Why does Francophone Africa underperform? Because of France

In making my way overland through a large swath of Côte d’Ivoire & Mali, there are themes that reoccur again and again. Small shops, supermarkets, and restaurants are often owned by Lebanese. Large French corporations like Orange own the most predominant telecommunications networks. And other multinationals control a great deal of other industries including manufacturing, mineral extraction, and transportation.

It’s easy for the unknowing observer to look at these vast portions of Francophone Africa and infer that the people living there are lazy or have no initiative. But these people are aware of this fact, which is why one Francophone blogger wrote an article about it that I worked to try and bridge to Anglophone speakers given that it’s an important, head-scratching topic.

There was some discussion that came about was full of intriguing observations ranging from aspects of religion, to systems of government, to the simplistic view that it’s just because they speak French that a great deal of the world is unreachable (there are 130 million speakers in the world, which is 128 million more than Slovenia that is 30th best in the world for per capita GDP.) These aspects may all play some part in the overall reason why Francophone Africa has by and large fallen behind Anglophone Africa, but it actually turns out that it’s more simple than any of that.

In a tweet, Elia linked to an article that went in to great detail about how the African Francs work:

On the way out of the market, a strange person standing at the gate of the market decides to extort significant concessions from your hard work and enterprise. This strange person demands that you give 6,500CFA francs of the 10,000CFA francs for him to keep in a bank account controlled by him alone. Then asks that you give him another, 2,000CFA francs as liability for the njangi or any other business venture you may want to use your money for. That is 8,500CFA francs of your 10,000CFA francs.

The person then takes that 8,500CFA francs and go play his own njangis , invest in other businesses, manufacture arms and train others, including some of your own brothers and sisters to make sure that each time he meets you at the gate of the market you will offer no resistance to his demands. If and when he feels like it, he gives you 50CFA francs called “l’aide au dévelopment” and tells you how lazy and stupid (he may have a point here) you are. But he also tells you and the world that he is your best friend and protector.

So essentially, France is “protecting” upwards of 85% of the reserves that 14 countries generate (it includes non-Francophone Equatorial Guinea as well as Guinea-Bissau.) 85%! I was blown away when I read this and just to be a bit more certain, I surfed around and found this article which confirms the same thing.

Just sit there and think about that for a moment. How would economic development happen in your home country if you were left with 15% of your revenues staying in the country? You wouldn’t be able to fund local initiatives to promote local business. You wouldn’t have the money for infrastructure projects or social systems. You would have everyone hiding as much money as possible to avoid this wicked tax which means that in effect a good deal of “corruption” was really tax avoidance, which can then easily descend in to actual corruption that then feeds the belief that you can’t handle your own money. You would in effect get a great deal of the situation you have in these countries who are using the CFA Franc.

Just to get a visual on this, here is a map of CFA member countries and here is a map of Francophone Africa. In looking at Sub-Saharan Africa, if you factor out Congo DRC (who have a different Franc) and Madagascar, the maps are nearly duplicate of one another. It’s one of those lightbulb-moments like when looking at former Slave States in the US and those who voted for George W. Bush.

So, there is your answer. Why is Francophone Africa less dynamic? Because France has been holding their revenues for six decades now. Sure, there is bound to be some explanation of this which obviously made the European Monetary Union happy enough to let France continue this. And there are bound to be finer details in how it works that I’m simply not aware of, but the fact stands that in France’s continually patriarchal view of Africans, they are holding on to money they have no claim upon. I mean, how would France enjoy say… Germany holding 85% of their money? My guess is that it would be a very pouting, “not at all”.