Essay – The CFA franc: A “hyper-colonial” Currency

“It is not a book against France, nor against Africa, but a book that explains a monetary mechanism that can be described as perverse, because it blocks the development of African countries that are a part of it”, with these words Senegalese economist Ndongo Samba Sylla opened the conference organized at the City of Other Economics in Rome on 14 May 2019 by Fazi publisher, who published the Italian version of the book written together with French journalist Fanny Pigeaud, L’arme invisible de la françafrique, (Françafrique’s invisible arm in Africa)  on the a history of the CFA franc.[i]

The acronym CFA refers to two current monetary and economic unions in West and Central Africa: the West African CFA franc brings together the eight members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) – Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo; -the Central African CFA franc comprises the six members of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC)– Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Chad. Today the area has a population of over 160 million inhabitants spread across fourteen countries.[ii]

 

 

At its creation, in December 1945 the acronym CFA meant the franc of the French colonies of Africa – today, it designates the franc of the African financial community for the WAEMU countries and the franc of financial cooperation in Central Africa for the CEMAC countries.

Ndongo Samba Sylla has worked in the field of development economics and is today research director for West Africa of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Dakar, so his point of view is multidisciplinary, embracing economics, as well as historical and geopolitical aspects.

French journalist Fanny Pigeaud has already written extensively on the history of Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Madagascar. The sources of the book are very varied, ranging from direct testimonials (some anonymous, recalling the silence surrounding the subject still present today), official reports, historical accounts, newspaper articles and economic analysis. Sylla reminds us, quoting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that the etymological root in Greek for money is the same that designates the word law, nomos, and therefore every monetary asset is necessarily accompanied by a political order.

The CFA franc is the heir of the French franc imposed in past centuries through the use of violence in the vast French empire that extended from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Antilles and the Americas. The repression against the natives who refused to abandon their African money- such as rubber, iron, copper or salt bars, manillas, shells, cotton, pearls, etc. – for the French franc was fierce.

In 1925 a law included in the new Code de l’indigénat, (code of administrative justice which applied only to indigenous people), set out the obligation to use the French franc in commercial transactions under penalty of punishment. The African rebellions against this monetary imposition were numerous: from boycotts, counterfeiting, to the obstinacy in using one’s own money continued until well into the twentieth century.

Currency boards, born in the respective colonial empires at the beginning of the 20th century – British, Portuguese, Spanish, French – were devised to secure a supply of raw materials from the occupied areas and control their commercial flow. These institutions became channels for the drainage of capital from an underdeveloped economy to the benefit of a developed economy.

While the other colonial monetary areas, including the French[iii] in North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), Middle East (Syria and Lebanon) and Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) were dissolved with the county’s achieving independence, the CFA franc area remained in the hands of the French.

Despite an Africanization of executives, France is still present today: it has seen its representation reduced from a third to a seventh in 1972-73 on the boards of the respective central banks[iv], the BEAC (Bank of Central African States) for the CEMAC area and the BCEAO (Central Bank of the West African States) for the WAMEU area; it is also present in the monetary policy committees which since 2007 for BEAC and and 2010 for the BCEAO, following the European policy of state-independent banks, are the main decision-making bodies of monetary policies in the respective areas; at the biannual meetings of the Council of Finance Ministers and Annual Conference of Heads of State and Government.

Ndongo Samba Sylla in Money on the left: comparing monetary imperialism in Francophone Africa[v] asks if we can talk about decolonization without taking into account who manages the monetary system.

This colonial setup was able to remain in place only because true independence was never achieved: the African countries in the CFA area were asked, so as to acquire formal independence at the time, to sign cooperation agreements with France in areas such as trade, military, defence and culture.

Those who rebelled against the French CFA system paid serious consequences, such as the  President of Togo Sylvanus Olympio and the President of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara, both assassinated, Olympio in 1963 and Sankara in 1987. A whole chapter in L’arme invisible de la françafrique is dedicated to the brave rebels who challenged this neo-colonial system.

The most prominent victims of contemporary françafrique are former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo and his wife Simone Gbagbo, along with activist and youth minister Charles Blé Goudé.[vi]

Laurent Gbagbo since the late 60s, as an activist, trade unionist and historian, had denounced the partial independence, a depoliticised independence as he called it, achieved by his country and demanded that true independence, including economic, be implemented democratically, without taking up arms, but through the ballot box.

In Reflections on the Conference of Brazzaville, demystifying the myth that this 1944 conference was a first step towards the independence of the French-speaking African colonies, Gbagbo reveals the true political intentions of France towards its colonies through the use of historical archives on the various colonial conferences of the twentieth century.

We discover that the colonial conference of 1917 insisted on the colonies importance so as to supply the French metropolis with food and raw materials for its industries; the colonial conference of 1934-35 emphasized the need to use the empire as a market that could absorb French products not sold at home; the Brazzaville conference focused instead on strengthening ties with the colonies within the French empire.[vii]

After three decades of non-violent struggle, with bare hands, in 1990 the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) managed to wrest a multiparty democracy from the dictator Félix Houphouët-Boigny and many democratic reforms before 2000 when Gbagbo was elected President.

Co-author of L’arme invisible de la francafrique (Françafrique’s invisible arm in Africa) Fanny Piguead has already in France-Côte d’Ivoire, une histoire tronquée (France-Ivory Coast, a truncated history)[viii] analyzed the Ivorian crisis from 2002 to 2011, where she demonstrates through hard facts, how France used the weapon of currency control, by closing the branches of French banks – the Americans followed – in Côte d’Ivoire and subsequently also suspending the payment and exchange operations system that functioned from the BCEAO in Dakar, before intervening militarily in April 2011 to impose Alassane Ouattara.

Pigeaud recalls the victory of the Ivorian banking resistance and the imminent birth of an Ivorian national currency crushed by the violent French regime change in favour of Ouattara: “after having bombed for several days the military barracks, the presidential palace and the official residence of the President of Ivory Coast, the soldiers of the French base in Abidjan launched, on 11 April 2011, a large-scale attack against the Ivorian army.”[ix]

The entire political party founded by Simone and Laurent Gbagbo in 1982, the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), was severely targeted by the European Union and the United Nations via asset freezing of the FPI leaders and their sympathizers and other sanctions considered illegal by many including French lawyer Marcel Ceccaldi.[x]

Under Alassane Ouattara’s current authoritarian regime the FPI has been undergoing imprisonment, torture, murder and forced exile since 2011. In France, asylum seekers from the Ivory Coast have increased by 68% in 2018.

Laurent Gbagbo was deprived of his liberty by the International Criminal Court (ICC) where, after an eight-year trial on 16 January 2019 he was acquitted of all charges of crimes against humanity in a no case to answer, a decision taken without hearing the defence witnesses. Back in 2013, at the end of the ICC’s pre-trial process, two out of three judges declared that there were no incriminating elements to try Gbagbo.

On 16 January 2019, the judges of the ICC trial chamber asked for an immediate release, due to a total lack of evidence, and also in respect of personal freedom. Instead, the ICC Procurator Fatou Bensouda decided to appeal that same evening.

The Chamber of Appeal ignored the decision of the Trial Chamber and on 1 February 2019 pronounced itself in favour of a very restrictive freedom.[xi]

Now the ICC keeps Gbagbo in Belgium, without permission to travel or to speak about his case, as an acquitted person. Charles Blé Goudé, his Minister of Youth tried with him in a joint trial, also acquitted of all charges, is still in a hotel in the Netherlands without permission to return to his country.

The use of lawfare, justice as a weapon of war, is corroborated by a French diplomatic document unveiled by Fanny Pigeaud in a 2017 article Le Procès Gbagbo: les preuves d’un montage (Gbagbo trial: evidence of a set-up).[xii]

The incriminating e-mail reveals that on 11 April 2011, five months before the opening of an investigation and hours before the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo, International Criminal Court Prosecutor at the time Luis Moreno Ocampo had requested that Gbagbo be kept in detention until a country referred the case to the ICC. The e-mail was sent by the Africa Director of the French Foreign Ministry Stéphane Gompertz, copied to twenty high-level French diplomats, all thus aware of the political manoeuvrings in progress to remove the legitimate president Laurent Gbagbo from his country.

The premeditation by France to get rid of Gbagbo in this illegal way can be seen in other exchanges of e-mails by high-level French diplomats with Prosecutor Ocampo dated March 2011, and revealed in detail by one of Laurent Gbagbo’s spokesmen and close to the dossier Bernard Houdin in Gbagbo, a homme, a destin (Gbagbo, a man, a destiny) published in early 2019.[xiii] These revelations, following due process, should have called for the immediate closure of the trial.

The management of the CFA is today hyper-colonial [xiv] because it is now subject to what the economist and sociologist Martial Ze Belinga calls a colonialité à double verrou ou double tutelle, double lock coloniality or double tutorship, both French and European, via a 1998 decision of the European Council, which anchored the CFA franc to the Euro, decision adopted by the European Parliament in 1999. “African countries cannot make any decision that touches on substantial aspects such as the parity, the nature of the exchange rate, etc. without the agreement of the European Union.

However, there is no institutional agreement between the African central banks (BEAC, BCEAO) and the ECB! An African finance minister who has difficulties and would like to use more foreign reserves to meet the needs of the state should theoretically obtain the agreement of France and the three European institutions mentioned in the November 1998 decision, the European Council, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. An absurd situation! ”, writes Ze Belinga.[xv]

 

A predatory paradigm

 

The notion of monetary stability often cited as proof of the vitality of the CFA franc, has no value if it is not related to the overall macroeconomic dynamics of the area. Other indicators show that the CFA franc area is amongst the poorest in the world: out of the 47 countries that are part of the community of the least developed countries in the world since the category was born in 1971, ten of the fourteen CFA countries are members of it today, (Senegal is since 2000 and Equatorial Guinea left in 2017) urging some to call it the PMA currency, from the French acronym pays les moins avancés (less developed countries).

Already back in 1964, the Franco-Egyptian economist Samir Amin spoke of “growth without development.” Ndongo Samba Sylla explains in an interview: “If one takes the real per capita GDP of the most important economies in the CFA franc area, one sees that today it is less than 40 years ago. Taking Ivory Coast as an example, in 2016, real per capita GDP was one-third lower than in 1978, which was his best year. The annual growth rate of real GDP per capita for Ivory Coast, between 1960 and 2016, is more or less 0.5%. In my country, in Senegal, for the same period the annual growth rate of real GDP per capita is equal to 0.02%. This means that there has been no long-term growth.”[xvi]

Sylla and Pigeaud identify the CFA’s four main characteristics as handicaps: the fixed exchange rate, which deprives the countries of the area of ​​conducting an autonomous monetary policy, an autonomy even more necessary for countries subject to exogenous economic shocks (due to the lack of economic diversification, and therefore too much dependence on the price variation of one or two primary resources, agricultural production plagued by climatic phenomena and recurrent wars); freedom of capital movements and unlimited convertibility which facilitate very costly forms of financial bleeding on the social level.

These three characteristics together with the fourth, the concentration of 50% of the area’s foreign exchange reserves at the French treasury, limit bank credits and therefore paralyze endogenous productive dynamics.

The lack of liquidity forces African countries to remain producers of unprocessed raw materials. The credit-to-GDP ratio is only 25% for WAEMU countries and 13% for countries in the CEMAC area; the average for sub-Saharan African countries of credit / GDP is 60%, while for South Africa it is 100%, for the USA 300%.

Also, the former Togolese Minister and economist Kako Nubukpo, a fervent supporter of an urgent need for a change in the architecture of the CFA monetary system that dominates the area, sees the main characteristics of this monetary system as vehicles for the accumulation of wealth abroad.

The anchoring to the euro, a strong currency, has penalized the price competitiveness of local productions through structurally overvalued exchange rates. A strong currency acts as an export tax and a subsidy on imports, making it difficult to achieve a balance in the trade balance.

In the case of the CFA area, the strong currency penalizes the export of raw materials, which are less competitive on the international market. Analyzing the effective exchange rate indicator, some economists came to the conclusion that the CFA franc is overvalued by 10%.[xvii]

Furthermore, having as its main mandate the defence of equality with the euro, the central banks of the respective CFA areas are not interested in either growth or employment. Adama Combey and Kako Nubukpo in 2010 reveal in a study [xviii] that to achieve further economic growth through an expansive monetary policy, an optimal inflation rate of 8% would be suitable, far from the current 2% target followed by the BCEAO.

The colonial operating principles of the CFA system (the fixed parity, the free convertibility of capital, the centralization of the French treasury reserves) are still the same today and accompanied by commercial agreements, together they reinforce the extroverted character of the African economies.

An example? Cocoa beans: today when they are imported into Europe without being processed they are taxed at 0%, whereas when Ivory Coast, the world’s leading producer of cocoa beans, has to export a chocolate bar to Europe, a tax of 30% is imposed. This automatically penalizes the transformation of cocoa beans on the spot.

The economist Martial Ze Belinga explains that this is not abnormal if we look at the former colonies for what they represent today in the global economy: “African economies are essentially a satellite of western economies. This means that when we say “African exports” we forget that in reality they are European supplies for Europe, so Europe will not tax its supplies since it is with these purchases that it will obtain its added value. It is a predatory paradigm.”[xix]

Therefore a true African independence can be achieved if the abolition of the CFA colonial currency is accompanied by a revision of the commercial cooperation contracts; the closure of foreign military bases; a transparent management of natural resources (and therefore also a revision of the mining codes); and a liberation from the austerity policies applied by the International Monetary Fund, despite the recognition, for at least a quarter of a century that such policies (fiscal austerity, high-interest rates, the liberalization of trade and capital markets, the privatization of state resources) are detrimental to the economies that are subject to them.[xx]

 

The symbolic role

 

Ndongo Samba Sylla and Fanny Pigeaud, citing a 1970 report drawn up by the French Economic and Social Council, which echoes the French colonial paradigm during the colonial conferences described by Laurent Gbagbo, list the “indisputable advantages” for France of the CFA system: African countries in the franc zone are increasingly supplying foreign exchange reserves to France which allows France to regulate a part of its trade deficit; overseas countries remain large and stable markets for French exports; the freedom of movement of capital provides a guarantee to French interests in Africa and allows France to acquire raw materials in its own currency, thus avoiding the use of its foreign reserves for such supplies.

To summarize “the diseases present in the CFA’s DNA” are: “weak economic growth, weak structural transformation, poverty, unemployment, weak commercial integration between the countries of the area[xxi] and a weak bank financing of the economies.”[xxii]

A part of the African ruling class is certainly responsible for the continuing monetary repression, but it does not represent a majority in French-speaking Africa and it is often kept in power by French military interventions against internal opposition: according to French Ministry of Defence sources there were more than 150 military interventions in sub-Saharan Africa since 1945.[xxiii]

These military interventions not only prevent the progress of democratization processes on the continent but also perpetuate anachronistic state violence towards another state, in the face of which international justice abdicates.

When former South African President Thabo Mbeki arrived in Ivory Coast in 2004 as a mediator in the Franco-Ivorian crisis he saw numerous French tanks on the streets of the capital Abidjan and was amazed because it resembled an unacceptable colonial military presence in an era called postcolonial.

 

The CFA franc is linked to a history of extreme colonial violence and should by now be part of the past, and therefore of numismatics, and lie in a memorabilia museum like the one on the apartheid era of comic actor and fervent activist Pieter-Dirk Uys.

The theatre-museum is called Home of Evita Bezuidenhout and among the many objects there are also signs with the inscription: “Only for whites, no blacks.” “Today we all laugh, not because it’s funny, nothing is funny about apartheid. We laugh because today we are in charge of those symbols that have frightened us into silence for forty years, and this is the victory that our democracy celebrates, ” explains actor Pieter-Dirk Uys.[xxiv]

 

 

The first bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the antecedent of the BCEAO, was born in Saint Louis in Senegal in 1853, with funds given to slave owners by the French state as compensation for the release of slaves kept. The symbolic role of liberation also requires a re-appropriation of the autochthonous and authentic symbols and of breaking with colonial ones. It is time that francophone Africa also acquire its independence through a monetary and symbolic endogenization of currencies: “It is not difficult to imagine the popular adhesion to African currencies with depictions on the banknotes of Kwame Nkrumah, Um Nyobe, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Cheikh Anta Diop, Tchundjang Pouémi, ”writes Ze Belinga.[xxv]

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Ndongo Samba Sylla e Fanny Pigeaud, L’arme invisible de la francafrique, une histoire du CFA, éditions La Découverte, Paris 2018, translated by Thomas Fazi,  Fazi editore May 2019.  Video link of the book presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dRQojvAezY

 

[ii] The Comoros have a monetary cooperation agreement with France similar to the CFA franc area, but it does not belong to it.

 

[iii] Except the franc CFP, the currency used in the French overseas territories of French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna and New Caledonia. The acronym CFP was originally for Colonies françaises du Pacifique, (French colonies of the Pacific) while today it means Change franc Pacifique (Change Pacific Franc). In other areas of French overseas, former French colonies, today the Euro is used.

 

[iv] Ndongo Samba Sylla e Fanny Pigeaud, op cit. p. 99

 

[v] Ndongo Samba Sylla, Money on the left: confronting monetary imperialism in Francophone Africa, Monthly review, 14 March 2019.

 

[vi] For more information website with articles and video testimonies https://www.free-simone-and-laurent-gbagbo.com

 

[vii] Laurent Gbagbo, Réflextions sur la conférence de brazzaville, éditions clé, Yaoundé, 1978.

 

[viii] Fanny Pigeaud, France Côte d’Ivoire: une histoire tronquée, Vents D’ailleurs, 2015.

 

[ix] Ndongo Samba Sylla e Fanny Pigeaud, op. cit. p. 163

 

[x] Intervista a Marcel Ceccaldi di Nicoletta Fagiolo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EWv5LlWb6c

 

[xi] The six conditions of the release are: ”1. President Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé must sign a contract specifying that they will appear infront of the Court when it makes a request 2. They must provide the ICC with their respective addresses of residence and not change residence without informing the Court. 3. They cannot leave the territorial limits of their municipality of residence without the authorization of the Court. 4. They must provide their identity documents to the Court and report weekly to the Court or the host country. 5. They cannot contact prosecution witnesses and cannot make public statements about the case 6.The judges of the first instance have 30 days to make their decision justified in writing.” Instead four months have already passed since the decision of February 1, 2019 but the written motivation has not yet been filed. The wife of Laurent Gbagbo, Simone Gbagbo, was also acquitted in Abidjan in 2016 for a trial for crimes against humanity yet still has to suffer a request from the ICC to try her for the same facts, violating the double penalization (double jeopardy).

 

[xii] Fanny Pigeaud, Procès Gbagbo: les preuves d’un montage, Mediapart, 5 ottobre 2017. https://www.mediapart.fr/journal/international/051017/proces-gbagbo-les-preuves-d-un-montage

 

[xiii] Bernard Houdin, Gbagbo, un homme, un destin, Max Milo, Paris, 2019.

 

[xiv] Martial Ze Belinga in Sortir l’Afrique de la servitude monétaire, A qui profite le franc CFA, La Dispute, Paris, 2016. p 195

 

[xv] Ze Belinga, La fin du CFA est un passage obligé vers une émancipation plus générale,  in Défis actuel, 27-29 May 2019. http://www.newsducamer.com/martial-ze-belinga-la-fin-du-cfa-est-un-passage-oblige-vers-une-emancipation-plus-generale/

 

[xvi] Ndongo Samba Sylla, Monthly Review interview, op. cit.

 

[xvii] Kako Nubukpo, Le franc CFA, un frein à l’émergence des économies africaines? in l’Economie Politique, 4/2015.

 

[xviii] Nubukpo e Combey, Les effets non linéaires de l’inflation sur la croissance dans l’Uemoa, IMAO. Accra, Giugno, 2010.

 

[xix] Martial Ze Belinga, Afrique, une fausse croissance? Interview with the journalist Théophile Kouamouo,  La Média, 26 June 2018  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q7_f1IXhQ8

 

[xx] Joseph Stigliz, Globalization and Its Discontents, WW Norton & Company, New York, 2002.

 

[xxi] One of the benefits of a monetary union interregional exchange: for the CEMAC area interregional trade is at 4% and in the WAEMU area at 15%. To make a comparison in Europe interregional exchange is equivalent to 60%. The non-interchangeability of the respective CFA francs since 1993 makes monetary integration in the area even more problematic.

 

[xxii] Ndongo Samba Sylla, Emerger avec le franc CFA ou émerger du franc CFA? in In Sortir l’Afrique de la serviture monétaire, op. cit. p. 159

 

[xxiii] Bruno Charbonneau, France and the New Imperialism: Security Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, Routledge, New York, 2008. p 60-73

 

[xxiv] Evits’s Weapon of Mass Distraction,a short film by Nicoletta Fagiolo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIgo9pXJJ4o

 

[xxv] Martial Ze Belinga, La fin du CFA est un passage obligé vers une émancipation plus générale in Défis actuel, 27-29 May 2019.

 

Photo: SEYLLOU / AFP


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