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The West African currency CFA may be dead soon.

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By Kai Koddenbrock

At no point in history has the CFA franc – the name of a colonial currency used in west and central African countries belonging to the franc zone – been closer to its demise.

Senegal has overwhelmingly voted for leftwing Pastef candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye (and his former party leader Ousmane Sonko) while the coup governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have been talking about leaving the CFA franc for some time.

Senegal under outgoing president Macky Sall was a pillar of the longstanding French attempt to remain influential among its former colonies, often named “Francafrique”. Now newly elected Faye, under the moniker of “Left Panafricanism”, has vowed to make his country more sovereign in food, energy and finance.

Never before have four west African governments, including one of the regional leaders, Senegal, been simultaneously eager and ready to get out of the neo-colonial stranglehold of the CFA franc.

The CFA franc zone was founded by then colonial power France after the second world war. Its aim was to ensure a continuously cheap influx of resources into France.

The zone is divided into two. The west African CFA franc zone has eight members: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo and Guinea-Bissau. The central African zone has six: Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Equatorial Guinea.

Popular mobilisation against the currency has been intense in recent years in west Africa.

This led to cosmetic changes to the currency arrangements. For example in 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron and the sitting president of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, announced the withdrawal of French staff from some of the regional central bank’s decision-making bodies. They also waived the requirement – much maligned on the continent – to store 50% of all reserves in Paris as a guarantee to the former colonial power that they wouldn’t be wasted on irresponsible fiscal expansion.

Overall, however, the CFA franc has remained more or less the same and France has not been willing to leave the arrangement of its own accord. The old colonial attachment and supposed developmental benevolence has carried the day.

But the conditions for major change are in place. The Alliance of Sahel States between the junta-led governments of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has stated its intention to introduce the “Sahel” as a new regional currency. Whether this initiative – and the Senegalese plan for a national currency – will amount to a full break-up of the CFA franc zone and its terminal decline will depend on how well they plan and execute the transition to several new currencies or a new one without any French involvement.

A hard road ahead

Historically, as shown by Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Sylla in their book Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story, serious attempts at leaving the CFA franc since its inception in 1948 have been sabotaged by France.

For example, Guinea was flooded by counterfeit banknotes when it left the CFA franc in the 1960s.

Mali was put under pressure to rejoin the CFA franc after its departure in 1967. It returned into the fold in 1984. In 2011, Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, who had been considering pulling out of the CFA franc, was made to step down after controversial elections with the help of a military intervention force. He was then sent to the International Criminal Court before being acquitted 10 years later.

France went further in 2011 – a case countries wanting to make the next attempt at leaving the CFA franc should be cognisant of. It used its seat on the Central Bank of West African States decision-making bodies to block Côte d’Ivoire from being refinanced by the bank.

It also induced the subsidiaries of BNP Paribas and Societe Generale to temporarily close their branches. Leaving the CFA franc has thus historically come with a high risk of French sabotage.

But the constellation of forces has shifted and west African governments can better prepare this time. If they join forces – and Côte d’Ivoire votes for a less France-dependent president in the presidential elections in 2025 – the end of the west African CFA franc may indeed be near.

The trust factor

The stability and legitimacy of a currency depend primarily on trust. The users of a currency (people and corporations) need to trust that its price is more or less stable. This includes a reasonably low rate of inflation, and engagement in growth-inducing economic activity. Periods of high inflation and hyper inflation have always been the result of a serious economic crisis in which trust was absent.

Monetary stability thus depends on social and macroeconomic stability. This, in turn, is the result of how well governmental policies and domestic and world market processes align. A government that is seen to have a plan and is able to adapt to and steer economic pressure goes a long way in creating trust. And, by implication, it makes a new currency less prone to speculative attack or massive devaluation. In Senegal, Pastef’s election programme had a roadmap towards leaving the CFA franc and setting up a national currency. Among the key steps are:

Finally, the new currency will be floating and non-convertible or semi-convertible to shield it from speculative attacks.

This menu is similar to some of the strategies China has employed over the last decades to maintain government control over the economy and shield the Chinese economic growth path from foreign – in other words speculative – interference.

The success of such a strategy depends to a large degree on mobilising domestic financial and real domestic resources. And, in the absence of China’s massive domestic market, building regional economic complementarities.

The strategic challenge for Diomaye will thus be to enlist a sufficiently large group of small business people, landowners and power-brokers around Mouride and Tidjaniyya Muslim brotherhoods and the capitalist class in Senegal to his economically transformative project.

This will be a sizeable challenge in the face of upcoming export revenues from gas and oil – contracts Pastef has vowed to renegotiate – and an overall economic structure that is not yet domestic market oriented.

A national currency could support this shift in focus towards the well-being of the Senegalese people. This is because its logic would be to reorient the government towards the domestic economy and its people. Imports and easy repatriation of earnings by foreign corporations, which are some of the main effects of the often overvalued CFA franc, would become more difficult.

Make or break factors

The reaction to Faye’s agenda by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other donors and creditors will be crucial to watch. To what extent the new Senegalese government is prepared to dispense with their sizeable sums in aid and credits remains to be seen. Niger recently did dispense with them and reduced its budget by 40% as aid was frozen.

Overall, Senegal and the Sahel governments are in a stronger position globally than ever before. The African continent is seen as essential to ensure the energy transition in Europe as well as its diversification of oil and gas supply. And western military, diplomatic and trade hegemony on the continent is being challenged by China and Russia as well as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey.

If Senegal and the Sahel governments position the end of the CFA franc well in their overall negotiations with their international partners as well as their domestic capitalist class and opposing political forces, its end may indeed by near.

That will not be the end of the long road towards food, energy and overall economic sovereignty to the benefit of the people. But it will be an important symbolic and material victory against postcolonial interference and meddling. The colonial CFA franc has outlived its usefulness for today’s “Left Panafricanism”.

Organising its end is a sizeable challenge, but for the first time in decades is one that can be confronted head on.

This article was first published on The Conversation:

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