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Democracy in French-speaking Africa

AFRICA / France has strangely managed to preserve hegemony over its former colonies, including the dissemination of knowledge. This book is a much-needed exception, providing the background for understanding the recent coup in Mali.

Democratic Struggle, Institutional Reform, and State Resilience in the African Sahel
Author: Leonardo Villalon Rahmane Idrissa (ed.)
Publisher: Lexington Books, USA

Professional literature on the former French colonies is rarely published in English in Africa. Except for one of the editors for Democratic Struggle, who is American, all of the writers are Africans from the Sahel, the region they write about. All have doctoral degrees and are either professors, political advisers, or civil society leaders. The six Sahel countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, are each devoted a chapter while the editors set theoretical frameworks and comparisons.

It is refreshing to have a book about French-speaking Africa that does not allow French researchers to be central or allow France to be the sole reference. Instead, this book is about the internal political dynamics since the beginning of democratization in the Sahel in the early 1990s.

PHOTO: pixabay

Formal democracies

When the Berlin Wall fell (1989), Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” (1992) and claimed that liberal democracy was the world’s only remaining ideological government, the democratization processes in Africa also began.

All the Sahel countries went from being one-party military states to formal democracies within a few years. In Mali and Chad, The changes took place via coups committed by military leaders. The difference was that General Idriss Déby ran as a candidate and was elected president of Chad. At the same time, Captain Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) arranged free elections in Mali without running as a candidate. As a result, the eloquent intellectual historian Alpha Konare became Mali’s first democratically elected president.

After being re-elected in 1997, he accepted the constitution and did not stand for election in 2002. However, the coup maker did so in 1991, and Touré became president in 2002. Mali, which throughout the 1990s was described as a “beacon of democracy”, was praised for respecting freedom of the press, assembly, and elections. A president with a military background was re-elected and admittedly elected, but with an election turnout of less than 30 percent, one can discuss how democratically elected he was. Touré ruled Mali without much respect for the formal institutions – the president made important decisions even after informal consultations and consensus with stakeholders.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Military coup in Mali

When the unknown captain Amadou Sanogo led a successful military coup in Mali in March 2012, it was quickly seen that the beacon of democracy was actually a house of cards built in the sand. One of the reasons for the military coup was that the army had been neglected over the last decade. Wages, equipment, and training were poor. In addition, the army was split after 2006, when Tuareg rebels made peace with the state against 3000 of them being incorporated into the regular army, 150 of them as officers. When Gaddafi fell in Libya in October 2011, several thousand Tuaregs travelled home to Mali with large quantities of weapons.

On August 18 of this year, the military again staged a coup in Mali and ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). IBK had disappointed at least as much as its predecessor ATT. Not only had he neglected salaries and equipment for the army, but state corruption increased. The parliamentary elections in April were marked by widespread cheating, and the security situation in the north, despite the presence of 5100 foreign peacekeepers, had not improved.

Toure, Deby, Diouf and Keita. Photo: Wikipedia


In Chad, from the very beginning, democracy was only formally established without the population gaining any real influence. Formal democratic institutions such as elections, parliament and courts were created, but their real influence in governing the country remained minimal. During a three-month national conference with many hundreds of participants from civil society, politicians, and religious leaders, various types of state power distribution were discussed, including a new constitution. Still, president Idriss Déby always found ways to get around the decisions he did not like.

He has been so good at it that he is still president of Chad 30 years after the coup when he ousted General Habré for poor governance, lack of respect for human rights and corruption. Déby has won six presidential elections and introduced a new constitution that allows him to remain in office until 2031.

All the Sahel countries went from being military one-party states to formal democracies in a few years.

One country in the region that stands out as clearly more democratic than the others is Senegal. There is no talk that it is difficult to distinguish between the president’s “abuse or only overuse” of power, as in the chapter on Niger. Nor about the manipulation of institutions, as the chapter on Burkina Faso. In Senegal, power has never taken hold via military coups. Ever since the mid-1970s, regular multi-party elections have been held.

When the new wave of democratization hit Senegal in the early 1990s, Abdou Diouf had been president since 1981. He won the presidential election in 1993 but accepted the election defeat in 2000 and resigned voluntarily in favour of election winner Abdoulaye Wade. This was proof that Senegal had a working democracy.

Wade passed a new constitution in which it was confirmed that the president could only be re-elected once. Wade was re-elected in 2007, but since the new constitution was introduced when he was elected for the first time, he was also allowed to run as a candidate in 2012. Then he lost to Macky Sall and accepted defeat. Sall was re-elected in March last year in an election considered free and fair by the EU.

This book may not teach specialists in the Sahel anything new. But as a textbook for students in African studies or at universities struggling to find good texts in English about democracy in French-speaking Africa, I would highly recommend it.

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Ketil Fred Hansen
Ketil Fred Hansen
Hansen has a PhD in African history. He is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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