Electoral Authoritarian Regimes and Civil-Military Relations in Sahelian Africa

Electoral Authoritarian Regimes and Civil-Military Relations in Sahelian Africa

Daniel Eizenga

Today, virtually all African regimes participate in the core rituals of democracy through the political institutions of multi-party elections. However, the degree of substantive political competition varies noticeably from country to country. In certain contexts democratic politics has taken root, while in others elections remain mere window dressing or theatrical performance. In many other countries, political liberalization has occurred and real democratic gains made, but serious deficiencies remain. In such contexts elections are not completely free or fair, civil liberties may be curtailed, or other factors may reduce the level of competition between political actors.

Recognizing that the implementation of multi-party elections hardly suffices to meet the ideals of democratic governance, the literature on democratization in political science has created an abundance of regime types cast somewhere between democratic and authoritarian. Yet, this body of work has, so far, failed to understand a variety of fundamental questions about these ‘electoral authoritarian’ regimes: Why in some cases does democracy seems to consolidate despite initial deficiencies in these contexts? Why are seemingly similar regimes trending in different democratic/authoritarian directions? How are elections organized in these newly understood electoral authoritarian regimes, and how do politics then manifest themselves? How do other socio-political institutions react and engage with society under electoral authoritarianism?

Addressing these and other issues my dissertation sets out to answer the following question: How do different configurations of political institutions, civil-military relations and traditional institutions attempt to manage pressures from civil society and the political opposition for greater liberalization in the contemporary political arenas of sub-Saharan Africa?
My dissertation relies on a comparative approach to examine the interaction of variables which contribute to different regime trajectories in Burkina Faso, Chad and Senegal, following their respective adoption and implementation of multi-party elections. By comparing political institutions, civil-military relations, traditional institutions, and civil society in each of these countries, my dissertation seeks to systematically analyze the interactive and reciprocal effects of institutional reform and social pressure on each country’s political development, and how these effects shape the prospects for political stability in each case.


Making the Case for Studying Regimes in the Francophone Sahel

As was the case in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the countries of the Francophone Sahel embarked on liberalizing political transitions during the 1990s. Yet, the outcomes of these transitions differ greatly within the sub-region, where some countries experienced an expansion of liberal democratic institutions, others remained staunchly authoritarian, and still others experienced repetitive regime breakdowns. These differences across countries with otherwise similar characteristics present a unique opportunity for theory development and for inferential leverage to be gained by structured comparison.

Sahelian countries face a litany of endemic structural challenges to political stability and, ostensibly, to democratization. Taken together they are considered amongst the least developed countries on earth, facing significant pressures on regime stability. Their governments struggle to control economic crisis, demographic change, drug and arms trafficking, and in some cases deep social cleavages. Consequently, most Sahelian regimes historically relied on the stability assured by the military or, conversely, fell into conflict. More recently, significant pressures on regime stability emerged as a result of the 2011 fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the 2012 state collapse of Mali, and the spread of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin.

Yet, despite these challenges three Sahelian countries appear to have consolidated regime stability, under starkly different political contexts. In Chad—a country previously consumed by civil conflict and mass atrocities—an authoritarian regime emerged under the rule of Idriss Déby Itno in the 1990s and slowly consolidated its power despite several attempted rebellions. In Burkina Faso, years of political stability under the leadership of Blaise Compaoré gave way to a popular insurrection demanding that the constitution, and democratic process there enshrined, be upheld, thus marking institutionalization and continued political liberalization. In Senegal, a steady, yet guided, liberalization took place over decades as factions of political elites learned and reinvented democratic institutions.


Fieldwork and Preliminary Findings

During eighteen consecutive months (June 2014 – December 2015) I conducted fieldwork across these three countries, seeking to explain the differences in their political trajectories and their relative stability in light of these pressures. The evidence I gathered from hundreds of interviews conducted with political elites, civil society leaders, and other state actors and hours of archival research suggest that civil-military relations and traditional institutions interact with each country’s respective political institutions to help to explain the variation in their political development and liberalization (or lack thereof).

My preliminary findings suggest that where the military remains less politicized, more republican, and used for development purposes, regimes are less likely to constrain political liberalization and more likely to abide by constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Interestingly, in these contexts the military (as a republican state institution) may operate as a guarantor of the political institutions that oversee democratic processes in these regimes. Conversely, where the military is composed of competing factions—e.g. political factions or former rebels—civil liberty abuses and repression are more likely, thus impeding political liberalization.

Similarly, traditional institutions may provide necessary social stability for nascent democratic institutions to take root and thereby institutionalize, allowing for gradual liberalization to take place. However, where traditional institutions are disparate and do not command authority over large sections of society they are unable to provide assurances of social stability and may in fact be counterproductive to liberalization. Much like the oft cited factionalized, disorganized, and ineffective opposition, traditional institutions are more likely to be pitted against one another in competition over state resources when they are numerous rather than when they provide a united front from significant social base.

Finally, the character and significance of pressures from the political opposition and/or civil society for increased liberalization also plays a significant role in the ability of these institutional mechanisms to control the process. When pressures for liberalization are widespread or sufficiently targeted, leaders of the military or traditional institutions may make calculated decisions not to support electoral authoritarian regimes. Alternatively, when such pressures appear to be limited or fleeting the military and traditional leaders are more likely to gamble on the regime and in turn increase the regimes chances of resisting or significantly controlling any process of liberalization.

Thus, initial findings from this research suggest that the composition of traditional institutions, and the character of civil military relations significantly affect the ability of political parties and other political institutions to manage pressures from the political opposition and civil society for increased liberalization.


Recent Publications

Articles and book chapters

“Surviving Democratization: Party System Dominance and Authoritarian Resilience in the Sahel.” In the Oxford Handbook of the Sahel ed. Leonardo A. Villalón. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Forthcoming 2018.

“Burkina Faso (Vol 13, 2016).” Africa Yearbook eds: John Abbink, Sebastian Elischer, Andreas Mehler, and Henning Melber. Brill: Boston. Forthcoming 2017.

“The Undoing of a Semi-Authoritarian Regime: The Term Limit Debate and the Fall of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso.” Co-authored with Leonardo A. Villalón. In The Politics of Presidential Term Limits in Africa: Power Struggles and Implications ed. Jack Mangala. Palgrave and Pan African Institute for Leadership. Forthcoming 2017.

“Burkina Faso (Vol 12, 2015).” Africa Yearbook. Eds: John Abbink, Sebastian Elischer, Andreas Mehler, and Henning Melber. Brill: Boston, pages 53-63. 2016.

“Burkina Faso (Vol 11, 2014).” Africa Yearbook eds: Sebastian Elischer, Rolf Hofmeier, Andreas Mehler, and Henning Melber. Brill: Boston, pages 48-56. 2015.

“Political Uncertainty in Burkina Faso.” In Ruling on the Margins: Democratic Performance in Small African Countries eds. Claire Metelits and Stephanie Matti. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 2015.

Opinion editorials and other publications

“2016 Chadian Presidential Election – Expert Briefing.” Africa Research Institute. January 2017. Available here: http://www.africaresearchinstitute.org/chad-expert-briefing/

“Taking Stock of Burkina Faso’s Democracy after al-Qaeda Attack.” Co-authored with Leonardo A. Villalón. Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. January 21, 2016.
Available here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/01/21/taking-stock-of-burkina-fasos-democracy-after-al-qaeda-attack/

“Burkina Faso Elections Mark Turning Point in Country’s Recent Political Turmoil.” Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. December 6, 2015.
Available here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/06/burkina-faso-elections-mark-a-turning-point-in-a-country-in-political-turmoil/

“Mobilizing for Elections: The Burkinabe Context.” Co-authored with Oumar Ba. APSA Africa Workshops Newsletter. Vol. 3, Issue 1, November 2015, pgs. 13-16. Available here: https://jeffreywpaller.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/apsa-africa-workshop-november-2015.pdf

“Here’s How You Bring Down a ‘Strongman’ Government (without a Civil War).” Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. October 15, 2015.
Available here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/10/15/heres-how-you-bring-down-a-strongman-government-without-a-civil-war/

“Burkina Faso: President Kafando Is back in Charge, But Now What?” Africa Is A Country. September 25, 2015.
Available here: http://africasacountry.com/2015/09/burkina-faso-president-kafando-is-back-in-charge-but-now-what/

“The Evolving Coup in Burkina Faso: Observations from the Field.” Guest series for the Sahel Blog: September 21 – October 2.
Available here: https://sahelblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/the-evolving-coup-in-burkina-faso-observations-from-the-field/

“Why General Gilbert Diendéré Is Derailing the Political Transition in Burkina Faso.” Africa Is A Country. September 20, 2015.
Available here: http://africasacountry.com/2015/09/why-general-gilbert-diendere-is-derailing-the-political-transition-in-burkina-faso/

“How Al-Qaeda Got to Timbuktu, and Why it Matters.” Co-authored with Leonardo Villalón. The Partisan – UF Political Science. Summer 2014 pgs. 2, 5.
Available here: http://sites.clas.ufl.edu/polisci/files/The-Partisan-2014.pdf