France, The New Hero Of Africa?


The end of a week of bloody chaos in northern Africa brought with it few certainties. Yet, through the miasma of Mauritanian news agencies and Algerian state television, you can discern several clear facts.

Firstly: The number of dead hostages at that now infamous gas plant in Algeria just kept rising.

And secondly: The man thought to have masterminded Wednesday’s hostage grab at In Amenas is Moktar Belmokhtar. He again surfaced on Sunday. In a recording obtained by Mauritanian website Saharan Media Agency Belmokhtar declared himself willing to talk — under certain conditions.

"We are ready to negotiate with Western countries and the regime in Algeria provided they stop the aggression and the bombing of Mali’s Muslim people, especially those of Asawad (Northern Mali), and respect its desire to impose sharia on its territory," he said.

Yet, in practice, Belmokhtar’s actions have pushed Algiers further into Paris’ arms.

It is now likely that Algeria will up support for French intervention in Mali. Paris is doing everything it can to get Algeria’s leaders on side. As Washington and London criticised the Algerian army’s decision to keep stumm over the number of casualties and details of its anti-terrorist operation at In Amenas, the Elysée did its best to "walk on egg shells" as one French magazine put it over the weekend.

After all the criticism over its backing of dictators in Tunisia and Libya before the Arab Spring, France is trying to remake itself as a more cuddly, culturally sensitive hegemon in North and West Africa.

French interior minister Manuel Valls, tasked with French counter-terrorism efforts, was sent out to do media late last week. Valls effectively told leaders like David Cameron to put a sock in it:

"When you’re confronted with terrorism, especially given that we are fighting it together, I’d appeal for prudence when it comes to comments or criticism," Valls said, adding that Algeria had suffered many thousands of deaths in its secular/Islamist civil war in the 1990s.

That civil war was scarcely bloodier than Algeria’s fight for independence against the French. The 1960s anti-colonial struggle against the French army and pieds noirs left grim memories. And only now, after the horrors of In Amenas, can Algeria declare full-throated backing for the French operation in Mali.

Before last week, as Algeria’s El Watan wrote on the weekend, Algiers said it was against any French intervention in Mali. The biggest North African nation warned that an intervention could further destabilise West Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions.

Algier’s public logic was simple. It reasoned that NATO’s removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 was one of the factors that provoked a political meltdown in Mali last year. That was when — furious at military defeats in the north — Mali’s army overthrew the nation’s democratic government in Bamako.

And Algeria was more sympathetic to Ansar Dine, considered the most moderate of the jihadist factions in northern Mali, than Western governments. Paris and Berlin have always refused any negotiations with the jihadists in Northern Mali.

Late last year, it even appeared that Algeria could even successfully mediate an end to the conflict between the Malian military junta in Bamako and jihadists, led by Ansar Al Dine.

And, as Slate Afrique noted over the weekend, there have been persistent rumours of Algerians supplying petrol to jihadists before they seized several key towns in northern Mali last year.

But at the same time, Algerian media is claiming, Algeria has quietly indicated support for a French intervention over the past 12 months. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the septuagenarian veteran who has run Algeria since 1999, privately gave the green light to François Hollande in December, reported Dernières Nouvelles d’Algérie on Sunday.

Moreover, Bouteflika may have okayed France’s war in Mali even earlier, claimed the Francophone Algerian paper, citing comments made by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius after a meeting with Bouteflika in July last year.

But the double game that Algeria was playing came to an end at the beginning of January. As the world recovered from its New Year hangover, Ansar Dine went back on its offer to restore peace in Mali’s north. Ansar joined AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), another Al-Qaeda splinter group as they pushed south towards Mali’s capital Bamako.

It was that jihadist offensive that made Paris fire up the jeeps and launch the intervention. Paris’ intervention in Mali came despite its pledge not to interfere in African affairs any more.

Indeed, Hollande has already proclaimed his determination not to get involved in shaky Francophone nations in recent weeks. Hollande promised to keep out of the travails of pro-Paris president François Bozizé in the Central African Republic last month.

As rebels marched on the capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui, in late December, Bozizé pleaded with his namesake for aid. But Hollande remained resolute. "If we are present, it’s to protect our citizens and our interests, and not to get involved in the affairs of another country in any way," the French president announced. "That era is over."

All the same, some observers in the Central African Republic claim Hollande ordered his allies in Chad to stop rebels from reaching Bangui.

France’s involvement in Africa has been cloak and dagger for decades. As Stephen Smith, the former Africa editor of Le Monde wrote in a 2010 essay for the London Review of Books, French presidents have typically had two sets of African advisors — one for official state business and the other to superintend France’s network of regional leaders.

It is this latter category that masterminded a system of kickbacks, money laundering and offshoring that have proved lucrative both for France’s leaders and for African dictators.

This week France’s president has become an African hero by deploying troops to Mali, where many fear an Islamist takeover. Yet it is too soon to judge whether François Hollande’s intervention in Mali marks a new start for France’s relationship with Africa. And with Algerian president Bouteflika facing rising criticism over his decision to stay silent over the hostage crisis while praising the performance of the country’s football team, France’s attempts to draw closer to the Algerian leader again may tarnish the sheen it has regained in Mali this week.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.

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