The Trans-Saharan Elections Project (TSEP) focuses on the organization and administration of elections in six Francophone African countries of the Trans-Saharan (or Sahelian) region: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. TSEP builds directly on a two-year series of exchanges and activities made possible by a grant from the US State Department. In the spirit of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ mission, core activities were designed around exchanges that brought together specialists and activists from the six Sahelian countries with American elections specialists. Major objectives of these exchanges were to both familiarize African participants with the very different electoral and political traditions of the United States, as well as to help Americans understand electoral issues in the Sahelian countries. We hoped in particular to underline both the fundamental similarities of the core challenges of organizing good elections anywhere in the world, and the major variations in how these challenges have been addressed in different contexts.
Elections are by nature complicated to manage, the stakes are high, and the incentives to attempt to manipulate them are strong. The relatively limited experience with elections in the Sahel, and the political challenges faced by Sahelian countries, has led to intense and sometimes acrimonious debates and struggles across the region, and sometimes to a tendency to see these as uniquely African problems. Over the period of the TSEP exchanges, Florida was also involved in intense and acrimonious debates about a series of proposed (and eventually adopted) changes to electoral laws, and about the redrawing of electoral districts. The many opportunities to comparatively discuss the parallels and the differences in these contexts significantly enriched our exchanges.
Over the two years of the program, the TSEP US-based programs brought a total of thirty-one African Elections Fellows from the six target countries to the United States. Over three weeks, fellows engaged in wide ranging discussions with an extensive network of actors and stakeholders in American elections at local, state, and federal levels. In return, an Africa-based program took a five-member delegation, including the two TSEP project directors and three American specialists, to all six countries in June-July 2011. The uncertain security situation in the Sahel following the fall of Qaddafi in Libya in late 2011 and the coup d’état in Mali on 22 March 2012 precluded the visit of a full delegation in 2012, and thus only the project directors undertook return visits to the region in the second round.
The objectives of our initial TSEP exchange programs were to comparatively examine different country experiences in grappling with important and difficult issues, and thus to contribute to discussions which could have real and substantive impact in the Trans-Saharan countries. On the U.S. side, the exposure to electoral issues in a set of African countries that are otherwise strikingly different provided the opportunity for unexpected insights and more nuanced understanding among American professionals about the challenges and promises of electoral democracy in Africa.
With the goal of building further on these exchanges, the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida has undertaken to develop and maintain this Trans-Saharan Elections project website. Having identified a set of themes that emerged as central to understanding electoral dynamics in the region, we recruited a specialist from each country to serve as country coordinator. The full team then met for an intensive weeklong seminar at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2013 to develop the material which you will find on this website.