Institutional Reform, Social Change, and Stability in Sahelian Africa

Institutional Reform, Social Change, and Stability in Sahelian Africa

Leonardo Villalón

The Francophone countries of the African Sahel, collectively among the least developed countries on earth, are also among the least-studied. Concerns raised by regional events in recent years, however, and in particular the rise of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have brought a new interest in developments in these countries. In addition to the destabilizing influence of AQIM activity, persistent drought and other economic challenges, demographic pressures from an increasingly young and urban population, escalating social and religious mobilization, and heightened demands for political reform have all cumulated to place significant pressures on the set of countries located across the southern edge of the Sahara: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

Questions about the capacity of states in the region to manage rising pressures accelerated with the events of 2011 in North Africa, the so-called “Arab Spring.” The situation was particularly complicated by the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, which sparked a flow of displaced nationals returning to the Sahel, a disruption of remittances and of Libyan economic support, and the specter of uncontrolled trafficking in arms diverted from Libyan stockpiles. In addition, the tensions between domestic sentiments and international pressures concerning what policies to adopt as the Qaddafi regime collapsed placed many governments in highly difficult political situations. By 2012, following the collapse of the Malian government and the occupation of the north of that country by an assortment of separatist and jihadi groups, the region was regularly described as being in crisis. This major research project by the Sahel Research Group, funded by a generous grant from the Minerva Initiative, comparatively examines the institutional capacity of Sahelian states to manage the multitude of pressures confronting them, and hence to maintain stability and ensure social order.

The project undertakes to research this issue via an analytic framework that focuses on the interactive and reciprocal effects of political and institutional reform on social change, in an iterative process of “micro-transitions” that cumulatively build to potentially more substantial transformations in state capacity, and hence shape the prospects for stability or instability. As with virtually all of Africa, the Sahelian states were directly affected by the intense pressures for political reform in the name of “democracy” of the early 1990s. While their initial responses were quite varied, all were obliged to undertake significant liberalization, reflected primarily in reduced state capacity to shape and control social forces. As a result, in all six countries significant social transformations were set in motion, and their political systems today are still being shaped by those forces. Given the large Muslim majority in the region, the dynamics of religious change have been particularly important; in the era of democratization there has been a proliferation of new religious movements and voices, of varying ideologies, across the region. These new religious groups are among the key social actors shaping politics in these countries today. At the same time, ongoing demands to reform political institutions have produced variations in the capacity of states to manage and channel this fluid and dynamic social landscape.

The research will be carried out over a three-year period, by a research team led by the project PI, Professor Leonardo A. Villalón, and with the core involvement of three graduate student members of the Sahel Research Group: Mamadou Bodian, Daniel Eizenga, and Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim.

The research involves multiple methods and a range of activities, including extensive fieldwork in all six of the countries, to be carried out primarily by the graduate researchers, under the supervision and close involvement of the project PI. This fieldwork will be done sequentially in paired sets of countries, over an 18-month period. The first year of the project involves substantial documentary research, the preparation of background papers, consultations with visiting specialists, and development of datasets on current events and evolving dynamics in the region, all designed to build a strong foundation for the fieldwork. The research team has also developed detailed fieldwork protocols of key questions and issues to be researched. Fieldwork will be based primarily on intensive interviewing of key actors relevant to the research questions.

Collectively, our efforts in the initial stages of research have led us to an observation that will be key to shaping the project as we move forward. In each of the six countries, the interactive processes of institutional reform and social change that were carried out in the name of democratization had led to a proposed grouping of the six countries into three pairs on the basis of an observed outcome on the democracy dimension in the two decades from 1991-2011: Senegal and Mali (democracies); Chad and Burkina Faso (electoral authoritarian regimes) and Niger and Mauritania (unstable efforts at democratization). Our initial research has confirmed that the processes and patterns of democratization do intersect with processes of building resilient state institutions, but in complex ways that are in the end independent of the outcome on the democracy dimension. Within each of our pairs, then, we have identified one country where the two decades of political debates on reform appears to have strengthened state structures and another where it has not done so, despite similarities in terms of the democracy variable. Current efforts are aimed at trying to better understand the processes that produce these varied results and the variables we need to consider in trying to build a broader understanding of these processes. Our fieldwork protocols are being prepared with the goal of ensuring that we are well placed to offer strong answers to this important question. A summary presentation of the first year of program activity can be found here.

We anticipate a number of significant outputs of both academic and policy interest from the research project. These include the development of this website, as well as the preparation of discussion papers, articles and book chapters, an edited volume, and eventually a thematic book expanding our conceptual framework in light of the experiences of the Sahelian cases. Other events organized by the group with the support of the Minerva grant can be found on the Events and Activities page of this website, along with Research Group News. Working and discussion papers produced with grant support can be downloaded below.

Sahel Research Group Working Papers