Our great betrayal of Africa

The British-French rivalry, stretching back 120 years, has done irreparable harm throughout the continent
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TODAY THE British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is due to meet his French counterpart in West Africa. Coming as it does in the shadow of continuing conflict in Sierra Leone, civil and regional war in the Congo and last week's horrific killings in Uganda, this rare Anglo-French diplomatic meeting on African soil has enormous potential significance for Africa.

The French and the British do not have a record of co-operation in Africa; quite the opposite. It is a rivalry, stretching back some 120 years, which has done irreparable harm in Africa. When, in the Bwindi National Park in the early hours of last Monday morning, Rwandan Hutu rebels, having killed four Ugandan park officials, singled out "Anglo-Saxon" tourists for capture and killing and let the French-speaking tourists go, they were acting in the memory of this long-destructive rivalry.

It was a rivalry that began in Egypt in what turned out to be the first major act in the infamous "Scramble for Africa". In a 19th-century version of an IMF and World Bank tendency, the French and British governments took "dual control" of a bankrupt Egypt's finances in 1879. Three years later, while the French were busy expanding their Algerian empire into Tunisia, the British sent in an army of occupation and took sole control of Egypt. To the French it was the first, among many, of British acts of betrayal.

In response, the French redoubled their efforts to expand eastwards up the Senegal river to seize control of the West African interior south of the Sahara. The "Scramble" was on. The Berlin West Africa Conference that followed (1884-85) was mainly an attempt by Bismarck's Germany and Leopold II's Belgium to set up ground rules so that they too would get a slice of the African "cake". One of the ground rules agreed was that a European presence, complete with national flag and accompanied by the illiterate signature of some local African chief (or the abject military surrender of same), was sufficient basis to justify European occupation of a whole region of Africa, often extending to thousands of square kilometres.

Although tens of thousands of African lives were lost in the process of the next 15 years, the European powers managed to avoid coming to direct blows between themselves. The nearest they came to it was at Fashoda - another British betrayal.

The British believed that the wealth of Egypt would be put at risk if a hostile power controlled the upper waters of the Nile - the very life- blood of Egypt, then, as now. An Anglo-German treaty of 1890 had left Britain in control of Uganda, the source of the Nile, but the bit in between - present-day Sudan - was still in the hands of an independent Sudanese Islamic "Mahdist" government.

In European eyes, this was still "available" territory. Determined to seize this initiative from the British, the French government secretly dispatched Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand with a handful of French officers and some 100 Senegalese troops to approach the Sudanese Nile from the south west. It took Marchand two years to make his way up the northern Congo tributaries, over the Congo-Nile watershed and down into the valley of the Sudanese Nile.

In July 1898 he hoisted the French tricolour at the abandoned Egyptian fort of Fashoda, some 500 miles upstream from Khartoum, and proclaimed the whole area under French "Protection". Marchand himself was in serious danger of attack by Mahdist forces; in the event, however, it was the British army which appeared over the horizon.

While Marchand had been battling his way through the marshes of the upper Nile, General Kitchener had led an army of 25,000 British and Egyptian troops south from Egypt to confront the Mahdist Sudanese at Khartoum and avenge the death of General Gordon, who had died at their hands in 1885. On 2 September 1898, at Omdurman, just outside Khartoum, Kitchener's artillery barrage and cavalry charge swept aside the Sudanese army, killing 10,000 in a matter of hours.

Thereupon, learning of a European presence at Fashoda, Kitchener swiftly proceeded upstream with five gunboats and 1,500 British troops. For a few tense days there was a stand-off between the two military commanders, as "prior occupier" faced "military conqueror". Marchand never stood a chance. With no military back-up or communications of his own, he was quickly abandoned by the politicians in Paris, and given safe conduct out of the area by the British. But Fashoda has stuck in the mythology of the French about Africa, as the great British act of betrayal.

Throughout the colonial period, which ended in about 1960, the British and the French did their own things in Africa, equally exploitative or constructive from an African point of view, but each essentially in isolation from each other. There was no attempt to promote regional development or communication across the Anglophone-Francophone boundary. This has had particularly negative consequences for sub-Saharan West Africa, where the colonial language, and associated cultural divide, have bedevilled any attempt at developing an effective regional economic grouping.

In the post-colonial era, the British have tended to allow their economic interests to be pursued at the initiative of the private sector, while the French, in their turn, never really decolonised in the economic sphere.

The CFA franc, the common currency of Francophone Africa, was set up in 1946 and, with the support of French national banks, has had a guaranteed and stable exchange rate with the French franc. This has ensured that virtually all business - import, export and investment - in Francophone Africa has remained in French hands. This, by proxy, has included the Francophone former Belgian territories of Congo (Zaire), Burundi and Rwanda.

During the Cold War decades, the British, French and Americans all supported dubious and brutal African dictators, if it suited their own larger strategies and interests (Amin of Uganda, Bokassa of Central African Republic, Mobutu of Zaire, Banda of Malawi). It is only since 1990 that international aid to Africa (Francophone and Anglophone) has started to become dependent upon good governance and democratic accountability.

France was deeply embarrassed when, in 1994, it was found to have been in support of the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda. It had supported the Hutu regime for years, and had trained their army and their militia even after the nature of the regime had begun to be clear. Since the debacle of Rwanda, and the move towards greater union within Europe, French policy in Africa has shifted. Military bases have been down-graded, and sub-Saharan Francophonie is no longer regarded quite so obviously as France's own backyard, to be defended at all costs against the great "Anglo-Saxon" conspiracy.

Last week's Hutu rebel raid into Uganda, however, and the deliberate killing of selected tourists seen as "Anglo-Saxon" (the term to include Americans and well as British), shows that in some quarters the African perception of the old Anglo-French rivalry is still alive and well and open to exploitation.

A high-level diplomatic meeting between French and British on African soil must be the opportunity for which Africa has been waiting - a burying of the remnants of the old "Fashoda Syndrome" - a united European effort to get to the root of Africa's varied troubles and to support those Africans who are themselves striving for a better future.

The writer is the author of `History of Africa', published by Macmillan (1995)