By William Church

Director, GLCSS

According to a recent study, France is Africa’s leading weapons supplier. This dubious milestone and increased French military presence in Africa signals a reversal of the 1998 French strategy that led to French troop reductions and less interference in Africa.

Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005 (23 October 2006 US Congressional Research Service) revealed that France beat the United States, Russia, and China in terms of Arms Transfer Agreements (ATA) to Africa for the years 2002 to 2005. France’s $900 million in arms sales dwarfed the United States with only $157 million.

Russia was the biggest loser with $500 million less in ATA that the previous reporting period of 1998 to 2001. At the same time, France showed an increase of $300 million from the previous reporting period.

In terms of arms delivery, France continues to demonstrate its reversal in foreign policy with a $100 million increase in weapons deliveries to Africa. The United States showed a 30 percent increase but Russia fell from $1 billion to $500 million.

News of increased weapons sales by France and the military build-up in Djibouti, Chad and now the Central African Republic (CAR) signals a move away from the strategic principles adopted by France’s Defense Council in May 1998 and articulated in 1997 by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

“Neither interference nor indifference,” Jospin said in 1997, describing the new French view of Africa.

The Defense Council outlined four key changes of French strategy in Africa in 1998:

  • A more restrictive recourse to bilateral military intervention.
  • Reduced permanent presence of French forces in Africa (At this time this was reflected by closing of military installations in the CAR,)
  • Adopting a multilateral approach to Africa through the United Nations or other organizations.

Increased support for Africa’s effort to take over management of crises and conflict. This strategy was dubbed RECAMP (Renforcement des capacities africaines de maintien de la paix)

Some seven years later at least three of these “principles” lay in ruin and France appears to be returning to its neo-colonial behavior. Following the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and revelations of French government involvement, France slowly removed its troops and political support from many African governments.

In terms of restrictive military intervention and reduced military presence, it pulled out of Togo, stopped military support for Zaire and Niger; however, today France has returned to its policy of bilateral intervention or perhaps revealing that it never really changed. It continues to increase its support for Chad’s Deby despite the lack of good governance, which is manifested by elections that have been declared fraudulent, and a demonstrated lack of popular support.

Recent reports from Chad indicate that the 1,300 French troops have been augmented by an additional 600 other soldiers and increased weapons shipments. In addition, in a move recalling Rwanda of the 1990s’, France continues to deny active military involvement despite claiming that a Mirage jet was fired on, during combat, by Chadian rebel forces this week.

Central African Republic is also a return to the past for France. After closing its base in 1997, France’s Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine stated in 2001, “The time for interference in Africa is over.”

Today, France has 200 soldiers in the CAR and there is a call for additional troops after this month’s fighting. It has already supplied tactical air support to the CAR and with the growing rebel presence of Captain Abakar Sabone of the Union of Democratic Forces of Unity (UFDR), it seems highly unlikely that Bozize will be able to hold on to power without foreign assistance.

In the Horn, according to some recent intelligence reports, France has moved an additional 200 “commandos” to its Counter-Terrorism base in Djibouti in anticipation of fighting between Ethiopia and the Union of Islamic Courts. They join approximately 2,800 French troops and another 1,800 US counter-insurgency soldiers in Djibouti.

France is also taking action to secure the Indian Ocean access to Somalia. In addition to the ground forces, Chief Commander of French Naval Forces for the Indian Ocean Hubert de Gaullien de Bordes is forming a joint Yemeni-French-Djibouti force to secure the coastal access to Somali. In total, the joint US-France forces are beyond the brigade level with signs of planning for additional troops.

There has been movement in the French strategy of working with the United Nations and multilateral organizations. There are over 5,000 French soldiers in Cote D’Ivoire as part of a United Nations force and another 700 peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of a European Union force.

Including the UN forces, Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies (GLCSS) estimates that France has approximately 13,300 soldiers in Africa. This constitutes over 30 percent of their forces stationed outside of France, and signals an upward trend in French troop levels.

The final sphere of the 1998 Africa strategy appears to be equally in shambles. France’s stated commitment to build an African force for peacekeeping and provide regional training assistance remains poorly funded and unexecuted.

In 1990, at the height of French intervention in Africa, it had 925 military advisors/trainers in Africa with a budget of 137 millions euros. The year before the shift in strategy, 1997, the number of advisors/trainers had dropped to 640 with a budget of 112.5 million euros, and by 2003 the budget had been slashed to 62 million euros and the portion of that budget for cooperating with regional African organizations slashed by 40 percent.

Although the United States had also earmarked money for training African peacekeepers and stated a strategy of Africans handling African peacekeeping missions, both France and the United States turned away from the African Union (AU) as a viable peacekeeping force in Darfur. In essence, the fourth pillar of France’s Africa strategy appears to have been disregarded.

France’s new Africa strategy appears to be the old strategy of intervention. Chad, with a politically disputed leader, is dependent on French military support. The CAR needs immediate military intervention and now that France and the United States have labeled the AU forces as not capable and CEMAC troops (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa States) proved little value, France appears positioned to increase its troop strength in the CAR.

Finally, it seems highly unlikely that the United States and France will not continue to force their Counter-Terrorism interests in the Horn. Somalia continues to turn to the Union of Islamic Courts, and Ethiopia, acting as a United States proxy, is on the verge of suffering defeat at Baidoa. As witnessed by the death of France’s 1998 Africa strategy, increasing Western support for proxy regimes like Chad and Ethiopia, and increased arms sales to Africa by both France and the United States, Central Africa appears to be caught in the grips of the same Cold War strategies that previously ripped it apart.



William Church is director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank with offices in Central and East Africa. You may contact William Church at GLCSS trains African journalists, offers an on-site internship to foreign African studies students, and manages an exchange program with journalists from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe.

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