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Dakar's Francophonie summit.

The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) is to hold its 15th biannual summit in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of November. Stephen Williams reports from the city on what the organisation is hoping will come out of the event.

With 77 states and governments across five continents, the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) represents some 890 million people. With the largest French-speaking population in the world, Africa accounts for many of these members. Some 60% of French-speakers are also under 30 years old, giving the organisation a decidedly youthful feel. Drawing attention to this as well as the ongoing marginalisation of women in many of the OIF's member states, La Francophonie's summit this year was entitled: "Women and Children in the Francophonie: Peacemakers and Key Players for Development."

From the outside, many presume La Francophonie to be an organisation based solely on linguistic ties, but as Director-General of La Francophonie, Jacques Habib Sy, explained to New African, the November summit demonstrates how the OIF's mandate goes far beyond this.

"The summit's main interest is not only to develop the cultural and linguistic ties amongst states that are party to the OIF, but also to develop co-operation in areas that are really crucial to all African countries," he said. "African countries are the most important part of the membership of the OIF. They comprise more than half--60% in fact."

Representing such a broad demographic, Sy believes that making women an explicit focus of the summit in Dakar, Senegal, makes perfect sense for the organisation.

"Women are more than half of our population and yet they are still on the fringes of our economies," he says. "They need to be given capacity and they need assistance to take their rightful place within our societies."

With a booming youth population, the decision to put a spotlight on the role of young people was crucial too, explains Sy. "When we turn to the issues of our youth, they suffer a disproportionate and very high level of unemployment in Africa. That is a huge problem and one that we must address."

The challenge of empowering women and youth is clearly a complex and multi-faceted task, but the director-general suggests that agriculture, an industry on which 80% of Africans rely for their livelihoods, is a good place to start. Enhancing governments' focus on developing agriculture could not just ensure employment and sustainable incomes for millions of women and youth, but improving the sector would also help feed a rapidly growing African population.

This is hardly a revolutionary proposal--calls and policies aimed at boosting agricultural development are routine--but it is notable that Senegal's President Macky Sail has pushed through a proposal for an economic forum to be held immediately after the political talks at the Francophonie summit.

"They will discuss a 10-year economic development plan," reveals Sy, "and that will be formulated by all the Heads of State during their meeting. What is special is that usually, right after those Heads of State meetings, most of them leave to return to their home countries. But at this summit, we are having two extra days for an economic forum."

One issue that will be discussed at these economic discussions will no doubt be the role of foreign investment in agriculture as well as other industries, and through its position as an international body, the OIF could play a crucial role in not just facilitating funding but also in helping countries cooperate.

"At a national level, every state enjoys the privilege of international relations with France or with any other country," says Sy, "but there should be a more balanced way of cooperating together. I believe this is well understood by France's President Francois Hollande, who has said several times that he is no longer in tune with what France was doing in the past, and that he is trying to co-operate in a more balanced manner."

This marks a departure from Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocated more traditional Francafrique-style relations with its former colonies. That approach followed in the footsteps of the European power's post-colonial arrangements, but dealing through these historical ties makes less and less sense as trade patterns and interests change. After all, as Sy points out, France's trade relations with many African countries that are not Francophone and were not previously colonised by France far exceed those with its former colonies. For example, France's trade with former British colony Nigeria is larger than the entirety of French-speaking West Africa.

Security and cooperation

With so many high-level visitors to Dakar, the issue of security is being taken very seriously. Dakar will be welcoming 100-plus national delegations, probably amounting to approximately 5,000 people and around 40 Heads of State.

"Some 20 hotels were selected for the visitors and each have been advised on various security issues, including the installation of airport-type metal detector gates at the hotel's entrance and X-ray machines for the guests' baggage," a senior police officer reveals.

Asked how much disruption the summit will cause the city's inhabitants, he reassuringly answers "very little". The summit, he explains, will take place on a weekend at a new purpose-built conference centre at Diamniadio, south-east of Dakar, about 40 km along a motorway that will also serve a new airport.

Inevitably, the Ebola crisis has been discussed in the run-up to the summit and some had feared the outbreak might postpone the event or force it to relocate away from West Africa. That will not be the case, but the Health Commission's Abdalah Wade emphasises that the authorities will be making all efforts necessary to screen visitors and that they have in place both the diagnostic facilities (at the city's Pasteur Institute) and isolation and treatment centres to cope with any health alerts--whether Ebola or any other infectious disease.

Earlier in the year, Senegal had to deal with a case of Ebola. A Guinean university student returning to Dakar had contracted the virus, but fortunately he was swiftly diagnosed, isolated and cured. The disease was not allowed to spread and the World Health Organisation has since declared Senegal Ebola free.

This allowed Dakar to get on with organising the summit, which will see a range of discussions and activities across the city. The new Chinese-financed National Theatre in the centre of Dakar, for instance, is being set up to present a number of cultural expositions aimed at both the local population and international visitors. Francophonie official Magueye Toure, whose responsibility is to oversee the cultural dimension of the event, explains that an area has been designated for the construction of a Francophonie village where different participating countries can present their handicrafts, artifacts and cultural heritage. Meanwhile the building's large reception area will house exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, while plays and concerts are to be held inside.

Senegal has high hopes that the summit will provide the perfect breeding ground for cultural, political and economic cooperation with France and the rest of the organisation. As APIX, Senegal's investment promotion agency confirms, France is still the country's biggest investor, though its single most valuable investment comes from the Canada-based Teranga Gold Corporation's Sabodala mine. Notably, both India, with interests in phosphates, and China, which is principally involved in construction projects, are also significant sources of investment.

The Emerging Senegal initiative, an ambitious $21 billion plan to double Senegal's economy, has been initiated by government to boost agriculture, agro-processing and fisheries. It is hoped that the recent discovery of off-shore oil will prove a further fillip to Senegal's potential for economic development. As the summit nears, Senegal's government will be hoping the event provides an opportunity to find the right partners and support for help in all these endeavours.

All in all, there is also great confidence that the Francophonie event will serve as a fitting tribute to Abdou Diouf, the Senegalese politician who served as the second president of Senegal from 1981 to 2000, and who will be stepping down as Secretary General of the OIF at the summit, where a successor will be named. The event will be his last act in the leading role, and all involved are keen to see him off in style.
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Title Annotation:PREVIEW: Francophonie Summit
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SENE
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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