In February 1986 a young charismatic West African statesman arrived at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport to attend the conference of La Francophonie, France's equivalent of the Commonwealth of Nations.
In full military fatigues with a pistol dangling by his side, the fresh-faced Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso addressed the press with uncommon eloquence and panache. He spoke about liberation, about pan-Africanism, about freedom and justice. The world was awed by this new Sahelian political phenomenon.
After the summit ended and all the delegates had dispersed, President François Mitterrand was interviewed on national TV about what he thought of the young man from Ouagadougou. The Pharaonic Mitterrand, a man of few words, respond rather tersely: "Il est impudent." That evening I was hanging out with some friends in a fashionable cafe in Montparnasse when the interview was being aired. I turned to my mate Camara from Guinea: "C'est fini pour Thomas", I sombrely prophesied.
Barely a year and a half later, Sankara was felled by the sword of his own bosom friend and comrade Blaise Campaore. He was thirty-eight. Whether France had a hand in the martyrdom of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, we would probably never know.
Much water has passed under the bridge since that fateful day of 15 October 1987. We have seen several of France's surrogate African rulers come and go.
After all their atrocities, the Bokassas, Mobutus, Houghouet-Boignys and Omar Bongos of this world lie silent in their traitorous graves while the names of Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara continue to loom larger than life among the luminous firmament of Africa's immortal stars. Jacques Foccart, the adviser responsible for many shady deals with African tyrants for succeeding French Presidents since Charles de Gaulle went the way of all flesh in March 1997. The notorious mercenary and hitman, "Colonel" Bob Denard, went to join his ignominious Roman ancestors in October 2007.
For over three decades, he operated a shadowy network of economic hitmen and mercenaries who overthrew governments at will and sabotaged the economies of entire countries as the evil spirits moved them.
We would recall that after formal independence, the French stationed even more technical advisers and ‘administrators' throughout their former colonies than they did before. When Guinea said ‘non' in 1958, the French behaved like Ghengis Khan applying a scorched earth policy of destroying everything as they left. What they could not destroy they dumped into the sleepy Lagoon of Conakry. My mentor Ladipo Adamolekun has written a luminous essay about the Frances's shameful legacy in Guinea.
The exploitative ties that characterise French economic influence in West Africa have been well-documented by the radical Egyptian economist Samir Amin. The Elysée Palace has always treated Africa as its backyard, a pre carré (literally, a protected meadow) for the dumping of its goods. France has arrogated to itself the right to first call on major public contracts and to mining concessions in its neo-colonies. With the exception of Guinea, the French Treasury literally controls the foreign reserves of all its former colonies under the CFA Franc Zone.
Indeed, ever since the Franco-German war of 1870--71, France has always needed Africa to bolster its image as a power of the first rank. Of this obsession, the distinguished diplomat Philippe Faure has noted: "Perhaps some French people are nostalgic for the France of Louis XIV which controlled Europe, or that of Napoleon, which engineered it. But most of us know that these adventures were sometimes dangerous, sometimes fruitless".
The ending of the Cold War has seen a resurgence of democratisation on our continent, forcing France to re-examine its old links with our continent. Of course, some of the remnants of the tribe of villains are still very much around, bolstered by a conspiracy of silence that covers up their murderous tyranny and corrupt misrule. This is the main reason explaining why the current summit will delicately overlook any serious discussions on democracy and human rights.
But the African Renaissance is unstoppable. In Rwanda, in Côte d'Ivoire and in the Congo, Africans are rejecting the discredited notion of ‘France-Afrique' and the humiliating tag of ‘Afrique silence'. Several francophone countries are diversifying their external ties, turning to Canada, China, India and other countries. France is fighting back, of course, using all the weapons available in its traditional arsenal - diplomacy, aid, duplicity and arms.
Today, we Africans find ourselves in the curious position of being the new bride being wooed by the rest of the world. First, Beijing had its own maiden Africa summit in November 2006, when most of our leaders were invited to the Middle Kingdom to wine and dine with the Dragon and to see how we could do business together. Not to be left out, India followed suit, bringing once again our leaders to New Delhi in April 2008.
The France-Africa Summit which for decades was largely a francophone affair. Today it embraces some 52 African countries, including the African Union Commission, the EU, La Francophonie, the FAO and the World Bank among other multilateral institutions. The twenty-fifth summit takes place in the beatific ambience of Nice in southern France. The two-day event begins on Sunday the 31st of May and ends on Monday the 1st of June. Initially scheduled for January at the Egyptian Red-Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the summit had to be brought forward to May and relocated to France due to Egypt's insistence that it would invite its neighbouring Sudanese leader. This would have posed a serious diplomatic problem, given that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has an open warrant for the arrest of President Omer Al-Bashir who has been indicted for war crimes.
As it turns out, the Sudanese government is sending a delegation led by Presidential advisor Ghazi Salah Eddin Attabani. Nigeria's delegation is being led by no less than President Goodluck Jonathan himself.
Three major themes are scheduled for deliberation by the Heads of State and Government: the place of Africa in global governance, peace and security, and climate change. Alongside the political leaders, Ministers of Finance and Economy in league with their French counterparts and the multilateral institutions will deliberate on five major themes, namely, economic growth in Africa, the fight against poverty, aid, the role of the private sector, foreign direct investment and the role of migrants in economic development.
A separate French-Africa business forum is scheduled to take place in city of Bordeaux soon after the main summit.
A major factor driving France's renewed interest is the fact she is rapidly losing her influence to new powers such as China and India who are wise enough to envision an Africa of enormous potentials as a market of a billion people. The Elysée Palace is quite anxious to reclaim lost ground. During a recent state visit to South Africa, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared: "The old pattern of relations between France and Africa is no longer understood by new generations of Africans, or for that matter by public opinion in France. We need to change the pattern of relations between France and Africa if we want to look at the future together".
During his August 2007 public lecture at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged some of the wrongs committed by France against Africa. But he also insisted that that Africans must take responsibility for their own future.
The problem, according to him, is that "Africans have never really entered history". His outpourings drew a lot of hackles: "The African peasant who has lived with the rhythm of the seasons for millenniums, whose ideal is to live in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal cycle of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary world where everything starts over and over again, there is no place for human adventure or the idea of progress."
Rhetoric apart, France has continued to maintain a Janus-like face. On the one hand, she wants a new rapprochement with Africa; and on the other, she want to continue to treat our continent with the neo-imperial opacity of the past. The bottom line, according to Africa analyst François Xavier Verschave, is that France wants to appear different while maintaining its old proprietary stranglehold over the geopolitical resources of the continent: "In Paris, many continue to believe that Africa is their private garden, where they can do whatever they want, where all crimes are possible and where impunity reigns."
Today, there are 240,000 French nationals in our continent, many of them having settled for good in places as wide apart as the Seychelles, Comoros and Senegal. French businesses have had a long-standing interest in our continent going back to the nineteenth century. There are more French investments in Nigeria than in all the francophone countries put together. France still operates several military bases, with more than 12,000 troops in Djibouti, Chad, Gabon and Reunion. During its April 2010 Golden Jubilee celebrations, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal announced that the French military base in Western Senegal was leaving the soil of his country for good. There are also a few unresolved "land disputes", notably the continuing French occupation of the island of Mayotte in the Comoros.
There is a part of me that will always feel affection for France in spite of the uncivil manner in which she has treated my people. I spent some of my formative years in that country; first, in the idyllic countryside of the Auvergne; and then in the elegant Parisian suburbs of Luxembourg and the medieval cloisters of the Sorbonne. The old haunts of my youth -- the art works of the Louvre, the courts of Versailles and the royal chateaux of the Loire Valley and the cathedrals of Notre-Dame and Tours and Clermont will always be a part of me forever. There is no one to beat the French for style, good taste, elegance and intellectual lucidity. What I am as an intellectual and a humanist I owe to France more than to any other culture: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Rousseau, Michelet, Blaise Pascal, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Bachelier, Emmanuel Mounier, Sartre, Camus, Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, Anatole France, Jean Monnet, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Maritain, Bernard Henri-Lévy, Maurice Duverger, Emmanuel Levinas. As far as I am concerned, not even Harvard and Oxford and Cambridge will ever match France's ideal of the Universal.
It is a historic irony that this France which has laid claim to being the homeland of liberty, equality and fraternity has acted the role of the gendarme of the West, using its military power and capabilities to suppress the liberties of the African people. This France which has become the home of racism and neo-fascism in the New Europe.
This France which owes the people of Rwanda a formal apology for its role in the genocide against a million defenceless people.
We who lead the world in forgiving, we shall forgive France for her sins against our continent. But there cannot be forgiveness without repentance. We seek a new fraternity with the fatherland of Lamartine and Victor Hugo and Voltaire. We claim equality not because we are ‘impudent' but because we are humans and we are an ancient people - the peoples that built the pyramids of Egypt and the Land of Cush and the illustrious cities of Meroe and Timbuktu and Kano and Benin. We seek a new relationship with France based on equality, mutual responsibility and solidarity. And we do so without the inferiority of our forebears. If this France that we respect cannot reciprocate in like manner, we would have to say aur revoir to her forever. As the Ivorian poet Bernard Dadié once wrote:
Dry your tears, Africa!
Your children come back to you
Out of the storms and squalls of fruitless journeys. . . .
Over the gold of the east
And the purple of setting sun,
The peaks of proud mountains
And the grasslands drenched with light
They return to you. . . .
And our senses are now opened
to the splendour of your beauty
to the smell of your forests
to the charms of your waters
to the clearness of your skies
to the caress of your sun.