Your Own Hand Sold You: Voluntary servitude in the Francafrique

In the CFA franc, the French colonial mission in West Africa found a way to ensure a paternalist and pernicious stranglehold on the economies of a vast region of the continent. Critics are vociferous and persistent in decrying its catastrophic effects on the socio-economic development of 150 million people in 15 countries over more than seven decades. French corporations and African elites are the few beneficiaries of CFA-zone machinations. Historically, those who opposed the currency risked alienating the metropole and were on the receiving end of its intransigence and outright violence. Not much has changed, writes Moses Marz, and a significant shift in the mindset of the French bureaucracy is the only likely remedy for monetary servitude in the Francafrique.

On 7 January this year, the Front Anti CFA organised by NGO Urgences Panafricanistes for a demonstration at the Place de l’Obélisque, a plaza commemorating Senegal’s 1960 independence from France. A set of plastic chairs is arranged in a circle. Kémi Séba is standing at the centre, wearing a tightly cut purple boubou with an Africa symbol over the pocket. About 50 people are sitting or standing around him, listening to his rant against the CFA franc, the currency that Charles de Gaulle created in 1945 for the Colonies Françaises d’Afrique, only renaming it into Coopération Financière en Afrique after the wave of formal decolonisations in 1960, but still used in order for France to remain in control of its former colonies. Séba tells his listeners that de Gaulle adopted the CFA from the Nazis’ occupation of France and that during slavery the French also told them that they were better off as slaves, that they would get food every day and that liberation would be too risky. Hulo Guillabert, who is in the audience, responds: “No, we don’t give a shit if it is risky. We don’t want this CFA anymore. If that means we’ll die, we’ll die!” Gaïnde, also in the audience, explains: “If there are only a few of us here today, it is because we are already in the future. We no longer live in the past. We are the thinkers and actors of the avant-garde. We are already sovereign. We are already independent. Now we need to spread this message to get a critical mass.”

Francafrique in session: French president François Hollande instructing CFA zone presidents


For Séba, the founder of Urgences Panafricanistes, it is clear that the struggle against the CFA cannot take place on a national level and needs to move gradually from sensitisations to mobilisation and to a boycott of French products. The franc zone includes a population of 150 million people across eight countries forming part of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo), as well as seven Central African countries forming part of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Cameroon, DR Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Chad) and the Comoros. The demonstrations on 7 January take place simultaneously in Abidjan, Bamako, Bohicon, Bologna, Brussels, Casamance, Dakar, Haiti, Kinshasa, London, Ouagadougou, Ouidah and Paris, a new pan-African map that, for now, mainly exists in online discussions among university students.

On 14 December 2016, Ali Laidi interviews Kako Nubukpo on his France 24 TV-show Intelligence Economique. Since his dismissal as minister in the Togolese government, Nubukpo is a frequent guest at talk shows and round tables on the CFA, promoting his new book Sortir l’Afrique de la servitude monétaire – A qui profite le franc CFA? (Freeing Africa from Monetary Servitude – Who profits from the CFA franc?) When he lists the negative aspects of the currency, one after the other, a disarming smile accompanies what must be a delicate topic for the audience. Preferring to speak of servitude instead of neo-colonialism and diplomatically calling for greater flexibility instead of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, Nubukpo quickly convinces the moderator of his views. Towards the end of the show, Laidi himself ends up referring to the currency as an “incredible absurdity”.

A year earlier, at the occasion of the 55th anniversary of Chad’s independence in N’Djamena, Idriss Déby, Chad’s president since 1990 and graduate of Qaddhafi’s World Revolutionary Centre, announced unexpectedly that it is time to “cut a string that is preventing Africa from developing”, calling for the creation of a proper African currency that no longer relies on postcolonial mechanisms of domination. At first no one knew what to make of this statement by a Françafrique faithful. Was he trying to threaten French authorities because they did not support his 2016 re-election campaign? Was this connected to his country’s war against Boko Haram? Déby repeated his claims in a Jeune Afrique interview in February 2017, stating that “a revision of the terms of cooperation is absolutely necessary and unavoidable”. His pronouncements hover in the background of the ongoing discussion as a broken taboo, and an indication of the possibility of a change of mind in the current generation of African politicians.

What at first looked like the annual rehearsal of anti-CFA rhetoric has taken another discursive dimension after the currency’s 70th anniversary in 2015. The unlikely confluence of interests between Nubukpo, an economist-turned-academic, Déby, the autocratic ruler of Chad, and Séba, a professional pan Africanist with links to the Nation of Islam, has combined the technical and symbolic anti-CFA arguments to move the debate away from discussions about the possible effects of another devaluation – a concern that preoccupied the debate before – towards a complete abolition of the currency.

This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2017.

Kémi Séba’s anti-CFA project has been more successful than any other of his previous organisations, two of which were disbanded by the French government for anti-Semitism and inciting racial violence. Fashioning himself as a black radical in the line of Malcom X and Cheikh Anta Diop – with books such as Supra-Négritude and Black Nihilism – and having recently changed supremacist views for what he calls ethno-differencialism, Séba moved from France to Senegal to benefit from greater levels of freedom of expression.

Before his contract with the Togolese government, Kako Nubupko worked for the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) for three years before posts at business schools in Lyon, Oxford and Princeton. He has experienced the power and intellectual laziness of bureaucratic routine first hand. He is confident that a change of mentality is taking place – at least in the French administration. His talk about the strategies of the Asian Dragons, the disjuncture between South Korea and Senegal’s monetary policies, and the Millennium Development Goals, at times neatly fits into an African Rising discourse and has pushed the level of attention in French media significantly higher than the academic works of Nicolas Agbohou and Moussa Dembélé, who carried the discursive torch on the CFA franc up to 2014.

Around these figures, a larger conglomeration of politicians, artists, technocrats and activists has gathered across different continents, including people as diametrically opposed as the French right wing politician Marine Le Pen and Mamadou Koulibaly, former Ivorian Finance minister in Laurent Gbagbo’s government.


Currency Can Get You Killed

Historically, going against the CFA franc has come with a high price in Franco-African relations. Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo, was assassinated in 1963 shortly after announcing his intention of creating his own currency. In the hours leading up to his murder, the French and American ambassadors to Togo exchanged phone calls, essentially extraditing him to Gnassingbé Eyadéma and the group of soldiers around him that was demobilised by the French colonial army and wanted a space in the new Togolese army. Eyadéma eventually became president in 1967 and, backed by France, remained in power until his death in 2005. Olympio’s death sentence was pronounced as early as his first meeting with Jacques Foccart, the “shadow man” of France’s Africa policy from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac. After their talk at the Elysée, Foccart simply said about Olympio: “He is not one of our friends”.

Half a century later, in 2011, the assassination of Muammar Qaddhafi is also, in part, linked to the CFA. The recent Wikileaks of Hillary Clinton’s emails revealed that Nicolas Sarkozy’s motivation for the military intervention in Libya was to prevent Qaddhafi from launching his own pan African currency backed by his reserves of 143 tons of gold and silver, prospectively ridding France of its dominance over francophone Africa. Laurent Gbagbo’s anti CFA stance, since his election campaign of 2000 to the bombing of his residence in 2011, eventually lead to his ICC detention in The Hague – the West’s current preferred means of political elimination of inconvenient African rulers.

In the context of Françafrique, the mafia-like network of French and African elites that grew out of Foccart’s network and still works to maintain France’s geopolitical, military, cultural and institutional dominance in its former colonies, the monetary system of the CFA functions as the cement holding these different spheres together. Although the CFA underwent several adjustments over the last 70 years, its main goal has remained the same: to preserve the value of the currency – by all means necessary.

The tools used for this include, in official economist language, a fixed exchange rate between the CFA franc and the euro set in stone at the equivalent of CFA655.957 to €1; the centralisation of 50 per cent of foreign exchange reserves at the French Treasury, to guarantee “unlimited convertibility” in France; the freedom of transfers within the area and the fixed parity between the two African sub-regions part of the CFA zone. A last unofficial principle holds that the French Central Bank has the veto right in all management decisions by BCEAO, based in Dakar, and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC), based in Yaoundé. The integration of the French franc into the eurozone in 1999 did not affect this arrangement at all. The CFA continues as an enclave in the new system as if nothing happened, like in colonial times when the metropole’s imperative was to import cheap primary resources from the colonies under the auspices of normal economic practice.

Protests against the CFA are not new. They have been around since its inception and resurface on a regular basis. Over the last seven decades, dependency theorists, liberal economists, Marxists and pan Africanists have created a canon of articles and books devoted to the critique of the CFA. Osendé Afana’s L’Economie De L’Ouest-Africain (1966), Pathé Diagne’s Pour l‘unité ouest-africaine (1972) and Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi’s Monnaie, Servitude et Liberte (1980) form part of that tradition. Nubukpo’s Sortir l’Afrique de la servitude monétaire is only the latest contribution forming the analytical background to the current protest.

In these works, the CFA still stands for a lack of sovereignty for the African member states. A state or a federation of states that cannot decide on its own when to raise or lower the value of its currency, to adjust to new developments by changing course, is devoid of any political capacity and has no way of bettering its economic position. It is, for example, a common-place notion that it would benefit Malian or Beninese cotton producers a great deal if the CFA franc were no longer overvalued through its tie to the euro.

In terms of hard socio-economic results, any economist would struggle to disprove the fact that the 15 countries that make up the franc zone are part of the poorest of Africa. In the terms of the UN data of reference for international organisations, seven out of eight UEMOA-countries (West African Economic and Monetary Union) are classified as “least developed countries,” with nine out of 10 people living on the equivalent of US$2 a day. Ivory Coast, the only exception and the largest contributor to BCEAO making up to 40 per cent of its resources, was a “heavily indebted poor country” according to the IMF before Alassane Ouattara, formerly of BCEAO and IMF, and the guardian of Françafrique, became president and received a debt cancellation gift from his former colleagues in New York.

Despite being in existence for seven decades, the CFA franc has done next to nothing for the regional integration of its member countries. The level of imports within the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) is less than 15 per cent of their total imports, only four per cent in the case of CEMAC, the Central African equivalent – compared with 60 per cent within the EU zone, for example. This is not surprising since in the logic of extraversion there is no space for horizontal relations. Meanwhile, in terms of legal financial flows, French companies like Bolloré, Total, Societé Générale, BNP-Paribas, Orange and France Télécom get the main state tenders through the well-oiled channels of Françafrique and can operate without the risk of depreciating currency and with easy transfers back home. In terms of illegal financial flows (IFF), the free capital movement that is part of the CFA agreement leaves member countries no power to control the sums being transferred in and out of the country. On the IFF heat map, Ivory Coast is marked in deep red and, even more embarrassingly, BEAC governors were caught by Wikileaks transferring €500 million to the Societé Générale.

Moreover, the fact that the CFA agreement dictates that African countries have to deposit half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French treasury deprives these countries of vital resources to finance their own projects. The part of the interest on this money that France transfers back is declared as development aid. In 2005, it was reported that €72 billion had accumulated as reserves in the French treasury over the last 50 years. The amount equals a coverage rate of 110 per cent – when the agreement only prescribes a rate of 20 per cent.

What makes no economic sense to the CFA-critics is a source of pride for Ouattara, the most fervent defender of the CFA. Repeatedly referring to his credentials as former governor of BCEAO, the Ivorian president proclaimed in 2016: “I can assure you that the CFA has been well-managed by Africans”, citing as the main reason that the zone is one of the few that has a coverage rate of 100 per cent.

Kaku Nubukpo reads in this behaviour by the central banks a voluntary subjugation that can be explained by African rulers’ attempts to cast themselves as “good pupils of monetary orthodoxy” – to create the impression of a credible monetary zone in what is, by financial standards, an absolute catastrophe. The extraordinary high interest rates the African central banks place on credits given to businesses and their decision to prioritise keeping inflation levels low form part of the dogma of the 1980s. By limiting inflation levels to two per cent, the same way the European Central Bank does, the BCEAO follows the simple logic of “what is good for Europe is good for us”, which is particularly absurd given that, in times of crisis, the European Central Bank is the first bank to leave monetarist orthodoxy behind.

While technocrats, importers and urban elites might benefit from the CFA, buying imported products and property that does not lose its value, for the overwhelming number of people living in rural areas it would be better otherwise.


The only real public outcry across the CFA franc region came in 1994 when the French government of Edouard Balladur decided unilaterally to cut the value of the CFA in half, following structural adjustment pressures of the IMF and World Bank. The news reached the African heads of state while they were discussing the future of the already financially defunct continental airline, Air Afrique. It was up to Alassane Ouattara, then prime minister in the regime of Félix Houphouet-Boigny, Foccart’s best friend in Africa, to convince all the other presidents to sign off the devaluation. The official announcement by Balladour was that the “CFA franc was devalued in 1994 at the instigation of France, because we felt it was the best way to help these countries in their development”.

What was, politically, an embarrassment for the heads of state and unmasked their neocolonial dependence on France, had even more drastic consequences for the populations of the member states. People were completely unprepared for the devaluation and had their purchasing power effectively cut in half. The devaluation marked the beginning of an ongoing recession and the end of a period up to the mid-1980s in which the franc zone states saw relatively strong levels of economic growth and greater stability than neighbouring countries, Ghana and Nigeria.

Still, although the trauma of 1994 lives on, nothing has changed in the architecture of the currency.

The neat, neoliberal separation of economy, politics, culture and history forms part of the explanation why, with all the counter-arguments in place, the CFA is still around. From the brightly lit France 24 TV studios and the amazingly local sounding RFI Afrique broadcasts, to the weekly covers of the Jeune Afrique magazine carrying the posh image of the powerful big man in a suit, there is a complete world in which a “CFA fort”, a strong currency, appears completely natural and is even a source of pride.

In this world, it also makes sense to depict the contours of France hovering over West and Central Africa like holy spirit, as on the map of the 40th anniversary of the CFA. Or for a 2005 French law to be passed by parliament that reads: “School courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa.” Or for François Fillon, the current Republican candidate for the French presidential election to declare, on the same subject, that France cannot be sentenced “guilty for wanting to share its culture with the people of Africa”.

Trying to make sense of France’s inability to engage its colonial past and present, academics have reverted to psychoanalytical models to explain what Achille Mbembe calls the “long imperial winter” of France, referring to narcissism, a desire for apartheid, or just that: racism. To keep the marriage with such an abusive partner alive, the franc zone cannot but maintain the practice of servitude volontaire as a kind of masochism that keeps the cooperation alive.

The illusion that money is nothing but a means of exchange, a reflection of the objects that can be bought with it, or a precious metal with an intrinsic value, has been propagated by Euroliberalists who, since the end of the Second World War, want to keep currency debates as far away from politics as possible.

Anthropologists know that money has always functioned much like a semantic system that has historically more to do with appeasing social relations between human beings and the gods, through sacrifice or payments of debt, hence the etymological roots of to pay. Money does more than establish equivalences – it contains violence and its main social function is the construction of the state and a stabilisation of norms of consumption.

The coins and notes of the CFA efface any political reference, other than those to modernity itself. The separation between planes, satellite dishes, trains, @-signs and electromagnetic waves on the obverse part of the notes, and birds, fish, hippopotami and camels on the reverse leave a distance of modern civilisation that needs to be crossed from one part of the bill to the other.

When operating in this logic it also makes sense to accept the explanation given by the Central Bank of France – flanked by representatives of BCEAO and BEAC – in a recent press conference to the question why CFA franc notes, which are after all printed in France, cannot be exchanged in France. To avoid the threats of financial terrorism and the circulation of false money, it has opted to only accept modern means of financial transactions – in other words, electronic transfers to France. At last, the number itself has out-ruled all other symbols. And who wouldn’t want to be modern?


There is no agreement on a way forward among the activists and economists of the Front Anti CFA. There is no evidence that opting either for single currencies or other regional ones will, in any way, be better. What is clear, however, is that lack of political will has hindered projects such as the common ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) currency, lying dormant since 2005, or a similar project by the East African Community started in 2010. The way Germany dealt with Greece in proper colonial terms – accusing it of collective laziness and unreliability – in the recent crisis is a prominent example for demonstrating that a currency needs a union of solidarity across individual national markets.

So, if a natural disaster does not strike, it looks like, again, only change among the French bureaucrats is going to bring about a change in the CFA zone. France has for a long time been good at downplaying the benefits it draws from retaining its colonial ties. Chances are that, behind the curtain, the administrators are no longer sure whether it makes sense to keep the zone in place once a wider audience finds out what happens in its African pré-carré. Its main trade partners in Africa are Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. And they are using their own currencies in any case. A sign in that direction was that, for the first time since the time of decolonisation, and in the immediate aftermath of the wave of Front Anti CFA protests, the French foreign ministry issued a questionnaire to the African students of the Paris Institute of Political Science, the reproductive machine of the French political elite, to ask them what they think about the CFA.


This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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