Treacherous Sands: The Hollowness of ‚Governance Talk‘ in and About the Sahel

Written by | Monday, April 26th, 2021

To hear many actors and observers tell it, the Sahel’s root problem is a “crisis of governance”. In fact, there appears to be near-consensus on this question – Sahelian governments, Western governments, think tanks, NGOs and citizens’ movements, journalists, and academics are all quick to identify “good governance” as the ultimate solution to the region’s multi-layered conflicts and waves of instability. Meanwhile, thoughtful critics have pointed to problems in the way key actors talk about and pursue good governance. To that end, Union’s focus on governance as a technical issue has constrained programming, leaving current programs “unable to prevent widespread embezzlement, corruption and misuse of resources on the part of their partners”.

Similarly, a recent International Crisis Group report argued that “efforts to boost institutional capacity tend to gloss over political factors that may undermine efficacy, such as the recurrent abuse of residents at troops’ hands or the partiality of the justice system to ruling elites.” Such critics note that governance receives emphasis in the rhetoric of many actors in the Sahel but, in practice, governance programming is compartmentalized and depoliticized. In addition to these criticisms, the discourse about governance remains hollow for three main reasons: money, neoliberalism, and politics.

First, better governance would require a lot more money in the form of massive, ongoing, external support to pay Sahelian civil servants. The countries of the Sahel are extremely poor, with the partial exception of Mauritania. The exploitation of natural resource endowments in gold, uranium, and oil have not appreciably lifted the standards of living for most Sahelians, and governments remain heavily aid-dependent. The numbers tell a grim story: whereas there are 89 civil servants per 1,000 inhabitants in France, in Burkina Faso the number of civil servants per 1,000 inhabitants is just 8, in Mali it is 6, and in Niger 3. Where is the money to come from to hire the civil servants who would staff long-term efforts to provide better governance?

When actors talk about “improving governance” without saying how that would be paid for, they are in effect offering a moral critique of those in power in the Sahel – a kind of rhetoric that at times seems like a convenient offloading of responsibility onto unnamed, supposedly defective government actors. At worst, a kind of racism can underlie “good governance” talk, which can turn into a subtle or not-so-subtle suggestion that Africans are prone to stealing and mismanagement. The idea of “corruption” is also rarely disaggregated – is theft that occurs at the top of the civilian or military hierarchy really the same phenomenon as bribery and extortion at the lower rungs of the hierarchy? And in any event, are the three Nigerien civil servants meant to do the work of their 89 counterparts in France? The technical, “capacity-building” programming around governance appears premised on the idea that Sahelian bureaucrats, once “trained” (and morally reformed?) can achieve better results with a fraction of the personnel that one finds in Western European governments.

Second, enduring neoliberal economic frameworks create a paradox where Sahelian states are meant to be (by the logic of neoliberalism) bureaucratically lean and budgetarily efficient, but are simultaneously meant to be (by the logic of counterinsurgency thinking and “governance talk”) hyper-present in everyday life. If Sahelian states are currently too skeletal, then much of the blame for that lies with the “structural adjustment” efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the slashing of public sector employment. If citizens need to experience “good governance” and “the return of the state,” what exactly is the state supposed to provide in such visions? Is it merely security and courts? Infrastructure projects? Or are states supposed to provide robust social services, including state-provided health care, universal public education, and pension funds? What about housing and mass public sector employment? Do labor unions get a strong role in such visions of governance?

To hear some counterinsurgency theorists talk, “governance” almost begins to sound like a form of social democracy – yet the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others, continue to insist that Sahelian governments move toward balanced budgets and an emphasis on building infrastructure while limiting recurring expenditures. Yet it is those recurring expenditures where the effects of state intervention in the economy and the society will be most profoundly felt – the personnel to ensure service delivery, the public sector employees who can support families and spend their salaries to stimulate the economy, the subsidies that can help ordinary people.

The latest IMF report on Mali, from March 2021, talks disapprovingly (paragraph 14) about the transitional government’s decisions to increase teachers’ salaries (even amid ongoing teachers’ strikes) and to expand public sector hiring (even though a crisis of youth unemployment, which the hiring is meant to ameliorate, is almost universally acknowledged as one factor among many in the region’s violent crises). If governments are meant to provide more, usually unspecified “services” to citizens in order to win back trust, but within a framework of austerity, the result is something incoherent. Note too that amid neoliberal disdain for unions and Western diplomats’ seeming contempt for African opposition parties, “governance” essentially means that the state dictates to the citizenry what services they will receive, with the only approved form of dialogue coming in “civil society forums” and “national dialogues” where show trumps substance.

Finally, the mechanisms that could produce greater government accountability in the Sahel all lack teeth. As mentioned above, critics have raised this point repeatedly, but the problem could be put more starkly: corruption and poor governance are heavily shaped by decisions made at the top, and the current mechanisms for accountability in the Sahel are all broken. How can heads of state be constrained? Either by elections, rebellions, protests, or a strong and free press. But Western governments uncritically accept the results of any and all Sahelian elections. They intervene to weaken rebellions against incumbents. They treat protests as security threats. And they look the other way when Sahelian heads of state muzzle the press and punish critics. The only remaining potential vehicle for accountability is coups, the one form of political disruption that Western powers will (grudgingly) accept. Yet recent Sahelian coups have come only when a reckless incumbent is at the end of his rope after years in office (such as Maaouya Ould al-Taya in Mauritania, Mamadou Tandja in Niger, and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Mali). And Sahelian coups ultimately give way to something like the status quo ante, except with somewhat more savvy figures in charge.

Amid all these flaws in efforts to promote governance, the result is something like “governance theater”. Tellingly, “governance” is always someone else’s problem to solve, never the speaker’s responsibility. The elites in Paris, Washington, Niamey, Ouagadougou, and Bamako may or may not be fooling each other – but when Western governments harp on “good governance” and “the return of the state” while pouring money into counterterrorism and rejecting accountability even for their own abuses and mistakes, and when Sahelian governments lament “mauvaise gouvernance” while appointing their own children to top posts and locking up journalists, much of the governance discourse begins to seem meaningless. When actors talk about a “crisis of governance”, then the first questions to ask are what they mean, and how they benefit from the vagueness of that slogan.

‚The Hollowness of ‚Governance Talk‘ in and About the Sahel‘ – Commentary by Alex Thurston – Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.

The Commentary can be downloaded here

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