Winning hearts and minds in West Africa, by Antoine Pecqueur (Le Monde diplomatique

Coming soon: posters announce French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Cameroon, Yaoundé, 25 July 2022

Ludovic Marin · AFP · Getty

Young Cameroonians at the University of Yaoundé 2’s Turkish studies centre, which opened just a year ago, were preparing a traditional Turkish dish of menemen (vegetables and eggs). On the wall there was a portrait of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Inaya Ngogang (1) said, ‘I decided to learn Turkish after watching Turkish drama series on TV’; her friend Zahra Oumanou said sharing a religion with the Turkish people was a factor for her (around a third of Cameroon’s population are Muslims). Their teacher, Fatma Hoşca, told me there had been ‘an explosion in applications for admission’ to the centre, established by the Turkish Maarif Foundation (created by the Turkish government in 2016), which has set up schools in 90 countries around the world.

Students at the Confucius Institute (established 2007) on the same campus were preparing for Chinese New Year. They all said they had chosen to study Chinese ‘because it’s the language of international trade.’ China is Cameroon’s largest trading partner.

There’s been a sharp rise in the number of foreign cultural centres in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, in recent years: Russia opened one in 2019, South Korea in 2020. The world’s economic powers have their eye on Cameroon because of its strategic location, with access to the sea, and natural resources.

‘Cultural cooperation has just one purpose: to win hearts and minds. These countries see the students as future allies,’ said Jean Cottin Gelin Kouma, cultural advisor at Cameroon’s embassy in Moscow. Politics, too, influences students’ choice of subjects: Nina chose Russian ‘because Cameroon and Russia are partners’ – they signed a military cooperation agreement in April 2022. By contrast, Béatrice Haman, a student at the Confucius Institute, said, ‘We’re fed up with the French and their arrogance. So we’re looking elsewhere.’ France faces a new wave of post-colonial resentment in Cameroon and throughout sub-Saharan Africa (2).

‘They’re better than the French,’ Haman said, referring to other countries seeking to extend their influence through cultural diplomacy. Engosso Ndjock noted that some countries offer ‘all-expenses-paid scholarships, but with France, even being interviewed for a visa is a terrifying prospect. Learning the language and culture of other countries helps us understand them. France has no right to tell us which countries are good or bad.’

‘We share a cultural history’

French companies’ market share in Cameroon has fallen from 40% in the 1990s to 10% today, and the foreign ministry fears that French culture will suffer a similar fate. It’s no coincidence that President Emmanuel Macron, on his visit to Yaoundé last July, was accompanied by a group of intellectuals and artists, notably the singer Blick Bassy and the historian Achille Mbembe, both of Cameroonian origin. During his visit, Macron announced the creation of a commission of inquiry into France’s actions during Cameroon’s war of independence (1955-60). Can cultural diplomacy help overcome anti-French sentiment? Joseph Owona Ntsama of the Paul Ango Ela Foundation (FPAE) in Yaoundé thinks so: ‘China has an economic partnership with Cameroon, and Russia has a military partnership, but France’s main asset is culture. We share a cultural history.’

Though Bassy joined Macron’s delegation, he remains critical, especially of the Institut Français, a network of cultural missions reporting to the foreign and culture ministries which offer French language classes and promote French culture (3): ‘The network is a formidable weapon in France’s diplomatic arsenal. But these days, the Instituts are run by people whose main concern is getting a lucrative posting in an exotic country. France needs to change this, and form joint management teams that include members of the Cameroonian diaspora.’

We need a transformation, including in how we work. We were the home of artists, now we’re going to be the home of civil society. We need to be seen as fighting for something, not against

Yann Lorvo

The Institut Français du Cameroun (IFC) is on one of the busiest streets in central Yaoundé. The front of the building was recently decorated by Cameroonian artists, but inside it’s shabby and the space is poorly used. In July it will close for two years for a major refit at an estimated cost of €5m, to accommodate a youth council and a branch of the future House of African Worlds, announced by Macron at the New Africa-France Summit in Montpellier in October 2021. Its director Yann Lorvo said, ‘We need a transformation, including in how we work. We were the home of artists, now we’re going to be the home of civil society.’ How would they deal with anti-French sentiment? ‘We need to be seen as fighting for something, not against. We need to create a new image for France. Young people want results, not ideology.’

The IFC is expanding its activities in Cameroon, and also in France where it recently put on an exhibition on traditional chiefdoms at Paris’s Quai Branly museum. With an annual budget of €6m and branches in Yaoundé and Douala, it is one of the Institut Français’s best-resourced: the foreign ministry clearly sees Cameroon as a cultural diplomacy priority. Eva Nguyen Binh, president of the Institut Français network, says, ‘Our mission was originally to promote French culture abroad; now we have to learn to step back, listen to our local partners more, and work with them.’

After the September coup in Burkina Faso, the Institut Français branches in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso were vandalised. Books were burned and computers stolen. According to Pierre Muller, director of the Ouagadougou branch, ‘A mob of around 300 smashed the security doors and shutters. We now hold our activities off-site and, for security reasons, we’ve stopped inviting foreign artists.’ No date has been set for the two branches to reopen. Patrick Hauguel, who was director in Ouagadougou and now heads the Yaoundé branch, is frustrated: ‘We were tackling really sensitive issues, such as how African soldiers were treated in the French army and the restitution of works of art.’

Anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle, who took part in the Institut Français’s Nuit des Idées (Night of Ideas) discussions this January, believes the problem lies with the guest list: ‘The discussions didn’t include Cameroon’s most important intellectuals.’ He told me he had asked the Institut Français to set up meetings with writer Lionel Manga and filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo. ‘The Institut advised me not to meet them, because they’d be critical of France.’ He believes the Institut has blacklisted them. Meanwhile, Raphaël Mouchangou, head of cultural programmes at the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé, pointed out a key difference between the French and German organisations: ‘Unlike the Institut Français, we aren’t directly linked to our embassy. So we can be far freer and more critical in our content.’ In 2020 Goethe Institute branches in six former German colonies in Africa jointly organised a major project on colonisation.

The Institut Français at work

I visited one of the ‘blacklisted’ artists – Jean-Pierre Bekolo – at Quartier Mozart, a café-cum-arts venue in Yaoundé. ‘The censorship comes more from France than from Cameroon,’ he told me. He believes France has instrumentalised culture. Instead of ‘doing real work on the legacy of the colonial era, Macron just promotes artists who deal with it in their works, like Blick Bassy. That’s manipulative.’ What did he make of the commission of inquiry on the war of independence? ‘Well, just look at who’s on it. It’s all people with the same views. If they wanted it to be fair, they’d have invited Nathalie Yamb, for example.’

That name strikes fear into the hearts of Western diplomats. Yamb is a Cameroonian-Swiss activist who is pro-Russian and campaigns against the French presence in Africa. The ‘Lady of Sochi’, as she has been known since making a speech highly critical of France at the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, has been banned from entering France since last January. The interior ministry claims her presence could provoke ‘serious disturbances of the peace’ because of the ‘deep-seated hatred she has for France’ (4). Yamb’s close ties with Moscow are another concern.

In addition to military cooperation, Russia is now turning to cultural diplomacy, using the Central African Republic (CAR) as a springboard for its efforts because the government there is friendly. Last August businessman Émile Parfait Simb, who was born in Cameroon but fled to the CAR to escape trial for fraud, set up the African Organisation of Russophony in Bangui.

‘We must become polyglots’

‘We must become polyglots if we want to escape the colonial and linguistic shackles of some former colonial powers,’ Simb said in an interview in the first issue (first quarter 2023) of the French-language RussAfrik magazine, published in Moscow. He announced the creation of African branches of the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia: ‘Instead of spending a preparatory year in Russia learning the language, you’ll be able to do it in Africa and get a diploma signed by the Russian education ministry.’ The first such branch was established in Cameroon this year.

Bangui already had a cultural centre known as the Russian House, which opened in 2021 and is run by the Russian paramilitary organisation Wagner Group. Its director Dmitri Syty, who has a master’s in cultural management from the University of Barcelona, is close to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Group’s founder, and is the ‘civilian’ face of the organisation. Last December he was injured by a parcel bomb. France has rejected Wagner Group’s accusation that it sent the parcel as ‘fanciful’. The Russian House quickly reopened after the attack and is now offering free language classes again (and brewing its own beer). François Wittersheim, who headed the Alliance Française in Bangui from 2020 to 2022, said ‘Russia uses culture solely for propaganda. Students at CAR universities are now required to learn Russian. France needs to step up cooperation or the Russians will quickly fill the gap.’

The Russian Cultural Centre in Yaoundé is in the Bastos neighbourhood, among the foreign embassies and international organisations. Its founder, Svetlana Agogho, said, ‘We offer Russian language classes for ages 4 up, we help students apply for scholarships and we even help businesspeople with paperwork.’ She told me some Cameroonians had inquired about joining up to fight for Russia in Ukraine but said, ‘That’s not our mission.’

Russia also knows how to use culture to woo the Cameroonian media. ‘The Russian embassy pays for journalists to visit Russia and experience its culture,’ said Denis Omgba Bomba, head of the National Media Observatory, which is attached to Cameroon’s communications ministry. Afrique Média, one of Africa’s most pro-Russian TV channels, is based in Douala. It was recently banned from broadcasting ‘in response to diplomatic pressure from France’, according to a ministry source, and its content can no longer be viewed on French media mogul Vincent Bolloré’s Canal+ platform, though it’s still available on China’s StarTimes.

Cameroonian artists are fighting back against all this foreign interference and campaigning for their country to reclaim its own culture. Pianist Ruben Binam, a champion of pan-Africanism, said ‘African languages are seen as second-class. They are still referred to as dialects. We need to restore respect for them.’ Without significant funding, that will be a major challenge. Winning hearts and minds in West Africa, by Antoine Pecqueur (Le Monde diplomatique

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