- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

PARIS French diplomats call it the "sound of boots," a somewhat cryptic phrase describing the increasingly active role played by restive armies in France's former African colonies.

A military coup in Ivory Coast over Christmas shattered whatever hopes and illusions existed about the stability of the region where France maintains garrisons from the Red Sea to the Atlantic. The army deposed President Henri Konan Bedie and put Gen. Robert Guei in his place.

Paris is still linked to its former African possessions by a web of economic treaties and "mutual-defense agreements," but French enthusiasm for its traditional African connection is ebbing.

Among the reasons is the gradual removal of old-style African politicians who regarded Paris as their lodestar, and the emergence of a new and frequently ruthless class of rulers who often look for support from the military.

Before last month's presidential election in the West African republic of Senegal still regarded as an oasis of stability Abdoulaye Wade, a longtime opponent of the Dakar regime, warned he would appeal to the military in case of doubts about the conduct of the vote.

As it turned out, Mr. Wade and President Abdou Diouf, a Socialist, topped the field of eight candidates, but neither won more than 50 percent of the vote, so the two will face each other in a runoff election the country's first since independence from France in 1960.

But Mr. Wade's invocation of the army still hangs over the ballot box.

"Military power is coming and through the front door," said a French Foreign Affairs Ministry official.

Albert Bourgi, a French expert on Africa, said: "Today on the African scene, the army is becoming the ultimate arbitrator and not just a mere actor."

And since the death three years ago of Jacques "Monsieur l'Afrique" Foccart, perhaps the key architect of French policy in Africa, Paris has virtually abandoned its previous role of kingmaker in its former colonies. Mr. Foccart's credo of consolidating the power of leaders devoted to Franco-African friendship no longer applies.

In France, African policy traditionally emanates from the presidential Elysee Palace. It is implemented by the Ministry of Cooperation, and Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Defense.

Of considerable concern to Paris is the growing interest in African affairs of Libya's mercurial strongman, Moammar Gadhafi particularly in Chad, where France still maintains a military contingent as a gesture of support for President Idriss Deby.

Col. Gadhafi appears to be focusing on the new generation of African leaders who are gradually replacing the docile French-educated presidents who dutifully marched in step behind Paris.

An organization known mainly by its French acronym, COMESSA, and created by Col. Gadhafi is no longer regarded as a joke. This Community of Sahel Sahara African States consists of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and the Central African Republic.

In one of his flamboyant moods last year, Col. Gadhafi announced that Arabs were "unworthy" of his efforts, and that he considered himself an African.

"Africa consists of tribes torn by colonial powers," he said. "A state has no chance of survival in Africa; it is a false concept."

According to some French officials, Chad has become a virtual Libyan protectorate.

The thousand-man French military task force Epervier (Sparrowhawk) is based mainly in N'Djamena, the capital, and Abeche former capital of the sultans and now a thriving town in eastern Chad. These days it must ask official permission to leave the bases for training in the desert.

Chad is still trying to contain a revolt in the north led by Youssouf Togoimi, a former defense minister. Recently, Mr. Deby asked France to help him by "lending" transport planes. When Paris refused, Tripoli came forward with the needed planes plus other war materiel and more Libyan troops.

Regardless of concern about "the sound of boots," France's former colonies still fare better than those of Belgium.

While Congo, Rwanda and Burundi have staggered from one massacre to another, the former French African territories have generally remained tranquil. Still, anxiety is rising.

In Gabon, President Omar Bongo regularly visits army barracks to make sure that the military is with him. In Guinea, President Lansana Conte refused a midnight invitation to share roast lamb at an army camp. ("They thought I was a fool," he later told a French diplomat.)

In Benin, President Matthieu Kerekou feels himself threatened by a coup apparently with the army's backing. In nearby Togo, Gen. Etienne Eyadema still holds on to power after 33 years thanks to the small army, drawn entirely from his tribe.

French specialists point out that the main restraining factor on military ambitions is the economy. In several cases, new military leaders have promptly paid their countries' debts.

"They seem to understand that neither the European Union nor the International Monetary Fund are likely to help bankrupt or corrupt regimes," a French diplomat said.

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