Tribune. Of the ten states in the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Chad), only two – Mali and Chad – are now ruled by the military. From Gambia to Niger via Nigeria, most countries in the region have experienced democratic changes and peaceful transitions. Nevertheless: the Sahel remains perceived and described as an area which has forgotten the basic principles of democracy.
Such a narrative arguably feeds into the broader geopolitical interests of different actors. However, the influence of the military has indeed diminished since the 1990s. And this, in a context where the army continued to play an increasingly difficult role, faced with non-traditional security challenges, with a proliferation of armed groups that extend beyond borders and the emergence of self-defense militias.
The issue of governance remains central. The worsening insecurity undermines fragile states, among the poorest on the planet, at the bottom of the list of the human development index (HDI) such as Niger and Chad. The recurring political crises in Mali do not only call into question the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (ODD) by 2030, but also any prospect of improvement for a population half of which lives in poverty.
According to Democracy Index 2021 from the Economist Intelligence Unit [entreprise britannique de conseil appartenant à The Economist Group], Mali and Chad respectively occupy the 116e and the 163e square. Both countries fall into the category of “Imperfect democracies” of this list. Their rankings are pulled down due to their low scores in terms of government operations, political participation and culture.
Senegal and Mauritania
This type of comparative ranking allows politicians in each country to argue at leisure, rhetorically, on the absence or presence among them of “liberal” democratic values, focused on the protection of individual freedoms. However, it does not offer a reliable and sensible reading of the sources of legitimacy, nor does it take into account the internal and external threats to this legitimacy.
We cannot understand the challenges of governance in the Sahel today without analyzing the relations between civilians and the military, nor taking into account the role that coercion plays in the construction of the state, the nation and the exercise of political authority.
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