Tom Collins, Quartz, June 6, 2022
When Kémi Séba, a leading anti-colonial figure in Francophone Africa, last attempted to travel from his native Benin to Mali in January 2020 he was prevented from boarding the plane by Malian authorities.
At the time, Mali was under the control of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta—a close ally to France who would not have welcomed Séba’s ability to lead large protests against the country’s former colonial ruler.
Two years later and Séba was personally invited to Mali by local authorities led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, the head of a military junta that seized power in August 2020, to give a rousing speech against neo-colonialism in the capital city of Bamako.
“The Malian authorities regard me as an ally because they know that I have reignited Pan-Africanism in Francophone African countries,” said Séba who was kicked out of Senegal in 2017 after the government called him a “threat to public order.”
Rising to global stardom as a leading critic of the west African Franc (CFA), Séba has railed against ‘la Françafrique’ and built a grass roots platform to mobilize demonstrations across much of Francophone west Africa.
The controversial figure has over 1 million subscribers on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of followers on other social media channels.
Though regime changes are often viewed as self-interested power grabs by disenfranchised military leaders, the sharpening of anti-colonial thought in the region suggests that there is widespread support for undemocratic takeovers.
A recent poll by the Friedrich Ebert foundation found that 68% of Malians are very satisfied with the coup, 27% are satisfied and only 5% do not support the military (link in French).
Many believe that pro-French African leaders dupe the West with promises of security, stability, and democracy only to extend term limits and use government treasuries for personal enrichment.
Similar events to Mali have unfolded in Burkina Faso and Guinea over the last year, where military leaders ejected unpopular civilian rulers.
Séba, who was born in France, described the new political structures that have taken shape in Mali and Guinea as “a combination of pan-Africanist civil society groups and nationalist military elements.”
The outspoken pan-Africanist believes that there will be two more regime changes in the Sahel before the year is over, most likely in Niger and Chad.
The protests in Chad will add to further concerns by Western policymakers that more Francophone African countries will be taken over by military leaders that prefer to work with Russia rather than the West.
Since the military seized power in 2020, Mali’s government has steadily soured relations with France, culminating in the expulsion of the French ambassador from Bamako in January.
France retaliated by announcing a drawdown of the 5,000 French troops operating in the region as part of Operation Barkhane – a coalition of Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, and France to combat jihadism.
The question now is whether anti-colonial populist governments with broad support from their citizens will become a trend that spreads to other parts of Africa.
Séba believes that it is currently mostly isolated to Francophone Africa where it is slowly gaining momentum.
Even the more internationalist regional leaders like Macky Sall, Senegal’s president, have recently suggested that he wants to overhaul financial relations with the West.
The president gave a blistering speech earlier this month at a United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uncea) meeting in Dakar where he criticized the IMF for not allocating a fair portion of special drawing rights (SDRs) to the continent during the pandemic.
Still, the populist trend in west Africa could be the start of a wider movement in Africa and activists like Séba certainly hope that recent developments reverberate across the continent.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that the divisive figure has established connections with Malema in South Africa to expand the movement to Southern Africa.
Last week, hundreds of protestors from Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party gathered outside the French embassy in Pretoria, holding signs that had expletives against France. .
For a country which is not linked to French colonization, this could be a warning sign that events in the Sahel may eventually morph into something much more significant in Africa.