Democracy in northwest Africa: Mali and Senegal

Trouble is brewing in two (erstwhile) democratic states among the former French Soudan.

Mali experienced a military coup last week, apparently ending a 20-year experience of democracy–and just about a month before new presidential elections were due. There was no sign of the incumbent attempting to stay on for a third term (which would violate the current constitution). Meanwhile, today Senegal has its presidential runoff, and the incumbent is seeking a third term under dubious constitutionality.

These events are distressing because both countries had emerged recently as apparently functioning democracies. The Malian situation may be “collateral damage” from the NATO war in Libya. Touareg rebels, some of whom were among Qaddafi’s mercenaries, have been making gains in the country’s remote east. Evidently, at least part of the military was unsatisfied with the president’s handling of the internal war. Still, they might have waited to see what a newly elected president’s policy would be.

As for Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade had overseen a constitutional change limiting the president to two terms. He is not the first president ever to make the claim that such a change does not apply to him, because his first term was before the constitution was changed. Most of the others have not gotten away with a third term, but this runoff is said to be close. He just might pull it off on election day, but at what cost to the country’s democracy?

Various news reports have suggested that Wade enters the runoff in a weak position, having won just under 35% of the vote in the first round. Supposedly the other candidates are all endorsing his remaining opponent, former Prime Minister Macky Sall. I would not be so sure. Sall was more than 8 points behind in the first round, and if Wade vs. Opposition were the dominant cleavage, one might have expected the anti-Wade forces to have coordinated on fewer than thirteen (!) candidates, the top two of which managed to combine for less than 40% in the first round. Of course, given a two-round majority system, one need not expect a single opposition candidate, but such a high degree of fragmentation does not bode well–even assuming the election is completely fair. (See first-round results at Psephos.)

Anticipating fragmentation of his opposition, last year Wade attempted to lower the threshold for a first-round victory to 25%.

Mali has a premier-presidential system; Senegal is president-parliamentary. If Mali’s democracy is not quickly restored, then it will no longer be true–as stated by Samuels and Shugart (2010, p.260)–that no premier-presidential system has ever broken down once meeting the thresholds for democracy that the authors established for inclusion of cases in our study.


Among my cherished cartographic possessions is a National Geographic map of Africa from around 1960 that shows these two countries as one, in the Mali Federation. The federation did not last, and the unit initially called Soudan split and became the independent state of Mali.

This map also showed a Union of Central African Republics (French Congo, Chad, and in between them, Ubangi-Shari, later the Central African Republic (singular)). This “union” was even shorter lived.

9 thoughts on “Democracy in northwest Africa: Mali and Senegal

  1. Colonial powers adored these unions for some reason. There was an entity called the Central African Federation that tried to unite white-ruled Southern Rhodesia with what are now Zambia and Malawi. It lasted from 1953 until 1963.


  2. I remember that, Alan. But I thought it was called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyassaland.

    There was also, of course, the Federation of the West Indies. And we could add to this list Nigeria, though that was has held together (sort of).


  3. One American blogger did cover the coup in Mali. I’m going to repost the entire blog post on the subject, though I will spare other readers the link to the blog:

    “”There was a coup in Mali. The previous ‘Democratic’ government was overthrown.

    “Now the typical MSM reaction to this is ‘OMG!!! A COUP!!!! THIS IS HORRRIBLE!!!!!'”

    “But for myself, I don’t know anything about the previous government of Mail, nor do I know anything about what the new military government intends to do, so I have no way of saying whether this turn of events is good or bad.”

    There are admittedly some ways in this is pretty awesome as foreign policy commentary.

    There were a few intelligent comments to the post, including one commentator who brought up the Libyan connection outlined here. There was also some speculation that the Saudis, who are getting more involved in undermining secular governments in the Muslim world, were behind this.


  4. Things are not all bad in Mali. As the colonels in Greece and the generals in Argentina once learnt losing a war is not a good look for the man on horseback.

    ECOWAS has performed so much better in the Mali case than the AU in Libya or the SADC in Zimbabwe.


  5. Threatened sanctions have succeeded, with the coup leaders saying they have restored the 1992 constitution. But is democracy being restored, or is the state collapsing under pressure of rebels, who have now taken Timbuktu?

    It is apparently not yet clear whether the constitutional head of state, President Amadou Toumani Toure, will be reinstated.


  6. It strikes me as a wildly opportunistic coup.

    Evidently there was at least some military dissatisfaction with the backing for the army’s struggle with the revels, but the junta seems to have done as little as (allegedly) the president and lost the northern half of the country to boot. None of the junta members seem to be rushing north to try and retrieve the situation there.

    I would’ve thought restoring the constitution meant restoring the constitutional president. The junta but possibly not ECOWAS seem not to agree.


    • Alan, it looks like you tried to embed a link there, but it does not show up, even when I open the “edit comments” page and try to look “behind the scenes”.


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