Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

No Chance for Biafra: Africa & Balkanization

Welcome back to!

This time, this topic is inspired by the film “Half a Yellow Sun” which is itself inspired by the book of the same name. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a Ted Talk on the “The danger of a single story”, which is also extremely inspiring.

The story is about a young woman, Olanna, who grew up in a wealthy Nigerian family and studied abroad, who decides to take up a position at the University of Nsukka, in the South of Nigeria where her boyfriend works. It is with Olanna’s story that the breaking of the Nigerian civil war, or the Biafran War, erupts in 1967. Olanna and her family are then forced to flee their home and see their loved ones die amidst this conflict.Olanna’s family are Igbos and (or Ibos) wanted to seize independence from the rest of the country after years of oppression.

The Biafran War

Like many African countries, Nigeria is a purely colonial creation which did not exist as a political entity before being colonised by Britain. Organised in tribes and kingdoms, the parts of what constitutes Nigeria today were independent fragments in contact with one another, notably for trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United Kingdom conquered all administrative regions, which were regrouped in Protectorates. In 1914, the Protectorates were merged to form Nigeria.

Nigeria seized independence from the United Kingdom on October 1st, 1960, after decades of ‘struggle for freedom’ and self-determination. The Republic of Nigeria was subsequently divided into three federal regions, then four in 1963. In 1966, the government was toppled and replaced by a succession of military governments, which continued until 1979.

The military governments exacerbated ethnic divisions, of which the Igbos, the ethnicity from the South Eastern region of Nigeria, were at the receiving end. As a consequence, on 30 May, 1967, the Head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, unilaterally declared the independence of ‘East Nigeria’, renamed ‘Republic of Biafra’. On 15 January 1970, the loyalist army, backed by British, American and Soviet troops, regained control of the Biafran region, seven days after Col. Ojukwu had fled to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.


Col. Ojukwu ready to flee while the population of Biafra suffers

Almost three years of civil war where the central Nigerian government tried to regain control of the secessionist region left 1 million civilians dead from fighting and famine. The Biafran war also led to the creation of modern humanitarian interventions.

De facto state and African Unity

Foreign interests played a very important role in the resolution of the Biafran crisis:  first for securing the stability of oil supplies (the Biafra region sits on most of Nigeria’s underground and offshore oil resources, the country’s only natural resource); second, for guaranteeing the unity of Nigeria for stability reasons. Note that those arguments are also applicable to the Nigerian government as well.

On the Biafran side, the strategy was to make the conflict last as long as possible in the hope of gaining international support, and thus armament. This worked to a certain extent as several countries like Gabon, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania and Zambia formally recognized the newly created state. They also counted on the emotion created by the death toll (referred to as a genocide against the Igbos), the displacement of population and general humanitarian crisis in progress in Biafra to appeal to the international community’s emotion to support the Biafran cause.

For the Nigerian central government, maintaining the Nigerian unity was essential. The African Unity Organization, the ancestor of the African Union and whose principal objective was to “promote the unity and solidarity of African states”, strongly sided with Lagos. It was also in most African countries’ interest to do so as if Biafra would have become an internationally recognized state, it would have created a precedent which would have certainly inspired many secessionist regions to do the same, thus shaking the fragile post-colonial fragility of the continent. Britain and the USSR, surprisingly amidst the Cold War, both supported the territorial integrity option.

The fear of Balkanization

The case of Nigeria in the late 60s is not an isolated case as several ethnicities, notably in Africa, have been fighting for fair political representation and equal rights with other groups within their own countries. No need to look too far back to find examples: think Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey.

The issue that is often brought up to explain why Africa is so conflict-ridden since the end of colonialism in the 60s is that states are colonial constructions that have been arbitrarily drawn (also see the Sykes Picot agreement which redrawn the Middle East).  Before Europeans arrived in Africa, borders were formed by natural obstacles – rivers, mountains, etc. – and each ethnicity had its more or less defined own territory. To ease their ruling over the newly conquered lands, European settlers regrouped several regions under the same jurisdictions; this inevitably caused friction as the different people composing those administrative districts had never had to work together as part of the same entity, be it political, economic or cultural.

It is thus without surprise that ethnic tension and independence movements have been emerging in Africa, causing civil wars and sometimes genocide. Some regions would potentially be viable as independent states: Somaliland, on the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden, possesses all the attributes of a sovereign state (currency, stable government, army and police force, etc.), much more than Somalia itself which is considered a failed state. Despite this, Somaliland is not recognized as an independent state by the international community. Among all the African regions claiming independence, only two managed to get international recognition since decolonisation: South Sudan which officially seized independence in 2011, and Eritrea which seceded from Ethiopia in 1993. Other than that, the colonial map has not changed since the independence waves.

Does the secession of a country solely depend on international support? It appears that South Sudan was able to access to full statehood because of the strong support the independence movement received from the international community, notably in the US. Is it then still down to international powers to decide? One could invoke the argument of genocide of ongoing civil war which helped the case of South Sudan; but this argument still did not allow countries like Rwanda (or Nigeria if you consider the Biafran war as a genocide) to be divided.

In general, the international community fears the “Balkanization” of Africa, whereby countries were to be divided into several smaller one (think Yugoslavia which is now divided into 7 independent countries). Dealing with one government is easier than with multiple; organizing a territorial partition is never an easy task, especially when natural resources are involved. Supporting the independence movements in Africa would come to question the inheritance of the colonial era. In the international community’s mind, and especially in that of the former colonial powers involved in Africa – France and Great Britain – more African members of the United Nations would potentially mean mmore voices to oppose the old colonial order. It would also have probably meant more members of the Non-Aligned Movement to question the West’s superiority.

Going back to the case of Nigeria, the independence of Biafra was not feasible as the project was carried by a single self-interested man who did not hesitate to leave the ship when he saw it was going to sink. National and international interests were also strongly opposing this option, making the project of an independent state totally unlikely.

The case of Biafra is an interesting one because it was the first case which raised the international community’s interest due to the extent of the humanitarian crisis. It, however, was not sufficient to push for the division of Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the fastest economically growing country in Africa thanks, in parts, to the oil reserves. The destiny of Nigeria would probably have been very different if Biafra had become independent, leaving with most natural reserves.

Further thoughts

This fear of the balkanization of Africa is not only applicable to this continent. The remodelling of borders is dreaded by all nations, including Western ones. It is widely accepted that current states are in their final forms. But the independence movements such as in Scotland, Britany, Catalonia and others, tend to think otherwise. The redrawing of borders has been a constant in history, and there seems to be an urge to continue to do so in certain regions. There is, however, a strong tendency to maintain the status quo even if it leaves many discontent.


Divided Islands

The Divided Islands: New Guinea

This series of articles focuses on a territorial quirk I find very interesting because cases are more numerous than I first thought and because it is the source of disparities; I will write about those islands that are split into several countries (mostly two, sometimes more). Of course, some cases are more famous than others. You might have thought of Cyprus and Ireland. I will attempt to write about as many as possible, so come back every week to read about a new place.

The two halves of New Guinea are faced with two very different situations. The Eastern part is ethnically homogeneous but is struggling with political instability due to corruption, separatist movements, and weak infrastructures. The Western part is still being affected by colonialism as Indonesia tries to control the local inhabitants by mixing them with other ethnicities coming from other parts of the country, which has pushed the Papuans to demand self-determination.

The island of New Guinea is split into two almost equal halves by the 141st Meridian east which acts as the border between Indonesia to the West and Papua New Guinea to the East. Continue reading

Divided Islands

The divided islands: Hispaniola

The next series of articles will focus on a territorial quirk I find very interesting because cases are more numerous than I first thought and because it is the source of disparities; I will write about those islands that are split into several countries (mostly two, sometimes more). Of course, some cases are more famous than others. You might have thought of Cyprus and Ireland. I will attempt to write about as many as possible, so come back every week to read about a new place.

From quickly scanning through the cases of split islands, it is easy to see that the divide is more than just about sovereignty and statehood. In a vast majority of cases, it is possible to see a broad gap between the parts although they share a common border and the same floating piece of land.

Map Hispaniola

Map of Hispaniola

Let’s dig into the first case, Hispaniola. The latter can also be referred to at Santo Domingo, after the name of its original capital.

Conquest and division

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture

Discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, Hispaniola, or La Isla Española as it was first named, is located in the Greater Caribbean. The location of the island was a strategic asset for Spain’s expansion in the Americas, notably in Mexico, Cuba, Panama and South America.  Upon discovery, the Spaniards killed the majority of the local populations, the Tainos, and principally settled in the South East region of the island, allowing France to occupy parts of the West. The French presence was recognized by Spain in 1697. In 1804, the slaves, under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture, revolted again the French and seized their independence under the name of Haiti. The West then invaded the rest of the island, after which the Spanish part declared its independence in 1844 under the name of the Dominican Republic. Unhappy about the situation, the Spaniards regained control of their territory to again become a Spanish dominion. Real independence was finally proclaimed in 1865. Haiti covers about one third of the island, or about 27 000 sq. km.

The island is prone to hurricanes and other weather-related disasters.

The Dominican Republic

Official language: Spanish

Population: 10,478,756 (July 2015 est.)

GDP per capita: $14,000 (2014 est.)

Infant mortality rate: 18.84 deaths/1,000 live births

Life expectancy at birth: 77.97 years

Human Development Index rank: 101

The Dominican Republic (DR) is a relatively stable democracy despite the recurring political scandals that shake the government in place every now and then. It was not always like that as before 1996, periods of dictatorship, coups and civil war followed one another. The current President is Danilo Medina Sanchez.

Economically speaking, the service sector has taken over the nation’s agriculture productions (sugar, coffee, tobacco). Tourism and telecommunication are the most important sources of revenue for the country. The extraction of silver and gold is also a non-negligible asset for the local economy. “Remittances amount to about 7% of GDP”, and come from Dominicans who emigrated to the US or Puerto Rico where they found better working conditions and higher salaries. In the Dominican Republic, unemployment is high (14,5% as estimated in 2014) and income inequalities force many to leave the country.

The Dominican Republic was not affected by the 2010 Earthquake which destroyed Haiti. The government, however, immediately sent aid to its neighbouring country.


Haiti earthquake

The damaged National Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the earthquake that occurred on Jan. 12, 2010. (Image: Logan Abassi—Minustah/Getty Images)

Official languages: French and Creole

Population: 10,110,000 (est. 2015)

GDP per capita: $1,800 (2014 est.)

Infant mortality rate: 47.98 deaths/1,000 live births

Life expectancy at birth: 63.51 years

Human development index rank: 163

Although rich under the colonial rule of the French due to the slave trade and deforestation, Haiti is now the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The country has been rules by a succession of dictators, notably François and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Political instability is still very important today, and the UN has had to get involved several times in order to organize local democratic and fair elections, like in 2004 after the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned. The current President, Michel Martelly, is currently running for re-election.

Haiti UN

UN peacekeepers attempting to direct earthquake victims queuing for aid outside the National Palace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 25, 2010. (Source: Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images)

The development of the country is hindered by corruption, the low level of education, and dependence on foreign aid. In addition, the 7.0 of magnitude earthquake which epicentre was located 25km off of Port-au-Prince, the capital city, destroyed most of the city and killed over 300,000 people. 1,5million Haitians were left homeless after the disaster. The reconstruction of the country is still in progress with the help of international economic assistance. This disaster was a massive blow to the economy and development of Haiti, from which the country is still struggling to recover.

The future of Haiti is, however, not very bright as the lack of local infrastructure impedes foreign investment. The instability of the country has also demanded for UN peacekeepers to deploy there for the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti in 2004 “to restore a secure and stable environment, to promote the political process, to strengthen Haiti’s Government institutions and rule-of-law-structures, as well as to promote and to protect human rights.”

Contrast & cross-border issues

The contrast between the two sides of the island is drastic. One side, Haiti, is poor and underdevelopped, while the other, DR, is consistently developping.

Of course, some traits can be found in both Haiti and DR, such as their vulnerability to natural disasters and governmental instability. They, however, do not have the same means at hand to respond to those issues.

The main issue that affects the island of Hispaniola as a whole is migration, and more specifically from the West to the East. Immigration from Haiti to its neighbouring country has been important for centuries due to the lingering economic problems Port-au-Prince has been faced with. Discrimination against Haitian is, however, strong in Santo Domingo against the darker-skinned migrants. This originates from the colonial era as Haitians’ ancestors are the African slaves who rebelled against their white owners. Illegal immigration has been a recurring problem that the Dominican political class has tried to stop several times with gruesome methods. For example, in 1937, dictator Rafael Trujillo, ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians who had crossed the common border into his country.

Haiti at the border

At the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. (Image: Alex Proimos/Flickr)

Today, it is estimated that 300,000 Haitians live in the Dominican Republic to work in fields or dig the ditches to support the expansion of the country’s infrastructure, for the meager salary of $4.50 a day. Thousands of Haitians also cross the porous border every day to work in DR. In order to stop the illegal migration flows, the Dominican government has put in place “Operation Shield” to post more troops at the border. In addition, “a September 2013 Constitutional Court ruling revoked the citizenship of those born after 1929 to immigrants without proper documentation, even though the constitution at the time automatically granted citizenship to children born in the Dominican Republic”. This ruling has created indignation and fear amongst the Haitian population in DR as the Operation has the potential to the create the status of statelessness for those who have no family connection with the DR but have never lived in Haiti. 10,000 undocumented Haitians have already been expelled and many more have left DR out of fear. They now live in shanty towns on the Haitian side of the border and cross everyday to got to work.

The differences between the two countries are easy to see; they are the result of the colonial era, their respective political evolutions as well as weather conditions which affect each sides the island differently. All in all, Haiti and the Dominican Republic started their history together but are now on two very different paths. Hispaniola is divided, between languages, cultures, wealth, history, and skin colours. History is rarely linear, and Hispaniola is the perfect example of that.

Countries, History and Culture, Uncategorized

Nauru: When Development Goes Wrong  

Imagine an island lost in the middle of an Ocean where people have lived in peace and harmony with the local nature and wildlife for centuries. Then imagine the damages of colonialism and the exploitation to exhaustion of the local natural resource. Then what? Well, everything, from the local culture, wildlife, source of revenues and chance for a bright future have disappeared. This is what happened to several isolated places around the world. The most extreme case is, however, that of Nauru. This little island of 21 square kilometers located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and Hawaii, has been through it all, from peace to war, from a quiet traditional life to extreme westernization, and from wealth to poverty.

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Nauru, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Discovered in 1789 by a British Captain who nicknamed it ‘Pleasant Island’, Nauru was then colonized by Germany in 1888 and taken over by Australia after World War I. The Japanese occupation during World War II dramatically reduced the local population by deporting two-thirds of them to Micronesia for force labour, or because of starvation and bombings during the war. After the conflict, Nauru became a trust territory administered by Australia. The island finally seized its independence in 1968, thus becoming the world’s smallest sovereign entity of the time.

From ‘Heaven’ to Hell

In 1900, it was discovered that Nauruans were sitting on large amounts of phosphate, a highly demanded natural resource used as fertilizer for agriculture. The exploitation of the mineral thus started. The production became more intense with the development of new means of transportation and the modernization of the industry. Australia was the main importer of the resource. The entire economy of Nauru adapted to the wealth of their soil: all traditional occupations disappeared and everyone reconverted into the production of phosphate. As the local population was not sufficient, foreigners arrived on the island, mainly from neighboring islands but also from Asia. At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that “out of a total population of 12,000, some 4,000 are foreigners. Australians serve as managers, doctors and engineers, Chinese run the restaurants and shops, while other Pacific islanders do the dirty work in the mines.”

Phosphate made Nauru extremely rich: in the 1970s, the island even became the second largest country in the world, with three times the GDP of the United States. The island quickly developed, and the newly founded sovereign state took it upon itself to offer the best services to its population, possible thanks to the revenues generated by the mining. With the feeling that the wrongs of the past had been corrected, namely that the local resources were finally in the hands of the local population after decades of foreign rule, the Nauruans were now able to consume to their liking, and did not need to work to enjoy a high quality of life. The government could indeed provide free health care and education to everyone without imposing taxes.

This situation lasted as long as there was phosphate left: being a finite resource, phosphate eventually ran out. The ‘resource curse‘ had stricken.

A Series of Poor choices

Nobody was oblivious: it was clear from the very beginning that the phosphate would not last forever. A series of measures to continue benefiting from the revenues of the mineral were put in place such as a diversity of investments abroad. Most of them, contracted by the Australian authorities and the Nauruans government both seemed to have met misfortune, thus shrinking the long term revenues for the island. In addition, eager to enjoy their wealth, the Nauruan governments made some poor choices which cost them later on: the creation of a local airline, Air Nauru, was clearly not adapted to the needs and size of the island with its 7 planes even though the local population was around 10,000 inhabitants. When the revenues came to lack, Nauru was no longer able to pay for all the services it had previously offered, and accumulated large amounts of debt it tried to cover by asking for loans from the Asian Central Bank, but also by trying to become an offshore banking center, and tax haven for the Russian mafia, without success as the G7 quickly put an end to it. Nauru even sued Australia in 1989 in front of the International Court of Justice asking for repair for the destruction of one third of the island during the colonial era. Australia settled the suit for about $75 million. The fall of the price of phosphate in the 90s only worsened the situation, until it ran out in the early 2000.

The story of Nauru’s descent from prosperity to penury is one of the most cautionary tales of modern development

Dramatic Consequences

Beyond the impact on the local economy, the exploitation of phosphate irreversibly affected numerous aspects of Nauru’s life. First, the local population seems to have forgotten how to do anything with is not linked to mining; fishing has long been forgotten and replaced by imported processed food and the excavation of the phosphate has destroyed all possible arable land. As a result, the island entirely depends on imports for its food and the population presents high levels of obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure, and the life expectancy has dramatically dropped to 50 for men and 55 for women. It is estimated that 95% of the population is overweight.


Nauru from the sky – Photo: Radio Australia

The consequences for the local climate are also worth mentioning: the deforestation on 90% of the islands have induced a continuous drought and is struck by heat waves. In addition, the local population lives on the coast, which is only 10 meters above the sea level, making them very vulnerable in the face of climate change and the rising of the oceans. For that reason, Nauru has joined 44 other small countries like Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) who fight together to ensure the survival of their threatened nations. The Maldives are on the forefront of the battle, hoping to put pressure on the big countries to halt the already ongoing global warming process which is already harming many in small islands around the globe.

Today, “seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation.”

All in all, Nauru has become “case study for environmentalists and anthropologists in how easy it is to destroy a tropical ecosystem and crush a native culture.”

Finding Something Else To Do

The phosphate age is over and Nauru has needed to find new sources of revenue, which it has found by working with Australia. “Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the nation introduced the now-infamous Pacific Solution, a policy of diverting asylum seekers to detention centers on nearby Pacific islands.”

As a result, Nauru has become a refugee camp for all those got caught while trying to reach Australia by the seas. Since 2001, the Nauru Regional Processing Center has been hosting around 650 refugees at a time in unsanitary barracks. “In addition to the unnecessary and excessive processing period for asylum seekers, the camp has been singled out as substandard and inhumane by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” which corroborates with the numerous cases of violence and rape which have become public.

Although it does not come close to the revenues once generated by phosphate, supporting ‘Solution Pacific’ is what Nauru has found to get some revenues. Who knows what will happen when the UNHCR will finally act and close those camps and Australia addresses their refugee crisis…

More about Nauru

I recently finished reading a novel taking place in Nauru titled “J’ai entraîné mon peuple dans cette aventure” (I led my people in this adventure) by Aymeric Patricot. Based on the history of the island, the story shows through the eyes of the main character how he experienced the changes the island was confronted to, how the local life evolved and how the local authorities, Australian than Nauruans exploited the phosphate and led the country to its loss. Although romanticized, the book appears to give a clear image of what happened in Nauru and how the local population who were eager to have access to more led their country to their doom.


France's Forgotten Territories, Uncategorized

France’s forgotten territories: Clipperton & Floréana

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. The topic of the conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets. Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.

This week, we will explore two islands located in the Pacific: Clipperton and Floréana. The first case is more of a classic one as it is claimed by France. The second one is a little bit quirkier as it official belongs to Ecuador, even if a French village claims their sovereignty over the island.


Clipperton, lost in the Pacific Ocean

Clipperton, lost in the Pacific Ocean – Source: Marine Nationale

Located 1,300km off the coast of Mexico and 6,000 km away from Tahiti, from which it is administered, the atoll of Clipperton is the most isolated territory in the world. Clipperton spread over 6km² of land, in the middle of which a lagoon has formed. Clipperton gives France an exclusive economic zone of 425220 km² (more than that of metropolitan France), an important number considering the size of the territory, as well as in light of the local wildlife. The waters around Clipperton have been deemed rich in fish, and especially in tuna, which has allowed France to join the Inter American Tropical Tuna Commission (I.A.T.T.C.). An automatic meteorological station has been in place there since 1980.

Previously called Ile de la Passion, or Passion Island, the islet was allegedly discovered by Magellan at the beginning of the 18th century. France, however, did not claim ownership before 1859. The name of Clipperton comes from the name of the British pirate Clippington, better known as Clipperton, who was left on the island by the privateer William Dampier in 1704. The islet was the object of a territorial dispute between the United States and Mexico as both wanted to exploit the guano the seabirds left there. Guano was of particular importance for the farming industry as it was used as a fertilizer. In 1897, despite being a French possession, the Mexicans set a settlement on Clipperton. In order to settle the dispute, the responsibility to decide was given by the International Court to Italy. In 1931, amidst the rise of Mussolini in Italy, the king Vittorio Emanuele III awarded the possession to France, in an effort to make a gesture and bring the two countries closer together as the Second World War was preparing.  Clipperton was then used as a military base for the US Navy during World War Two.

Due to its geographic isolation, France has been unable to keep a close eye on the islet. Illegal and unregulated fishing has thus always been practiced, especially by Mexican fishermen. Today, France sends a military mission there every year in order to renew France’s sovereignty over Clipperton. This sovereignty is, however, not consecrated in the French constitution.

There have been many projects to set a scientific base, just like in the TAAF on Clipperton, in an effort to observe and study the local wildlife, as well as to assess the impact of pollution on this isolated island. As explained in the video below, the islet has been strongly impacted by maritime pollution, and Clipperton continues to be invaded by plastic wastes brought by the waves.


Named after the first president of Ecuador, Juan José Flores, the island of Floréana is located off the coast of Ecuador, in the archipelago of the Galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1844, under Louis Philippe, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, François Guizot received a letter from a rich Frenchman offering the French government to acquire parts of the Galapagos islands as Flores wished to get rid of them in return for some money of which he was in dire need. This Frenchman, Léon Uthurburu, foresaw the strategic importance of those islands if a canal were to be built to cut through central America. The interest would be great for France as a canal would enable the Antilles and Tahiti to be connected much easier. The French government refused as the digging of what would become the Panama Canal was, at the time, unimaginable for them. Léon Uthurburu still acquired one of the island of the Galapagos, Floréana, for his own account. Single and childless, he left all his possessions to the village he came from, Barcus, in the French Basque country. Since then, the village has claimed ownership of the island, even though France recognized in 1887 that Ecuador was the true owner of Floréana. It must be noted that France timidly tried to support Barcus’s claim as soon as the Panama Canal was dug, without success.

Floréana is a volcanic island, uninhabited by humans but full of giant turtles and iguanas.

This is the last article of the series. France possesses more territories around the world, but those I have mentioned are the most important. I could have mentioned the various churches France owns in Rome, or the cave in Jerusalem, and many more. But for now, that is it.

With this world tour, we have travelled around the globe and explored France’s grandeur. France is much more than the metropole and goes far beyond Europe. Indeed, France is not a European power, but a world power as there are more French land and water outside of European than in. France remains an international power.


Decolonization, History and Culture

France’s forgotten territories: Ile des Faisans and Ile Julia

Bruno Fulgini at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Bruno Fuligni at the ANAJ IHEDN conference in Paris on 29.10.15

Yesterday evening I attended a conference in Paris, in the prestigious Ecole Militaire. On top of taking place in an amazing location (you get a close up view onto the Eiffel Tower from there), this is also an important location for whoever is interested by questions of defence. A special organisation was created to address those questions. For the ANAJ IHEDN, defence means more than what you would first assume. Defence is cultural, intellectual, military and so much more.

The topic of yesterday’s conference was the French forgotten territories, those pieces of land scattered around the globe which few people know about. On this blog, I have previously talked about Mayotte and some former French colonies such as Madagascar, but I have not yet touched upon the inhabited territories that France possesses. Based on his book “tour du monde des terres françaises oubliées”, Bruno Fuligni presented the enclaves, islands, rocks, houses and memorials which continue to make France an empire on which the sun never sets.

Many believe that France is now a small country, as it is only a fraction of what it used to be. This is, however, only partly true. France may have lost its African, American and Asian possessions to decolonization, but some corners of the world were spared by this process.

In this article, I will not refer to the DROM and COM, the inhabited overseas territories that everybody knows about – Martinique, Guadeloupe, Wallis et Futuna, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, Mayotte, French Guyana, etc. In this article I will only touch upon some of the examples which were discussed yesterday as the list of those French forgotten territories is long. I will start with the French possessions which are located in Europe. On top of the French enclaves in Germany, which I will not discussed as they are inhabited and not so uncommon, many islands, rocks, archipelago, houses, enclaves, etc. still belong to France; in my opinion, those places are worth knowing about.

The pheasants

Ile des Faisans

Ile des Faisans

In the south-west of France, a river called Bidassoa marks the border with Spain. In the middle of this river, the tiny “ile des Faisans” (3000 m2) is a historical curiosity and landmark. Most people believe that this island was named after the birds when it is actually referring to the use of this piece of land, which the nickname of the island, “the island of the Conference” gives us a hint. Indeed, the island has been widely used for diplomatic purposes. “Faisans” is in fact a reference to the “doers” or the diplomats and not to the birds. The island was indeed used several times to settle dispute between France and Spain. It was on the Bidassoa that Francois I was returned to France in exchange for his sons. It was also there that, in 1659, the marriage of Louis XIV and Marie Therese of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain was settled, as agreed in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Since the treaty, the island is a French and Spanish condominium, meaning that, although the island is not inhabited, the police administering the territory changes every six months. Next February, France will then have to pass on the keys to Spain until next August. Although fastidious, this system has avoided many confrontations between the two neighbour countries which have used this island as a safe haven to decide on the destiny of the two nations. Only diplomats could have imagined this administrative arrangement..


A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

A volcanic eruption created Ile Julia (or Fernandea)

The other example which is worth mentioning is actually quite a funny story as France is the owner of a ghost island in the Mediterranean, between Sicily and Malta.  Ile Julia (or Ferdinandea for the Italians and Graham for the Brits) is particularly worth dwelling on as it no longer exists but might reappear. In 1831 an island appeared as a result of a submarine volcano eruption. The Italians rushed to claim ownership by throwing a row on this hot piece of land. The row burned, thus destroying the Italian sovereignty. The Brits then sent the navy, but the ship was too big to get close enough to put a flag. The French then sent a scientific mission to conquer the land and study the mysterious island. A few months later, the French government sent another mission to reinforce their settlement. The island was, however, no longer there. Turns out the island was only made of volcanic dust which had been washed away by the waves. So technically, France is the owner of a ghost island.

Maybe, someday, Julia Island will reappear. And due to its key strategic location, and despite France’s official sovereignty rights on Julia,  there might be some opposition to France’s sovereignty claim. When the island reappears, it will be crucial to reassert the claim against the competitors… it must be remembered that the competition will be tough, especially considering that Italy placed a waterproof flag on the volcano after Mr. Fuligni joked in one of his article that France should do it….

There are many more examples I need to tell you about; they all have their own stories and their own quirks.

Next time, read about the special and tiny places France owns across the globe and which report to its national history, and more precisely to some very important figures.



Ceuta And Melilla: Another entry door into Europe

The migration wave coming from Africa and reaching Europe makes the headlines everyday. This migration patterns shows the failure of the West’s deployment in Northern Africa. The resurgence of crises in Congo, Mali, Burundi and so forth also reinforce the idea that we still live in a divided world. And those who suffer are not to come to Europe because they do not belong. And what better way to mark this divide that with a wall? There are many examples of such infrastructures which try to keep migrants away from a better life; walls mark the border between Mexico and the US, between North and South Korea, Jerusalem and the West Bank, India and Bangladesh, in Cyprus, etc.

But did you know that a wall prevented Africans from accessing two cities located on the continent? What I am referring to here are the Spanish exclaves located on the opposite side of the Mediterranean of the mainland. These cities are called Ceuta and Melilla and are situated on the Moroccan coast. Ceuta is right on the other side of the Gibraltar strait, while Melilla is further East.Ceuta and Melilla

Morocco vs. Spain

Technically speaking, the two cities are on African soil, but belong to Spain. The local currency is euro. Melilla is a semi-autonomous city, governed by a mayor-president. For that reason, it is part of the EU. And because those two cities are EU outposts outside of Europe, they offer the safest alternatives to reaching the Old Continent for migrants coming from all over Africa (mainly sub-saharian). Every year, thousands of migrants risk their lives in the hope of crossing the walls which separate the European enclaves from Morocco.

Most surprisingly, Morocco is adding difficulties to the migrants’ quest. It is eyebrow-raising because Morocco does not recognize Spain’s sovereignty over these two cities for the reason that they are in Morocco and thus historically belong to them. Spain, on the other hand, claims that Spanish presence dates back to before Morocco became a sovereign and nation-state, thus invoking the historical precedent rather than geographical considerations. In this case, and like in many other when in comes to overseas territories, organizing a referendum to consult the local populations would be pointless. Take the case of Mayotte which was previously discussed in an article: who would choose to be attached to the Comoros when you can remain French? The two options do not offer the same opportunities. For that reason, self-determination is not invoked by Morocco. In this case, territorial integrity is, just like Spain does against the UK for Gibraltar.

The great walls 

Going back to those walls, Ceuta is surrounded by 20km of wires while Melilla is separated by 3 layers of fences over 10 km. Guarded 24/7, those borders can be deadly for whoever tries to overpass them. They, however, do not defeat everybody, and hundred of migrants still manage to make it to Spain (4 354 in 2013). If not immediately caught by the Guardia Civil or the Moroccan police, they can no longer be ‘pushed back’ to Morocco, as stated under European law. If sent back to Morocco, migrants are often in bad shape and still undesired illegal immigrants in Morocco.

Walls were not walls before the 1990s when they were reinforced. Before then, Spanish exclaves and Morocco were difficult to delineate, and inhabitants from both communities walk freely across borders.The wall of Melilla

The Spanish-Moroccan borders are also the object of other types of trafficking, from both times this time. The Spanish enclaves are actually exempt of taxes, thus making good much cheaper than in mainland Europe, and mostly accessible for the Moroccans. The latter thus buy European foods and items from the harbour area at the border between the two countries, and sell them on the Moroccan side. Local authorities have attempted to put an end to this trade by banning vehicles from entering the warehouses, turning the merchants into ‘human mules’ as some carry up to 100kg in duty free goods.

Another problem of these exclaves are the Moroccan shanty towns. In Ceuta specifically, the shanty town “Principe Alfonso” is a no-go zone, and is considered as Spain’s most dangerous area. There, Spanish authorities have no rights. Illegal trafficking and terror do. There is no future for the local inhabitants. They are not Spaniards and they do not live in Morocco. They are nothing. The neighbourhood is also recognized as a jihadist recruitment center.

What now?

Problems seem to pile up in the two exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Illegal immigration, violence, human rights abuse, sovereignty dispute, poverty, despair… Nothing is changing other than the reinforcement of the borders to keep Spain out of reach of the migrants.

The best way to address the issue is to understand that Africa is in a dire situation, and that, even though Europe is not the paradise, it is still better than most countries from which migrants leave. Yes, migrants are illegal, but no, this does not justify that violence.