UF political science professor receives $1.25 million grant from Department of Defense

May 17, 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a University of Florida professor $1.25 million to study factors affecting political stability in the African Sahel, the region south of the Sahara Desert.

The award is part of the DOD’s Minerva Research Initiative, a university-based social science research program started by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates to increase the nation’s understanding of regions and topics considered important to U.S. national security. The funding will support a three-year effort by a team of UF faculty and graduate students to study various aspects of culture and politics in the nations of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The project should yield valuable insight into a poorly understood area of emerging global importance and establish UF as a key center for research on the Sahel region.

“These countries are among the least developed and least studied nations on Earth,” said Leonardo Villalon, the UF associate professor of political science and African studies who received the award. “And until recently they have been considered sort of a sleepy backwater in the world scene.”

But that is changing quickly as new threats to stability develop in the region, he said. Turmoil from Arab Spring uprisings in Northern Africa and disruptive forces from Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia are reaching south across the Saharan Desert and infiltrating what has historically been a peaceful region.


“Because they can,” Villalon said. “Political structures in the Sahel are fragile and susceptible to pressure from the outside.”

Years of drought coupled with a fast-growing population and few options for economic development have created enormous strain on governments in the Sahel region. To their credit, these states have managed to maintain a largely peaceful existence despite the challenges, he said.

But the recent coup in Mali suggests that the once peaceful Sahel may not be able to withstand political turmoil flowing from bordering nations like Libya. Men from Niger and Mali reportedly recruited to fight in Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s army are returning home and generating unrest. In Mali, the situation has deteriorated to the point where the democratically elected president has been ousted by a military junta, a situation that is causing great concern for the U.S.

“The catastrophe unfolding in Mali as a result of the conflict in Libya was actually a potential vulnerability we identified when we applied for the award,” Villalon said. “It turned out to be an unfortunately prescient statement.”

The award will fund field research in six nations of the Sahel that will serve as the basis for academic publications and other educational resources. Beyond academia, the results of the research may be of use for journalists and the general public, as well as for the DOD and U.S. policymakers. More importantly, said Villalon, the work will help institutionalize ongoing efforts at UF to build a university research-based training ground for the next generation of political scientists specializing in this region of the world.

“The grant builds on previous work we’ve been doing at UF,” said Villalon. “It’s not just a project we dreamed up out of the blue.” Villalon has studied issues at the intersection of politics and religion in the Sahel for more than 20 years.

This week, Villalon and UF colleagues are hosting visiting scholars and election officials from the Sahel as part of a two-year-long program funded by the U.S. Department of State called The Trans-Saharan Elections Project. Last year, a similar delegation of U.S. professionals visited Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal to tour election facilities and meet with election administrators and political leaders.

“This is an important collaboration that we are building between ourselves and our African colleagues,” he said. “The award gives us an opportunity to dramatically increase our understanding of the complex issues that underpin stability in this region.”