Is this the shady underbelly of French-African ties?
The arrest of one of France’s best-known billionaires has brought difficult questions over France’s business dealings in Africa back to the fore.
T he West African Republic of Guinea played a somewhat unique role in the decline of the French colonial empire. It was the only former French colony to seize immediate independence from the ashes of the Fourth Republic in 1958, while the others opted to maintain their association with France in a referendum held across its many territories.
“We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery,” Guinean independence leader Ahmed Sékou Touré told then French President General Charles de Gaulle days before the vote. General De Gaulle was reportedly so enraged that he stormed out, forgetting his trademark military cap on a table. Sékou Touré knew the road ahead would be punishing, but the country’s colonisers’ rapid departure made sure of it: the French withdrew their expertise and assistance, and even took office files and light bulbs with them.
France and Guinea’s mutual repudiation did not last forever. Trade and diplomacy now tie the two together as it does across Françafrique, as France’s bond with its former African colonies is known.
Françafrique was coined as a positive term by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a French-educated moderate politician who became Côte d’Ivoire’s first president in 1960 and oversaw close ties with Paris amidst a golden era of peace and relative prosperity. In recent decades, however, it has become associated with shady business ties and undue political influence, taking the shine off its benefits of economic development and diplomatic cooperation.
The relationship has been put under fresh scrutiny amidst a row over a French billionaire accused of overseeing corrupt practices in his African business. Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s best-known tycoons, and some of his firm’s senior staff were arrested in Paris at the end of April on suspicion of bribing African officials, though they have not yet been formally charged.
A state investigation is underway to determine whether two lucrative port concessions in Togo and Guinea were won by undercharging for work on presidential election campaigns carried out by Havas, a communications company then part of Mr. Bolloré’s business empire. Mr. Bolloré and Bolloré Group deny the allegations.
The response of Guinea’s current president, Alpha Condé, puts him in somewhat awkward historical company. Last week he hit out at the allegations raised in the case, paying little heed to diplomatic sensitivities.
“I shall bring a complaint in Paris for false accusation,” Mr. Condé told reporters at a World Press Freedom Day address in Conakry, without giving further details.
Bolloré Group is widely seen as epitomising France’s significant yet complicated relationship with Africa. In its 80 years of doing business in Africa, it has become one of the continent’s largest multinationals, counting 16 ports, three railways and a number of energy, media and plantation operations as part of its sprawling empire.
A number of logistics deals involving the firm have raised eyebrows over the years. In 2015, it won a contract to rebuild a railway from Benin to Niger even though the latter had already been awarded to a Beninese competitor. A lengthy legal dispute over the contract led Benin’s new president to ask both companies to withdraw from the project in March, saying China would be better placed to finish it.
In Cameroon in 2015, a contract for a major terminal at the port of Kribi was awarded to a Bolloré Group-led consortium, even though a government commission had excluded it from the shortlist of companies in the running. State footage of an unrelated 2016 meeting between Vincent Bolloré and Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, shows the two men smiling widely and sharing a warm embrace.
Mr. Bolloré’s arrest has been hailed by anti-corruption campaigners as a welcome break from what many see as an ingrained culture of dubious deals in Africa’s former French colonies, abetted by studious indifference from local governments. He is by far the most prominent magnate to be investigated in France for such activities.
“Until yesterday I thought he was untouchable,” a former Guinean opposition figure told The Economist after the investigation was announced. His company has felt the force, too: shares in Bolloré group dropped 8% in the wake of the arrest.
The affair may just be the start of a radically new landscape for French business in Africa. The Bolloré investigation stems from an anti-corruption law passed in December 2016, known as Sapin II, which forces French companies to take preventive measures against graft and beefs up existing punishments for corrupt practices used to win state contracts in other countries.
The French authorities appear more intent on pursuing allegations, too. Investigators used the same aggressive legal procedure to detain Mr. Bolloré as was used against Nicolas Sarkozy in March. The former president has been landed with corruption charges for allegedly accepting millions of euros from the late Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for his 2007 election campaign.
Some, however, are sceptical that the investigation will make much difference in the region. “It’s just being done to pull the wool over Africans’ eyes,” M. Ngassui, a Cameroonian businessman, told Deutsche Welle’s French-language service, doubting that France would allow the probe to result in Mr. Bolloré’s downfall.
Mr. Bolloré has sought to portray himself as the victim of a witch-hunt which risks valuable Franco-African cooperation. Hitting out in an opinion piece published in the weekly Journal du Dimanche, haughtily entitled “Should We Abandon Africa?”, he said the continent was wrongfully portrayed as a “land of misrule, even corruption”.
“People imagine heads of state deciding by themselves to award huge contracts to unscrupulous investors.”
Numerous African leaders have cultivated close personal ties with Mr. Bolloré over the years, including President Condé. “I help my friends, so what?” he told French daily Le Monde two years ago.
Many of them now face a difficult dilemma. Do they strike out to clear their sullied names, and risk being associated with an old order which many see as holding back the region from greater prosperity?
Caught in the net
The leaders of Guinea and Togo appear to be attempting different strategies to head off the intensified scrutiny they now face.
The Togolese government, under Faure Gnassingbé, said it had “nothing to add” to the matter of the Bolloré inquiry, while saying it would “willingly” share information or evidence with Paris if requested.
Mr. Condé, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive, turning his fire from French investigators onto the Guinean press, which he accused of failing “to defend the nation”.
“You never protested when they tell stories about your country because you continue to misinform the population,” said the 80-year-old president, asserting that Guinea’s journalists had “not sought to find out the truth here”.
Adding to years of work by local anti-corruption campaigners, however, the allegations thrown up by the scandal may be too much for a media strategy to face down.
“Opponents in Togo have been protesting for political reforms and the departure of President Gnassingbé for the past year,” says Seán Smith, senior Africa analyst at risk advisory firm Verisk Maplecroft. “Similarly, in Guinea, the [opposition] will seize upon any further revelations that implicate President Condé or his allies in malpractice with one eye firmly on the 2020 presidential election.”
It will be “very difficult for Condé and Gnassingbé to distance themselves from this scandal,” he told The World Weekly.
African independence leaders like Houphouët-Boigny and Sékou Touré might struggle to make sense of today’s intricate nexus of Franco-African business and politics. The trade-off between prosperity and liberty that once seemed so straightforward appears far less simple in light of today’s choices.
France remains Africa’s second-largest trading partner, behind only China. Anti-corruption campaigners widely believe that competition from Chinese investors presents a far greater hurdle to eradicating graft, and pushing out the likes of Bolloré Group may only play into their hands.
By itself, the scandal is unlikely to dent the omnipresence of French corporations in Africa. But the debate over whether cosy official ties are a natural byproduct of their success or a key contributor to it is one that the defenders of Françafrique would rather not be its defining issue.