To stoke the dying fires of his presidential term, Jacques Chirac is receiving most of Africa’s heads of state for the 24th France-Africa summit in Cannes on 15-16 February. This ceremonial event will be one of the last appearances on the world stage of a president who has been deeply committed to Africa. For two days, Chirac will host leaders who decide the fate of a continent buffeted by intractable wars and savage globalization. So, let’s dream a little.
This event inspires African democrats with hope, especially the 44 journalists who are currently in prison in Africa for practising their trade, as President Chirac is bound to not let slip this chance to leave the Elysée Palace with panache. In the name of republican values, he will undoubtedly plead their cause with those who are responsible for their imprisonment, and with whom he will be sharing the same table for two days.
How could we doubt this? Sure, Chirac never lost his temper with the Tunisian regime in the past, although it is characterised by corruption and nepotism. But this time he will not miss the opportunity to defend the journalists, intellectuals and human rights activists who are silenced, beaten up and imprisoned by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his police. Chirac, we can be sure, will use different words to address the Tunisian leader this time. He will tell him that Tunisia’s methods, its spying and its brutal arrests, just make things worse. This time he will see free speech as a basic right on which France cannot compromise, like the right to food and health.
In the same way, Chirac is bound to take Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to task. He will tell him how France condemns the fact that a score of newspaper editors have been held for 18 months on charges of trying to overthrow the government, when all they did was support the opposition. He will, of course, single out the case of Serkalem Fassil, a young woman journalist who gave birth to a baby boy in her cell last June. The French president will demand their release.
Chirac will reserve special treatment for Issaias Afeworki, the president of the young republic of Eritrea, whose former ambassador to France has just received the Legion of Honour award. Its 314 prisons have held hundreds of political prisoners since September 2001, including some 15 journalists. They were arrested as the world was looking elsewhere, at the World Trade Centre in New York. France will demand to know how it is that at least four of them have reportedly died as a result of the unbelievably cruel conditions in these Eritrean gulags. Refusing to shake the hand of this East African Ceausescu, Chirac will loudly insist that this ferocious regime’s behaviour must be punished.
The arrival of Yahya Jammeh, the former army sergeant who staged a coup to become Gambia’s president, will prompt Chirac to ask publicly about the activities of his intelligence agency. Chirac will press him about the still unpunished murder of leading journalist Deyda Hydara in December 2004, in which there are strong reasons for suspecting the security services. After all, Hydara was a keen French-speaker, and the correspondent not only of Reporters Without Borders but also Agence France-Presse. Good reasons for the French president to get involved.
His friend Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso, will of course be told what a dim view France takes of the denial of justice which the family of L’Indépendant editor Norbert Zongo has had to endure since his murder in 1998. At his last meeting with Africa’s most powerful and cultured men, Chirac will tell Compaoré that France can no longer remain silent while he covers up for his brother François, who is suspected of being involved in the murder of Zongo and three companions.
We could continue to list the achievements of some of the presidents that France has invited to savour the pleasures of the Côte d’Azur. We could also have mentioned Franco-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer, who was kidnapped Abidjan in 2004 after falling into a trap set by an associate of President Laurent Gbagbo. But the certainty of seeing Jacques Chirac pound his fist on the table, demand explanations, reaffirm universal values and defend democrats has persuaded us not to go on. We will read the press reports with impatience. The French president will surely not disappoint us.
Robert Ménard Reporters Without Borders secretary-general
Léonard Vincent Head of the Africa desk