By Clair MacDougall in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
After four days in detention in Burkina Faso for “insulting the president and other presidents,” Kémi Séba, the controversial Franco-Béninois activist, who spearheaded a movement against the regional currency, the CFA, was all set to arrive in Mali on Wednesday (Jan. 8) for demonstrations demanding the exit of the French military.
Instead he posted video on his Instagram account from Cotonou airport in Benin claiming he had been stopped from boarding an Air Burkina flight to Bamako, Mali’s capital city.
And yet, Séba’s battle against the CFA and “Francafrique” is really just getting started.
While many welcomed last month’s news West Africa’s CFA monetary union has agreed with France to rename its CFA franc as the Eco and cut some of the financial links with Paris, there are still some doubters and plenty of concerns about one of the messengers of change.
The fact it was French president Emmanuel Macron, along with president of Côte d’Ivoire Alassane Ouattara, who announced the end of the West African CFA seems to only further convince Séba and his followers that France’s “neo-colonialism” is alive and well.
“Macron shouldn’t be the one to say our CFA is finished,” said Hervé Ouattara, the head of the Anti-CFA Front in Burkina Faso. “They are not respecting us.” The activist also accused both France and Ivory Coast of “acting unilaterally” and overriding regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States in its decision.
The CFA is a regional currency pegged to the euro and used throughout 14 mainly Francophone countries in West and Central Africa and dates back to the days of colonial rule, when CFA was launched in 1945 as les Colonies Françaises de l’Afrique or (“French Colonies of Africa”). Even though it has since been renamed as Communauté Financière d’Afrique (“Financial Community of Africa”) certain scholars and activists like Séba have long argued France has used the currency to undermine national sovereignty by controling and manipulating African economies for its own advantage.
The West African CFA is used in eight countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) while a separate Central African CFA is used in the other six countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon).
On Dec. 21, Macron and Ouattara announced plans for a new regional currency called the Eco for West African users of the CFA. It remains unclear how the new currency will be rolled out, however, news reports claim reserves of the new currency will remain in West Africa at the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO). This would be a key change from the CFA which operates under the requirement that half of its reserves are kept in the French treasury, which has fueled suspicion of French economic control.
While Séba has mobilized young people all across West Africa against CFA, he is at the forefront of a broader regional backlash against the former colonial ruler.
Thirty-eight-year-old Séba was born Stellio Gilles Robert Capo Chichi in northern French city of Strasbourg to Béninois parents. In 2004 he established two black nationalist movements named Tribu Ka and then Kémi Séba Generation, that were both shut down by French presidential decrees, claiming the groups promoted antisemitic hate.
Séba has since reinvented himself an anti-colonial and pan-Africanist leader through his group Pan-African Emergency (Urgences Panafricanist in French) that has thousands of followers on social media. In January 2017, Séba established the Anti-CFA Front that is active in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Benin and Cameroon and in Sénegal, where Séba was expelled for burning a 5,000 CFA bill (equivalent to $9.20). The group has mobilized around the abolition of the CFA that Séba refers to as “colonial money.”
But as the security crisis in the Sahel worsens, Séba’s focus has also turned toward France’s military presence in the region.
“Afrique libre ou la mort!” or “Free Africa or death!” Séba chanted to a lecture theatre packed with students at the University of Ouagadougou, just a few hours before his arrest.
Séba has accused France of fueling regional terrorism and called president of Burkina Faso Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of being a “passoire politique” or “political strainer” for France. A widely-circulated mobile phone video of the conference was posted on Séba’s YouTube channel.
Séba, who has in recent years been arrested in three other West African countries for comments he has made during political rallies, was detained by Burkina Faso’s gendarmerie for four days before appearing in court on Dec 26. He was found guilty and received a two-month suspended prison sentence and a 200,000 CFA fine from the court, that could be enforced if he comes back to Burkina Faso and “insults” the president or other presidents again.
While Séba’s comments drew criticism from some quarters, activists and human rights groups are reading the arrest as a sign that in an election year, the government will be targeting those who speak out against the president, who will be contesting—and against France, whose president last month called on Sahelian countries to address anti-French sentiment.
Outside the Palace of Justice in Ouagadougou, Séba, who wore a tight black shirt and a giant carving of the African around his neck, remained defiant.
“Nobody will be able to moderate our language,” he said.