One of the remarkable facts of history that re-emerged during the trial of Charles Taylor was the key role that Burkinabé President Blaise Compaoré played in the bloody wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s. When Taylor first landed in Burkina Faso, prior to his invasion of Liberia in 1989, Compaoré was a disgruntled army officer seeking to oust from power his one-time friend turned bitter rival, the populist President Thomas Sankara.
Although unproven, some rumours suggest that it was a member of Taylor’s own clique who killed Sankara in order to bring Compaoré to the presidency and gain his support for the upcoming campaign in Liberia. It has also been suggested that it was Compaoré who introduced Taylor to the late Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qhadafi, from whom Taylor received weapons and logistical support in exchange for future profits from the expected plundering of Liberia’s diamond and timber trade.
Furthermore, according to Richard Moncrieff then of the International Crisis Group (now the FCO), “Burkina Faso is landlocked and poor so he [Compaoré] had an eye for making money…by diamonds and so on.” The match with Taylor and his associates was, by all accounts, a win-win for everyone involved, except the millions who suffered the decade of violence that followed.
In power for almost twenty-five years, Compaoré at 61 is an old man of African politics. Re-elected several times in contests that were barely legitimate and hardly transparent, it is possible that he will retire from politics when his current term ends in 2015. His political supporters are however encouraging him to stay on through a revision of the term-limit statutes of the Burkinabé constitution. Looking elsewhere around the world where such statute fidgetings have taken place it is likely that many Burkinabé who feel Beau Blaise (as he is known) has been in power long enough will take to the streets in protest if he announces he wants to stay on. It’s anyone’s call how the army will react.
Despite criticism of his electoral tactics, there are certain facts about Burkina Faso that are hard to dispute. Namely, it is peaceful and developing faster than some of its neighbours (Mali and Niger, for example). However, as recently as 2011 the country was rocked by student protests and a near mutiny by the army. The culprit being a mixture of corruption, high prices and a political culture of impunity – all familiar motivators of civil unrest in developing countries.
Since the riots, the government has taken steps to undermine discontent by raising wages of civil servants and subsidizing food prices for the population at large. In an effort to hedge his bets on the future, Compaoré also pushed through legislation granting amnesty from prosecution for all former heads of state. Although actions like these raise eyebrows in foreign capitals, there is also no doubt that Compaoré’s personal involvement in resolving the Ivorian crisis, and his attempts at mediation in Mali, are much appreciated.
In some sense, the sheer length of his term in office has conferred legitimacy on Compaoré, even though a critical evaluation of his actions might suggest otherwise. The poverty needle for the majority of citizens has not budged over the decades of his rule. Many critical social institutions, most importantly the universities, are languishing for lack of government support. Foreign investors outside the natural resource sector are few and far between. Educated young people are looking to emigrate abroad.
Nevertheless, the feeling one gets in Oaugadougou is different from neighbouring capitals. The roads are wide and well maintained and even have a special lane for scooters, which makes driving reasonable and less like an anarchic video game. The media seems to be diverse, robust and relatively free, although it is unlikely that severe criticism of Compaoré would be tolerated.
The question is whether these social benefits are sufficient to keep Burkina Faso stable should Compaoré go, and perhaps more importantly, should he stay. His handling of the chaos of 2011 suggests a deft touch when it comes to satisfying all of the country’s political and social constituencies. However, with a measure of social peace at hand, several local observers note that real political reform has regressed in recent months making further disturbances very likely. Local political opponents suggest that Blaise’s plunge into international diplomacy is simply a tactic to divert attention away from domestic problems. He is assisted in this campaign to win international approval by his wife Chantal, who has taken a laudable role in the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM).
To call Blaise Compaoré a benign dictator seems a fair description, even if he claims legitimacy through contested elections. Because Burkina Faso has generally lacked geopolitical significance, foreign powers – especially former colonial master France – have turned a blind eye on the country’s democratic deficits. The murder of Thomas Sankara and the ultra-violence of the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia are a distant memory as the region faces new challenges in the form of radical Islam, climate change, endemic poverty and potential famine.
If Compaoré manages to retain power after 2015, if he becomes a key player in cementing the peace in Cote d’Ivoire and engineering one in Mali and if he fosters further development in Burkina Faso then he may never need to invoke his amnesty clause in the constitution. He will certainly never achieve the stature of a Mandela, but he can make a positive mark on the history of West Africa in the 21st Century. If, however, the energy of the Arab spring heads south and leaders like Compaoré are forced to yield to the legitimate democratic aspirations of the people then, like Mubarak, Assad and his old friend Qhadafi he may find himself on the wrong end of a very demanding stick.
Why leaders feel they must retain power beyond what their constitution calls for is one of the perennial issues in politics. We can chalk it up to narcissism, to the need to maintain patronage networks, to a fear of prosecution, or simply to the will to power – perhaps the most potent stimulant of all.
Burkina Faso has much to be proud of as a society, but it also has a long way to go in providing a decent life for the majority of its citizens. President Compaoré still has time in his political life to lead by example and provide a blueprint for development for the region. Whether his past demons and his desire to dominate the limelight will let him is another matter.
Michael Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has just completed a month long trip through Niger, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.
Coulibaly Nadoun is a Burkinabé journalist based in Ouagadougu.