The French in West Africa

Former seat of the French governor general in Dakar (present day Senegal), the capital of French West Africa; it is now the presidential palace; photo credit by Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

The French presence in West Africa is pre-dated the creation of the colonial territory known as French West Africa. A primary phase of conquests starting in the mid-nineteenth century modestly began along the Senegal River. Domestic and international pressure gave colonization of West Africa a strong impetus that was furthered by ambitious French military officers. Thus, France quickly acquired a vast territory that had to be restructured, which, in 1895, became a federation called “L’Afrique-Occidentale française” (AOF) or French West Africa.

Headed by a governor-general, answering to the minister for the colonies, the federation was divided into several colonies administered by lieutenant-governors (later simply called governors). Dahomey, Niger and Mauritania would soon be added to the original colonies of Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Soudan. The colony of Upper-Volta created in 1920 would be dismembered in 1932 before being reestablished in 1947. The federation also included smaller administrative divisions that would imitate the French administrative organization introduced by Napoleon in France. The colonies would thus be divided in “cercles” and “subdivisions” each headed by a French civil administrator.

Before 1946, African participation in the government of the federation was limited to the inhabitants of the “quatres communes” of Senegal who had obtained French citizenship and the right to elect a represent to the French parliament. The important role played by “Les Africains” in the French Army of Liberation during World War II and a new international order compelled France to reorganize its colonial empire within the framework of “L’Union française” in 1946. French colonies thus became “Territoires d’Outre-Mer” (overseas territories) and obtained, in theory, the right to be included in the decision-making process of the government. Africans would also no longer be subjects of France but French citizens with equal rights to those of the European French citizens. In reality, though, the territorial assemblies to which representatives of the African territories were participating only served as an advisory council to the French national assembly. Finally, universal suffrage for the French citizens of Africa was to be implemented progressively.

The “Union française” failed to fulfill the expectations of both the former colonies and France. The return to politics of the General de Gaulle as President of the French republic in 1958 also marked the end of the “Afrique-occidentale française” and the birth of the “Communauté française” (French community) a sort of commonwealth that would ultimately lead to the independence of the African colonies in 1960. Created in 1958, the “Communauté française” included the former colonies as partner states in a French federation. Each state had the right to negotiate its independence with France at any moment. Guinea was the first state to become independent in 1958. The other states conceived their experience in the commonwealth as a way to prepare for their independence which they eventually all obtained by 1960.

The end of French West Africa did not mark the end of French influence in West Africa. France still maintained a strong influence on the African economy and politics until the end of the twentieth century. French presence remained strong through economic investments and constant military interventions in the region. West Africa has recently seriously challenged the French domination and has established economic partnerships with other foreign investors.

How did French colonialism affect West African populations?

In 2005 the French government passed a law that refueled the debate about the impact of colonization on the indigenous population of the French empire. Teachers were asked to instruct their students about the positive aspects of colonization by the French in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Criticized by many, the law had nevertheless the positive effect of bringing the topic of the effects of French colonialism back into discussion.

At first the conquest of West Africa was the business of the French navy which soon had to hand over the government of the new territory to a more permanent administration, the minister of the colonies. The governor-general was the representative of the minister in French West Africa and was thus in charge of establishing France’s colonial policy in this part of the world. He was assisted in his task by the governors placed at the head of each colony in the West African federation. Each colony was in turn divided in smaller administrative entities called “cercles” which were also divided into “subdivisions”. These administrative divisions were created on a territorial or demographic basis. Therefore, old kingdoms or empires got split arbitrarily. Finally, at the lowest level of this chain of command was the “chef” (chief), native rulers who became puppets in the hands of the French.

The native chiefs were not to do anything but carry out the orders given by the French administrators. Their traditional role in the community was thus debased and reduced to that of tax collector, recruiter for forced-labor and military conscription and informant on resistance activities. From being the most respected man in a population, the chiefs thus became the target of hatred. Furthermore, the French did not necessarily appoint as chiefs the traditional rulers but instead chose people judged loyal and able to do the job.  In other words, the structure of the French administration by itself dismantled the traditional African communities. The role that was ascribed to its members also contributed to the transformation of the traditional African society.

The chiefs were in charge of the levy of taxes, workers, troops and also of collecting intelligence on anti-French movements. As subjects of the French empire, very much like peasants in the Middle Ages, all natives were to agree to twelve days of labor for the French administration. This system known as “la prestation” was used for agricultural work or to build roads, railways or any other public works. This labor was done in return for some payment, but it was nonetheless compulsory. The idea among French colonizers that Africans were by nature indolent and irresponsible gave justification to such policies that were part of the “mission civilisatrice” (civilizing mission) of France.  Similarly, regular taxation was conceived as a way to increase the production of cash crops much needed by France. Facing heavy taxation, African farmers had no choice but to grow cash crops or provide labor in payment of their taxes. Since 1912, African males also had to serve in the French conscript army. Amadou Hampâté Bâ blamed conscription and the two world war conflicts for the decline of African oral traditions. His rationale was that in many instances the depository of oral traditions died without being able to transmit their knowledge to the younger men. Many Africans died abroad at war or served far from home. Finally, as informants, chiefs were to help the French assert their authority on the local populations. Justice was applied differently on French citizens and subjects. Most Africans, being French subjects were submitted to native justice or “indigénat”. Under this judicial system, French administrators could imprison any African subject for up to fifteen days without trial or right of appeal.

In conclusion, the French presence in West Africa resulted in the disarticulation of African traditional societies as well as the establishment of an oppressive regime that largely exploited material and human resources. Priding itself in its Revolution of 1789 and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, France established in West Africa a system of forced-labor comparable to the one suppressed in 1789 and a dual social and judicial system that violated human rights of the native societies in West Africa.

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