Comparing the Prime Ministers of the Sahel

Who are the current prime ministers of the five core Sahelian countries, and what do their careers and approaches tell us about Sahelian politics? A few basic patterns emerge. In education, a combination of domestic government schoolings, STEM specializations, and some overseas training helped to fast-track their careers. In the first phases of their careers, employment within the civil service and particularly within state-owned enterprises was the means of ascent; often simultaneously, these men (they’re all men) either built parallel political careers within political parties, or at least (from within the civil service) weathered major shakeups in the political scene around them. The pivotal decade, in all cases, appears to have been the 1990s – in their 30s and 40s, they solidified positions as insiders that they have maintained ever since.

In the current political environment, the default model is that of a military head of state with a career politician or civil servant as prime minister; Niger is the only fully civilian-civilian lineup, in the sense that the head of state there is neither a current nor retired soldier. Two additional takeaways: (1) military heads of state have deep benches of technocrats and career civilian politicians to draw on when forming governments, even in some of the world’s poorest countries; (2) military heads of state in the region prefer civilian to military prime ministers, even if soldiers sometimes take up other key ministries in governments; and (3) in some cases, there are political rewards for the ability to strategically tack back and forth between the ruling party and the opposition, just as there are rewards for repeatedly seeking the presidency even if one doesn’t win it. None of those patterns are particularly unique to the Sahel, of course. One other interesting detail is that all three of the prime ministers in the core conflict zone of the Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – hail from the conflict zones themselves. Such origins, however, don’t necessarily give these men any particular advantage in attempting to manage or resolve those conflicts.

Here are the biographical sketches:

Mauritania – Mohamed Ould Bilal Messoud (b. 1963, Rosso): Ould Bilal Messoud is a technocrat and engineer with a background in hydraulics and business administration; parts of his education were in Algeria, Senegal, and possibly Europe. Since 1991, he has risen through the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Political turbulence in Mauritania between 2005 and 2009 clearly did not hurt his career, which continued to advance after the coup of 2005 against longtime ruler Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya; he then moved into his first ministerial position (as Minister of Facilities, Urban Planning, and Housing) under the short-lived civilian administration of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi; he then headed up several state-run enterprises after the coup of 2008 and the coming to power of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (military head of state 2008-2009, civilian head of state 2009-2019). In 2020, Ould Bilal Messoud became prime minister after allegations of corruption brought down his predecessor, Ismail Bedde Ould Cheikh Sidiyya. From what I observe, Ould Bilal Messoud does not have a particularly big profile, perhaps by choice.

Mali – Choguel Kokalla Maïga (b. 1958, Tabango): Maïga is another engineer, in this case with a specialty in telecommunications; he graduated with a doctorate from the Moscow Telecommunications Institute in 1987/1988. Politically active as a supporter of Mali’s then-military ruler Moussa Traoré, Maïga built a career from 1990-2002 at the Mali Telecommunications Firm (Société des Télécommunications du Mali), rising through the ranks there even as Traoré fell in 1991. Meanwhile, Maïga became the leader of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MPR), a successor party to Traoré’s party the Democratic Union of the Malian People; under the MPR banner, Maïga ran for president in the open elections of 2002, placing seventh with under 3% of the vote. He again placed seventh in the open elections of 2013 and then scored eighth in the 2018 elections, each time receiving a slightly lower percentage of the vote. Maïga was appointed transitional prime minister by Mali’s current junta in June 2021, after the junta perpetrated its second coup (the first was in August 2020, the second was in May 2021).

Burkina Faso – Albert Ouedraogo (b. 1969, Dori): Ouedraogo has a background in management sciences, having received a doctorate in that subject in 1999 from Caen-Normandy University in France. From 1996-2002, he taught at the University of Ouagadougou, and then fashioned a long and apparently extremely successful career in the private sector (including at Deloitte) and then as a government consultant on a wide array of technical projects. His previous overt political experience was limited to some student activism, but when the Burkinabè junta (came to power January 2022) was seeking a transitional prime minister, Ouedraogo may have appealed to military ruler Paul-Henri Damiba not just because of Ouedraogo’s technocratic credentials, but also because he is close to Damiba’s uncle Pierre Claver Damiba, the first president of the West African Development Bank.

Niger – Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou (b. 1954, Amaloul Nomade): Mahamadou has a background in economics and public administration, having studied in Togo, France, and the United States. A career civil servant from 1979 to 1991, he was also a founding member of the Nigerien Party of Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) in 1990; the PNDS is the party of Niger’s immediate past President Mahamadou Issoufou and the current President Mohamed Bazoum. During the 1990s and 2000s, Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou was in and out of the Nigerien government while also taking up major posts at the regional and international levels. He served twice as minister (Mines, Energy, Industry, and Crafts from 1991-1993, and Finance from 2011-2012), once as chief of staff (to Issoufou, 2015-2020), was elected twice as deputy from his home Tahoua Region (2011 and 2020), with stints at the Economic Community of West African States, the African Development Foundation, and other such organizations along the way. He was appointed in 2021 as Bazoum’s first prime minister, replacing Issoufou’s longtime prime minister, Brigi Raffini.

Chad – Albert Pahimi Padacké (b. 1966, Gouin; more biographical details here): At least in my research so far, I have not found details of Padacké’s biography between his birth and 1990, when he entered government. Since 1990, under the rule of Presidents Idriss Deby (1990-2021) and Mahamat Deby (2021-present), Padacké has been a major civilian figure associated with the regime, holding ministerial posts on and off: Finance, Commerce, Mines, Agriculture, Justice, Communication, etc., before being appointed Prime Minister in 2016. The post of prime minister was abolished in 2018, but then was resuscitated under the transitional military regime of Mahamat Deby, who appointed Padacké as his first and so far only PM. During the 2000s and up through the 2021 election (won by Idriss Deby just days before his death), Padacké was a frequent candidate for president (2006, 2011, 2021). In 2011 and 2021 he was a distant runner-up, scoring 6% to Deby’s 89% in 2011, and scoring 10% to Deby’s 79% in 2021. If one feels cynical (I do), one could say that Padacké was not a convincing opposition figure, given how many times he served in Deby’s governments – including, by some accounts, serving during the 2006 elections. Mahamat Deby would not have made him PM, it seems to me, if Padacké was not an insider through and through.