France pulls Africa together. (22nd Franco-African Summit).
The latest Franco-African summit in Paris was further confirmation of a fresh trend reflecting new geopolitical realities. The bi-annual summit can no longer be viewed simply as a French-speaking club meeting. Two Anglophone countries, South Africa and Nigeria are now France's largest sub-Saharan markets and Nigeria's exports to France outstrip those of Cote d'Ivoire - formerly France's top trading partner in Africa. The language divide is becoming less relevant by the week.
As the international geopolitical power structure is in flux, it was not surprising that all African nations, with the exception of Somalia, were present in Paris.
On the African political front, the crisis in Cote d'Ivoire was top of the agenda. Condemning illegal seizures of power, French President Jacques Chirac's opening speech made it clear that dialogue should prevail over violence to resolve conflicts. "Violence must be condemned wherever it comes from" he warned, saying that perpetrators risk being brought to account before the International Criminal Court.
In discussions behind closed doors, normally reliable sources confirmed that the French President had made a particular reference to death squads operating in Cote d'Ivoire.
President Laurent Gbagbo was one of the few Heads of State who did not attend the summit. He was perhaps reluctant to be subject to further pressure not only from Chirac but many of his fellow African leaders and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan to implement the Marcoussis Peace Accord signed on January 24.
The insistence by both Chirac and President Paul Biya of Cameroon on dialogue rather than violence to resolve political issues was widely seen as also being aimed at the Central African Republic. CAR's President, Ange Felix Patasse, is in danger of being called to appear before the International Criminal Court. Just before the summit, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights announced it would prosecute Patasse and his rebel allies - Jean-Pierre Bemba from the DRC and Abdoulaye Miskine from Chad - for alleged war crimes. During the summit, the Chadian President Idriss Deby accused CAR's Special Presidential Unit, and Bemba's troops, of perpetrating massacres in the north of CAR against Chadians and Moslems suspected of supporting the CAR rebel leader Francois Bozize.
BRITAIN'S BETE NOIRE GETS HANDSHAKE
Chirac attracted considerable criticism, especially from Britain, for inviting President Mugabe of Zimbabwe to Paris for the summit, breaking an EU ban on the entry of the Zimbabwean political leadership. Paris is seen as being much more sympathetic towards Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo's 'constructive dialogue' policy towards Zimbabwe than to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's virulent antipathy towards the Zimbabwean leader.
Another factor that may have influenced the French President in extending an invitation to Mugabe was that if he had not, other African leaders might have boycotted the summit. However, the formal shake-hand between Chirac and Mugabe was in stark contrast to the hugs and kisses between the French President and other Heads of State.
The Zimbabwean President was the focus of demonstrations by human rights activists including gay and lesbian movements. Some 4,000 people took to the streets of Paris to demonstrate against Mugabe. The French police used force to clear the vicinity of the Zimbabwean embassy from protesters.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO WAR
It was almost inevitable that the FrancoAfrican summit would not just discuss bilateral or continental issue, but also the most important topic in current world affairs the Iraq crisis. The position of many Anglophone African countries on this issue appeared far closer to the French government's than the UK's. In a joint declaration, the African delegates and France stated that they believed there was an alternative to war, that inspections should continue, and that Iraq should co-operate with the UN and disarm.
The only dissenting voice was that of Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. After the joint communique on Iraq was released by the French Foreign Ministry, Kagame raised objections. In his view, the UN resolution 1441 "clearly states the disarming of Iraq."
"Disarming is the issue, not the length of time in terms of inspection' he said. "The issue has been made to appear like it is a choice between peace and war...sometimes people simply avoid war because war means a number of problems. But then the absence of war does not necessarily mean peace."
But the Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade described Kagame's reaction as curious. "When the text of the joint communique was announced' Wade told reporters at the Senegalese ambassador's residence in Paris, "everyone was asked if they had any observation to make. Kagame, who was on my left, did not say anything."
MOVE TO CUT AGRICULTURAL SUBSIDIES
Answering criticism that Europe's farm subsidies hurt African farmers - with massive imports of cheap European products destabilising Africa's poultry, beef, milk powder and rice production Chirac announced a proposed moratorium on European subsidies of agricultural exports to Africa.
The French proposal must still be endorsed by the other 14 members of the EU. But two elements are in favour of this positive development. So far France, the EU's main agricultural exporter, was the most reluctant among the EU's 15 member states to drop export subsidies. So if France changes its mind over this issue, one of the main stumbling blocks could be removed. In addition, the phasing out of export subsidies is already part of the reform of the European Common Agricultural Policy.
Chirac also promised that France would advocate trade preferences for Africa at the G8 summit, at the EU level and during the Doha World Trade Organisation round due to be completed by January 1, 2005.
France is hosting and chairing the next G8 summit in Evian, from June 1-3, and Chirac said its priority would be to ensure that the industrialised world gave their support to the NEPAD initiative. According to Chirac, France will lead the way. He announced a 50% increase in France's official development assistance between now and 2007, rising to 0.5 % of its GDP. "Our goal is to raise this to 0.7% by 2012. Africa, already the prime beneficiary of our aid, will receive more than half of this new flow", Chirac announced.
The summit provided an opportunity for the President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the King of Morocco Mohammed VI to insist on the importance of water projects within the NEPAD strategy. "Access to water and sanitation for city dwellers and rural populations are major challenges for the coming decades" echoed Chirac who promised to display "a capacity for innovation, developing public-private partnerships to harness the funds required for large-scale long-term capital projects".
In two years time at the next FrancoAfrican summit to be hosted by President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako, African leaders will then see whether all these promises materialise or not. But at least Africa's leaders seemed happy to agree with Chirac - "the fundamental issue is development, not war." U