When the “winds of change” swept through Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, France was less willing than other European colonisers to relinquish its grip. While political independence was won, the economies of most West African states remained officially dependent on France. They kept the same currency, the Colonies Francaises d’Afrique (CFA), and allowed France to place 65 per cent of their foreign reserves in the French treasury. It has remained unchanged to this day.
Now, some political leaders want their money back. Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal, is the most high-profile figure in West Africa to call for a change. “The African people’s money stacked abroad must be returned to Africa,” he said in November last year. There is also talk of a regional currency for West Africa, which would severely diminish France’s influence.
Analysts believe that the CFA policy has hampered West African development, and has ensured that France retains undue influence over the region’s leaders. “It is one of the most glaring examples of the extent to which France still has an influence within Africa,” says Daniel Balint-Kurti, associate fellow at London’s Chatham House.
France also benefits from “co-operation agreements” with the countries, which in some cases give the former colonial master first right of refusal to extract a whole host of raw materials from the independent African states.
France’s relationship with West Africa has relied mainly on the so-called “big men” who have ruled for decades. Omar Bongo has been president of Gabon for 40 years; Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon for 25; Blaise Campaoré has led Burkina Faso for 20 years.
In return, the French military has supported favoured presidents against rebellions. Chad’s Idriss Déby remained in power in 2006 after the French air force helped him quell a rebellion in the east of the country. Newer, more democratic leaders, such as Wade, are now beginning to break away from France. “The challenge for France will come every time one of these leaders leaves power,” says Mr Balint-Kurti. “France’s cosy relationships will become more difficult to maintain and the political situation will go hand-in-hand with the economic.”
Dr Ghassan Hassan (pictured, left) is the toughest nut to crack on the judging panel of Abu Dhabi TV’s adaptation of Pop Idol, Million’s Poet, which captures the hearts of 17 million Emirateans during its weekly two-hour live transmission. Thousands of hopefuls applied to appear on the show, which is broadcast on its own television channel, Arabsat 11804 H. But there’s no singing, dancing or tomfoolery. It’s all about poetry, performed in the ancient Bedouin language of Nabati – and it’s been a runaway success. The studio audience vote for their favourites, the viewers telephone and text like crazy, and after the grand finale of series two on 1 April the winner will walk away with Dh1m (€188,000), plus a book-publishing deal.
This hi-definition, high-art variation of western television’s most popular entertainment format has now spawned its own festival, running for two weeks in the UAE capital. It is a potent symbol, alongside the global brand museums and architecture, of the cultural investment that is being made in Abu Dhabi by its oil-rich regime.
Neighbouring Dubai’s futuristic real estate developments may be alluring, but Abu Dhabi’s outlay for hearts and minds is just as valuable an asset.
Japan is aiming to rival China in buying influence in Africa. Leaders on the continent have been invited to a Tokyo conference on African development in May, and Japan is preparing a $2.3bn (€1.5bn) aid package to improve infrastructure. More aid is also likely to be funnelled towards peace-building programmes and helping African countries tackle climate change. Japan’s aid record in Africa has been eclipsed in recent years by China. China’s influence reached a new high in 2006 when 35 African leaders attended a China-Africa forum in Beijing.