Hervé Youmbi | Françafrica



Françafrica questions the rapport between France, the former colonial controller of Francophone Africa, and its former colonies. In particular, it strips bare French-African relations during the 1980s in Africa. 

If we can assert that the countries of Francophone Africa were under the aegis of independence during the 1960s, and under that of decolonization in the 1970s, we might have expected that we could place the 1980s under the aegis of emergence—emergence on the political, economic, and socio-cultural levels. But, alas, events did not unfold as we had hoped. The functioning of the African Bureau at the Elisée—The Presidency of the French Republic—clearly demonstrated France’s refusal to deliver on its promise made during the 1960s to grant independence to its former African colonies. Political assassination, interference, and incitement to civil war— any means were justified to preserve the interests of France. Behind the scenes, the African Bureau at the Elisée undermined the healthy birth of independent African countries by disrupting their political, economic, social, and cultural functioning. Favored manipulations included the diversion of development aid, the plundering of raw materials, and the perpetuation of dictators at the head of young African nations.  

France has always presented itself on the international scene as Africa’s great protector and partner. But, the facade of this France-Africa relationship slipped towards the end of the 1970s and during the 1980s, when the true face of the former colonizer was unmasked. Four of the ten coups d’état that transformed Africa occurred on the eve of the 1980s or during the 1980s.  

  •  On September 20, 1979, while visiting Libya, “His Imperial Majesty” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, “Emperor” of the Central African Republic, was overthrown in a French Secret Service operation called “Barracuda.”  
  • On September 1, 1981, in the Central African Republic, President David Dacko, who briefly succeeded Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, was ousted by General André Kolingba, who established a military regime. 
  • On October 15, 1987, in Burkina Faso, the hope of Africa died with Captain Thomas Sankara, assassinated during a coup organized by Blaise Compaore, who was supported by France. 
  •  On November 7, 1987, in Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, the father of the aging nation, was toppled in a coup d’etat led by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, his prime minister and constitutional successor. 
  •  We should recall also the failed coup d’état of April 6, 1984 in Cameroon, during which former President Amadou Ahidjo sought to regain the supreme office after his constitutional successor, Paul Biya, had occupied it for two years. 

Françafrica is a play on the term “France-Africa.” Although coined by the Ivorian President Félix Houphouet-Boigny, to describe the close relations maintained between France and its former colonies of Africa, it became the banner under which former French President Charles De Gaule set about ensuring a degree of stability in France’s energy supply after the independence of its former African colonies in the 1960s.  

Françafrica highlights incriminating acts that expose the nature of France’s politics in Africa. Most of the acts highlighted in Françafrica have been staged in the Central African Republic, my country of birth, and Cameroon, my country of origin, but also in Burkina Faso. 

Françafrica takes the form of a triptych of double portraits. Each painting is acrylic  and oil on canvas, measuring 150 x 200 cms each. Each painting combines two portraits of actors in the political life of France-Africa during the 1980s: 

  • Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, President of the French Republic (1974-1981), and Jean Bedel Bokassa, President of the Central African Republic (1965-1979) 
  • Amadou Ahidjo, first president of the Republic of Cameroon (1960-1982), and Paul Biya, his successor to the supreme office of Cameroon (1982-) 
  • Blaise Compaore, current president of Burkina Faso (1987-) and his predecessor, the famous Captain Thomas Sankara (1983-1987). 

These duos were forged by history: the history of France and Africa in the 1980s—a story written largely by France under the auspices of a latent neocolonialism.  

The works are inspired by the photographic portraits made in Africa in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, characterized by a strong theatricality, with the subject at the center of the image, a deliberately selected backdrop—and in this case a figure holds the backdrop. In Françafricaone protagonist becomes the prop of the other.  

The centerpiece of the triptych highlights the duo of Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, dangling a backdrop that features Jean-Bédel Bokassa in his imperial regalia. The dark backdrop emblazoned with diamond nuggets symbolizes France’s exploitation of African minerals.  More subtly, it suggests how French development grants to Africa, celebrated during media blitzes, often are smuggled back to the North in black briefcases, as in the affair of the “Bokassa Diamonds,” which made headlines in France during the 1980s and cost President Valéry Giscard D’Estaing his second term in 1981. The relationship between these characters exemplifies the paternalistic relationship that has always prevailed in the relations between French presidents and their counterparts from Francophone Africa. It was France that installed Bokassa in power in 1965 by a coup d’etat, France helped him proclaim himself Emperor of the Central African Republic in 1977, and it was France who dismissed him by a coup in 1979. 

The work on the left of the triptych highlights the duo of Amadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya, the only presidents that Cameroon has known since the advent of independence on January 1, 1960. France preferred Amadou Ahidjo over anti-French nationalists, who were assassinated on the eve of independence. Ahidjo resigned as President of the Republic in 1982, handing over to his constitutional successor, Paul Biya. On April 6, 1984, Amadou Ahidjo tried to regain the supreme office in a failed coup d’etat that left the two men estranged until Ahidjo’s death in exile, in Senegal, where he was buried in Dakar. Despite multiple claims for the transfer of his remains to Cameroon, this has not occurred to date. While the Ahidjo-Biya duo memorializes the tension between these two leaders, the painting can also be read as a political portrait of Cameroon during the key decade of the 1980s. This decade offered the only political transition in the history of independent Cameroon’s politics, and delivered an attempted coup—the only coup attempt to date. It should be noted, however, that behind the scenes France stage-managed the appointments of both Amadou Ahidjo and Paul Biya.  

The painting shows former President Amadou Ahidjo suspending the backdrop of President Paul Biya, embellished with the logos of the UNC (Cameroonian National Union) and the RDPC (Democratic Rally of the People of Cameroon), which control the political scene in Cameroon. Indeed, the two parties are one and the same political formation: the UNC, created on the eve of independence and under the guiding hand of Amadou Ahidjo, was transformed on March 24, 1984 into the RDPC, on the initiative of President Paul Biya, to mark a complete break from former President Amadou Ahidjo. 

The painting on the right-hand side of the triptych focuses on a tragic conflict, orchestrated by France, between two friends and brothers-in-arms. This is the story of the assassination of one of Africa’s greatest hopes and a flower of African youth— Captain Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso. The murderous coup d’etat, organized by Blaise Compaoré, his faithful friend and eternal second, and supported by France, perpetrated on October 15, 1987, was one of the most significant events of the 1980s for Africans. An outstanding orator, Captain Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, annoyed the great powers. His open and radical criticisms of France’s African policy, and his initiatives aimed at the economic and cultural liberation of his country, made him a target.  

The painting features Thomas Sankara on a backdrop held by Blaise Compaoré, the current president of Burkina Faso. The backdrop represents the striped cotton textile, produced in Burkina Faso, that Thomas Sankara promoted as the preferred fabric for making clothes in his country after he came to power in 1983. 

The duos in this triptych highlight the history of the men, all presidents and former presidents of African and French states, whose actions have deeply marked the history of African politics of the 1980s. They expose the face of French politics in Africa: Françafrique