By Alex Gladstein
In the fall of 1993, Fodé Diop’s family was saving up for his future. A brilliant 18-year-old living in Senegal, Fodé had a bright path in front of him as a basketball player and an engineer. His father, a school teacher, had helped him find inspiration in computers and in connecting with the world around him. And his athletic talents had won him offers to study in Europe and in the United States.
But when he woke up on the morning of January 12, 1994, everything had changed. Overnight, his family lost half its savings. Not due to theft, bank robbery or company bankruptcy — but a currency devaluation, imposed by a foreign power based 5,000 kilometers away.
The previous evening, French officials met with their African counterparts in Dakar to discuss the fate of the “franc de la Communauté financière africaine” (or Franc of the Financial Community of Africa), known widely as the CFA franc or “seefa” for short. For Fodé’s entire life, his CFA franc had been pegged to the French franc at a rate of 1 to 50, but when the late-night meeting concluded, a midnight announcement set the new value at 1 to 100.
The cruel irony was that the economic fate of millions of Senegalese was completely out of their own hands. No amount of protest could overthrow their economic masters. For decades, new presidents came and went, but the underlying financial arrangement never changed. Unlike a typical fiat currency, the system was far more insidious. It was monetary colonialism.
THE MECHANICS OF THE CFA SYSTEM
In their eye-opening book, “Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story,” economic scholars Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla tell the tragic and, at times shocking, history of the CFA franc.
France, like other European powers, colonized many nations around the world in its imperial heyday, often brutally. After its occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II, the “Empire colonial français” began to disintegrate. The French fought to keep their colonies, inflicting a massive human toll in the process. Despite waging a costly series of global wars, Indochina was lost, then Syria and Lebanon, and, eventually, French territory in North Africa, including cherished oil and gas-rich settler colony Algeria. But France was determined not to lose its territories in West and Central Africa. These had provided military manpower during the two World Wars and offered a cornucopia of natural resources — including uranium, cocoa, timber and bauxite — which had enriched and sustained the metropole.
As 1960 approached, decolonization seemed inevitable. Europe was united in disengaging from Africa after decades of depredations and state-sponsored looting. But the French authorities realized they could have their cake, and eat it too, by ceding political control while retaining monetary control.
This legacy still stands today in 15 countries that speak French and use a currency controlled by Paris: Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and the Comoros. In 2021 the French still exert monetary control over more than 2.5 million square kilometers of African territory, an area 80% the size of India.
France began formal decolonization in 1956 with “La Loi-cadre Defferre,” a piece of legislation giving colonies more autonomy and creating democratic institutions and universal suffrage. In 1958 the French constitution was modified to establish La Communauté (The Community): a group of autonomous, democratically-administered overseas territories. President Charles de Gaulle toured colonies across West and Central Africa to offer autonomy without independence through La Communauté or immediate total independence. He made it clear there would be perks and stability with the former, and great risks and even chaos with the latter.
In 1960, France actually had a larger population — around 40 million people — than the 30 million inhabitants of what are now the 15 CFA nations. But today, 67 million people live in France and 183 million in the CFA zone. According to UN projections, by the year 2100, France will have 74 million, and the CFA nations more than 800 million. Given that France still holds their financial destiny in its hands, the situation is increasingly resembling economic apartheid.
When the CFA franc was originally introduced in 1945, it was worth 1.7 French francs. In 1948, it was strengthened to 2 French francs. But by the time the CFA franc was pegged to the euro at the end of the 1990s, it was worth .01 French francs. That is a total devaluation of 99.5%. Every time France devalued the CFA franc, it increased its purchasing power against its former colonies, and made it more expensive for them to import vital goods. In 1992, the French people were able to vote on whether or not to adopt the euro through a national referendum. The CFA nationals were denied any such right, and were excluded from the negotiations that would peg their money to a new currency.
The exact mechanism of the CFA system has evolved since its creation, but the core functionality and methods of exploitation are unchanged. They are described by what Pigeaud and Sylla call “dependency theory,” where the resources of peripheral developing nations are “continually drained to the benefit of core wealthy nations… the rich nations do not invest in income-poor nations to make them richer… [this] exploitation evolved over time from brutal slavery regimes to the more sophisticated and less obvious means of maintaining political and economic servitude.”
Three central banks service the 15 CFA nations today: the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) for West African nations, the Banque des États de l’Afrique Centrale (BEAC) for Central African nations and the Banque Centrale des Comores (BCC) for the Comoros. The central banks hold the foreign exchange reserves (i.e., national savings) for the individual nations in their region, which must keep an astonishing 50% with the French Treasury at all times. This number, high as it is, is a result of historical negotiations. Originally, the former colonies had to keep 100% of their reserves in France, and only in the 1970s did they earn the right to control some and cede “just” 65% to Paris. The CFA nations have no discretion whatsoever with regard to their reserves stored abroad. In fact, they do not know how this money is spent. Meanwhile, Paris knows exactly how each CFA nation’s money is spent, as it runs “operation accounts” for each country at the three central banks.
As an example of how this works, when an Ivorian coffee company sells $1 million worth of goods to a Chinese buyer, the yuan from the purchaser gets exchanged into euros in a French currency market. Then the French treasury assumes the euros and credits the amount in CFA francs to the Ivorian account at the BCEAO, which then credits the coffee maker’s account domestically. Everything runs through Paris. According to Pigeaud and Sylla, France still manufactures all of the notes and coins used in the CFA region — charging 45 million euros per year for the service — and still holds 90% of the CFA gold reserves, around 36.5 tons.
The CFA system confers five major benefits to the French government: bonus reserves to use at its discretion; big markets for expensive exports and cheap imports; the ability to purchase strategic minerals in its domestic currency without running down its reserves; favorable loans when CFA nations are in credit, and favorable interest rates when they are in debt (for stretches of history the French inflation rate has even exceeded the loan interest rate, meaning, in effect, France was forcing CFA nations to pay a fee to store their reserves abroad); and, finally, a “double loan,” in which a CFA nation will borrow money from France, and, in looking to deploy the capital, have little choice given the perverse macroeconomic circumstances but to contract with French companies. This means the loan principal immediately returns to France but the African nation is still saddled with both principal and interest.
This leads to a kind of “petrodollar recycling” phenomenon (similar to how Saudi Arabia would take dollars earned through oil sales and invest them into U.S. treasuries), as CFA exporters historically would sell raw materials to France, with part of the proceeds being collected by the regional central bank and “reinvested” back into the metropole’s debt through French or, today, European government debt. And then there is the selective convertibility of the CFA franc. Businesses can easily sell their CFA francs for Euros today (previously French francs), but citizens carrying CFA francs outside of their central bank zone cannot exchange them formally anywhere. They are about as useless as postcards. If an Ivorian is leaving her country, she must exchange the notes for euros first, where the French Treasury and the European Central Bank (ECB) extract seigniorage through the exchange rate.
The monetary repression at play is that France forces the CFA nations to keep a huge amount of reserves in Parisian coffers, preventing the Africans from creating domestic credit. The regional central banks end up loaning out very little at very high rates, instead of loaning out more at low rates. And the CFA nations end up, against their wishes, buying French or, today, European, debt with their strategic reserves.
The most surprising part, perhaps, is the special privilege of first right of refusal on imports and exports. If you are a Malian cotton producer, you must first offer your goods to France, before you go to the international markets. Or if you are in Benin and want to build a new infrastructure project, you must consider French bids, before others. This has historically meant that France has been able to access cheaper-than-market goods from its former colonies, and sell its own goods and services for higher-than-market prices.
Pigeaud and Sylla call this the continuation of the “colonial pact,” which was centered around four fundamental tenets: “the colonies were forbidden from industrializing, and had to content themselves with supplying raw materials to the metropole which transformed them into finished products which were then resold to the colonies; the metropole enjoyed the monopoly of colonial exports and imports; it also held a monopoly in the shipping of colonial products abroad; finally, the metropole granted commercial preferences to the products of the colonies.”
The result is a situation in which “the central banks have ample foreign exchange reserves remunerated at low or even negative rates in real terms, in which commercial banks hold excess liquidity, where access to household and corporate credit is rationed and in which the states are increasingly obliged, in order to finance their development projects, to contract foreign currency loans at unsustainable interest rates, which further encourages capital flight.”
Today, the CFA system has been “Africanized,” meaning the notes now show African culture and flora and fauna on them, and the central banks are located in Dakar, Yaoundé and Moroni — but these are only superficial changes. The banknotes are still made in Paris, the operation accounts are still run by French authorities, and French officials still sit on the boards of the regional central banks and hold de facto veto power. It is a remarkable situation where a citizen of Gabon has a French bureaucrat making decisions on her behalf. Just as if the ECB or the Federal Reserve had Japanese or Russians making decisions for Europeans and Americans.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have historically worked in concert with France to enforce the CFA system, and rarely, if ever, criticize its exploitative nature. In fact, as part of the post-WWII Bretton Woods system — where Americans would lead the World Bank, and Europeans would lead the IMF — the position of IMF managing director has often been held by a French official, most recently, Christine Lagarde. Over the years the IMF has helped the French pressure CFA nations to pursue its desired policies. A prominent example was in the early 1990s, when the Ivory Coast did not want to devalue its currency, but the French were pushing for such a change. According to Pigeaud and Sylla, “at the end of 1991, the IMF refused to continue lending money to the Ivory Coast, offering the country two options. Either the country reimbursed the debts contracted with the Fund or it accepted devaluation.” The Ivory Coast and other CFA nations caved and accepted devaluation three years later.
Contradicting the values of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” French officials have propped up tyrants in the CFA zone for the past six decades. For example, three men — Omar Bongo in Gabon, Paul Biya in Cameroon and Gnassingbé Eyadéma in Togo — have amassed 120 years in power between them. All would have been tossed out by their people far sooner had the French not provided cash, weapons and diplomatic cover. According to Pigeaud and Sylla, between 1960 and 1991, “Paris carried out nearly 40 military interventions in 16 countries to defend its interests.” That number is certainly higher today.
Over time, the CFA system has served to allow the French state to exploit the resources and labor of the CFA nations, without allowing them to deepen their accumulation of capital and develop their own export-led economies. The results have been catastrophic for human development.
Today the Ivory Coast’s inflation-adjusted GDP per capita (in dollars) is around $1,700, compared with $2,500 in the late 1970s. In Senegal, it wasn’t until 2017 that inflation-adjusted GDP per capita surpassed the heights reached in the 1960s. As Pigeaud and Sylla note, “10 states of the franc zone recorded their highest levels of average income before the 2000s. In the last 40 years, the average purchasing power has deteriorated almost everywhere. In Gabon, the highest average income was recorded in 1976, just under $20,000. Forty years later, it has shrunk by half. Guinea-Bissau joined the [CFA system] in 1997, the year in which it recorded the peak in its average income. 19 years later, this fell by 20%.”
A staggering 10 of the 15 CFA nations are considered among the “least developed countries” in the world by the United Nations, alongside the likes of Haiti, Yemen and Afghanistan. In various international rankings, Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad and Guinea-Bissau are often counted as the poorest countries in the world. The French are maintaining, in effect, an extreme version of what Allen Farrington has called the “capital strip mine.”
Senegalese politician Amadou Lamine-Guèye once summed up the CFA system as citizens having “only duties and no rights,” and that “the task of the colonized territories was to produce a lot, to produce beyond their own needs and to produce to the detriment of their more immediate interests, in order to allow the metropole a better standard of living and a safer supply.” The metropole, of course, resists this description. As French economic minister Michel Sapin said in April 2017, “France is there as a friend.”
Now, the reader may ask: Do African countries resist this exploitation? The answer is yes, but they pay a heavy price. Early nationalist leaders from the African independence era recognized the critical value of economic freedom.
“Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs [..] unhampered by crushing and humiliating neo-colonialist control and interference,” declaredKwame Nkrumah in 1963, who led the movement that made Ghana the first independent nation in sub-saharan Africa. But throughout the history of the CFA region, national leaders who stood up to the French authorities have tended to fare poorly.
In 1958, Guinea tried to claim monetary independence. In a famous speech, firebrand nationalist Sekou Touré said to a visiting Charles de Gaulle: “We would rather have poverty in freedom than opulence in slavery,” and shortly therafter left the CFA system. According to The Washington Post, “in reaction, and as a warning to other French-speaking territories, the French pulled out of Guinea over a two-month period, taking everything they could with them. They unscrewed lightbulbs, removed plans for sewage pipelines in Conakry, the capital, and even burned medicines rather than leave them for the Guineans.”
Next, as an act of destabilizing retribution, the French launched Operation Persil, during which, according to Pigeaud and Sylla, the French intelligence counterfeited huge quantities of the new Guinean banknotes and then poured them “en masse” into the country. “The result,” they write, “was the collapse of the Guinean economy.” The country’s democratic hopes were dashed along with its finances, as Touré was able to cement his power in the chaos and begin 26 years of brutal rule.
In June 1962, Mali’s independence leader Modibo Keita announced that Mali was leaving the CFA zone to mint its own currency. Keita explained in detail the reasons for the move, such as economic overdependence (80% of Mali’s imports came from France), the concentration of decision making powers in Paris and the stunting of economic diversification and growth.
“It is true that the wind of decolonization has passed over the old edifice but without shaking it too much,” he said about the status quo. In response, the French government rendered the Malian franc inconvertible. A deep economic crisis followed, and Keita was overthrown in a military coup in 1968. Mali eventually chose to re-enter the CFA zone, but the French imposed two devaluations on the Malian franc as conditions for reinstatement, and did not allow re-entry until 1984.
In 1969, when President Hamani Diori of Niger asked for a more “flexible” arrangement, where his country would have more monetary independence, the French refused. They threatened him by withholding payment for the uranium that they were harvesting from the desert mines that would give France energy independence through nuclear power. Six years later, Diori’s government was overthrown by General Seyni Kountché, three days before a planned meeting to renegotiate the price of the Nigerien uranium. Diori wanted to raise the price, but his former colonial master disagreed. The French army was stationed nearby during the coup but, as Pigeaud and Sylla dryly note, they did not lift a finger.
In 1985, the revolutionary military leader Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso was asked in an interview, “Is the CFA franc not a weapon for the domination of Africa? Does Burkina Faso plan to continue carrying this burden? Why does an African peasant in his village need a convertible currency?” Sankara replied: “If the currency is convertible or not has never been the concern of the African peasant. He has been plunged against his will into an economic system against which he is defenceless.”
Sankara was assassinated two years later by his best friend and second in command, Blaise Compaoré. No trial was ever held. Instead, Compaoré seized power and ruled until 2014, a loyal and brutal servant of the CFA system.
FARIDA NABOUREMA’S STRUGGLE FOR TOGOLESE FINANCIAL FREEDOM
In December 1962, Togo’s first post-colonial leader Sylvanus Olympio formally moved to create a Central Bank of Togo, and a Togolese Franc. But on the morning of January 13, 1963, days before he was about to cement this transition, he was shot dead by Togolese soldiers who had received training in France. Gnassingbé Eyadéma was one of the soldiers who committed the crime. He later seized power and became Togo’s dictator with full French support, ruling for more than five decades and promoting the CFA franc until his death in 2005. His son rules to this day. Olympio’s murder has never been solved.
Farida Nabourema’s family has always been involved in the struggle for human rights in Togo. Her father was an active leader of the opposition, and has served time as a political prisoner. His father opposed the French during colonial times. Today, she is a leading figure in the country’s democracy movement.
Farida was 15 years old when she learned that the history of Togo’s dictatorship was intertwined with the CFA franc. By that time, in the early 2000s, she had started to get close to her father, and asked him questions about her country’s history. “Why did our first president get assassinated just a few years after we gained independence?” she inquired.
The answer: he resisted the CFA franc.
In 1962, Olympio began the movement toward financial independence from France. The parliament voted in favor of beginning such a transition, and of creating a Togolese franc and holding their reserves in their own central bank. Farida was shocked to learn that Olympio was assassinated just two days before Togo was supposed to leave the CFA arrangement. As she put it: “His decision to seek monetary freedom was seen as an affront to hegemony in Francophone Africa. They were afraid others would follow.”
Today, she says, for many Togolese activists the CFA is the major reason to seek broader freedom. “It is what animates many in the opposition movement.”
The reasons why are clear. Farida said France keeps more than half of Togo’s reserves in its banks, where the Togolese people have zero oversight over how those reserves are spent. Often, these reserves, earned by Togolese, are used to buy French debt to finance the activities of the French people. In effect, this money is often loaned to the former colonial master at negative real yield. The Togolese are paying Paris to hold their money for them, and in the process financing the living standards of the French people.
In 1994, the devaluation that stole the savings from Fode Diop’s family in Senegal hit Togo hard, too, causing a huge increase in national debt, a reduction in public funding to local infrastructure and an increase in poverty.
“Remember,” Farida said, “our government is forced to prioritize holding our reserves in the French bank over spending at home, so when a shock hits, we have to degrade ourselves, to ensure that a proper amount of cash is in Parisian hands.”
This creates a national climate of dependence, where Togolese are forced to ship raw goods out, and bring finished goods in, never digging their way out.
Farida said that about 10 years ago, the anti-CFA movement started to gain more traction. Because of mobile phones and social media, people were able to unite and organize in a decentralized manner. It used to just be Ivorians and Togolese struggling separately, she said, but now there is a regional effort between activists.
For decades there has been the idea of an “Eco” currency, for all of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) nations, including regional economic powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana. Farida said that the French tried to hijack this plan, seeing it as a way to expand their own financial empire. In 2013, then-president François Hollande formed a commission which created a document for the French future in Africa. In it, they stated it was an imperative to get Anglophone countries like Ghana involved.
Emmanuel Macron’s administration is now trying to rename the CFA franc the Eco, in a continuing process of “Africanizing” the French colonial financial system. Nigeria and Ghana backed out of the Eco project, once they realized the French were going to continue to have control. Nothing has formally happened yet, but the countries currently managed by the BCEAO central bank are on track to switch to this Eco currency by 2027. The French will still have decision-making ability, and there are not any formal plans to adjust the central banking of the Central African CFA nations or of Comoros.
“It is the high point of hypocrisy for French leaders like Macron to go to Davos and say they are done with colonialism,” Farida said, “while in fact, they are trying to expand it.”
She said that originally, the CFA franc was created on the basis of the currency plan used by the Nazi occupiers of France. During WWII, Germany created a national currency for the French colonies so it could easily control imports and exports by just using one financial lever. When the war ended and the French regained their freedom they decided to use the same exact model for their colonies. So, Farida said, the foundation of the CFA franc is really a Nazi one.
The system has a dark genius to it, in that the French have been able to, over time, print money to buy vital goods from their former colonies, but those African countries have to work to earn reserves.
“It’s not fair, it’s not independence,” Farida said. “It’s pure exploitation.”
France claims that the system is good because it provides stability, low inflation and convertibility for the Togolese people. But the convertibility tends to end up facilitating capital flight — when it is easy for businesses to flee the CFA and park their profits in euros today — while trapping the Togolese in a seigniorage regime. Whenever the CFA is converted — and it must be, as it cannot be used outside of a citizen’s economic zone — the French and the ECB take their slice.
Yes, Farida said, inflation is low in Togo compared to independent nations, but a lot of their earnings are going to fight inflation instead of supporting infrastructure and industry growth at home. She pointed to the growth of Ghana, which has an independent monetary policy and higher inflation over time than the CFA nations, compared to Togo. By any metric — healthcare, middle class growth, unemployment — Ghana is superior. In fact, when one zooms out, she said that not a single CFA nation is among the 10 richest countries in Africa. But of the bottom 10 poorest, half are in the CFA zone.
Farida says that French colonialism goes beyond money. It also affects education and culture. For example, she said, the World Bank gives $130 million per year to support Francophone countries to pay for their books for public schools. Farida says 90% of these books are printed in France. The money goes directly from the World Bank to Paris, not to Togo or to any other African nation. The books are brainwashing tools, Farida said. They focus on the glory of French culture, and undermine the achievements of other nations, whether they be American, Asian or African.
In high school, Farida asked her dad: “Do people use any other language but French in Europe?” He laughed. They only learned about French history, French inventors and French philosophers. She grew up thinking that the only smart people were French. She had never read an American or British book before she traveled abroad for the first time.
In general, Farida said, French Africa consumes 80% of the books that the French print. President Macron wants to expand on this dominance, and has promised to spend hundreds of millions of euros to boost French in Africa, declaring that it could be the “first language” of the continent and calling it a “language of freedom.” Given current trends, by 2050 85% of all French speakers could live in Africa. Language is one pillar of support for the CFA franc’s survival.
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