This contribution proposes a general framework to explain why political parties fail to mobilize citizens along substantive issues in West Africa. We argue that many political issues exist, which could potentially mobilize African voters, but that most political parties struggle to capture these issues. Due to the youth of the electoral process and inexperience of opposition parties, as well as the shared profile of the political elite, candidates and parties struggle to differentiate and establish themselves as credible 'issue-owners'. When parties discuss issues, they focus on establishing their own competence in an issue-area, rather than claiming ownership of ideological space. Drawing on patterns we observed in six Francophone countries, we offer a typology of issues, as valence or unclaimed, to predict the likelihood that opposition parties engage with them in their electoral campaigns.