Random thoughts on returning from French Africa

If you’re a human being who speaks French, you’re more likely to be African than European. La Francophonie’s demographic center of gravity is now somewhere around Bamako, Mali.

If you’re a human being who is literate in French — say, at a high school graduate level — you’re probably European. But not for much longer. Demographic growth plus the slow-but-steady rise of literacy rates in most of Africa means that by the next decade, most literate Francophones will be African too.
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The Bear Blows First

Last week, the EU peacekeeping force for Chad/the Central African Republic/and anywhere else in the general mess left of Darfur looked all set; after the French government offered to pony up more troops, and specifically enough Transall cargo planes and Puma support helicopters to assure the force’s mobility, the EU foreign ministers signed off the deal. It was settled that a multinational HQ at Mont-Valerien outside Paris, headed by an Irish general, would command the operation, with a French land force commander on the scene; the first-flights were due to arrive on Thursday and Friday, bringing an advanced guard of Irish Rangers and various logistic elements.

However, it seems Chad’s rebels have adopted the bear principle. Remember the man who tried to give the powder to the bear, said Winston Churchill; he rolled it up in a piece of paper, pointed it down the bear’s nose…but the bear blew first. The initial airlift was held on the ground, as a column of rebels appeared at the gates of N’Djamena; instead the French army brought in 150 more troops from their base in Gabon. The rebels, who raided the city last spring and were beaten off with the help of French aircraft are reported to be fighting towards the presidential palace. As Secret Defense (my new favourite blog) points out at the link, it’s in the nature of desert warfare that enemies can appear suddenly almost anywhere, especially when the modern ship of the desert is the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The French troops evacuated 400 or so nationals to Gabon, but the million-dollar question is whether they will support Idriss Deby in trying to stay in power; French forces have been doing precisely that ever since 1986 under Operation EPERVIER. Apparently Deby refused the offer of a Dassault Falcon lift into exile and is fighting it out; the head of the Chadian army was reported to have been killed in action, which argues that this is pretty serious business. For what it’s worth, Bernard Kouchner says France is neutral in this conflict, but we support legality and the powers-that-be.

Pretty clearly, part of the point was to act before EUFOR deployed across the route from the border to the city; the questions are now whether EUFOR will ever move – after all, will there be any peace to keep? – and whether its French elements move to save France’s man in Chad. This only points up the ambiguity in the entire mission; protecting the civilian population and supporting the African Union in Darfur are goals that are easily merged with saving Idriss Deby’s skin and TotalFinaElf’s interests. As Daniel Davies so wisely said, unless you can make it rain as much as it used to, you probably aren’t going to solve Darfur’s problems.

Next Up: Northern Niger

Le Monde reports on a fascinating crisis, one that incorporates essentially all the themes of the times. In northern Niger lurk huge reserves of uranium, and the French nuclear power industry covers about a third of its requirements from mines there owned by Areva SA. It was this mining industry that Joe Wilson was ordered to investigate, with fateful consequences. Now, with the price of uranium historically high on roaring demand, a curious confluence of developments twirls across the desert..

For a start, back in June, the chief of security at Areva was ordered to leave Niger immediately. Unsurprisingly, Gilles Denamur is a retired French Army colonel who used to be the French military attache to Niger – one of that very specific type of all-purpose soldiers/spooks/businessmen/crooks France’s continuing involvement in Africa produces. He was accused of colluding with a local group of rebels, the National Movement for Justice (MNJ) – a local chapter of the spreading, water-stressed trouble across the continent from Somalia, this lot are mostly Touaregs. According to the Niger government, he was secretly arming the rebels, perhaps as an alternative to the government troops posted at the mines.

More recently, on the 25th of July, the managing director of Areva in Niger was himself rousted. Dominique Pin is another of those men; a veteran of Mitterand’s Africa policy cell that was at the heart of the vast network of scandals around the Angolan war. He’s accused of intriguing with the MNJ, too – after all, if baroudeur had a job description attached, intriguing would be the first or second item on it. And the Niger government has something to be angry about. After all, their crack commando unit that was (of course) stationed to protect the mines has deserted to the rebels in its entirety.

There is of course something else the government has to be angry about; Areva and its predecessors have had a monopoly of uranium mining in Niger for the last forty years, or to put it another way, ever since independence. Now, Niger would like some more of the money, what with the raging demand from China. And they reckon there may be much more uranium out there; the desert is now positively crowded with prospectors after it. Wouldn’t it be terribly convenient, then, if some of the French execs were caught doing something absolutely intolerable? And, indeed, Niger has announced that the monopoly is over. Although Areva got some five new exploration permits, Niger has secured the right to market some of the production from the existing mines itself.

The French claim that the Chinese are offering arms in return for exploration rights, but this may merely be propaganda. And there is an important fact that is missing from Le Monde‘s story; on the 7th of July, a Chinese mining executive from Sino-U was kidnapped by the MNJ. Their spokesman, who is based in Paris (one can perhaps see why Niger is suspicious of French motives), claims it’s because the Chinese paid for the government to buy a pair of Mi-24 attack helicopters, and also because the Chinese are digging too close to a major traditional gathering-place. He was released soon enough, after some trouble due to the fact he didn’t speak French or English, let alone a local language. At the time, Le Monde was noticeably sympathetic to the Touareg cause; I think they have cooled on it quite a lot, going by the tone of the latest dispatch.