Howard on Africa In-Brief
A publication of the Center for African Studies, Howard University
ECOWAS – An Economic Intervention, Not a Military One: Ending French Neo-Colonialism and the Establishment of a West African Regional Currency
Written by Suleyman G. Konte, Ph.D.
Edited & Copy edited by DaQuan Lawrence
Oct 16, 2023
As the United Nations (UN) held the 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City last month, the question of equity in multilateralism and sovereignty within African regionalism and its foreign policy implications for the UN Security Council and other public international bodies was a key policy issue on the agenda. Several global issues of significance were discussed at the UNGA as the field of international affairs continues to develop from a unipolar or bipolar framework, where nations like the U.S., China and Russia compete for global dominance and hegemonic influence, into a multipolar framework that includes various leading nations.
The rise of BRICS – the five-nation bloc that currently includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – has led to expansion as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are set to join the group in 2024. In addition to the development of BRICS, the African Union’s (AU) ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was signed by 44 of the AU’s 55 member states in Kigali, Rwanda in March 2018, as well as the AU’s recently acquired permanent member status to the G20, signal challenges to the status quo in international and African affairs, respectively.
The role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in regional conflicts, such as its recent commitment to a military intervention in Niger, was prevalent in foreign policy conversations throughout the duration of UNGA high level week. Beyond demands for change to multilateral organizations, financial inequity in international trade and hegemony in African monetary policy – especially the decades old colonial French fiscal and military policies in West and Central Africa – also received serious scrutiny at the UNGA.
One of the most significant lingering questions is: how will Africa take advantage of these seismic movements?
Military Juntas Create Opportunity for Systemic Change
The juxtaposition of these issues has given the AU and ECOWAS an opportunity, through a newfound political will, to intervene in the Sahel, and a chance to rethink military intervention in Niger. Two premier African-led international bodies, one a multinational the other a regional institution, can consider an innovative and strategic solution to permanently rid West Africa of longstanding internationally supported macro-economic structures driving recent coups in the region—namely Franco-neocolonialism (Francafrique).
Military juntas in the Sahel have seized growing anti-French sentiment throughout the continent to point to what they see as a “neocolonial international financial system” and have used these claims to validate their own criminal acts of high treason. Juntas have usurped power by accusing sitting governments of crimes of corruption, conspiracy and collusion with foreign states such as France, and use claims of neocolonialism and the policy of Francafrique as cover.
The legacy of “Françafrique” as defined by François-Xavier Verschave, has given military juntas in francophone Africa their legitimacy, and more importantly afforded them opportunities to maneuver with impunity. In recent coups, military putschists are in fact joined by civil society activists (activists who normally condemn undemocratic seizures of power) to call out France for being “exploitative” due to their exclusive access to and extraction of African minerals and “criminal” due to its monopoly over West and Central African currencies.
The assertions of opposing forces, whether exaggerated or sensationalized, draw on the heartstrings of the world’s fastest growing and poorest (by Western standards) population, who have lived under what they view as French occupation for well over a century. In the streets of Niamey, Ouagadougou or Bamako you can easily find civil society’s frustrations manifested in public displays of anti-French sentiment, as well as in impromptu protests in support of coup leaders who are proclaiming renewed independence from France. Recent polling conducted by researchers from Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Research and Action Group for Development (GRADE Africa) found 98% of Nigeriens surveyed want the French military to leave and 92% are ready to bear the impact of ECOWAS sanctions to ensure the French depart from the West African nation.
Colonial Vestiges Must be Severed
During his speech to G20 member states, President Emmanuel Macron, did not help France’s reputation as a ruthless modern-day colonial state, when he unilaterally declared that “France would not remove French soldiers from Niger despite its leadership’s demands,”. Nigeriens and Africans from other nations have concluded that France’s involvement on the continent is mostly problematic. In a recent Politico article entitled “Time’s up for France in Africa”, Michael Shurkin, an expert in European defense and West African politics and security, highlighted such anti-French sentiment, stating that “French involvement [in Africa], well-intentioned or not, has become counterproductive” — and concluded that France should depart from the African continent.
Regional observers and international economists criticize France for its infringement of Africa’s “money sovereignty”, and for binding African governments to secretive bilateral agreements that “exploit fiscal policy” and “extract African resources” via dependency on the African Financial Community (CFA) franc monetary zone. The CFA, which is used in 14 African countries with a combined population of approximately 150 million and $280 billion of gross domestic product, including West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) is pegged to the euro, managed by France and considered a mechanism for France to control African resources. Experts contend large capital gains are created for France through interest payments, quantitative manipulation and loan guarantees as approximately 70% of the CFA franc monetary zone of African foreign currency reserves are required to be deposited and held at the French Treasury.
Recently, Arikana Chihombori-Quao, the AU’s former permanent representative to the U.S., told Al Jazeera, “the wave of military interventions is a reaction to the West’s ongoing ‘plunder of the continent’s natural resources’," referring mainly to the French. The National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), along this type of reasoning, has charged President Mohamed Bazoum with high treason for “being a puppet for French interests” in Niger. Separately, they have rescinded military deals and commercial agreements with France, including its high-profile uranium contract, demanding the sale price to be increased from the negotiated €0.80/kg to €200.00/kg. However, there has been speculation as to whether these demands are accurate, given global uranium prices are currently hovering around $56 per pound.
Nevertheless, Niger, which reportedly provides up to 25% of the uranium that Europe consumes, is in a unique position to demand and initiate systematic changes in its relationship with France. If planned effectively, ECOWAS can ensure regional demands for monetary sovereignty are met throughout West Africa.
ECOWAS Intervention Must focus on Liberating African Countries and Integrating West African Economies
ECOWAS has a particularly unique and relevant role to play in ongoing high stakes regional geo-economics given that many of the problems in the Sahel stem from fiscal and economic deficiencies and not necessarily from political or military inadequacies. An ECOWAS intervention, if appropriate, should be in the form of economic and diplomatic intercession and not through military action.
Military action will likely serve to divide a once tightly knit sub-region and leave the innate causes of democratic backsliding unaddressed. An economic intervention in the Sahel focusing on trade, industrialization and monetary policy, seeking to liberate Francophone African states from the hegemony of France, perceived or de facto, will be a necessary first step in creating equity and opportunity across Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Mali and Niger – six recent coup countries which are all in the CFA zone.
ECOWAS should engage along the lines of its initial mandate of ‘economic integration’ to achieve better long-term outcomes and spend concerted effort on dismantling arcane colonial fiscal/monetary policies that are perceived to be exploitative. The current state of affairs may provide ECOWAS the necessary conditions to establish a common West African central bank and a long-awaited regional currency with a single regional monetary policy and flexible exchange-rate.
The ECO - ECOWAS Regional Currency
French resistance and its impassioned insistence on rebranding the CFA franc by renaming it the “eco” yet retaining much of the current monetary policy control is, in large part, a reason why the currency has been marred in controversy and delay. French industrial and business dependence on unfettered access to African markets and strategic natural resources, such as Niger’s uranium or Guinea’s bauxites, are also key driving factors in the renewed anti-French movement in the region.
The eco, now thirty years in the making, has been postponed again with no clear indication that it will have enough momentum to effectively launch by the projected date of January 2027. ECOWAS has the opportunity, through concerted diplomatic engagement – fueled by heightened tensions around military intervention – to expedite the implementation timeline and ensure complete West African control over the currency.
Under the French arrangement, which ECOWAS countries reject, the eco would remain pegged to the euro and African countries would continue to be forced to keep 50% of their financial reserves in the French Treasury, effectively depriving African banks of billions of dollars in deposits. This practice will lead to African countries indebted to Western bankers, and reliant on international creditors to loan them the very dollars they have deposited. It has been estimated that African countries lose as much as $400 billion a year due to this 60-year arrangement. ECOWAS regional heavyweights - Nigeria and Ghana – as well as most of the anglophone bloc have already publicly rejected potential French influence on the regional eco.
Through the recent coups, West African countries, amongst other demands, are demanding access to their own capital and to freedom of enterprise as well as access to their bank reserves to help fund private investment and industry. As sovereign states abiding by standards of international law, West African nations want control of their economic development, currency and markets that enable them to adjust the value of their currencies by raising or lowering the interest rates or printing additional banknotes at their convenience.
They believe their currency has undergone artificial setbacks due to foreign imposed rules that undermine a weakened monetary system. In this sense Francophone Africa, among the rest, is the biggest loser, mostly because they have been systematically deprived of proper money markets, interconnected banks, fiduciary controls and quantitative mechanisms available to other developed and developing nations.
The region can overcome some of the underlying factors besetting coups in West Africa with newfound political will (currently garnered for military intervention) to ensure stability through an interconnected regional currency and economy. The removal of France from internal African monetary policy can be accomplished despite West Africa being far from the Western conceived macroeconomic convergence goals such as: income size, GDP, population, levels of inflation and low public-debt-to-GDP ratios.
This is not to say, democracy and governance are not important goals for ECOWAS to pursue. It is to say the potential military intervention from ECOWAS could cause more regional conflict and worsen relationships with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger who have signed a mutual defense pact to combat ECOWAS if it were to intervene. An ECOWAS military intervention has now inadvertently pitted member countries against one another, instead of uniting and integrating West Africa - which is the regional bloc’s principal aim.
In 2017, Macron notably said he welcomed “an end to relics of the past” and that he nor France “wanted influence through guardianship…or intrusion...”. It is time France lived up to those words. It may go a long way in uniting the region and averting major economic and political disruptions for the continent.
Suleyman G. Konte, Ph.D. is an African affairs expert, international relations advisor, professor and U.S. diplomat.
DaQuan Lawrence is a Howard University African Studies Ph.D. candidate, human rights activist and reporter at The Hilltop.
Howard on Africa in Brief is published by the Center for African Studies at Howard University. Contributors include prominent scholars, policy makers, Howard faculty, alumni and graduate students. Our papers provide open access to research and make a global contribution to understanding Africa-related issues. The views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s).