French President Emmanuel Macron delivered his “Africa speech” at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. It has become a ritual for all French presidents in recent memory (Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande, etcetera) to speak to and about Africa, on African soil. These verbose speeches must always deliver an obituary of Françafrique (how France’s relationships with its former African colonies is known as), again and again. They also give the French president an opportunity to address vague questions about the future of the continent, and a new French vision for its inhabitants. This ritual is the moment for them to utter such platitudes as building a common future in Africa with Africans.
As expected, Macron repeated the same chorus as his predecessors, telling Africans “the French language is yours, too.” He even told his captive audience to “be proud of the French language.” But, of course we know better. As Achille Mbembe once said, without Africa, French would be a mere ethnic language, just like other European ethnic languages.
Like his predecessors, Macron also enumerated all the threats that Africa will be facing for the foreseeable future: terrorism, overpopulation, rapid urbanization, 450 million youth looking for work by 2050, and of course, his favorite one: “7, 8, or 9 children per women.”
Debates about this ritual have become repetitive and boring. But, unfortunately, they are agenda setters for intellectual discussions among African intellectuals and publics, at least in the French speaking parts of the continent. Like Sarkozy’s infamous “discours de Dakar”, we will debate Macron’s Ouaga speech for years to come. Once again, books will be written to respond to the French president, conferences will be convened, roundtables will be held, and countless op-ed pieces will be penned. However, we will not engage in any of that here. Because that’s repetitive and boring.
What it means is that I will not comment on the fact that the government of Burkina Faso chose to shut down all schools for 2 days, in honor of Macron’s visit. I will also let others debate the fact that Macron, in the opening lines of his speech, felt the need to invoke Thomas Sankara. Mandela too got a shout out. And he also quoted the Senegalese intellectual, Felwine Sarr.
I will also leave to others the task of commenting on Macron’s decision to create the conditions for “temporary or permanent restitution” of African artifacts that were plundered and are still kept in European museums and private collections. And he still had the nerve to say that “we should not forget that in many instances these artifacts were saved for Africa by Europeans who took them away from African traffickers.” And he added, “We must make sure that when those artifacts are returned, they are protected and taken care of.” Also, no need to discuss here that when Macron mentioned the slave trade, it was to remind the audience that it was an African problem first, before the Europeans joined in.
What I found more interesting about this whole thing is not the speech, but the discussion between Macron and the students, in the presence of the Burkinabè president Roch Kaboré.
Visibly irritated at times with the tone and contents of the questions, Macron could not mask his exasperation and condescending professorial demeanor towards his audience, including President Kaboré himself. Questions from the students included reminding Macron that the amphitheater where he is speaking was built by Muammar Qaddafi. Macron said had he been president (Sarkozy was in charge), he would not have favored the military intervention that ousted the Libyan leader. Other questions addressed the issue of the FCA currency as a neocolonial tool of subjugation, the presence of French soldiers in the Sahel – to which Macron replied that the French soldiers deserve one thing from Africans: to be applauded.
But President Kaboré must have felt really annoyed by some of the questions addressed to Macron that related to the lack of electricity in classrooms, for how long the air conditioning will still be operable after Macron’s visit, higher education reforms, etc. At some point, Macron yelled to a student: “Think of the mindset that underlies your question … It is like you are speaking to me as if I was still your colonial master. But, I do not want to be dealing with electricity supply in Burkinabè universities! That’s your President’s job!” Kaboré stood up and left the room, and Macron said, pointing at him and chuckling, “Oh now he’s leaving! Stay here! Oh, he’s gone to fix the air conditioning…”
It would be a cheap shot to criticize the students for asking the wrong questions to Macron. I think we should instead ask ourselves why these students are addressing questions to Macron that clearly should have been addressed to their own local and national governments. Well, the answer is simple: African political leaders do not engage with their publics.
Has President Kaboré ever gone to the University of Ouaga and engaged in a discussion with the students? What African president holds a town hall meeting with students, street vendors, farmers, or unemployed youth? It is as if the only form of direct engagement that African publics are worthy of from their leaders is political rallies?
Think about it. A quick google search shows that in the past five years, presidents of African countries have given many talks at US universities and other American think tanks. They take questions from the audience after these events. See here, here, here, here, and here. The list goes on. Now, try to find how many times any of these leaders held even a live press conference in their country to allow local journalists to ask questions.
For all the flaws of the American democracy, at least Donald Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands at a podium daily and listens to questions, even if she doesn’t answer them. I’m not aware of any African country where a government’s spokesperson takes questions from the local media daily.
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that when college students have the chance to ask questions to the French president – with their own president in the room, they take the opportunity to raise their concerns about light bulbs in their classrooms. At least they got them in until the next French president returns for her/his Africa speech.