There are 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in which French is an official language. Of the 16 countries in West Africa, 9 are considered to be francophone – Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.
The French colonial system was a “very centralized, unified and bureaucratic system whose aim was the assimilation of native people [mission civilisatrice] and whose method was direct rule” (Dimier, 2004, p. 279 as cited in Wolf, 2008, p. 557). In addition to the various French administrators, support for French colonial rule was also provided by traditional African rulers (e.g. local chiefs) who “became agents for the transmission of French commands to their African subjects and in time became Western-educated subordinates” (Clark & Gardinier, 1997, p. 10).
A key tool in the French mission civilisatrice was the use and promotion of the French language, especially in education. Georges Hardy, a French colonial inspector of public instruction in Western French Africa in the early 1900s, defined school as
A means to transform the primitive people [of West Africa]…in order to render them devoted to our cause and to our mission, in order that they, over a period of years, succumb to our intellectual and moral ways; in a word, the school will form his spirit and mind in accordance to our intention (as cited and translated in Locraft, 2005, p. 13).
Following this definition, French was the official language of instruction at all levels of education.
Today most of these countries continue to use French as an official language in administration and education, despite the fact that it is only spoken by an estimated 79 million people in all of Sub-Saharan Africa (out of a total population of over 900 million) (Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie; World Bank). Trudell (2012) attributes this lack of change, at least in part, to the French state, which has an “ongoing influence of…political and financial investment in francophone Africa” (p. 374). She also identifies the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), which seeks to “strengthen and enhance the teaching and use of the French language in the world as well as in the diplomatic and international life where the role of French is contested” (translation mine, http://www.francophonie.org/-Langue-francaise-et-multilinguisme-.html)
In describing the effects of French-only education policy, Alidou (2003) writes:
The average rate of drop-out in primary schools of French-speaking countries is nearly 25 percent according to most World Bank and UNESCO annual reports. In Francophone Africa, the majority of primary school students experience exclusion in the classroom. Owing to a lack of proficiency in French, they are silenced and spend most of their time listening to the teacher and the very few students who can speak French (p. 107).
In this way, language policies serve to further exacerbate existing socio-economic divisions and hierarchies. Some countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali, have developed experimental bilingual programs with relatively positive results. These minor successes, however, have not translated to more widespread policies and practices, and French continues to be the primary medium of instruction in schools.