Swept up in the global “Third Wave” of democratization, five of the six Sahelian countries held historic multiparty presidential elections over a fifteen-month period between late 1991 and early 1993. Chad was to follow three years later. The three subsequent decades have been ones of continuous experimentation, often marked by recurrent attempts by ruling parties to manipulate institutions to their benefit in the name of “democratic reform,” and by resulting counter-pressures from opposition and civil society groups mobilized under the banner of defending democratic achievements. A public commitment to democracy has persisted throughout, and virtually all political action—no matter how self-serving—is justified in its name. Understood broadly in these terms, what we might call “the politics of democratization” remain the hallmark of political struggle in the region.
If we measure progress in this struggle by the apparent democracy of any given government, the outcomes are clearly very mixed. At one end of the spectrum sits Chad, where Idriss Déby has been in power for over 30 years and, following another constitutional change in 2018, where he could legally continue until 2033. At the other end we find Senegal, where twice (in 2002 and 2012) incumbent presidents lost bids for re-election and quickly conceded defeat. But beyond the measures of the level of democracy achieved in specific cases at any given point, three decades of electoral processes have most importantly also had cumulative effects on state-building processes in the Sahel. Beneath the surface, the ongoing politics of democratization have had very uneven results where it matters most: in the building of institutions and in establishing their legitimacy. By those criteria the results are equally varied—yet also quite different. But that is in fact where substantive democratic progress in the longer-run must be measured.
A decade ago we might have un-controversially characterized the outcomes of democratization efforts in the region as having produced three regime types that seemed likely to persist: two democracies (Senegal and Mali), two electoral authoritarian regimes (Burkina Faso and Chad), and two regimes defined by unstable efforts at democratization (Mauritania and Niger). Yet the pressures of the security crisis that swept the region following the fall of Qaddafi in Libya and the collapse of Mali quickly showed that classifying regimes by seeming similarities in democratic outcomes often obfuscates more than it reveals. The underlying resilience of institutions has been profoundly tested by the Sahelian crisis since 2012, and more deep-rooted political realities have been exposed in the process.
Most significantly, considering our paired regime types above, just weeks after Senegal defied the pessimistic prognoses of many when President Abdoulaye Wade quickly recognized his defeat in the second round of the 2012 presidential elections, Mali’s “model democracy” collapsed. Wade’s concession confirmed Senegal as an unqualified democracy, sustained by a strong institutional architecture. In Mali, and with the advantage of hindsight, it is clear that despite a show of democratic trappings over two decades, the specific nature of political dynamics had left institutions weak and with little legitimacy.
With the plausible exception of the founding elections of 1992, Mali never held robust or widely-accepted elections. Despite constant talk of “reform”, the electoral system remained underdeveloped and poorly institutionalized; the system was highly contested even on the eve of what would have been crucial elections for a third democratic president. More broadly, and consequently, the institutions of Malian democracy and the elite that populated them had little popular legitimacy, and this despite the fact that they were much praised by the “international community,” that is by the West.
These two facts are not coincidental; indeed, they are directly related. The West’s enchantment with Mali was based on a series of characteristics—a commitment to secularization, to extensive decentralization, and to civil society movements supporting social reform processes—about which Malians themselves were much less enthusiastic. The straw man of Malian democracy thus quickly went up in flames with the spark of a new Tuareg rebellion, itself spawned by Libya’s collapse. Despite a hasty return to electoral politics in the shadow of a French intervention in 2013, there has been little progress since then, and the democratic experiment was again upended with the coup of 18 August 2020. With weak institutions and little legitimacy, the prospects both for democracy and for stability in Mali are dim.
It is instructive to contrast Mali to neighboring Niger, with which it shares striking demographic, economic and cultural similarities. In a second round of elections on 21 February 2021 Niger concluded the process that will lead to the first transition of power in the country’s history from one elected president to another. This is all the more noteworthy in a country that has experienced extraordinary instability over the past three decades. From the inauguration of the Third Republic to the current Seventh Republic, the country has experienced three coups, four transitions, and five constitutions—including one adopted by extraconstitutional means in an effort to circumvent presidential term limits.
Despite fears of terrorism and significant challenges, Niger’s electoral process exhibited many of the hallmarks of a truly democratic contest. Mohamed Bazoum, candidate of the ruling party and presumptive frontrunner with close ties to current President Issoufou, publicly proclaimed his confidence during the campaign that he would win in the first round. Yet he received only 39% of the vote, and was faced with a runoff against no less than Mahamane Ousmane, the first democratically elected president of Niger in 1993. Although there were tensions about the electoral process in the lead-up to the first round, most opposition parties subsequently agreed to retake their seats in the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). The second round took place in a context of real democratic uncertainty, with the outcome far from clear as losing candidates from the first round threw their support behind one or the other of the second-round candidates. Bazoum’s victory in the second round with some 56% of the vote has been contested by some of Ousmane’s supporters, however, and demonstrations and some violence reveal the limits of public confidence in the process. Yet it also seems clear that the cumulative effects on institution-building of three decades of intense debate, struggle, conflict, and at times compromises, over electoral processes and political institutions contrast sharply with the experience of Mali. Niger’s very instability fostered political dynamics which incrementally and cumulatively have helped to build functional institutions for exercising democratic processes.
From this perspective, the effects of the politics of democratization on Mauritania’s institutional infrastructure are somewhat more difficult to discern. In contrast to Niger, there was little experimentation with institutions under Maaouya ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, the incumbent military leader who had himself elected president following the transition to a constitutional regime in 1991 and who remained until overthrown in 2005. A much-hailed democratic transition in 2007-08 proved to be short-lived, and was quickly followed by the circumscribed election of Mohamed ould Abdel Aziz, a process eagerly whitewashed as sufficiently “democratic” for the tastes of the outside world in the context of Mauritania’s key role in the “War on Terror.”
Abdel Aziz oversaw only limited institution-building, but he did agree—under pressure—to accept term limitations as he neared the end of his second mandate. His Minister of Defense, Mohamed ould Ghazouani, predictably elected to succeed him in 2019, has since broken with his erstwhile ally. Although ould Ghazouani’s motivations in turning on Abdel Aziz are unclear, they are of course touted in the name of democratic reform and the dismantling of corrupt clientelist networks. While this may represent a tentative opening, Mauritania’s path to a robust politics of democratic institution-building will be long, and is fundamentally challenged by core questions of national reconciliation and the integration of marginalized communities—Black Africans and Haratines of historic slave origin.
The Sahelian crisis has revealed equally divergent underlying effects of the politics of democratization in the paired electoral authoritarian regimes. Most strikingly, in Burkina Faso the popular uprising that ended Blaise Compaoré’s twenty-seven years in power in 2014 was followed by a negotiated transition among key actors. Despite challenges, widely-lauded elections were held within a year and a democratically elected government inaugurated. In November 2020 President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré defeated thirteen opponents to win re-election in a first round. These elections were held in a context of extraordinary security challenges, a situation which threatened to derail the process. But, strikingly, in the end most key actors supported a very pragmatic adaptation of the electoral code to do the best possible under the circumstances so that the elections could proceed. Although he long managed to hold on to power, the intense politics of contestation and institutional debates that marked Blaise Compaoré’s tenure clearly left a legacy of functional electoral processes and elite commitment to constitutional rule in Burkina Faso.
It is far from clear—and indeed highly unlikely—that anything resembling this process has taken place in Chad. On the contrary, the deepening personalization of power that has characterized Idriss Itno Déby’s rule has continued apace, abetted by his Western allies in recognition of his willingness to engage militarily in the region during the Sahelian crisis. When the day comes that Déby is no longer there, by whatever means that comes to pass, one finds it hard to imagine the possibility that Chadian institutional infrastructure could sustain a transition to mirror the experience of Burkina Faso. Chaos, alas, is more likely.
In considering the region’s one-time electoral authoritarian regimes, the Sahelian crisis since 2012 has again underlined the fact that our earlier classifications of democratic progress were based on ephemeral indicators. Within each of the pairs, we find that the politics of democratization in the decades following the transitions of the early 1990s played out in ways that supported the building and legitimating of functional electoral processes in one case, but not necessarily in the other. These processes are rooted in the specifics of the give-and-take of political struggles over institutions, and the impact on them, in each case. Considered from a longer historical durée, the state of democracy in the Sahel must be evaluated in light of the impact of the politics of democratization on the construction of functional state institutions.