France-Africa summit: Mugabe won't send delegation

2013-12-02 07:34
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. (File, AFP)

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. (File, AFP)

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Paris – At least 40 African leaders gather in Paris this week for a French-led summit on improving security on the unstable continent following France's military mission in Mali and a new one in the Central African Republic.

The biggest international summit by France's Socialist President Francois Hollande since he took power is aimed at helping Africa tackle its security problems on its own with less and less Western backing from former colonial masters.

It comes against the backdrop of French plans to send troops to the Central African Republic and during a time when Paris, which has thousands of troops garrisoned in Africa, is being dragged into action while it is trying to reshape its relations with the continent.

The two-day summit starting Friday will be dominated by the latest unrest in the Central African Republic (CAR), where clashes between armed Muslim and Christian groups have raised fears of sectarian massacres.

France has called a mini-summit on the CAR crisis on Saturday after the Africa conference and UN chief Ban Ki-moon and officials from the European Union are due to attend.

The mini-summit will take place after the UN Security Council votes on France's plan to deploy about 1 000 soldiers to take on an active fighting role alongside a flagging African-led "stabilisation mission" in CAR.

The mineral-rich but impoverished nation has been plagued by coups and rebel uprisings since it gained independence from France in 1960.

The African force for CAR aims to have 2 500 troops but it has been hampered by a lack of funds, arms and training.

France in January intervened in its former colony Mali to stop Islamists and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital in a move that was hailed worldwide and boosted Hollande's sagging popularity back home.

Paris has a long history of interventions in Africa. It joined international military efforts to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and sent troops to Ivory Coast after a rebellion split the world's top cocoa producer in half.

It has also sent soldiers in the past to other African flashpoints including Chad, Zaire, Rwanda and Gabon.

Paris not 'the policeman of Africa'

Hollande, in line with France's avowed intention to forsake the so-called policy of "Francafrique", has said that Paris will "always be at Africa's side" but not be "the policeman of Africa".

Critics of "Francafrique" - a term denoting Paris's complex military and political ties with former colonies - say the policy is aimed at maintaining puppet states and keeping corrupt and despotic regimes in power if it suits French interests.

But the rise of Islamists in a vast swathe of the Sahara and nearby areas, piracy off the lawless waters of Somalia and the rising tide of illegal migration from Africa are factors weighing against a more discreet role for Paris.

Experts say given the state of affairs on the ground, France will be pushed towards intervention, especially in former colonies.

This is due in part "to a certain vision of what its responsibilities are and its moral commitment to protect civilians", said Aline Leboeuf from the French Institute of International Relations.

"Even if Paris has a real wish to remain in the background of a multilateral action, there are players who actually are waiting for it to intervene", she said.

Another key issue in the summit is a plan by the African Union to put in place a rapid reaction force to deal with coups, rebellions and unrest on the continent.

The AU's standby brigade has made little headway since preparations for a proposed force of 32 500 troops and civilians drawn from the continent's five regions started a decade ago.

New economic partnership

The Paris conference will also discuss a new economic partnership between Africa and France, based on a report drafted by French Foreign Minister Pierre Moscovici.

The West has been worried by Beijing's growing economic muscle in Africa. China overtook the United States as Africa's biggest trading partner in 2009 and critics accuse Beijing of turning a blind eye to rights abuses and rampant corruption in its bid to source raw materials from the region and sell finished goods there.

A West African diplomat said he hoped that the French report would entail "a shared economic agenda that would take into account everybody's interests and lead to a win-win" situation.

In parallel events on the fringes of the summit will be trade discussions between more than 500 African and French business leaders, and talks on conservation of threatened species as well as climate change.

Fifty-four countries have been invited but only Zimbabwe, whose veteran leader Robert Mugabe is still considered a pariah in the West for trampling on democracy, will not send a delegation.

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