AFRICANGLOBE – More than two decades after France’s President François Mitterrand predicted a season of revolutions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, new winds of change are blowing through Francophone Africa.
Two distinct political tendencies are emerging: one led by democratically elected governments driving economic and political reform; the other dominated by long-standing leaders hoarding vast fortunes whose elections are little more than a charade.
In Senegal and Niger, political debate flourishes as journalists and opposition parties criticise and hold government to account.
The governments in Dakar and Niamey are also pushing ahead with massive investment in agriculture to combat periodic food crises.
The liberal political style of Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou breaks with some of the worst traditions of their autocratic predecessors Abdoulaye Wade and Mamadou Tandja.
Sall is cracking down on corruption and waste in government while Issoufou is pushing for a larger government stake in mining and oil projects.
Both countries are neighbours of Mali and are offering troops to drive out Arab invaders from the north of that country.
Issoufou has toured Africa and Europe raising the alarm about the growing crisis in the Sahel.
Many Malians see him as a far more reliable mediator than Burkina Faso’s corrupt President Blaise Compaoré.
Les vents du changement (the winds of change) will blow ever stronger in 2013.
Opposition parties and civic activists are getting bolder in Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Their demands are clear: free elections, jobs and an end to corruption.
Popular frustration is growing too in the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Republic of Congo, whose resources honestly developed could trans- form their economies.
Without fanfare and bombast, the links between la Francophonie and Paris are also changing, if more gradually.
Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara, who owes his political survival to the French-backed intervention in 2011, unsurprisingly wants France’s military base in Abidjan to stay.
His successor is likely to think otherwise and French troops are unenthusiastic about bailing out Ouattara again should the latest crisis there escalate.
Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno was unfazed when France decided to close its base just outside N’Djamena this year.
The improbable leader of the reset is President François Hollande, who has the fewest personal links to Africa of any French leader since the Second World War.
This gives him space to modernise and restructure France’s relations with its former colonies and the wider Francophone community.
Soon after becoming president in May 2012, Hollande officially closed the cellule africaine in the Elysée Palace, leaving foreign minister Laurent Fabius at the Quai d’Orsay to run French policy on Africa.
Hollande passed his first big Africa test in October when President Joseph Kabila’s government hosted the Francophonie summit in Kinshasa.
He spoke publicly to his hosts about the unacceptable record on human rights and treatment of the opposition.
He also met with long-time oppositionist Etienne Tshisekedi.
Also in October, Hollande apologised for the French government’s role in the death of scores of Algerian protestors in Paris in 1961 who had been calling for an end to colonial rule.
That seemed to open the way for a wider rapprochement as Algeria celebrated 50 years of independence.
Hollande’s planned visit to Algiers in December will build on that and focus on their common concerns about security in the Sahel.
It may be that a French President with a minimalist history in Africa could prove the best catalyst for a credible policy shift.
Certainly, the key forces driving political change in Francophone Africa are popular mobilisation and a new generation of leaders who can see how their region’s economic potential can be unleashed.
As such forces gather momentum in 2013, expect more crumbling of the old order.