The legacy of French colonialism still shapes the political, economic, and cultural realities of many African countries. / Photo: AA Archive / Photo: TRT World

By Zeynep Conkar

As the World Humanitarian Day is observed globally on August 19, social media is rife with commentaries on countries and regions affected by conflicts, droughts and natural disasters. And much of the focus would be devoted to Africa.

While humanitarian aid is required in many parts of the world, it’s the continent of Africa that always needs extra attention, especially because it’s the poorest continent in the world with $1591 per capita GDP as opposed to $63,543 recorded in the United States alone.

Africa was never meant to be poor. It was deliberately made poor. A resourceful continent with immense natural wealth, the place fell prey to European imperial powers, with France committing one of the worst colonial crimes.

Starting from Algeria, colonialism spread its tentacles across the entire region and subsequently, European powers laid the groundwork for direct occupations through the Berlin Conference of 1884, partitioning the continent.

“All the borders were drawn on tables in Europe – in Paris, London, Madrid, Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, and Brussels," says Professor Ahmet Kavas, former Turkish Ambassador to Senegal and Chad and a former dean at Istanbul Medeniyet University Faculty of Political Sciences.

Understanding Africa's history is incomplete without delving into France's historical presence and enduring influence in the region.

Controlling Africa through Africans

While French presence in Africa dates back to the 17th century, the main period of colonial expansion began with the occupation of Algeria in 1830. Exploitative labour practices were immediately implemented in the country, including forced labour, to align the energy of the entire Algerian population in service of the French state.

Similar draconian policies were implemented by Britain in parts of Africa the imperial power occupied.

"Millions of Africans were displaced by both the British and French to various fronts of World War I and World War II, as well as being used as forced labour for the reconstruction of European cities destroyed after the wars,” Kavas says.

After the Industrial Revolution, there was a significant demand for raw materials and new markets in Europe. France saw Africa as both a market to exploit for raw materials and also a source of labour, according to Dr Ensar Kucukaltan, the General Coordinator of Africa Coordination and Training Center (AKEM).

“France aimed to ensure the smooth transfer of both underground and aboveground resources from Africa to its territories and it achieved this not by massing military forces but by enlisting local leaders to work for French interests,” Kucukaltan says, adding that “they were able to control Africans with African people”.

From normalising massacres and torture to plundering its resources, France brutalised the continent to the extent that its future generations couldn’t reclaim a decisive place on earth.

The legacy of French colonialism still shapes the political, economic, and cultural realities of many African countries.

The age of neocolonialism

After several African states declared their independence in the 1960s, France sought ways to continue exploiting their resources. They imposed French as the official language and the language of instruction in schools, which aided them in cultivating local elite indoctrinated with Western values. Then French officials struck deals with powerful capitalist corporations and began amassing profits through the continued exploitation of African resources – oil, natural gas, uranium, gold, diamonds, agricultural products and other minerals.

"In terms of the lasting impact, I believe France made more significant moves in the post-colonial era, particularly in terms of language and education. Even those who oppose France have to express their opposition in French,” says Kavas.

Majority of France's activities in Africa are centred around the extraction and transportation of resources that benefit French investments rather than the local population.

Africa entered the age of neocolonialism despite many of its post-colonial states gaining nominal autonomy from colonial powers. This neocolonial context is central to understanding many of the challenges faced in Africa today.

"As colonial states began to withdraw from Africa, it was evident that they established certain organisations and structures to perpetuate the system before their departure," Kucukaltan says.

"The situation in Niger with the recent coup is in this context. France acquires over 90 percent of uranium produced from Nigeriens. Therefore, despite sitting on a rich uranium resource, two-fifths of the population earn less than two dollars a day, and live under harsh conditions".

Similar conditions, says Kucukaltan, can be observed in some parts of West and Central African colonies exploited by France.

"France ties the continuation of African regimes to its own interests, too. If you have good relations with France and abide by their rules, they allow you to remain in power".

Kavas pointed out that France refuses to accept that its policies in Africa are akin to neocolonialism.

“The country rather claims it as 'cooperation' and characterises it as state-to-state relations," Kavas says.

France still maintains a military presence in the Sahel region and Central Africa as well as Chad, Mali and Niger. Additionally, France continues to exert influence over political processes in the region.

Humanitarian assistance

AA ARCHIVE Türkiye Diyanet Foundation (TDV) enables numerous people in African countries to access clean drinking water through the wells it establishes with the donations of philanthropists.

The decades of French exploitation has left much of the continent in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Although France is a donor country for the Africa-bound development aid, many critics say it uses those donations for political gains.

“Under slavery, people lost not only their land but also their culture, way of life, and self-esteem. When people are told that they are incapable of doing anything on their own, it puts them in a position of needing help,” Kucukaltan adds.

Kucukaltan argues that humanitarian aid going to Africa ever since colonial powers withdrew from the continent needs to be examined critically.

While in theory, he says, the development aid that Western countries send to Africa is intended to promote economic growth and overall development, it is largely influenced by neocolonial ambitions.

“In fact, this has been extensively examined in the studies conducted, especially from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, where development aid was seriously scrutinised. The question of whether it is truly beneficial was raised. If you talk to many Africans, they will tell you that they have seen more harm than good from the Western development aid," Kucukaltan says.

Many independent investigations have revealed that Western aid has led to more repressions, kleptocracy, assassinations of critics and large-scale embezzlement across Africa, causing instability rather than uplifting the poor.

Africa, as it is

Although the shadow of its colonial past continues to linger, Africa is more than just this.

Afro-pessimism can be misconstrued as Africans cannot accomplish anything on their own, which has unfortunately become a racist trope, especially in the US.

“It creates a perception that Africa is only associated with drought, famine, and conflicts, and that there is nothing positive beyond that, except for the need for assistance, humanitarian aid,” says Kucukaltan.

However, several African states have made some good progress in industrialising their economies with a focus on export-led manufacturing. Africa’s manufacturing share of GDP has increased from 9.4 percent in the late 2000s to 11.1 percent in 2018.

From textile and clothing production to exporting flowers around the world, the continent has convinced the world that it has a lot to offer and it’ll no longer be seen from the prism of conflicts and poverty.

To wean itself off the Western powers, the continent has come closer to other emerging powers such as China, Türkiye and India.

Türkiye-Africa cooperation

AA ARCHIVE Türkiye continues to extend 'a helping hand' to the region which French exploitation has left in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Türkiye plays a significant role in Africa, encompassing all diplomatic, economic, cultural, and humanitarian aspects.

“Türkiye holds one of the highest levels of diplomatic relations with 44 embassies in Africa. There are many Turkish companies that operate ports, and airports in Africa. Turkish Airlines flying to more than 40 African countries is a significant convenience for Africa's global connectivity," Kavas says.

"Türkiye goes to the most remote corners, opening wells, providing food aid, establishing health centres, supporting education and much more”.

According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance 2022 Report prepared by the UK-based organisation Development Initiatives, Türkiye ranks 1st in the world in humanitarian assistance in proportion to its gross national income, with $5.587 billion.

In terms of the amount, Türkiye ranked third in the list in 2013, 2014, and 2015, second in 2016 and 2020, and first in 2017, 2018, and 2019. In 2020, Türkiye also secured its place as the country providing the most aid relative to its gross national income.

Kucukaltan echoed a similar view, saying Ankara has always pushed for a narrative that favours African people.

“Especially during the Somali crisis in the 2010s, we can clearly see the importance of Türkiye in the field. When Turkish President Erdogan travelled to Mogadishu, Somalia along with some ministers and deputies, it turned the attention of the Western media to Somalia,” he says.

Turkish civil society and NGOs continue to make a positive impact on the lives of people in Africa through human-centred initiatives. The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) is one of these organisations.

Recalling his travels to Africa, Kucukaltan says people across Africa view Türkiye in a different light as opposed to their perception of Western powers.

“The interest and attention shown to us (Turks) are genuinely different. And this friendship is achieved through the work of both the Turkish state and NGOs"

TRT World