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The Politics of Institutional Reform in Sahelian Africa

The Politics of Institutional Reform in Sahelian Africa

A conference and workshop organized from 21-22 February 2013
Sponsored by the Minerva Initiative grant to UF

Conference theme

In Anglophone Political Science, the Francophone countries of the Sahel are among the least-studied countries in Africa, indeed in the world. Due largely to recent trends—namely the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahara and the crisis in Mali since March 2012—there is significant current interest in these countries. Beyond this policy interest, however, these same factors have highlighted the importance of this set of countries for academic scholarly understanding of the determinants of state resilience and stability in Africa. Despite their comparable political origins and many economic and social similarities, the six countries of the francophone Sahel exhibit rather varied and divergent trajectories of post-independence politics. They also seem to demonstrate some important variations in terms of the capacity of their respective states to manage the strong pressures to which they are currently exposed.

Comparative political studies of the Sahel, and of African politics more broadly, most frequently take “democracy” as the measure for comparison. This is of course a centrally important issue, but we would like to suggest that there are important limitations to the analytic leverage that might be gained from comparisons of countries that simply try to measure their relative degree of democracy at any given point. This conference thus proposes instead to focus on a comparative examination of the political dynamics of constructing state institutions in these six countries, in the period since the wave of democratization began in the early 1990s. We would suggest that this issue is not only important in its own right, but that strong state institutions are in themselves a necessary precondition for substantial democracy.

To be sure, since the 1990s the politics of demands for increased democratization have in fact been the primary political dynamic and debate in the region. These dynamics necessarily lead to discussions about institutions—either the creation of new ones or the reform of existing institutions. Democratization, therefore, is one key factor shaping the politics of building state structures. The key question that we propose to examine in this conference is whether these politics of creating or reforming institutions in the name of “democracy” have weakened or strengthened states in any given case. It is of course fully possible that they have actually done both at the same time. We might thus rephrase the question as: Which aspects of state structures have been strengthened, and which have been weakened, by the politics of institutional reform over the past two decades?

Institutions are embedded in histories. In any given country of the Sahel both the colonial legacy and the post-colonial regimes in the first three decades of independence have had varying impacts on subsequent choices. Critical moments of transition or crisis, however, have opened up opportunities for significant changes to institutional configurations. Depending on the play of political forces at given moments, various different actors have attempted to reshape institutions or design new ones. The key actors have included incumbent governments attempting to preserve power, opposition forces attempting to accede to power, and social and civil society actors attempting to shape the very extent and form of state power. Institutional choices also have consequences, creating incentives for actors to use the resources they have available to mobilize either for or against any specific configuration.

Conference papers thus examined, in each of the six countries of the Sahel, the following questions: What have been the political dynamics of attempting to build, maintain, reform, or destroy institutions? Which actors have mobilized in favor or against specific choices? What resources and alliances have these actors been able to mobilize? And more broadly—and importantly—has the play of these political dynamics strengthened or weakened states, cumulatively over the past 20 years?

List of participants

  • Mahaman Tidjani-Alou, LASDEL and Université Abdou Moumouni, Niger
  • Augustin Loada, CGD and Université de Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
  • Ismaïla Madior Fall, Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Senegal
  • Zakaria Ould Ahmed Salem, Université de Nouakchott, Mauritania
  • Lucien Toulou, EISA-Tchad
  • Moumouni Soumano, Université de Bamako, Mali
  • Leonardo A. Villalón, University of Florida

Sahel Conference program
The Politics of Institutional Reform in Sahelian Africa – Poster 2013