron pointed to a reduction in French military presence in the continent, but not a complete withdrawal. Following setbacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, Macron is now looking for co-running France’s military bases with the host nations. Macron claimed Francafrique, a reference used to explain France’s relations with its erstwhile colonies, is a thing of the past. The time is ripe for France to reflect and reassess their policies in Africa. More unarmed cooperation with African nations will enable it to restore some trust and rebuild deeper relations if it wishes to maintain influence in the region. 

The visit, thus, points to a shift in France’s approach to the continent. The influence and status it once enjoyed has transformed and eroded to some extent over the years. Macron’s strategy will have to make room for a sustained presence of France in this increasingly competitive arena. The President’s approach of reduced military footprint in the continent is a step in the right direction to tackle the anti-French sentiment and suspicion on its intentions. The focus now should be on building a stronger democracy and ensuring grassroots development. 

1 March-7 March
By Anu Maria Joseph and Apoorva Sudhakar

President dismisses accusations of racism
On 5 March, President Kais Saied, while denying allegations of racism, warned perpetrators of racial attacks of legal actions. Saied claimed that those carrying out the racism campaign are known sources. Reiterating that Tunisia was an African country, Saied said: “Africans are our brothers.” The development comes after Saied accused African migrants of attempting to alter Tunisia’s demography. (“Tunisia leader warns against racial attacks amid row,” BBC, 6 March 2023)

Thousands protest against crackdown on opponents
On 4 March, thousands of people, led by the UGTT labour union, protested against President Kais Saied’s recent crackdown on opponents. Reuters reported that the protesters held placards reading “No to one-man rule” and “Freedom! End the police state.” The UGTT leader Noureddine Taboubi pledged to uphold Tunisians’ “freedoms and rights, whatever the cost.” (“Tunisian union holds biggest protest yet against president,” Reuters, 4 March 2023)

President defends decision to terminate UN’s OHCHR operations
On 2 March, President Yoweri Museveni defended his government’s decision to terminate the operations of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the country. Museveni said: “This is because we have Ugandan Human Rights Commission which is mandated by the constitution. So having others which are not part of our constitution system is first of all unnecessary, but also diversionary.” He added: “They [OCHR] don't have the powers of enforcement.'' This comes after the Ugandan government announced that it would not renew the mandate of the OHCHR on 3 February. (“Ugandan leader defends move to shut UN rights office,” BBC, 2 March 2023)

Al-Shabab’s attack and army’s counter operations 
On 1 March, the state-run news agency said that at least 10 Al-Shabab militants were killed in a security operation. On 22 February, BBC reported that at least 10 people were killed in an attack in Somali’s capital Mogadishu. The authorities held Al-Shabab responsible for the siege at the building occupied by pro-government militia. Security forces said that they have killed four members of the Al-Shabab group. Despite significant gains by Somalia’s military backed by the African Union and the US forces, the militant group continues to carry out frequent attacks. (“Al-Shabab commanders killed in Somalia operation,” BBC, 1 March 2023)

SPLM-IO calls for reinstatement of defence minister
On 6 March, BBC reported Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) was calling on President Salva Kiir to reinstate Defense Minister Angelina Teny after she was removed from her post on 3 March, along with the Interior Minister. The SPLM-IO termed the removal of Teny a violation of the peace agreement. The presidential decree provided no explanation behind the move. Kiir also moved the Defence Ministry to his party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Interior Ministry to the SPLM-IO. The SPLM-IO said that swapping the ministries was also a violation of the agreement. (Nichola Mandil, “South Sudan opposition wants sacked minister reinstated,” BBC, 6 March 2023)

West has kept the country unstable, claims president
On 5 March, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, while addressing the UN Least Developed Countries (LDCs) conference, accused the West of keeping the Central African Republic politically unstable. Touadéra said that since independence, CAR has been witnessing “systematic looting facilitated by the political instability maintained by certain Western countries or their companies which finance armed terrorist groups whose main leaders are foreign mercenaries.” Touadéra termed CAR a “victim of geostrategic aims linked to its natural resources” and said “foreign interference” had fuelled “dependence, insecurity and instability” in CAR and several other countries. (“The West keeps Central African Republic unstable - president,” BBC, 6 March 2023)

North and Centre east placed under curfew to fight terrorism 
On 5 March, AFP reported that the North and Centre East parts had been placed under curfew until 31 March to fight jihadists. The news report quoted a note from the secretary general of the governorate for the North: “In the framework of the fight against terrorism, a curfew is established from 22:00 to 05:00 across all the regional territory from Friday March 3 to Friday 31 March. According to the official, the curfew would be useful to the army deployed near the border with Mali. Previously, the Koulpelogo province was also placed under curfew, keeping in line with an administrative communiqué from the high commission near Ghana and Togo. (“Burkina Faso imposes curfews to help 'fight against terrorism',” News24, 6 March 2023)

US begins annual counter-terrorism training for African soldiers
On 1 March, the US commenced its annual counter-terrorism training, Flintlock, for soldiers across Africa in Ghana. In the programme aimed to improve border defences against Islamist insurgency, American and European trainers prepare soldiers on first aid and firing drills. The US Africa Command said: “Flintlock intends to strengthen the ability of key partner nations in the region to counter violent extremist organizations, collaborate across borders, and provide security for their people.” (“U.S. Special Forces launch counter-terrorism drills with African armies,Reuters, 3 March 2023)

The US downplays joint military exercise with Russia and China
On 2 March, the US commander in Africa, General Michael Langley downplayed the recent joint military exercise by South Africa along with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean. He said that the US offered better security partnerships to African countries however, would not force them to pick partners to cooperate militarily with. He described the joint naval exercise as power projection by Russia and China. Additionally, he warned of the growing presence of the Russian Wagner Group in west African countries, saying that they are destabilising entities. (“US downplays SA-China-Russia military exercise,” BBC, 2 March 2023)

EU releases humanitarian aid for eastern DRC
On 4 March, the European Union announced the release of USD 49.97 million as humanitarian aid for North Kivu province in eastern DRC. European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said: “With this Humanitarian Air Bridge operation organised with the support of France and the new fund mobilisation, we reaffirm our support to the most vulnerable.” The EU outlined that the aid “to cover immediate needs such as nutrition, healthcare, water and sanitation, shelter and protection” will be disbursed through humanitarian partners. (“EU releases funds, prepares aid flight for eastern Congo,” Reuters, 4 March 2023)

About the authors
Trisha Roy is a PhD Sholar at the CHRIST (Deemed-to-be University), Bangalore. Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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