New wave of anti-colonial populism sweeps Francophone Africa 

Kémi Séba is a leading anti-colonial figure in Francophone Africa.
Kémi Séba is a leading anti-colonial figure in Francophone Africa.
Image: Tom Collins
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When Kémi Séba, a leading anti-colonial figure in Francophone Africa, last attempted to travel from his native Benin to Mali in January 2020 he was prevented from boarding the plane by Malian authorities.

At the time, Mali was under the control of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta—a close ally to France who would not have welcomed Séba’s ability to lead large protests against the country’s former colonial ruler.

Two years later and Séba was personally invited to Mali by local authorities led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, the head of a military junta that seized power in August 2020, to give a rousing speech against neo-colonialism in the capital city of Bamako.

“The Malian authorities regard me as an ally because they know that I have helped to reignite Pan-Africanism in Francophone African countries,” said Séba who was kicked out of Senegal in 2017 after the government called him a “threat to public order.”

His official invitation is evidence of a new wave of anti-colonial sentiment that has taken hold in several governments across west Africa, which could have far-reaching consequences for other countries in the region and beyond.

Leading the movement

Rising to global stardom as a leading critic of the west African Franc (CFA), Séba has railed against ‘la Françafrique’ and built a grass roots platform to mobilize demonstrations across much of Francophone west Africa.

The controversial figure has over 1 million subscribers on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of followers on other social media channels.

While the international community and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have denounced the military takeover in Mali, he praises the armed forces for responding to growing discontent with the former government

“The alliance between civil society and the military forces is a patriotic path forward and it will be the beginning of a new era in Africa,” he said.

“Democracy in the western sense has failed. Mali for me is proof that something can be different.”

Though regime changes are often viewed as self-interested power grabs by disenfranchised military leaders, the sharpening of anti-colonial thought in the region suggests that there is widespread support for undemocratic takeovers.

The rise of ‘popular coups’ in west Africa

A recent poll by the Friedrich Ebert foundation found that 68% of Malians are very satisfied with the coup, 27% are satisfied and only 5% do not support the military (link in French).

Many believe that pro-French African leaders dupe the West with promises of security, stability, and democracy only to extend term limits and use government treasuries for personal enrichment.

Similar events to Mali have unfolded in Burkina Faso and Guinea over the last year, where military leaders ejected unpopular civilian rulers.

Séba, who was born in France, described the new political structures that have taken shape in Mali and Guinea as “a combination of pan-Africanist civil society groups and nationalist military elements.”

He was personally invited to meet President Mamady Doumbouya in Guinea last year, only one month after the colonel seized power in September.

The outspoken pan-Africanist believes that there will be two more regime changes in the Sahel before the year is over, most likely in Niger and Chad.

Earlier this month, anti-French protests were held in Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena with some protestors holding Russian flags.

He said that his organization, Urgences Panafricanist or Pan-African Emergency, is helping to boost support for protests in countries that are run by pro-French regimes like Niger and to a lesser extent Chad.

This is probably why Séba is public enemy number one in Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal—historic centers of France’s colonial project and the two most important economies in Francophone Africa.

He called Alassane Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire’s president, a “puppet of French oligarchy” and said that it would be very hard to unseat pro-French leaders in the west African country.

Security concerns in the Sahel

The protests in Chad will add to further concerns by Western policymakers that more Francophone African countries will be taken over by military leaders that prefer to work with Russia rather than the West.

Since the military seized power in 2020, Mali’s government has steadily soured relations with France, culminating in the expulsion of the French ambassador from Bamako in January.

France retaliated by announcing a drawdown of the 5,000 French troops operating in the region as part of Operation Barkhane – a coalition of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and France to combat jihadism.

Richard Moncrieff, interim project director for the Sahel at Crisis Group, a think-tank to stop conflict, said that the antipathy towards France has been driven to some extent by its failure to contain the islamist threat.

“I think we have to first look at that security crisis, and the impact it has had on political thought and political opinions in the region,” he said.

“The perception is that the West and particularly France has devoted a large amount of resources to the region but the situation has become worse.”

Russia quickly stepped in to fill the gap with the ongoing delivery of military equipment and an unknown number of Wagner Group fighters—Russian paramilitary forces linked to the Kremlin—that have started security operations in the region.

The group was implicated in the massacre of over 300 people in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022.

Anti-colonial populism expanding elsewhere

The question now is whether anti-colonial populist governments with broad support from their citizens will become a trend that spreads to other parts of Africa.

Séba believes that it is currently mostly isolated to Francophone Africa where it is slowly gaining momentum.

Even the more internationalist regional leaders like Macky Sall, Senegal’s president, have recently suggested that he wants to overhaul financial relations with the West.

The president gave a blistering speech earlier this month at a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uncea) meeting in Dakar where he criticized the IMF for not allocating a fair portion of special drawing rights (SDRs) to the continent during the pandemic.

Africa has received only $33 billion of the $650 billion in emergency and unconditional funding issued by the IMF during covid-19, with much larger sums being allocated to developed economies like the US, Japan, China, and Germany.

“Explaining underdevelopment in Africa is very simple. The rules set up by international institutions have put us in a straitjacket. The rules are unfair, outdated, and need to be disputed,” he told delegates.

“It is time for Africa to speak out. The voices should not just be those of leaders but of finance ministers and others affected by a system that works against the continent.”

The growing dissatisfaction with Bretton Woods institutions adds to the feeling that the West has deliberately short-changed Africa in terms of access to vaccines.

Western drugmakers continue to block African manufacturing plants from producing life saving vaccines due to patent issues and vaccine donations to the continent have fallen well short of the mark.

This may have led to an increase in anti-Western sentiment in other regions outside Francophone west Africa.

Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, a non-profit dedicated to free and fair elections in Africa, said that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has increased anti-Western sentiment in Africa.

Russian flags have been flown in rallies everywhere from Ethiopia to South Africa as many Africans believe that the West’s condemnation of the invasion is hypocritical in the context of Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Experts also believe that Russia has launched a sophisticated misinformation and disinformation campaign in Africa to create support for the invasion among millions of social media users.

Nicolas Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, said that populist policies are on the rise in other parts of Africa but not to the same extent as the Sahel.

“Figures such as William Ruto in Kenya and Julius Malema in South Africa are using populism as a way to try and gain power, but at the minute it seems to be more of a tool of the opposition than the government,” he said.

Still, the populist trend in west Africa could be the start of a wider movement in Africa and activists like Séba certainly hope that recent developments reverberate across the continent.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the divisive figure has established connections with Malema in South Africa to expand the movement to Southern Africa.

Last week, hundreds of protestors from Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party gathered outside the French embassy in Pretoria, holding signs that had expletives against France. .

For a country which is not linked to French colonization, this could be a warning sign that events in the Sahel may eventually morph into something much more significant in Africa.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned “a combination of populist civil society groups.” This has been updated to “a combination of pan-Africanist civil society groups.”