Guy Marius Sagna and the rising grassroots opposition to West Africa’s colonial-era currency
Guy Marius Sagna is a recognizable face in Senegal’s bustling capital of Dakar. His controversial and outspoken opposition to French economic dominance in West Africa has thrown him into the spotlight and in and out of jail, making him one of Senegal’s most well-known anti-imperialist activists.
In July 2019, Sagna was arrested and detained — “arbitrarily,” according to Amnesty International — and later charged with ‘false alert of terrorism’ for Facebook posts criticizing Senegal’s medical facilities and the French army’s presence in Africa. He was released on bail the following month, only to be jailed once again in late November for his participation in an unauthorized protest against the high price of electricity. Sagna is currently behind bars.
On a sunny afternoon in early November, during a brief period of freedom, Sagna sat at an inconspicuous cafe off of Dakar’s Avenue Cheikh Anta Diop. Between sips of local Baobab juice and over the hum of the fan overhead, he opened up — frankly and provocatively, in line with the public persona he’s created — about one of his core areas of activism: overturning the CFA franc, a colonial-era currency pegged to the Euro that is still used by eight West African states including Senegal.
The anti-imperialist movement of which Sagna is the founder and leader, called “Front pour une Révolution Anti-impérialiste Populaire et Panafricaine,” or FRAPP, has initiated a handful of campaigns that address French neocolonialism in the region. Over two years ago, in November 2017, FRAPP launched an anti-CFA franc campaign called France Dégage, French for “France Move Out.” Their goal: to encourage democratic debate when it comes to replacing the CFA franc, which Sagna argues is currently lacking. From his perspective, plans to replace the currency have thus far been “un-democratic” in their conception.
“Our goal is to make Africans — here, Senegalese citizens — aware that the main cause of the walls with which Africans are confronted is a lack of independence, a lack of sovereignty,” Sagna affirmed. “We need to be independent, politically and economically.”
Last month, the French and Ivorian presidents announced the end of the West African CFA franc, a monumental decision that, when implemented this year, will put in place a new currency called the “Eco” for the West African countries in the CFA franc economic bloc. The six Central African states that use the CFA franc will not be affected — and the extent to which this long-awaited currency change will lead to true economic sovereignty for former colonies in West Africa is hotly debated.
But it’s a decision that reflects the rising tide of discontent with the current status quo among a growing portion of the francophone West African population — a change that Sagna highlighted months prior to the December 2019 announcement, one that he claims is due in large part to increasing activism from movements like FRAPP.
“No president spoke about the CFA franc. It was after our protests that African presidents started to talk about the CFA franc, that Emmanuel Macron was forced to start talking about the CFA franc,” Sagna claimed. “Before, monetary discourse was imprisoned. It’s our fight, our African mobilisation, that has led to this discourse.”
A technical subject, now entering mainstream debate
A Facebook page entitled “Nous ne voulons plus du Franc CFA” — French for “We no longer want the CFA Franc” — has racked up over 100,000 followers. Posts on the page refer to the “CFA franc scandal” and “colonial France,” sparking debates about the colonial-era currency that many see as the primary arm of French neocolonialism in Africa.
“The CFA franc is a scandal that allows for enriching France and impoverishing Africa,” one user commented on a post in October.
Up until as recently as a few years ago, the debate surrounding continued French neocolonialism through the lens of the CFA franc was largely reserved for West Africa’s elite class. But grassroots engagement with the topic on social media and through civil society movements like FRAPP across West Africa has skyrocketed in recent years, bringing calls for an overhaul of the currency into the public sphere.
Citizens of countries that currently use the CFA franc are increasingly engaging in the movement to replace the currency, marking the first tangible steps towards dismembering the economic colonial legacy that has kept former French colonies under France’s iron grasp since the formal end of colonialism last century.
“It’s no longer a technical subject. Everybody’s talking about the CFA franc on social media, on ordinary media, and so on,” said Ndongo Samba Sylla, an economist at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Dakar who has studied and written about the colonial currency extensively.
FRAPP’s France Dégage campaign has organized public protests, along with press conferences and training sessions, that Sagna said have contributed to rising pressure on West African and French politicians to address the colonial currency head-on. Other anti-CFA franc activists have been making headlines in recent years as well, perhaps the most notable example being Franco-Béninois Kémi Séba, who sparked controversy and brought attention to the issue when he set fire to a 5,000 CFA franc bill on the streets of Dakar in 2017.
Séba was recently detained for four days in Burkina Faso for “insulting the president and other presidents.” His inflammatory comments have earned him jail time as well as a sizable social media following; his Facebook page has over 600,000 likes.
“I appreciate that there are movements like FRAPP France Dégage that are mobilizing around these issues, because normally these are not the kind of issues where civil society would mobilize,” Sylla said. “Social media has an amplifying factor. There is a mobilization on social media — more and more, it’s getting attention.”
What should replace the CFA franc?
The issues raised by anti-CFA franc activists like Sagna and Séba are numerous. France currently required CFA-zone countries to keep 50 percent of their reserves in the French Treasury; a French representative sits on the currency union’s board; the CFA franc is pegged to the Euro, granting the European Central Bank the power to set interest rates for the CFA franc zone (though proponents of the currency argue this relationship ensures economic stability).
There is widespread consensus that the CFA franc is a primary instrument of neocolonialism in francophone Africa, but little agreement among West African economists and activists as to the best replacement for the colonial currency.
Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Alassane Ouattara of France and Côte d’Ivoire, respectively, have presented the new Eco currency as an answer to such concerns. The currency change will in theory cut certain ties with France by, most notably, scrapping the foreign reserve requirement and removing the French representative from the currency union’s board.
But the Eco, a potential alternative to the CFA franc that has long been in the cards, is contested by economists and activists who view the new currency as little more than a mere name change. Sagna expressed his disappointment with the lack of “democratic consultation” when it comes to the Eco currency. Many question the extent to which it will actually cut financial links with Paris, a point reinforced by the fact that it was the French president who announced the Eco last month.
Sylla said he believes the best replacement for the CFA franc would be for African countries to each issue their own national currencies, but in a way that allows for regional cooperation. A common unit of account put in place simultaneously, he said, would “maintain solidarity” by helping settle payments and foster trade. But such proposals for national currencies are largely absent from mainstream discussion. Sylla attributes this phenomenon to the legacy of colonialism in francophone Africa.
“France has achieved to put in our head that we will never be able to manage a currency. Talk of national currency is forbidden,” Sylla said.
Sagna’s ideal solution differs from Sylla’s. He advocates first and foremost for a common regional currency — but only on the condition that a regional political system with the capability to manage the new currency is first put in place. Otherwise, Sagna argued, the common currency will inevitably be a “catastrophe.”
Putting these differences in economic visions aside, what Sagna, Sylla and others engaged in the CFA franc debate in various capacities agree upon is the urgent need to overturn the status quo, to alter the economic system in West Africa in a way that encourages development and growth for the countries currently in the CFA franc bloc.
“We want to be sovereign. We aren’t against French people, we aren’t against Americans — but our people are suffering,” Sagna said. “We want to defend the interests of our people.”
Domi Frideger contributed to this report.