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Protests over Africa's CFA franc

September 22, 2017

The CFA franc is facing growing opposition in parts of West and central Africa. Critics say the common currency has hampered the region's economic growth while France profits.

Westafrika CFA-Franc BEAC
Image: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Hundreds of protesters gather in the center of Senegal's capital, Dakar. Wearing T-shirts emblazened with the slogan, "Down with the CFA franc," they pump their fists in the air defiantly.

They've come to celebrate the release of Kemi Seba, a controversial activist who, together with his "Urgences Panafricanistes" movement, has staged a number of demonstrations against the CFA currency used in West and central Africa.

In August, the 35-year-old Benin native burnt a 5,000 CFA banknote (around 7.6 euros or $9.10) in Dakar, the headquarters of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). His actions reignited an old debate over the region's currency.

The activist was arrested and charged over the incident. "I burned the bill to attract public attention," he said during his hearing in court. "Not for lack of respect."

Seba was ultimately acquitted by the court. He was then expelled by the Senegalese government and is now living in France.

Kemi Seba
Kemi Seba, known as a controversial figure, has mounted an anti-colonial fight against the CFAImage: Imago

Mobilization through social networks

Seba's campaign against the franc has found a strong following on social media. On his Facebook page, the activist - whose real name is Stellio Capo Chichi - writes that member countries in the monetary union should introduce their own currency in order to free themselves from the economic shackles of former colonial power France. He describes the currency as "an economic and political scandal of the colonial establishment which is killing our people."

Thousands of people from the Ivory Coast to Chad back his call. Seba's Facebook page has around 370,000 fans, and he has a network of supporters in more than 30 countries. They accuse France of keeping the 14 African member countries of the CFA franc zone in economic slavery.

But Seba is a controversial figure. According to media reports, he has links to racist and anti-Semitic groups in France.

"He likes to be controversial, but he is also a symbol of the vacuum in Africa's political leadership," says Ndongo Samba Sylla, an economist at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a German-run foundation in Dakar.

A French flag in Mali
Many of the countries using the CFA franc are impoverishedImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Sylla also sees the CFA as outdated. The currency zone was established in 14 countries in 1945. The franc - the currency of the former colonial power of France - was devalued at the end of the Second World War, but following the introduction of the CFA franc, Paris was able to import from its colonies at favorable rates.

No benefit for Africa

The CFA, which stands for Communauté Financière Africaine (African Financial Community), is used in eight West African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. In central Africa, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon are also part of the monetary union. These countries have the lowest incomes in the world and are extremely poor.

The CFA was initially tied to the French franc, but it is now pegged to the euro.

The CFA franc "is a currency which benefits French companies, some African elites, and people who are involved in the import business," economist Ndongo Samba Sylla tells DW. "But it does not benefit African people."

Soumaila Cisse
Mali's Soumaila Cisse says his country had a tough time after leaving the CFA unionImage: Getty Images/I. Sanogo

He believes there's no longer a role for France in the currency equation, and that the debate is about the sovereignty of African states. That's also the argument made by activist Kemi Seba.

"France says: 'I guarantee your money. That means every time you want to convert CFA franc into euros, I'll be there to make it possible.' But France in reality does not guarantee the CFA franc because African countries have accumulated enough foreign reserves," Sylla says. "We do not need France."

The partnership allows the former motherland, he says, to safeguard a market for its products, gain access to cheap raw materials, as well as the possibility to wield political and military influence. For people in Africa, on the other hand, the partnership has come with high interest rates, mountains of debt, trade barriers and low economic growth.  

For many African economists, the CFA is an instrument of "monetary repression." France is represented on the board of the two central banks of West and Central Africa and has veto power. According to Sylla, African countries should leave the zone and consider setting up their own common currency in the region. In the long-term, a weaker currency could also create more incentives for growth and jobs, he says.

"But France makes sure that these economies do not grow so that they cannot emancipate themselves from France."

Better in the CFA than out

Gabon's prime minister, Casimir Oye Mba, disagrees. He was the first African governor to lead the Bank of the Central African States (BEAC) from 1978 to 1990.

"The idea that we belong to this currency zone because France forced us to do so is ridiculous," he said in an interview with DW. He pointed out that France didn't sever diplomatic relations when Madagascar opted to leave the CFA zone in 1972. French companies are still operating there, he added.

However, Madagascar's currency depreciated over several years following its departure from the union, the ex-governor says. The same is true of Mauritania, which left in 1973.

French President Macron meets with the G5 Sahel leaders in Bamako
French President Macron meets with the G5 Sahel leaders in BamakoImage: Reuters/L. Gnago

According to Casimir Oye Mba, all the countries in the franc zone could have left, but they haven't done so because they believe it is in their interest to stay.

Mali exited from the union and introduced Malian francs in 1962 after gaining independence. But the withdrawal proved difficult, says Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse. He was president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, also known by its French acronym UEMOA, between 2004 and 2011. Since the Mali Franc was never accepted, the country returned to the CFA franc in 1984. According to Cisse, one advantage is that inflation is only about 2.3 percent in the currency zone, while countries with their own currency would have an inflation rate of about 15 percent.

Nevertheless, the currency still has a number of critics. Chad's president, Idriss Deby, has spoken openly about his opposition to the CFA franc. And Guinea, which broke with France in 1958, has long had its own money - the Guinean franc.

France, for its part, is leaving the decision up to its former colonies. French President Emmanuel Macron made this clear when he visited Mali for a summit of G5 Sahel nations in July. He told dignitaries: Those who aren't happy in the zone should leave.