Africa - After the latest coup in Congo-Brazzaville, the changing forms of imperialist domination and rivalries

Jan/Feb 1998

The African continent has two unenviable but unique features. It is the planet's most impoverished continent and, by the annual UN World Development Report's own admission, it is becoming poorer every year - in relative terms overall and in absolute terms for many of its constituent parts. At the same time, it is the only area in the world where imperialist rivalries keep shaping and reshaping governments almost overtly, when they do not instigate open wars more or less directly - from the Biafra war of the 1960s to the on-going 40-year old civil war in Sudan or the more recent civil wars in Rwanda and Congo-Zaire.

The remaining colonial spheres of influence

Historically, the main imperialist influences in Africa have been that of French and British imperialism. The limited past incursions of German and Italian imperialisms were curtailed by their defeats in the two world wars. US imperialism, despite putting its foot in the door with the setting up of Liberia, never increased its direct colonial share of Africa, and never really tried to. The only other imperialist players were minor powers - Portugal, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Spain - which held sizeable remnants of a past grandeur but lacked the backup of a significant economic power at home.

After World War II, within the new world order established by US imperialism, the opening up of the European imperialist powers' colonial spheres of influence to the winds of competition became the general trend. In the case of Africa, this became the dominant trend after the former colonies began to become "independent" states in the early sixties.

Due to their weakness, Belgium and Portugal had no other option than to withdraw eventually without guarantees that they would retain any of their past colonial advantages, relying instead on the goodwill of the major imperialist powers to leave them some crumbs.

British imperialism withdrew militarily from Africa, as it withdrew eventually from most of its former empire, but not without ensuring that its economic interests would be preserved. To maintain its sphere of influence, the British bourgeoisie relied primarily on its financial strength and the strong ties it had built with the local elites. The total economic weight of the Commonwealth helped to retain the membership of Britain's former colonies. For the rest, the British bourgeoisie relied heavily on its "special relationship" with US imperialism, hoping that a voluntary alliance would be more cost effective than an open rivalry - even if this meant having to give away a large share of the cake to US conglomerates in the case of Africa, and even a small one to lesser rival imperialisms as is the case for France in Nigeria, or Germany in South Africa.

By contrast, France's former African colonial empire was poorer than that of Britain. It had nothing like the relatively large local elites on whom Britain relied to retain its influence, nor had France the large financial network that the British bourgeoisie still retained from its past domination of the world market. Besides its relationship with US imperialism was notoriously more ridden with suspicion and tension than was the case for Britain. In any case, for these and other reasons, French imperialism has since been a virtual exception in Africa. It has maintained, sometimes against all odds, a system of colonial-type domination over countries which were officially "independent". This was based partly on a significant military presence, but primarily on a system of colonial economic integration of these countries within the franc zone, by means of the CFA franc. These tight economic ties allowed French conglomerates to dominate the local economy, while protecting their sources of profits from foreign rivals.

US imperialism have always considered that France's position in Africa was archaic, anachronistic, excessive, etc. But the US leaders chose to put up with it for over thirty years, to the extent of even allowing French imperialism to expand its influence beyond its traditional colonial sphere, by gaining footholds, in particular in the former Belgian territories of congo-Zaire and Rwanda and Burundi.

One of the reasons for the US leaders' attitude was that, as long as the Cold War lasted, France's semi-colonial policies did not inconvenience them and even presented some advantages. Africa was indeed a field of confrontation between the imperialist and "Soviet" blocs throughout that period. So when, for instance, the US leaders promoted the former Zaire dictator Mobutu to the role of "rampart of the free world", this gave France the opportunity to use its military presence in Africa to play an auxiliary role in the US great power game, in this case by sending paratroopers to Mobutu's rescue in 1977 and 1978.

On balance, the US leaders found no cause to complain about the French state taking upon itself such a policing role in Africa, even if this meant that, in return, they had to make some concessions. Thus, for instance, French capitalist groups such as Thomson and Alcatel were allowed a free ride in Zaire, and more generally the baronial power of large French groups such as Elf in the oil industry, Bouygues in construction or Bolloré in trade, among others, was tolerated in the French sphere of influence.

In reality, the zones of influence retained by French imperialism in Africa have never been entirely exclusive. There were always a variety of poachers - British, German, Japanese and other rivals - and the French state has had to wage a constant fight to preserve what it considered to be its African fiefdom. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, using Cold War type pretexts is no longer an option, thereby depriving French imperialism of a tested bargaining chip with the US leaders. Besides the economic crisis has intensified inter-imperialist rivalries. As a result the influence of French imperialism has been increasingly contested by rival imperialist powers, particularly the USA, which has for several years been applying pressure to weaken and, when possible, eliminate all the specific ties and forms of protection which give French capitalists an advantage over their rivals.

Today, these imperialist rivalries - the resistance put up by French imperialism as well as the attacks waged by its imperialist rivals - remain largely hidden behind apparently unrelated conflicts. Yet they played an unquestionable role in the wars in Rwanda and Congo-Zaire, which both resulted in major setbacks for French imperialism. Of course, the main figures in these wars were often African clan chiefs who had reasons of their own for fighting each other, and their links with a particular imperialist power or capitalist conglomerate were sometimes quite discreet.

But these links are not always that discreet, as was shown by the latest conflict in France's sphere of influence - the war for power in Congo-Brazzaville, whose victor, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who this time happens to be on France's side, had overt links with the French oil group Elf-Aquitaine.

Nguesso's partnership with Elf

The war for power in Congo-Brazzaville began early in June 1997, in the run-up to the presidential election, in which president Lissouba was hoping to win a second term. The war went on for more than four months, without any of the rival militias getting on top. The turning point was the intervention of Angolan troops which suddenly shifted the balance of power. On October 15, the Angolans handed victory to Nguesso and his "Cobras" militia, both in the capital Brazzaville and at the same time, equally importantly, in Pointe-Noire, the country's oil capital.

At the price of some 4,000 lives (according to official figures), Denis Sassou Nguesso regained the dictatorial power he had seized in 1979 and held until the 1992 elections. Lissouba, the winner of the 1992 election, duly deemed democratic by the West, was ousted by force of arms, with the go-ahead if not the outright backing of the French oil industry. Not that Lissouba had not himself tried to win the favours of Elf's directors, but there was a longstanding relationship between Sassou Nguesso and Elf, and Elf chose Nguesso. If there is a winner in this case, apart from Sassou Nguesso, it would appear to be Elf-Aquitaine.

Sassou Nguesso belongs to the generation of African leaders who were cast in the mould of French imperialism with the aim of creating instruments for perpetuating its interests. After joining the army of the new "independent" state after Congo's independence in 1960, he graduated from the French Infantry School of Saint-Maixent as a lieutenant in 1964. By that time, Fulbert Youlou, a priest who had been installed by France at the head of the new regime, had already been overthrown by a coup. Having established relations with the east European countries and China, the new military regime eventually declared that it was engaged in the "great world proletarian revolution", adopting the name "People's Republic of Congo" in 1970, with the red flag as its emblem. And in 1979, two years after the mysterious assassination of the army leader, Marien Ngouabi, Denis Sassou Nguesso took over.

In the 1970s, the discovery and extraction of oil in Congo- Brazzaville completely transformed the country's economy. Oil became its leading export. The Congolese leaders tried to negotiate as big a share as possible of these resources in licences, but it goes without saying that the lion's share went to Elf... which, by the way, was not at all bothered by Congo's "People's Republic" label, nor by its "uncompromising socialist" leader Denis Sassou Nguesso. In fact, Nguesso was a personal protégé of the former head of Elf-Aquitaine, Albin Chalandon.

When Pascal Lissouba won the elections in 1992, Elf did not hide its displeasure at the ousting of its protégé. Lissouba turned to the American oil company Oxy, which paid the wage arrears owed to public sector workers' in exchange for the re-negotiating of Congo's oil contracts, to its own advantage of course. This was obviously not to the liking of the Elf bosses. And although Nguesso had been sidelined after the elections, he still remained a possible alternative, if not for France at least for Elf. So Elf engaged in the underhand promotion of a civil war in Brazzaville - in which the present militias, the "Cobras", "Zulus" and "Ninjas" were formed.

France may be a second-rate imperialism, which is moreover on the defensive in its African spheres of influence, but a company like Elf is nevertheless in the top players' league. Its main strongholds are Gabon, followed by Cameroon and Congo, but it is also involved in the international arena. Outside its strongholds, it has been involved for a long time in Nigeria - where British and US oil giants have had the upper hand so far - and more recently in former Portuguese Angola. Of course, in order to penetrate its rivals' territories, Elf has had to make many compromises. But when it comes to its own strongholds, like Congo, Elf remains determined to see to it that the local regime fits its needs - i.e. that it will keep the competition out.

The battle between Oxy and Elf illustrated Elf's desire to maintain tight control over "its" African states (in this case Congo). It also showed the resources that Elf was capable and prepared to use to achieve this aim. In fact, rather like the British and American oil companies in Nigeria, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Elf operates in Africa as a state within the state. It has its own intelligence networks and "security departments", which are formally strictly internal but linked in reality to the relevant state bodies.

Thus, for instance, the recently-appointed head of Elf's "security department" is General Patrick de Loustal, a former paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion, who had just retired from his post as head of the "Action" department of the DGSE (a sot of French equivalent of the British MI6 or the American CIA). His predecessor was also a former member of the French secret service.

This relationship goes right back to the early days of Elf, when it was set up as a state-owned company. The first president of Elf, Pierre Guillaumat, was one of the founders of De Gaulle's intelligence service during the war before becoming his defence minister in 1958. And the system of intimate links between the French secret service and Elf has existed for over thirty years, whether Elf was state-owned or not.

With such links, Elf's extensive use of "dirty tricks" methods is therefore not surprising. It is even less surprising (given the record of imperialist oil giants operating in the Third World) when taking into account the stakes involved for Elf. Indeed Elf's appetite extends far beyond Congo's own oil, to the huge deep-sea oil fields recently discovered off the coast of Cabinda (an Angolan enclave stuck between Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Zaire, which supplies two-thirds of Angola's oil) in which Elf has already a large share but has also to face the fierce competition of US giants like Chevron and Texaco. Elf may not have quite the same leverage as the US companies in the Angolan capital, but having a close ally in power in Brazzaville may well prove to be a decisive asset off the coast of Cabinda.

In such manoeuvring, it is admittedly difficult to say which elements reflect the choices or wishes of the French government and which reflect those of a powerful group like Elf, which is often in a position to act on its accord and present the French government with a fait accompli. But whatever is the case, their interests are obviously interwoven, together with those of the leaders in the African client states.

US imperialism's increased interest for Africa

Elf, at any rate, seems very much to have succeeded in keeping the upper hand in Congo in the struggle with its competitors, a muted but permanent struggle. This shows that, even if French imperialism is generally being forced to retreat in "its" African sphere of influence, retreat does not mean surrender.

However, winning a battle does not mean winning a war. The retreat of French imperialism in Africa is real. And, with the increasing harshness of the trade war between imperialist powers, it is becoming more and more apparent that France's resistance can only be a delaying tactic.

Time, in particular, plays against French imperialism. In the client-state type relations, on which French imperialism's hold over the African states depends, the loyalty of individual politicians has always played a decisive role. Thanks to these politicians French companies were able to get privileged treatment to win procurement contracts or the right to exploit natural resources which were mainly controlled by the state. At a more modest level, even small French companies were better treated in such "French zone" countries than British or German companies.

But these "loyal" politicians are not eternal. The deaths of a series of these "dinosaurs" of Franco-African co-operation have combined with the general trend towards increased US supremacy. The new generations of leaders are now more often the product of Harvard, the World Bank or the IMF than of the French military schools or the small French political world which produced Sassou Nguesso and most of the other "loyal African friends" of French imperialism.

This is not just a reflection of the fact that the USA now appeals much more than second-rate France (or Britain for that matter) to the generation of privileged African youth. Since the early 90s, the USA has started to show an increased interest in Africa. They have put some effort in selecting their own men among the African cadres of their financial institutions, whom they have then pushed quickly to the top of some African states, often by imposing elections in the name of "democracy" and "multi-partyism".

In addition to pushing its own men, thereby threatening to deprive French imperialism of a vital advantage, the USA have initiated a number of politico-commercial confrontations with France: in Togo, Mauritania; in Cameroon and Congo, over oil resources; in Ivory Coast, over the control of the cocoa bean and coffee markets.

For the time being, however, US pressure on French imperialism remains limited, simply because the African continent has been, and probably remains, a minor stake from the point of view of the US leaders. But there is one area in which the US leaders have proved relatively aggressive - the financial and monetary sphere, particularly with their targeting of the "franc zone".

Since 1948, the Bank of France has been in control of the so- called "CFA franc", a currency convertible only into French francs at a fixed rate. This was one of the main vehicles of the French system of imperialist domination. It provided the French sphere of influence with a stable monetary backbone. It gave the French capitalists a reliable and cheap way of making profits, without having to pay the cost of currency dealings and without having to fear the ups and downs of the monetary system, nor the competition of dollar-based or pound-based capital. Predictably this "franc zone" was considered by Washington - and by London, of course - as "archaic", since it was an obstacle to the appetites and huge financial resources of the real top dogs of world capitalism, as well as to the ambitions of more modest rivals such as the City banks.

In 1992 and 1993, the World Bank and the IMF cut off credit to the countries of the franc zone, demanding a 50% devaluation of the CFA franc compared to the French franc in return for restoring this credit. The fact that this would lead to the equivalent of a 50% cut in wages for workers in Africa and a drastic overnight rise in the price of imported products, particularly medicines, did not concern them in the least. The French government eventually gave way. It suspended its own aid and credit to the African states of the franc zone, thereby putting a knife to their throats and forcing them to ratify this disastrous devaluation in Dakar, on 12 January 1994.

But this devaluation did not only inflict a catastrophic blow to the populations of the countries concerned, it also put into question the credibility of the "franc zone" itself.

Towards the end of French military presence in Africa?

In parallel with all this, finally, the status of French imperialism is being threatened also in terms of its military presence in Africa.

For a long time, the French state has owed its credibility as a protector for African despots - a service it provided in exchange for the assurance that French interests would be given priority over rival foreign companies - to its considerable military resources on African soil: its bases scattered across the continent, its troop transport aircraft, its paratrooper commandos, its multifarious instructors and advisers, and its special agents, if necessary, for dirty business.

What is the reason for having several military bases in a small, impoverished country like the Central African Republic, other than the fact that they have provided the means of flying rapidly to the rescue of threatened leaders in Gabon, Togo, etc.? The long list of armed interventions and dirty tricks by the French services in this field testify to the generous use of such means.

France's credibility in this respect was seriously weakened in 1994, however, by the military defeat of the Habyarimana clique in Rwanda, despite the fact that it was protected by the French president and the French army. It was all the more weakened as the victor, the FPR, was sponsored by a prominent member of the Anglo-American sphere of influence, Uganda. This rang out as a serious warning to all the dictators who had been so far "loyal friends of France".

The so-called "Operation Turquoise" mounted at the time by Paris, which, under false humanitarian pretences, created a fall-back zone for the routed forces of the defeated regime with the help of the Zaïrian dictator Mobutu, was probably mainly aimed at trying to restore the image of the French state among its protégés.

But the crisis of confidence thus generated became far worse still, with the collapse of Mobutu, a man whom the French leaders had totally supported right to the end, and who nonetheless ended up being swept away in the space of a few months, after more than thirty years in power - this time again, by forces led by Laurent Kabila, which were at least partly linked to Anglo-American imperialism and which, in any case, had received encouraging nods from Washington.

The recent success (until further notice) of French imperialism in Congo-Brazzaville, does not change anything in terms of this general trend. The fact that it was the Angolan army and not French paratroopers who handed victory to Nguesso marks the end of an era, when the French state could impose the leaders of its choice on its African client-states by means of an open military intervention.

On the military level, as on the economic level, there are no viable "reserved domains" left for France, as was pointed out by the American Secretary of State Warren Christopher, at the end of 1996. After declaring that "the days are over when Africa could be divided into spheres of influence, when outside powers could consider whole groups of countries as their reserved domain", Christopher launched a project for an inter-African armed force which was to be placed under American protection... Whether Paris liked or not, this was a way for US imperialism to indicate that it is no longer prepared to condone France's self-appointed role as the local armed force of imperialism - not even to act on behalf of Washington.

In France itself, a full-scale debate has now been opened at the top levels of the state and in political and military circles over the need to review a system of colonial-style control which was conceived in a different era. The review has begun, with the additional aim of making budget savings. Already a military base in the Central African Republic is scheduled for closure and others will probably follow.

There are a number of other signs of the changes which are occurring: for instance the fact that the USA are now sending teams of military "experts" to train or equip battalions in Senegal (among other countries), where France maintains one of its most important bases; or the fact that a major multinational manoeuvre is planned for February 1998 in Mali, Mauritania and Senegal (all part of the French sphere of influence), with the participation of France, of course, but also that of the USA and Britain...

What is clearly on the imperialist powers' agenda in these preparatory steps is the maintenance of order, policing operations and the training of disciplined local forces of repression, with the aim of giving them the means to keep the populations in check, despite increasing poverty and despair.

And if these local forces prove unable to carry out their tasks, the African rulers will have other, unofficial means put at their disposal discreetly by the imperialist powers. Private mercenary companies are blossoming across the world, usually under the "expert" guidance of former officers previously employed by one imperialism or another. The best known is probably "Executive Outcomes", a flourishing Anglo- South African company set up by two former British SAS officers, which was hired to intervene in Angola in 1993 and more recently in Sierra Leone. And there are many others which act routinely as rented heavy security for mining or oil imperialist groups and could easily do more dirty jobs if required - like the London-based Defence Systems Ltd, also a child of former British SAS officers, or the French company "Secrets" set up by Paul Barril, a former captain who was forced to resign from the French military police, after being caught red-handed in a "dirty trick" operation.

What is in store for the African poor?

The general trend towards the liquidation of the almost unique legacy inherited from the colonial era by French imperialism in sub- saharan Africa is developing gradually, and French imperialism is not resigning itself to it passively - far from it. It is waging a tit- for-tat resistance, and although its means are limited, it still has some trumps in its game, even if the events in the Great Lake Region seem to be putting in question the reality of its weight in the imperialist world.

Admittedly, with regard to the large-scale mining interests which are concerned with the real stake in the post-Mobutu era in Congo-Zaire - control of its mineral wealth - the French are generally out of the race. In the race for the gold of Kivu, the diamonds of Kasai and the copper, cobalt and zinc of Shaba, the US and British-based multinationals like RTZ-CRA or Lonrho, together with the South African-based conglomerate around Anglo-American and De Beers, are the most powerful players.

However, a group like Elf-Aquitaine has sufficient resources not to be too seriously affected by the current changes, thanks to its existing roots outside the sphere of the former French colonies. Likewise, the powerful construction group Bouygues does not only operate in sub-saharan Africa, nor is it limited in Africa to the French sphere of influence: it builds oil rigs in Nigeria and Angola; it controls the vital water supply sector in former Portuguese Mozambique, as it does in Ivory Coast and in the Central African Republic, and controls the electricity supply sector in former Spanish Equatorial Guinea.

Obviously, the prospects are grimmer for the host of small and medium-sized companies who have prospered in a the shadow of the French imperialist presence in African. It is likely that many are already being - or will be - rapidly squeezed out.

The gradual disappearance of the last vestiges of the old colonial domination over Africa does not in any way, however, mean an improvement for the peoples of this continent. The populations of those African countries which, like Nigeria, Ghana or Sierra Leone, have experienced for a long time already some of the "wonders" of the "free market" (i.e. joint exploitation by rival imperialisms) have paid dearly for the ravages caused by the "free" circulation of capital. And only fools can believe in the fairy tales increasingly spread by western financial papers, about Africa's future as a new "emerging market". As to the increased profile of US imperialism in Africa, it can only be seen as a threat by the African poor, after the virtual destruction of Liberia, America's private backyard in Africa.

The economic war being fought between the imperialist corporations can only be exasperated by the melting down of the spheres of influence, combined with the present general increasing competition on the world market. And this war is being, and will be fought at the expense of people's lives.

This is literally the case, even when the confrontation between conglomerates or imperialist powers does not lead to bloody conflicts between their local vassals. For the increased poverty which results from economic rivalries alone (for instance that resulting from the CFA franc devaluation) fuels the resurrection of all sorts of long-forgotten barbaric forces, in particular ethnic or religious fundamentalism.

In Rwanda, Liberia, eastern Zaire, etc.. confrontations between ethnic groups or local cliques have turned into near-genocides. Even countries like Ivory Coast, Senegal or Nigeria, which are not the poorest in Africa by far, have seen outbursts of hatred against certain ethnic groups. This is not the past which is turning against Africa, but a modern barbaric phenomenon, resulting from the domination of the world by an imperialist system, which survives only by making the poorest poorer and by provoking and maintaining the most wanton violence.

That is why the replacement of one form of imperialist domination by another cannot change anything for the peoples concerned. A genuine change can be brought about only by the overthrow of the imperialist system, which itself can only be achieved by the international proletarian revolution.