In the transformative era following Africa’s hard-fought independence from French rule, a collective endeavor took flight as some newly liberated states joined forces to birth their own airborne symbol – Air Afrique.
The narrative of Air Afrique unfolds as a powerful emblem of hope and determination, mirroring the fervent aspirations of postcolonial Africa as it broke free from the shackles of colonialism.
According to jacobin.com, as the 1950s ticked into the 1960s, citizens of the French African colonies could see the first light of a new day. Efforts to throw off their colonial shackles had intensified after the trauma of World War II, when more than three hundred thousand Arabs and Africans fought for France, and tens of thousands were killed.
Following its liberation from the Nazis, France established the Fourth Republic, but quickly found it could not simply reimpose its authority across the empire. The Indochina War saw the French army defeated in the field by anti-colonialist forces — something that had previously been unimaginable.
The bloody Algerian War of Independence led to the May 1958 crisis back home. With the French army threatening a dramatic coup d’état by potentially dropping paratroopers into Paris, the Fourth Republic fell, and Charles de Gaulle was ushered back into power after a twelve-year absence.
Nobody would describe de Gaulle as an anti-colonialist, but the pragmatist within him recognized that the old order of empire was dying. In 1958, a referendum was put to the African colonies — should they stick with France and the watered-down vision of empire known as the French Community, or twist as nations severed from their former colonial rulers?
Holding Back the Sea
Every country voted to stay, with the exception of one. Led by avowed revolutionary socialist Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea — sometimes referred to as Guinea-Conakry after its capital Conakry, to distinguish it from Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea — rejected the French Community and declared independence just days after the referendum.
Though only one nation had broken ranks, the inevitable had been set in motion. “To try to stand in the way of the independence wave by 1959,” explains Tony Chafer, emeritus professor of African and French studies at the University of Portsmouth, “was a bit like King Canute trying to hold back the sea.” And so, in 1960, seventeen African nations declared independence, thirteen of them breaking from France, and the continent was recast forevermore.
With their liberation still fresh, eleven ex-French colonies in West and Central Africa came together to create a flagship enterprise of sovereignty and unity. Pooling their limited resources, these countries — Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Senegal, Mauritania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, the Congo Republic, Central African Republic, Chad, and Gabon — created a multiflag airline to connect their cities and express their pan-African solidarity. On June 26, 1961, Air Afrique came into existence. Togo, Mali, and Sierra Leone would join the project in later years.
“There was a need for these counties to be able to connect not only between themselves, but other parts of the world,” says Kofi Sonokpon, managing editor of Airline Profits magazine and former member of Air Afrique’s technical staff:
The founding countries shared 66 percent of the holding. Reflecting the lack of resources and expertise on the part of these nascent nations, they made a deal with French airlines Air France and Union Aéromaritime de Transport to take a 17 percent share each.
This partnership helped Air Afrique get off the ground quickly — service began in August 1961 with twelve Douglas DC-4s, reliable aircrafts designed in the 1940s, which had been borrowed from the French. Abidjan in the Ivory Coast served as Air Afrique’s base of operations; an antelope was chosen as its emblem.
Demand dictated that the airline’s reach grew quickly. Flights to Paris, albeit with a few stops, began in October 1961, and the fleet was soon upgraded with two Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-8s. In June 1962, Air Afrique joined the International Air Transport Association, an industry body dedicated to enforcing standards.
In October of the same year, it reached a commercial agreement with the East German airline Deutsche Lufthansa. The mid-1960s saw services extend to cities such as Geneva and New York with the collaboration of Pan Am. Two of Air Afrique’s richer members, Cameroon and Gabon, would depart to create their own airlines in the 1970s, but the company remained committed to its founding ethos.
The desire for an inter-African airline wasn’t gratuitous. Such initiatives were necessary as France had left behind infrastructure that was built for the primary purpose of plundering Africa’s natural resources and delivering them to Europe. Much like the phone system, which would see calls from one ex-African colony to another go through switchboards in Paris, air travel in the continent was circuitous. The colonial economy was extractive, exploitative, and not designed for the benefit of Africa.
“You only had to look at a map of Africa to see where the railroads were built, or to see where the roads were built,” adds Chafer: “They were built not to link territories to each other, but to link the interior to the ports, so that the coffee, the cocoa, the tea, the tobacco, the cotton, could be [transported] from the interior to the ports, where it then could be exported away to Europe.”
“There were other options to connect different capital cities from Africa with Europe or America or Asia, but intra-routes were not really available, so Air Afrique was really filling that gap, connecting different capital cities within Africa,” says Sonokpon. “People did like the fact that it was easier to go from Point A to Point B within the member states.”
An Element of Pride
Air Afrique became the region’s largest and most reputable carrier, and it did so while displaying its Africanness as a point of pride. The distinctive green stripe that decorated each aircraft stood out on the tarmac of any airport.
And has an airline ever had better art direction? Decades later, travelers still recall the chic advertising posters that would have fit in at any stage of America’s “Black is beautiful” cultural movement. Such was their impact that an unaffiliated Afro-diasporic arts and culture magazine bearing the name and influence of Air Afrique was recently launched. Its founders even secured the rights to the archive of the airline’s former in-flight publication, Balafon, to incorporate into the new publication.
By the early 1980s, Africans held all the top administrative posts. This policy of Africanizaton would later be criticized as denying Air Afrique crucial industry expertise, but it was part of a broader postindependence movement to remove Europeans from influential positions. Piece by piece, Air Afrique was developed as a firm guided by Africans, for Africans.
“Most of our clientele were African when I was there. I think it was an element of pride for them,” says Souleymane Sy Savané. Prior to moving to the United States and starring in movies such as Goodbye Solo and Machine Gun Preacher, the Ivorian worked as an air steward for Air Afrique from 1995 to 2000. “It was a pretty sought-after position, a pretty prestigious company,” he says of landing the job. “We were being paid very well.”
Air Afrique’s pro-African ethos extended to giving opportunities to people from the member states for whom jobs in aviation would otherwise have been out of reach. Born in Togo, Sonokpon joined the company in the mid-1990s through a college graduate program. He spent two years learning about avionics and mechanics before continuing his education in Canada, where he still lives today.
Air Afrique also cultivated a reputation as the safest airline servicing Africa. In a 1995 report on the tragic Cameroon Airlines crash that claimed the lives of seventy-one of the seventy-six people on board, the New York Times underlined “the perils of flying in what many consider the world’s worst-served region for air travel” through the story of one of the victims, German journalist Wolfgang Schmidt, who despite his own concerns chose the convenience of a direct flight over a longer journey with Air Afrique.
Sy Savane describes the intensity of the swimming-pool training he underwent as a member of the cabin crew:
Even as a flight attendant, we had some requirements. We had to swim for a certain length of time. I remember we had to get this eighty-kilogram mannequin, grab him in one hand, and swim while keeping his head above the water. Basically grabbing somebody and swimming backward. These were stuff we had to do. There were tests, and if you failed, they kicked you out. They were not playing with that. They used to tell us very clearly, our first thing was security and service was second. I think there was an emphasis on that.
The service on board Air Afrique, too, was generally deemed superior. “Once on board, Air Afrique was usually very comfortable — the hostesses were impeccably elegant, from their swept back hair to their manicured fingernails,” wrote BBC’s Africa analyst Elizabeth Brunt, who went on to describe meals coming with “a choice of a French or African main course, red or white wine, and crisp bread rolls.”
The way Sy Savané sees it, the airline set itself apart by absorbing the personality of the region, recalling the “laid back” vibe of the flights:
There’s an open bar where [passengers] can come and drink as much as they want. Everyone’s chatting, they’d come and they’d chat, the whole flight is like [being] in your neighborhood, people walking [around] the plane, it was just like that. So, I think they really enjoyed that versus flying Air France, where they had to sit a little stiff, being a bit more aware. They can’t let loose like that.
Despite its eagerness to ensure it served African people in a distinctly African way, Air Afrique never severed ties with France. The former colonizers continued to shoulder some responsibility for the company. In this regard, Air Afrique is a model of how the French maintained an interest in postindependence African states. Andrew W. M. Smith, a historian of modern France at Queen Mary University of London, uses the term “neocolonialism” to describe France’s attempts to exert influence on its former colonies:
You get a lot of this idea about technical advisers from France being positioned in West African states, either in military institutions or in key infrastructures, like power and water and these kinds of things. It’s about this idea of lingering economic and political influence. We often see France on the ground responding to coups, responding to natural disasters, things like droughts and so on. It’s about this idea of cultivating influence alongside attempts to cultivate dependency. This is something that’s often been viewed in a negative light by fiercely anti-French movements.
France’s instinct to interfere intensified as the management of Air Afrique began to show cracks. By the 1980s, the airline’s prestige was being eroded by corruption and nepotism. Sins included government officials using their clout to nab free tickets, and business-class seats being reserved for ministers’ girlfriends.
By the end of the decade, Yves Roland-Billecart, a French ex-banker and senior government official, was brought in to try to reverse the fortunes of the debt-ridden Air Afrique, becoming the first non-African chairman and chief executive officer of the airline. Launching a five-year rescue plan, Roland-Billecart began by sacking two thousand of the company’s five thousand employees, securing an $180 million cash injection from its backers, and arranging restriction of the traffic rights of other airlines serving the region. Air Afrique posted a net profit for 1989, and the buoyed company ordered five Airbus A310s to be delivered by 1994.
However, the situation soon deteriorated. Roland-Billecart left, and Air Afrique’s fleet was reduced following the decision to hand over its four airbuses to creditors in default of debts due. In came Sir Harry Tirvengadum, formerly of Air Mauritius, whose grand plan was to move the company toward privatization — a plan that was never carried out. Instead, in June 2001, ten transport ministers from eleven African countries with a stake in Air Afrique assembled in Abidjan to discuss the predicament. More than five hundred workers demonstrated outside the meeting to protest against proposals to either liquidate or break up the airline.
“When I was there, the company actually, over the years we had a lot of financial troubles,” says Sy Savané, “but one thing that always baffled me, our planes were always full. So I never really understood, the flights were packed 90 percent of the time, you’re telling me we’ve got trouble?”
As behind-the-scenes struggles pressed down on Air Afrique, the quality of service clearly suffered. “We never thought that the airline would be run so badly that it is easier and often cheaper to fly through Paris to another West African capital than to use Air Afrique,” an African diplomat told the Washington Post in 2001. “If I want to go from here to Niamey [Niger] or Bangui [Central African Republic], I can spend days waiting for an Air Afrique flight that might never show up, or fly through Paris. Something is very wrong.”
A Working Symbol
Air Afrique was permanently grounded in January 2002 and declared bankruptcy in February. Six planes were repossessed as part of the dissolution. For an initiative once considered a proud symbol of African unity, it was a sad end that marked the end of a crucial chapter in Africa’s aviation history.
Carriers across Africa moved in to replace the lost capacity. Sections of Air Afrique’s workforce joined different aviation companies and organizations within the continent; others moved to North America, Europe, and Asia, ensuring the company’s lingering influence. “The legacy they left is tremendous in terms of qualified aviation workers in different fields,” contends Sonokpon.
But the legacy of the airline stretches beyond the industry. Call it a beacon of pan-African solidarity, or a cautionary tale of how corrupted power can take down egalitarian endeavors, or both. Whatever the case, today, the kernel idea of Air Afrique, and the iconography it created, still inspires. “For me,” says Sy Savane with a sense of regret, “it was a working symbol of what African countries could do.”