Call for contributions to special issue of Politique Africaine: Crises and Whispers in the Sahel

29 August 2012

Edited by Vincent Bonnecase (CNRS) and Julien Brachet (IRD)
Politique africaine (

There is little doubt today that Sahelian Africa is a “crisis” area. Nonetheless, it is important to question to what extent this assessment is really new. The notion of “Crisis” seems to have become a permanent feature of talk about Sahel, ever since the notion of the “Sahel” itself took on its geopolitical meaning, during the famine of 1972-1973, to designate a group of African countries mainly characterized by drought, starvation and poverty. Hence, the Sahel as a region appeared directly as an area of crisis on the international scene. Since then, its history is seen as one of a series of disasters touching different aspects: politics, food, security, environment, migration and religion. Recently, these problems seem to have become more important for the rest of the world as the Sahel is no longer considered marginal, but as a contested space whose destabilization could have widespread effects, in particular in Europe.

In fact, if we look at recent changes in most Sahelian countries, we can discern many signs of crisis, visible or hidden. Several of these countries have been affected by armed rebellion or even by military coups (Mauritania in 2008, Niger in 2010, Mali in 2012). In the case of Mali, this has led to the partitioning of the country in spring 2012. These political troubles occurred amidst social and economic difficulties: in 2008, cities like Nouakchott, Niamey, Ouagadougou and minor towns were shaken by protests against the rising cost of living. Meanwhile, rural populations still suffer from food vulnerability, most poignantly expressed by famine alerts in 2010 and 2012. At the same time, the whole Sahel appears to have been destabilized by growing criminality and by uncontrollable armed groups, some of which claim allegiance to radical Islam and fund themselves through kidnapping, or more often tobacco, drug or arms smuggling.

The combination of these factors, widely pointed to as indicators of crises, have resulted in a number of targeted public policies, on the national, regional and international level. These crises and the policies which respond to it are currently taking on greater profile, as the Sahel has become a highly strategic area, whose social, economic, political and security issues are, if not global, at least transcontinental. But beyond the media and political outcries, beyond this vision of the Sahel as on the brink of implosion under the EU’s and the US’s worried watch, it is necessary to listen to the whispers in the streets of towns and villages as much as in the corridors of regional and international organizations. Here, we propose to look beyond the most visible facts that currently draw attention to Sahelian Africa through the prism of people’s everyday life and daily institutional practices on all levels.

This special issue has a twofold objective. Firstly, to reinsert the most visible tensions that today come together to turn the Sahelian countries into a crisis zone into the ordinary context that produced them. The most obvious signs of crises, be they coups, secession, armed rebellion, religious radicalization, rising criminality or increased poverty, cannot be understood in all their complexity if they are apprehended in isolation, as if they made sense in themselves or existed separately from their social and historical environment. This further helps to highlight the danger of misrepresentation that comes with a focus on Sahelian society only through moments of crisis, albeit that deeply affect people concerned. Beyond the apparent links between these occurrences , to what degree are they connected to less visible realities that precede or surround them? To what point, on the other hand, are we justified in talking about an increasing destabilization of the Sahelian region, of which Mali would be the most typical manifestation? Is, whatever is considered to be a ‘crisis’ on the international level, also understood as such by local people, those who are directly or indirectly the most concerned?

At the same time, this special issue also aims to interrogate the effects of anti-crisis policies that have been applied in the Sahel over recent years, in particular to ask whether they are in fact new or rather the continuation of more longstanding policies by other means. It has become common place to say that a ‘crisis’ is not only a social reality, but also a way of governing this reality: the simply act of decreeing a crisis is part of this governance, a way, for various actors, of managing the situation. Indeed, in the Sahel, this definition has led to the multiplication of national and transnational schemes of aid and control. While claiming to render the area secure, mainly from an international point of view, on the ground, these have often become additional factors of insecurity. They have also at times been appropriated and instrumentalized, leading to new power relations on all levels. In order to understand to what point these schemes contribute to fundamental changes of Sahelian societies, it is necessary to apprehend all their effects, not only with reference to the well-defined objects that they are intended to combat, but also and especially with regards to the totality of people’s everyday life.

We are hoping to range as broadly as possible in the topics treated. The following is an indicative but not comprehensive list of suggestions:

- Political crises, coups d’État, social mobilizations; policies of return to the institutional order, democracy enhancement policies.

- Food crises and famine, environmental crises, demographic crises; food aid and rural development policies, refugee aid policies, family policies.

- Security crises, terrorism, human and goods smuggling; military, police and custom cooperation policies, counter-terrorism policies.


- Abstracts (maximum one page) should be sent to Vincent Bonnecase (CNRS) and Julien Brachet (IRD) by September 30th, 2012.

- Selected articles (8000 words) are expected on 30th December 2012.

- After the peer review conducted by Politique africaine, accepted articles will be published in the June 2013 issue. Contacts : and

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