WIIS member Jean Schindler interviewed Dr. Catherine Lena Kelly about her recent book, Party Proliferation and Political Contestation in Africa: Senegal in Comparative Perspective. The book explores components of democratization and party competition in West Africa with a focus on Senegal – a country with one of the longest histories of multiparty elections in sub-Saharan Africa. Kelly is Assistant Professor of Justice and Rule of Law at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, located at the National Defense University.
JS: So what drew you to West Africa – and Senegal – to start with?
CLK: As a freshman undergraduate, I took a course on urban development in Nairobi that just fascinated me. The following summer, I interned at the State Department’s Africa Bureau, and then went on to study abroad in Toulouse, France, where I learned to speak fluent French. At that point, I wanted to find a way to combine these skills and interests.
By the time I got to graduate school, I had decided to research development and democratization in Africa, particularly in countries where I could use my French. (Later, I also learned Wolof.)
Senegal was especially interesting to me because there had been a long history of multi-party politics since 1848, under French colonial rule. More recently, Senegal held its first multi-party presidential election in 1978, and started having unlimited multi-party competition in 1981, which is about 10-15 years before many of its neighbors did the same thing.
JS: Senegal has a mixed electoral system (plurality and proportional representation), and legalized the competition of an unlimited number of political parties in 1981. I understand that today it has well over 100 political parties?
CLK: Currently, the number of registered parties is at about 300, but only a minority are in the National Assembly or elected office.
JS: And your book traces how, even with all these political parties, and this long history of multi-party competition, you still have regime insiders dominating the process and dominating the outcomes – could you talk about that?
CLK: There are three key messages in the book, and you’ve touched on a couple of them.
One is that, while there are hundreds of registered parties in Senegal, only several dozen of them are actually regularly acting as election-oriented organizations. A lot of parties exist to negotiate patronage with the ruling party. And for some people who form parties, it’s a way to launch a political career quickly, or so they hope.
And then there is also a very robust set of opposition parties in Senegal, many of which are competing in elections regularly. When you look at the 174 that I focused on in the book, only 43 ran on their own labels in parliamentary or presidential elections during the presidency of Abdoulaye Wade (2000-2012).
JS: And what are the implications of that for democracy? It seems like it would create a lot of confusion for the average voter.
CLK: To some extent, yes, and to some extent, no. There are a dozen or so parties with identities that are familiar to voters. But there is volatility in terms of which of those parties appear in specific elections, and which well-known individuals splinter from those parties in one election cycle to form new ones in the next.
The sheer number of registered parties Senegal’s political environment is staggering, and this can lead to certain citizens feeling disillusioned about party politics and party leaders’ concern for the general public.
JS: You did a lot of field work for this book. Were there any interviews or interactions that surprised or intrigued you as you were going through that?
CLK: I did almost 200 personal interviews for the book, so I met a lot of Senegalese people who were generous with their time!
I spent a great deal of time in Senegal’s National Assembly, and got to meet the people on the technology side of transcribing parliamentary sessions. I learned that at the time, which would have been 2012, the transcribers were not allowed to formally record in any of the local languages (including Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal) on the official record. As parliamentary staff explained to me, because these languages are not fully standardized in writing, and are based on a strong oral tradition, there is not a single, agreed-upon way to spell all of the words and thereby record in the most precise way possible what people are saying.
However, the use of local languages in parliamentary sessions is becoming more common, especially as more women become parliamentarians. Since they have not always had the same educational opportunities as men in Senegal, some are more comfortable speaking in the locally relevant languages rather than French.
So I thought that was fascinating, and it has major implications for the way people who speak the local languages – including these women parliamentarians in multiple cases – go down in history and are represented.
And related to that, I got to interview one particular woman in parliament who had gone to Koranic schools rather than the public schools in Senegal, where people speak French. Just being able to talk to her about her efforts to learn French and how that played into her career trajectory was quite interesting.
JS: You recently joined the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, which is on the National Defense University campus. Some people might be surprised to see a democracy and development specialist going over to the security side of things. Could you talk a little bit about how security intersects with democracy issues?
CLK: I have two sides of an answer to that. One is that if you look today at what academic and policy research says about the causes of certain kinds of conflict or political violence – particularly if you look at, for example, the violent extremism literature – we find increasingly in Africa and elsewhere evidence that perceptions of injustice, as well as human rights violations by state security forces, are common drivers of these trends towards violence. And these are things that, of course, African militaries care about, African police forces care about, and African human rights activists, elected officials, and civil society care about. So there is commonality there, if we go down to the root causes and the drivers of political violence.
The other side of my answer is that there are linkages between democracy and development with how we think about security sector assistance and how to provide that effectively in Africa. Security governance initiatives in particular are aimed at making sure that there are good channels of accountability going between citizens, parliamentarians, the justice sector, and the security sector.
So I think there’s certainly a growing and important place for democracy, governance, and rule of law concerns when we think about security governance, its trajectories in the past, and how we want to approach it in the future.
JS: So what’s next for you in terms of your research, your work…the next book?
CLK: Yes – there is definitely a “next book” somewhere in the future.
For now I have just started at the Africa Center. So on the one hand, I’m working on pedagogy related to African security issues, transnational organized crime, rule of law, and justice. In terms of writing, I am currently working on a piece about states of emergency across several regions of the world and what the legal and political consequences of declaring one are in the wake of terrorist attacks.
I’m particularly interested in the Sahel – in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali – where we see a lot of violent extremist activity these days. All of those places have at least parts of the country that are under states of emergency, and I would like to look comparatively, and in more detail, at the consequences and implications.
I’m also really interested in analyzing how different agencies in the US government and different development actors in Africa look at and define the rule of law.
JS: You have a full docket! I can’t wait to hear how these projects evolve. Thank you for taking time today to talk.