There’s been a surge in coups throughout African countries, and there’s a common thread connecting them – most are former French colonies.
Looking back at the colonial histories of the French and the British, two very different strategies were implemented. The Brits opted for the economic route – targeting regions and areas of strategic significance. The French took a more ego-driven approach and focused on the biggest swaths of territory.
While the Brits primarily wanted a cut of the profits from their colonies, the French wanted to be in charge of everything, so they hollowed out systems and put their people in charge. Fast forward to the present day, the French have packed their bags and left shells of colonies primed for coups and prone to external influence from China and Russia.
As these coups run their course, French involvement could take on a number of different forms. That’s what makes this so interesting….the French are a wildcard, and their involvement comes down to how they see themselves.
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Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado. If you’ve been watching places like Africa, you notice that coups are just happening fast and furious. Obviously, I’ve lost track of how many we’re at now, at least five. But almost all of them have been former French colonies. And that is not just a correlation. There’s some something very real there linking them together.
And so I think it’s worth exploring how this is going down and why and why it’s here. And that will allow us to project for the future a little bit. So the French colonial experience was significantly different than that of the British one. The Brits were a mercantile empire, a corporate empire. They saw the empire as a way to make money.
And the French had a very keeping up with the Joneses sort of approach. So the French like the way the maps looked, whereas the Brits like the way their accounting books looked. So the Brits would go out and they would look for connection nodes, productive lands, if they can find them. But mostly with the notes where everything linked together and they put themselves in there into a cut of everything coming through.
They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. They just tried to profit from the wheels coming through. Whereas the French it was more an issue of national prestige. So the bigger the block of territory on the map, the better. And it was kind of a sorry French people. It’s kind of a kindergarten approach to geography, trying to make your political map look great, whereas the Brits were concerned with the economic map.
So I think the best example I can give you in this region, in West Africa, there’s a country called Senegal, which was a sizable chunk of territory, former French colony. But there’s a little bite right out of the middle of that along the Gambia River called a country, say, the Gambia. And The Gambia is a former British colony.
So the productive capacity mostly is on the land that the French controlled. But all of the ins and outs and the logistics and the trade was controlled by the Brits. And so the Gambia was a much wealthier colony, would generate a lot more income for the locals and for their British overlords were Senegal. Even today is kind of not the best.
And this is reflected throughout the entire region. So the Brits would go after things like the Nile, so they would take them to Egypt or they’d go after the Highland Plains that have good agricultural zones and minerals like, say, South Africa, where, as the French would take the entirety of West Africa regardless of what was there. So a lot of the French territories are in a place called the Sahel, which is where the desert of the Sahara starts to get a little bit of moisture.
And so, you know, you can have some people and then transition into the rainforest. It’s the transition zone that economically is subpar and based on climate shifts, whether from human made climate change or things going back, it moves what areas are dry and wet. So the French were able to take control of it very easily because the local populations were, in many cases nomadic, but they never had dense population patterns.
They never had a lot of cultivation. They never had a lot of mining. They never had a lot of wealth. But the French could control it. And these are the territories that are now going through these political ossification and breaks. And now so no coincidence that it’s the French territories that are not as durable politically and economically as the former British colonies.
The second issue is one of political culture of the empires, since the Brits were primarily concerned with the income that they could get. They did not want to disrupt the initial original political and economic classes. They just installed their colonial overseers as governors general about that and allowed the locals to run. Most businesses themselves. And the Brits just took the cuts.
The French? No, no, no, no, no. It was about French control. So one of the first things that the French did whenever they came into a community is get rid by death or otherwise of anyone who was in charge. And then the French colonials would take over everything directly. They might not understand the local economy then that might not be permitted wormwood which could be a problem.
But more importantly, it meant that when the French colonials finally did leave, they didn’t leave a whole lot behind. I mean, the Indians will tell you no end of stories of how horrible the Brits were to them. It’s a case to be made there, but the Brits never really disrupted the political leadership. And so when the Brits did leave, the Indians were perfectly capable of ruling the country themselves.
In the case of the French, the French might have helped set up a specific group to take over when the French left, but that group, because it was hand-picked, would probably be resented by everyone else who was there. And by the time you fast forward to the 2020s, some of these dudes have been there for 50 or 60 years, or the sons of the original deputies and the locals don’t think very highly of them.
And so they’re getting offed in this sort of situation. The French have gotten pretty good at interpersonal relationships, and they’re very comfortable at backing the big man who’s in charge of everything. But because they never got into that kind of societal management of the British, they’re not very good at fighting the support mechanisms, aside from, say, guns and intelligence that are necessary to allow these big men leaders to actually run their countries in a capable way.
So you have a coup before all institution of government fails and is replaced by something else. It becomes very much a blank slate. Now, in blank slate scenarios, it’s fairly easy for an outside power to come in giving them on the ground floor or something new and try to usurp French power a little bit. Because the French power got wiped away when it got turned into a blank slate.
And this has provided significant opportunities for, say, the Chinese and the Russians to go into an area where they were never the colonial powers, where the historical experience is minimal. It actually makes a real gains. But this is temporary. It’s a blank slate. Nothing is established and the French are still much closer. And the local language is typically French.
And you’re dealing with an environment where the French know how to play this game, because if it’s someone else’s institutions, the French are perfectly capable of coming in and making their own blank slate. Remember, the French are much less squeamish than the Anglos about things like suitcase, size of cash and assassinations. And so what we’re seeing right now is the French are trying to decide their plan of attack.
Do they want to wipe out the people who wiped out their people double blind slate? Or do they just want to see if these people can successfully consolidate, in which case they go with that suitcase of cash? Or are the French or the Chinese going to get there first and set up their own institution, in which case the French have to come in and assassinate someone?
These are all viable options from the French point of view. But perhaps the single most important thing that people miss when they’re looking at the French and their former colonies is because the French ran their empire is basically a giant ego stroking machine as opposed to a moneymaking machine. That means that they don’t actually have significant national interests in most of these countries.
And there is nothing like, say, the British exposure to a like Gibraltar, where it’s actually a strategic interest for India, where there’s an economic interest. The French are capable of just swallowing their ego and walking away. But I think the most important thing to think about here is the French are much more comfortable in this environment and know how to manipulate it.
They’re better at assassinations if they don’t like the way it’s going to go. And because they don’t have any sunk national interest in this stuff, they have no problem walking into someone else’s experiment and just destroying it. So don’t think a French intervention or not intervention in West Africa as the sort of thing you might see out of the Americans or the Brits or even the Russians.
The sunk costs here are low, and that makes the French perhaps the most interesting thing that can happen in an interaction all tussle unpredictable because it all comes down to how the French see themselves and everyone else. Due details.