• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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France and Africa – the Yates version


Let me write this week about Douglas Yates. He is a lanky, engagingly eccentric American academic who has been teaching, ever since he was a correspondent for West Africa magazine in the 1990s, at the American University in Paris. His presence in France has been tolerated (or perhaps ignored) with indulgence for a long time, as he has been a consistently tough critic of French policy in Africa over at least two decades. But then, in those decades, attacks on that policy have been mounting, as criticism of the relationship known as Françafrique, from a few French journalists and civil society organisations as Survie.

It was not always thus. When I first entered the field of Anglo-Saxon studies of Françafrique, there were two versions of French policy. One was the official one, largely followed by the main French media outlets, and the other was the unofficial ‘secret’ version which told stories that were difficult to know whether to believe, but which found echoes on the pages of the satirical Canard Enchainé and in two wonderful volumes called les Carnets Secrets de la Décolonisation (Secret Notebooks of Decolonisation) by Georges Chaffard. Alas, he died young in the 1960s, or he might have been able to eventually help integrate these two parallel histories, which still rumbled on in confidential newsletters or in little-known publications such as the consistently radical review Peuples Noirs, Peuples Africains of the Cameroonian writer Mongo Beti. However, from the end of the 1980s onwards, a new generation of French journalists, such as Pierre Péan, Antoine Glaser and Francois-Xavier Verschave, began to expose the real nature of the astonishing networks and collusive cronyism of Françafrique.

This is where Yates comes in. Although US academics such as Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, René Lemarchand and William Foltz have produced some fine work on the immediate independence period, there has been less recently in English on the subject, which is still nonetheless a rich vein for study. Douglas Yates, however, is in a class of his own for acerbic denunciation of the neo-colonial nature of the system, especially with his mid-1990s book on Gabon as a rentier state. His two recent volumes, however, take his critique much further, giving him an important place in current francophone African studies.

His book The French Oil Industry and the Corps des Mines in Africa (published in the USA by Africa World Press) is a remarkable work – as was clear when he talked about it in London last year at Chatham House. Studying Gabon had instructed him well in the importance of oil to France’s network in Africa, a connection which culminated in the ELF crisis of the 1990s. This demonstrated spectacularly that oil money had become a huge slush fund to bolster France’s most important sphere of influence, sometimes known as the backyard (pré carré). It is an astonishing story, and he tells the history vividly and often sympathetically through a series of biographies of the main players, going back to the family firms of the 18th and 19th centuries through the pivotal role of the Schlumbergers, to starring players of the post-1960 period, such as Pierre Guillamat, Albin Chalandon and Francois-Xavier Ortoli ending with the ‘black sheep’ – Loïk Le Floch-Prigent, who carried the deal-making to excess in the early ‘90s, and precipitated the fall of ELF, fading away into the less conspicuous (and privatised) TOTALFINAELF.

Yates has also produced, more or less contemporaneously, The Scramble for African Oil (Pluto Press), which is strongly commended to those interested in the subject of oil in Africa. It goes beyond his particular area of study, but the French oil business in Africa interfaces not only with France’s activities, but the global hunger for hydrocarbons, a factor in the present African renaissance. This breadth of treatment has implication that should impress Nigerian readers, even if the Nigerian sections of the book, although interesting on the Niger Delta, miss out on some of the key moments when oil and politics interact in recent Nigerian history.

This interaction is something he develops excellently for key francophone countries such as Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville (where the mix of military Marxism and oil politics makes curious reading) and Cameroon. There are also other countries central to his story such as Angola, which became seriously entangled in the ELF scandal, and Equatorial Guinea, whose grievous condition he handles excellently. There is also a trenchant section on the World Bank’s stormy relations over oil with Chad, which never really featured in France’s scramble for oil, even while France played a determining role in the country’s political destiny: unexpectedly, Yates offers a realistic approval of the brutal dictator Hissène Habré’s political role.

Occasionally slapdash, and often controversial, we sometimes find Yates delighting in an odd fact or an unusual perspective, and now and then he infuriates with a quirky excursion into political theory. But he is always readable, while sometimes appearing astonished at the profound sleaze of the world he has entered.


From London

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