A graduate of France’s Saint-Cyr Military Academy [École militaire de Saint-Cyr], Army Staff College [École d’état-major de l’Armée de terre], and Joint Defense College [Collège interarmées de défense], Colonel Xavier Collignon served as the French representative to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) from 2008 to 2011. A naval officer whose vast knowledge of the African continent was gleaned over his entire career from operational missions and relationships with African military leaders, Colonel Collignon has agreed to answer a few questions on the eve of his departure from ACSS, as he prepares for a new assignment.
What benefit does the United States derive from having a French representative to the ACSS?
First, it is important to emphasize that French representation is not a matter of mere formality. Rather, this arrangement represents a kind of partnership among the United States, France, the European Union, and Africa (the latter being the major beneficiary). In my capacity as a French officer, I act as a liaison between France, the European Union, and the United States, most notably in the coordination of efforts to enhance the efficiency of the various undertakings. The French experience in Africa, which I strive to embody with all due modesty, is an asset that, of course, allows the United States to better grasp the problems afflicting Francophone Africa, but also the rest of the continent, which often faces similar circumstances. The need to recognize specific cultural factors applies throughout Africa. Finally, we at ACSS are convinced that the greater the cooperation among the States, NGOs, and the international institutions that work with Africa, the more effective and sustainable the outcomes. Indeed, this is one of the main recommendations offered by the African participants in our programs.
What especially stood out for you during your time at ACSS?
Generally speaking, the effectiveness of the American system. When the American government decides to do something, it allocates all possible resources (diplomatic, academic, military, etc.) to that end. All of those resources are combined and channeled toward the same objective, significantly increasing the chances of success.
As regards ACSS, what stands out most is its proactive approach toward Africa and its other partners, its permanent willingness to be open to others. Fundamentally, ACSS remains “outward looking,” which is the key to its success. For example, the sustained dialogue between ACSS and its member communities enables it to determine, in almost real-time, the concerns of African countries. Such interaction also gives it a good understanding of the economic, political, military, and humanitarian states of affairs in Africa.
What will you take away from your tenure at ACSS?
Above all, the excellent professional opportunity it afforded me. For three years, I was able to enrich my knowledge of the United States and the way its institutions function, to understand its relations with Africa, and to take part in strengthening cooperation among the United States, France, and the European Union. In addition, I widened my circle of friends in Africa and the United States, which was for me an invaluable benefit.
As you leave your position, do you have any personal anecdotes to share?
Yes, I have two. The first occurred in 2009 during an ACSS Next Generation of African Military Leaders course. I was leading a working group comprising officers from throughout Africa. I saw how the vibrancy and candor of the discussions gradually led to a collective symbiosis within the group, which might have seemed somewhat mismatched at the start. The four weeks we spent together enabled me to forge and maintain a true relationship with the participants. In addition, these participants also expressed themselves with great frankness and built strong relationships with each other.
The second story that comes to mind took place in Africa during the visit of an ACSS delegation to a member community. We had extended an invitation to civilians, military personnel, and members of civil society to sit at the same table. During the meeting, one trade union official remarked that this was the first time that he had spoken peacefully with a police officer, seated at a table. In general, he said, such interactions usually took place in the street and involved insults and baton blows. This story illustrates one of the outstanding merits of the ACSS – the ability to bring civilians, military personnel, and other key players to the same table for discussion.
What is your next stop after ACSS?
I will be working at the Strategic Affairs Office of the French Ministry of Defense. I will be the assistant to the Deputy Director of Regional Affairs in charge of Africa. Quite obviously, the experience I gained at ACSS will be of tremendous benefit to me.
Do you have a particular piece of advice to give to your replacement?
Just a few words: Keep your eyes open, listen, learn, and participate.