Anyone trying to judge the events of the present in the light of the mistakes of the past might be surprised that the French had decided to convene this African conference.
"Wait !" the falsely cautious voices of the past might have warned us. "The war is not yet won. No one knows what peace will bring tomorrow. France, alas ! has more urgent preoccupations than the future of her overseas territories."
But it seemed to the government that nothing would be less justified than this delay and nothing more imprudent than this prudence. Far from making delays desirable, the present cruel and complicated situation demands a spirit of enterprise. This is true in all spheres, but particularly so in the case of the things the Conference of Brazzaville will be discussing. Without wishing to exaggerate the urgency of our reasons for wanting to study the whole problem of French Africa, we feel that the tremendous events which are shaking the world oblige us not to put things off ; the terrible trial of the temporary occupation of metropolitan France by the enemy does not absolve France at war of her powers or her rights ; finally, the present assembly of all our African possessions gives us an excellent opportunity of calling a meeting, under the guidance of the Commissioner for the Colonies. You will work together, exchange ideas and experiences with the men who have the honour and the duty of governing, in France's name, these African territories. Where should such a meeting be held if not in Brazzaville ? During some terrible years, it was the refuge of our honour and our independence and which serves as an example of the most praiseworthy French effort.
For half a century, with a civilizing zeal which was already several hundred years old, under the inspiration of Republican Governments and the direction of men like Gallieni, Brazza, Dodds, Joffre, Binger, Marchand, Gentil, Foureau, Lamy, Borgnis-Desbordes, Archinard, Lyautey, Gouraud, Mangin and Largeau, Frenchmen have penetrated, pacified, and opened up to the world a large part of black Africa, which its size, the rigours of its climate, the strength of its national obstacles and the poverty and diversity of its population had made hard and impenetrable since the dawn of destiny.
What we have done to develop the riches of the country and for the well-being of the population in this forward march can be seen by all who visit the country and who want to see. But like a stone on a slope, which rolls faster all the time, the work we undertook extends its scope. When the present world war began it was already obvious that we must put the development of Africa, the human progress of its inhabitants and the exercise of French sovereignty on a new footing.
As is always the case, the war itself is precipitating this evolution. In the first place, until today a large part of the war has been fought in Africa and the absolute and relative importance of the resources, lines of communication and the troops from Africa has been apparent in the harsh light of the theatres of operations. Secondly and more important, this war is about nothing more or less than the conditions of life of mankind and the psychological forces which have been released everywhere make every individual raise his head, look around him and question his destiny.
If any imperial power is to learn these lessons and choose a noble,liberal road for the future, that power is France. She means to lead the 6o million men who are associated with her 42 million down that road.
First and foremost because she is France, that is to say a nation whose immortal talent is designed for innovations which, little by little, lift men to the summit of dignity and brotherly love where, one day, all will meet. Next because in the chaos into which a temporary defeat had thrown her, the populations of all her overseas territories in all parts of the world remained faithful and enabled her to find bases from which to plan the liberation. This is an unbreakable tie between France and her Empire. Finally because, learning from her defeat, France is animated by a zeal and wish for regeneration both for herself and for her dependencies.
But France does not want to pursue her overseas aims by enclosing her territories behind isolationist barriers which would separate them from the world and from the rest of Africa. Certainly not ! The proof is that in this war, Equatorial Africa and the Cameroons, co-operated closely with the neighbouring territories ; the Belgian Congo, Nigeria and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. At present the whole French Empire, with the temporary exception of Indo-China, is making an important contribution to the Allies common effort : by its strategic position, its lines of communication, its production and its air bases not to mention its military units. We do not believe that autarky will be desirable or even possible in the world of tomorrow. We believe that the African Continent should be treated as a whole so far as the development of resources and communications are concerned, but in French Africa, as in all the other countries where men live under our flag, no progress will be possible if the men and women on their native soil do not benefit materially and spiritually and if they are not able to raise themselves to the point where they are capable of taking a hand in the running of their countries. It is France's duty to see that this comes about.
This is our aim. We know that it is a long-term programme. Governor Generals and Governors, your feet are firmly enough set on the soil of Africa for you not to lose sight of what is realizable and therefore practical. When the moment comes it is for the French nation and for her alone, to proceed with the major structural reforms on which she will decide. But in the meantime we must start planning for the future today.
You will study the spiritual, social, political, economic and other problems in each territory with a view to advising the Government on how they can be solved and so that the development and the progress of the populations concerned enables them to integrate with the French community without losing their personality, their interests, their aspirations or their future.
Gentlemen, I declare the African Conference at Brazzaville to be open.