The term Francophone applies to all people whose cultural background is primarily associated with the French language. Francophone Africa specifically refers to all the African states formerly colonized by France and Belgium in the period between the late nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. There are twenty-nine Francophone African countries situated mainly in west, central, and north Africa.
French is the official language in eighteen of these countries. It is one of two official languages in six of them and is spoken widely, though not officially apportioned, in the remaining five countries. It is ironic that during the colonial era French was spoken by only a few educated elite, but today French is a major language in independent Africa; the number of French speakers is second only to the number of English speakers. Each of the French-speaking countries has adopted the language to fit in with local pronunciation and existing vocabulary.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Francophone nations include Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, and Togo. In north Africa, Francophone nations include Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. In terms of size, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest. Neighboring Rwanda on the other hand holds the double distinction of being the smallest but also the most densely populated Francophone country in Africa. Except for Algeria, all Francophone African countries are members of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (the International Organization of La Francophonie), an intergovernmental organization that brings together French-speaking nations to enhance cooperation in areas such as culture, science, governance, and the economy.
French colonialism in Africa dates back to 1848 with the official inclusion of Algeria as part of the Republic of France. This followed several years of French military action in the region following disagreement with then Algerian ruler (dey) Hussein, who had provoked French hostility in 1827 for refusing to apologize after slapping the French consul with a fly whisk. Stung at home by defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) against Germany, the French increasingly looked to Africa to enhance its prestige. The officially quoted motive however was the idea of mission civilisatrice (spreading French civilization).
The proceedings of the Berlin Conference of 1885 (also referred to as the “scramble for Africa”), during which European powers formally divided Africa, became the road map for French colonization in sub-Saharan Africa. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the French had occupied Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. Senegal was the administrative capital of the French west African colonies.
It was in west Africa that the French applied a distinct administrative style known as “assimilation.” The basic idea was to train specific Africans to become Frenchmen by abandoning their cultures in favor of the French culture and then to offer them French citizenship. Unable to sustain this policy for long, the French later turned to a policy of “association.” This was a more lenient approach, with the main idea being to inculcate a sense of pride, love, and respect for France among the colonial subjects.
Following protracted armed conflicts in both Tunisia and Algeria in the early to mid-1950s and other hostilities in Morocco and Cameroon, the French colonial empire began to fold in the late 1950s amid bitterness at the country’s rejection by some of its colonies (as seen in the case of Guinea’s vote to reject union with France). Tunisia became independent in 1956. Other French colonies across Africa followed suit in quick succession, with Algeria finally gaining independence in 1962.
Belgium’s prized possession in Africa was the Congo Free State (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo). Initially occupied by King Leopold through a private company in 1876, the Congo became a Belgian colony in 1908. Of all the Francophone colonies in Africa, the Congo suffered greatly under Belgian colonialism as a result of the colonial administration’s policy of forced labor and brutal mistreatment of the indigenous people. The country became independent in 1960.
Although similarities abound across Francophone African countries especially in law, administration, and education systems, these countries differ significantly in levels of democratization and economic growth. Francophone Africa is largely undemocratic and is marked by poverty and dependence on foreign assistance. Chad, for example, remains poor, badly governed, and conflict prone. On the other hand, despite being a progressive democracy, Senegal is heavily reliant on donor assistance and has been offered beneficial debt relief as one of the International Monetary Fund’s designated Highly Indebted Poor Countries.
In the early twenty-first century, the French continue to play a major role in Francophone Africa. Not only are a significant number of the countries dependent on France for trade and financial assistance; but the French military remains on call to intervene in case of armed conflict in many of its former colonies, as seen in the cases of French military intervention in Côte d’Ivoire (2002) and Chad (1983, 2006, 2008).
- Ajayi, J. F. Ade, and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. Vol. 2, 2d ed. Essex, UK: Longman, 1987.
- Le Vine,Victor T. Politics in Francophone Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2007.
- Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880–1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.