News / Africa

Francophone West Africa Increasingly Looking to English

Gabon's president, Ali Bongo.
Gabon's president, Ali Bongo.
Anne LookRicci Shryock
Gabon’s President Ali Ben Bongo announced in October the country will start promoting English as a second language, in addition to the current French in a move that seems to be a growing trend in Francophone West Africa.  
Gabon's presidential spokesman, Alain Claude Billie By Nze, says efforts to adopt English will begin within the educational system, but classes will also be available for adults.  He says Gabon is not the first country in the region to move in this direction.
He says Rwanda, another African country that formerly called French its official language, made the switch to English in 2009.
And according to Strategico political risk analyst Lydie Boka, who is based in France, Burundi could be the next country in Africa to join the English-speaking Commonwealth.
“Burundi is going that route," said Boka. "I think they’ve asked to join the Commonwealth without saying whether they would abandon the Francophonie.  I think a number of African countries, rightly or wrongly, think the English-speaking countries develop faster.”
Some African officials note that French keeps them regionally isolated and if they wish to diversify their global economic interests or partnerships, then English is the best way to do so.
The timing of Mr. Bongo’s announcement could not have been more pointed, coming just ahead of this year’s summit of Francophone nations, hosted by the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Boka says Gabon’s decision to move toward English could be seen as a political snub to new French President Francois Hollande -- whom the Gabon leader felt did not afford him the proper reception during a recent trip to France.
“The same day he met with Bongo, the (Gabonese) opposition met with the Socialist party, which is the party of Hollande," said Boka. "And the Socialist party issued a communiqué that the French Socialist party was concerned about the democratic deficit in a number of countries, including Gabon.”  
The Bongo family is one of three African presidential families being investigated by French authorities since 2008 for so-called "ill-gotten gains" -- cars, homes and other luxury assets in France allegedly bought with embezzled state funds.
French President Hollande took office earlier this year professing, as many of his predecessors have, to finally do away with "Francafrique."
Francafrique refers to the sphere of influence France has sought to maintain over its former colonies through what many say have been corrupt, personal ties with African leaders and off-the-books diplomacy, often at the expense of democracy and human rights.   
Analysts say that Gabon, in particular under former president Omar Bongo, epitomized Francafrique.
It was former president Bongo who was so memorably quoted by a French newspaper in 1996 as saying that "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver.  France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel."
President Hollande's desire to recalibrate France's relationship with Africa was reflected in his comments to reporters just days before he travelled to Kinshasa for the 14th Francophonie Summit.  
He said the Francophonie is not simply about a language and French is not simply for France.  He said French is also the language of Africa and in coming years, more Africans will speak French.  This language, he said, belongs to them but it is also a language representing values and principles, including democracy, good governance, and the fight against corruption.
Gabon's presidential spokesman, Billie By Nze, says the country's move to English is about pragmatism, not politics.
He says President Bongo went to Rwanda to study its experiment with bilingualism before making his decision, which he says was based on economic and educational motives.
Learning English, he said, is a good business decision, as oil accounts for 80 percent of the Gabon's exports and much of that, and other, business is done in English with the Middle East and China.
Since World War I, English has gradually eclipsed French as the modern lingua franca, the language of global diplomacy and trade.
Gabon's decision to put English at the heart of its education system reflects a growing interest in English among young people throughout West Africa, whether it be to understand the words to American rap music or one day score a job with an international NGO or a multi-national cooperation.  
Francophone organizations say they are not alarmed by Gabon’s announcement.
Ousmane Paye  - special assistant for the secretary general at the International Organization of the Francophonie - says French is not an endangered language in West and Central Africa.
He says of the 53 French-speaking member nations who gathered at the 14th Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa in October, 28 were African countries and more than 55 percent of French speakers currently live in Africa.
The International Organization of the Francophonie estimates that by 2050, more than 80 percent of French speakers worldwide will live in Africa.

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