Cash-Burning Activist Sets West Africa's Social Media on Fire

Updated on
  • Debate around CFA franc, pegged to euro, flares up in region
  • Thousands of people call for demise of African currency

Kemi Seba in 2008.

Photographer: Thomas SAMSON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A West African activist who burned a bank note to demonstrate his hatred of the regional CFA franc has reignited a decades-old debate and prompted thousands of supporters in former French colonies to turn to social media and demand that the currency be scrapped.

The French-Beninese national, Kemi Seba, appeared in court in Senegal in connection with a video that showed him setting a bank note of 5,000 CFA francs ($9) alight. He was arrested on Aug. 25 after the Central Bank of West African States lodged a complaint for destruction of money.

Seba told the court on Tuesday his act had been symbolic. “I burnt the note to raise public awareness and not as lack of respect to anybody,” he said, before being acquitted.

Seba says on his Facebook page that French-speaking nations in West and Central Africa should mint their own currencies to free themselves from economic bondage imposed by the former colonial ruler. The CFA franc, which is pegged to the euro and backed by reserves held in France, was established after World War II to help France import goods from its colonies.

Seba’s call for the end of the franc has sparked a rare outpouring of support from people across the region that demonstrates the reach of social media activism in West and Central Africa. More than 5,400 people from Ivory Coast to Chad liked a call for protest posted on Seba’s Facebook page late Monday, with hundreds of commenters accusing France of keeping the 14-member CFA franc zone in “economic slavery.”

Read more on the CFA franc here

Frying Pan

On Twitter, the responses range from pictures of CFA notes in a frying pan to calls for the demise of the African elite that supports ties with France. The hashtag #liberezkemiseba -- “free Kemi Seba” in English -- has gathered hundreds of tweets. The Facebook page titled “We no longer want the CFA franc” has 50,246 followers and posts that begin with the question: “The CFA franc -- monetary Nazism?”

The debate about the CFA franc has flared since the countries obtained independence from France in the 1960s, but usually centers around the euro peg, which helped the currency avoid the volatility seen in most of its African peers. Some economists argue that the franc is artificially strong and hurts competitiveness.

Not everyone supports Seba, who previously led a movement in France that was dissolved by the government because it encouraged discrimination against people who weren’t black. He was also found guilty by a Paris tribunal in 2009 of incitement to racial hatred. Some critics say it’s an insult to poor people to burn money, especially a 5,000-franc note, which could pay for five meals.

“In order to burn money, you need to have it,” one commenter said on his Facebook page. “Why don’t you burn your French passport instead?”’

— With assistance by Malick Ciss

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