Share this:

By Dr. Joël Moudio Motto (Download Pdf Version)

The end of the Arab Spring has barely been digested, with Sub-Saharan Africa starting to embark on the same lane. The Malian news of August 2020 saw the ousting of Ibrahim Boubakar Keita following a popular mobilization led by the Imam of the Bamako Mosque. In 2014 in Burkina Faso, the popular movement under the banner of the Balai-citoyen deposed Blaise Comparoé. Both of these constitutive cases of populism indicate a rejection of representative democracy and, therefore, of the ‘will’ of the people to govern directly without institutional mediation. Still, they also express the crisis of the welfare state, that is, the inability of those in power to deliver.  

In populist rhetoric, history and political issues are reduced to an aggressive opposition between a majority people – homogeneous and hard-working – and an elite – minority and heterogeneous, democratically elected and appointed by governments. These elite, in populist rhetoric, are seen as an enemy of the people. Thus, the emergence of populist dynamics in Mali since June 2020 – with the eruption of the heterogeneous opposition coalition of the Movement of June 5 – Rally of Patriotic Forces of Mali (M5-RFP) – and in Burkina Faso with the civil society organizations around the Balai Citoyen in 2014, which contributed to the overthrow of democratically elected Heads of State, is, in fact, anti-constitutional populism. Therefore, in this circumstance, we seek to underscore the drivers of unconstitutional populism and to what extent it remains a threat to democratic transition. 

The Crisis of Democratic Political Legitimacy: A Condition for the Emergence of Populism 

The populist phenomenon in SSA that led to the ousting of the heads of state operates around an essential register: popular movements. The condition for the emergence of popular movements is based on the emergence of a crisis of political legitimacy affecting the system of representation (Taguieff, 1997) which dominates representative democracy. Otherwise, the populist dynamics carried by civil society organizations are deployed in contestation to the democratically elected political elite that struggles to represent the will of the people.  

Civil society organizations alongside trade unions and opposition parties in Burkina Faso played an important role in Blaise Compaoré. In particular, it is around these organizations, particularly the Balai citoyen launched in 2013 by artists Smockey and Sams K le Jah, that the most audible protest against the proposed constitutional change was structured. It was at the call of the leader of the political opposition Zéphirin Diabré, and the main CSOs that hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Ouagadougou on October 28, 2014, which constituted the largest march the country has seen since the one on January 3, 1966, which precipitated the fall of Upper Volta’s first president, Maurice Yaméogo. It was also after a call from the Balai citoyen, joined by the Front progressiste sankariste, that demonstrators “stormed” – in the words of the call issued by each of these two organizations two days earlier – the National Assembly on October 30, 2014, the day of the review of the bill that was to allow Blaise Compaoré to stand for re-election before he announced his intention to postpone the bill and then resigned. The protests in Burkina Faso have a revolutionary history that is said to be structured around the memory of Thomas Sankara, a captain who came to power by force in 1983 and was placed at the head of a regime proclaiming revolutionary ideals. 

In Mali, the popular mobilizations were much better structured than in Burkina Faso because they were built around an organized and composite framework of action carried by an institutional figure and a synergy of leaders; this was the opposition coalition. Civil society organizations joined the coalition, not without integrating its organized framework, but to overthrow the regime in place, motivating all their public demonstrations. The days leading to the fall of Ibrahim Boubakar Keita on August 18, 2020, constituted a moment in which the motley opposition coalition of the June 5 Movement- Gathering of Patriotic Forces of Mali (M5-RFP) sowed the seeds of a popular takeover. The political capital – the political supporters of the coalition were not, however, able to push IBK to resign since these public demonstrations of the opposition parties were not new. In June 2018, the union of opposition leaders consisting of Soumaïla Cissé, Mohamed Aly Bathily, Aliou Boubacar Diallo, and Habib Dembélé, all candidates for the presidential election of July 29, 2020, called for a public demonstration violently repressed by 1,000 security men. But the entry on the scene of the Imam of Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko, on June 5, 2020, had a significant impact, especially since the social capital – social support – that he mobilized united all Malian actors around the Muslim religion – for a country made up of 90% Muslims. In April 2019, he organized demonstrations that led to the dismissal of Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, then Prime Minister. Unlike in Burkina, where confrontation spaces have multiplied in the various neighborhoods of the different cities of Burkina Faso, the Malian capital has been the epicenter of popular protest. The objective of the Malian mobilizations was to ensure the resignation of IBK. The crisis of political legitimacy from which the anti-constitutional populism stems is rooted in the crisis of African States – that is, its inability to provide lasting and effective security for its people. One dimension of the crisis of Sub-Saharan African states is the crisis of the welfare state. 

The Crisis of the Welfare State as a Cause of Unconstitutional Populism 

The welfare state crisis (Rosanvillon, 1981) is characteristic of the borders that separate the state and society. These boundaries are socio-economic and are posed in terms of the breakdown of public governance. In both the Burkinabe and Malian cases, protesters castigated the promotion of corruption, cronyism, weak public services, and the government’s inability to stop inter-community and jihadist violence – in Mali – fueled popular frustration. In Mali and Burkina Faso, political underdevelopment (Badie, 1992) is the expression of institutional malfunctioning (Médard, 1977), which is, therefore, a symptom of the “soft state” (Myrdal, 1969), the most salient features of which are to be found in the decay of governance, which can be measured in terms of the effectiveness of the state in implementing public policies and the level of corruption. 

Figure 1: Level of corruption in Mali and Burkina Faso (1995-2020)

Figure 2: Level of government effectiveness in Mali and Burkina Faso (2005-2020)


Until 2014 in Burkina Faso and from 2012 in Mali, periods that mark, respectively, the power of Comparoé and IBK, it can be seen that governments of these countries were struggling to respond effectively to the needs of society; with a remarkable drop in Mali in 2020 [measurable on a scale of 10] (Fig. 2). It can be seen in similar periods that corruption has plagued the functioning of government since independence, although from 2005 onwards a reduction in the level of corruption below 50 – measurable on a scale of 100 – can be observed and has tended to stabilize since then, despite the fall in the index observed in Mali in 2020 (Fig. 1). These states, despite the existence of public administration, are far from providing an efficient public service. This, over time, has reinforced the gap between the state and society and generated popular movements that have led to the ousting of governments. Can it, therefore, be said from the above that anti-constitutional populism is a danger to democratic transition? 

Is Unconstitutional Populism a Resource for Democratic Changeover? 

Anti-constitutional populism has imposed itself in Mali – in August 2020 with the popular movements led by the figure of the imam of the great mosque of Bamako, Mahmoud Dicko – and in Burkina Faso – 2014 with the Balai citoyen – as a modality of democratic transition. However, these popular movements do not have the political-military – resources and are relatively structured – due to their spontaneity – to impose themselves as a real modality for democratic transition. Most of these movements disappear after their objective is reached and are substituted by military juntas. 


Badie, B., & Smouts, M. C. (1992). Le retournement du monde: sociologie de la scène internationale. Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques.  

Médard, J. F. (1977). L’État sous-développé au Cameroun. Année africaine, 1979, 35-84. 

Rosanvallon, P. (1981). Etat-providence et société solidaire. Esprit (1940-), (55/56 (7/8), 57-75. 

Taguieff, P. A. (1997). Le populisme et la science politique. Du mirage conceptuel aux vrais problèmes. Vingtieme siecle. Revue d’histoire, 4-33. 


Dr. Joel M. MOUDIO is a political scientist and a researcher on public policies, political economics and public administration. He is an economic policy, governance and regional integration analyst at the Nkafu Policy Institute.