The imperial legacy in scholarship

What censorship about articles in a French journal tells us about the state of France-Africa relations, imperial legacies and the impact these have on the production of knowledge about Francophone Africa.

French soldier in Mali, December 2015. Image credit Fred Marie via Flickr CC.

On March 22, 2019, I learned that the director and three other members of the scientific board of the journal Afrique contemporaine had resigned. The director, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, protested political interference in the publication of a special issue on Mali that I was editing and that was set for publication in early 2019. All of the articles had been through a thorough peer-review process, which had all authors revising their texts and two articles being rejected. Yet, after the scientific team’s decision to publish, I continued receiving awkward demands to revise my own texts (I wrote the issue’s introduction and one article). Coupled with unusual delays, I began to suspect political obstacles—suspicions confirmed by the director’s resignation.

Contrary to some comments I received later, we were not naïve when we submitted our issue to this French journal. I have been working on French security and military policy in Africa since 2002 and was fully aware of how difficult it can be to talk critically about the French state in Africa, especially when the critiques are written in French by non-nationals. A long list of anecdotal experiences comes to mind. I also knew about the basic history of the journal, understood its affiliation with the Agence française de développement (AFD; the French development agency), and recognized how French military engagement in Mali had almost become taboo, too delicate politically to allow for contradictory or opposing views.

The interference into the publication process backfired. The scientific director’s resignation allowed me to protest and share the news. The floodgates were opened and gave the issue, our work and our research profiles much publicity. Scholars protested and demanded in our names the protection of academic freedom. The journal lost its credibility as an academic space and several forthcoming contributions, even though it is trying to come back after revising its policies and editorial board (see its recent communiqué).

I lived the whole thing as a very personal experience: initial (paranoid) fear of being the victim of state censorship, pressure and stress to respond to multiple demands, responsibility and guilt towards my colleagues and Malian friends, and so on, including having to find another venue (it will appear in the Canadian Journal of African Studies, December 2019 issue ). In the eyes of many, it gave our work credibility. Vocal supporters, however, emphasized the issue of academic freedom to the detriment of discussing the situation in or our work on Mali. For others, we were simply naïve or irrational. A few months later, a former Malian prime minister told me about his discussion with a high-ranking French official who called us “hysterical extremists.” I doubt that the key issue is academic freedom, but our little censorship story tells us much about the state of France-Africa relations, imperial legacies and the impact these have on the production of knowledge about Francophone Africa.

I learned later that three issues bothered the journal’s political overseers. One was my article, which criticized the French-led counterterrorist approach to Mali and the Sahel, exposing its limits and effects on conflict resolution. The article is the least critical piece that I have written on the matter, but it was still too much. I knew full well that questioning the French strategy in Mali was taboo or sensitive in certain circles, so I avoided using “radical” terms and emphasized a general “counterterrorist approach” wording instead of a specific “French policy” one.

The second sensitive issue was the references made, in almost all articles, to the corruption of the Malian state and its effects. A short piece on the Malian army’s abuses, written by Rémy Carayol, was said to be particularly problematic, susceptible to legal liability, and dangerous, even though it was based on public sources, discussed and documented events, and the fact that the UN itself had already blamed Malian forces. One could not, it seemed, criticized too much France’s key allies in Bamako.

The third issue was that our research was deemed to be unidirectional, one-sided, leading to the same or similar conclusions about the worsening situation in Mali and the failures of the counterterrorist approach. They wanted the special issue to include or consider the “other side” of the picture. This was clearly politics, not research. Despite all indications, a broad consensus in the literature, and several UN reports demonstrating that the situation in Mali has been increasingly worsening since 2015, with no end in sight to the armed conflicts, it was us who were “radicals” and “extremists” for not wanting to consider a “debate.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the whole episode speaks loudly to the specificities of Francophone Africa as a space of intervention. The imperial legacies of this space mean that France is always at the centre of diplomatic, political, and military efforts at conflict management. It is a world that Franco-African elites “own,” including who and what can be said about it.

This speaks to the politics of knowledge production in and about a context-specific space. If you write in English about France in Africa, there is more room for critique (I have published in both languages). Writing in French, however, in a French journal, is to be confronted with colonial legacies that have not spared the academy. Through my years of research, I have met various forms of neocolonial and nationalist paternalism that circumscribes the tolerable parameters of debate.

Our “censorship story” was not so much about academic freedom per se. It was and is a reflection and a symptom of imperial legacies. It speaks to the need to critically address the colonial and imperial legacies of both intervention practices and habits of mind.

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