Burkina Faso: Blaise Compaoré and the politics of personal enrichment – By Peter Dí¶rrie

Blaise Compaoré: 'the only African head of state who managed to dramatically limit the development of his country without declaring outright war on it.'

By African standards, Burkina Faso is not a particularly spectacular country. It is small, has a tiny population and internal politics which most foreign correspondents tend to find somewhat pedestrian. No wonder that it receives only little attention, even in Africa-focused publications.

In those rare cases when something is published on the internal politics of Burkina, it often only scratches the surface and conveys a deceiving image of the country and its primary actors.

The recent piece on African Arguments “˜Compaoré’s Continuing Will to Power’ by Michael Keating and Coulibaly Nadoun is a perfect case in point. It leaves the reader with two main impressions:

1. While Compaoré hasn’t been a democratic role model, he has managed to foster a certain amount of development (“˜wide and well maintained’ streets, etc.), under difficult circumstances.

2. He has a dark past of cooperation with rebel groups in other countries, but has recently shown a lot of initiative in resolving conflicts in the region, like the post-election violence in Cí´te d’Ivoire or the civil war in northern Mali and securing the release of western hostages held in the Sahara by Al Qaida affiliated groups. What’s more, he has prevented his own country from descending into the all out civil wars experienced by many of its neighbours.

Compared to contemporaries like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the late Libyan ruler Muammar Al Ghaddafi and Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Compaoré has indeed kept a low profile and has managed to prevent himself becoming associated with the worst expressions of African political life  – at least not in his own country. But a more critical assessment of his legacy and method of government demonstrates that he is in no way the “˜benign dictator’ that Keating and Nadoun would like him to be.

To adequately judge Blaise Compaoré’s record of bringing development and prosperity to his people, it is first of all important to remind oneself that he has been in power since 1987, a full quarter of a century. More than half the population of his country has only known his rule.

Despite the period of peace that Burkina experienced during this time, and a comparatively generous 13 Billion US Dollars in international development assistance, the country still ranks only 181st out of 187 countries in terms of human development. All of the other bottom ten countries in the HDI ranking experienced devastating civil wars during this time – except Guinea, which instead had to put up with a brutal military dictatorship. To put it bluntly: Blaise Compaoré is the only African head of state who managed to dramatically limit the development of his country without declaring outright war on it.*

Not to be misunderstood: Of course most indicators of economic and human development improved during the 25 year term of Blaise Compaoré – but so much slower than in most other African nations that his lack of interest in lifting his population out of poverty can hardly be denied. Instead, Compaoré is obviously more concerned with developing his own personal fortune and that of his entourage.

This can be observed clearly by visiting Ouaga2000, a newly built, extravagant part of the capital, where one can indeed find the “˜wide and well maintained’ roads that Keating and Nadoun mention in their article. While the rest of the city (not to speak of the rest of the country) has only a handful of surfaced roads, in Ouaga2000 new SUVs glide over a pristine tarmac in front of lavish villas and luxury hotels.

The tiny upper class, which ostentatiously shows off its wealth in this district, is the only real beneficiary of Compaoré’s rule. While Burkina hasn’t got the riches of some of its neighbours, the ruling elite has managed to find significant profits from gold mining, cotton production and development assistance. An example: One company among the many owned by the mother in law of Blaise’s brother Franí§ois was contracted to build a new road between the regional hubs Koudougou and Dédougou. While the road should have been finished long ago it constantly requires further public investment, whilst the “˜belle mí¨re de la nation’ has become the richest women in the country.

While certainly exploitative, Compaoré has been smart in securing the support of important elites, allowing him to rule by co-option rather than by force. His predecessor Thomas Sankara (killed during a coup led by Compaoré) attempted to limit the power of traditional rulers and emancipate the country from conservative and authoritarian rule. Compaoré by contrast embraced the conservative elements of society, securing their privileges and making them the foundation of his power.

To sum it up, it is hard to find any other head of state who puts his own interest and that of his cronies so clearly above the needs of his population, completely undisturbed by ideological considerations.

This is also demonstrated by activity in the regional and international sphere, where Compaoré recently received a lot of goodwill due to his “˜commitment’ to mediate in various conflicts. Looking closely at his approach to mediation and the results of his diplomacy, three aspects are noteworthy:

1. He usually “˜solves’ conflicts in which he is deeply involved himself. This is true for example in the case of Cí´te d’Ivoire, where he supplied the northern rebels with arms and recruits before stepping in as a mediator.

2. His mediation has never proved to be sustainable. Be it his involvement in negotiations between Tuareg rebels and the Malian government or the aforementioned conflict in Cí´te d’Ivoire: the parties he “˜brought to the table’ were at each other’s throat again soon after.

3. This suggests that his objective is not to resolve the conflicts he purports to manage, but to make himself indispensable in the region, lest one of his neighbours or a western donor might get the idea that Burkina would be better off without him. It is a strategy to consolidate personal power, not to seek peace and reconciliation.

Beyond its initial appearance, Compaoré’s legacy becomes clear: his rule has not benefited Burkina Faso in any tangible way. Instead, he has treated the country and its limited resources as his property, to the benefit of a small ruling elite designed to secure his power. That he has managed to avoid directly killing a large part of his population in the process shouldn’t win him any praise, written or otherwise.

*Make no mistake though: Opposing the ruling elite can be just as dangerous in Burkina as in other authoritarian countries. Just ask the children of Norbert Zongo, a journalist killed for investigating the involvement of Compaoré’s brother in a murder.

Peter Dí¶rrie is a freelance journalist reporting on security, politics and development in Africa. He is based in Ouagadougou and tweets as @PeterDoerrie.

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26 thoughts on “Burkina Faso: Blaise Compaoré and the politics of personal enrichment – By Peter Dí¶rrie

  1. Pingback: African Arguments: Blaise Compaoré And The Politics Of Personal Enrichment | peter dörrie

  2. While you make some interesting points, and my knowledge of the country is limited, I think it’s unfair to say that the roads are only decent if you visit Ouaga2000. I travelled around the city quite a lot during a few days there in May and without ever visiting Ouaga2000, and I was impressed by the ring roads. Perhaps it depends on where you compare it to, but I think for a West African capital there’s a lot to be impressed with in this regard. I know Burkinabe friends living in Cote d’Ivoire are similarly impressed even if they don’t always speak nicely about the president!

  3. Hi John,

    thanks for your comment. I appreciate your perspective but have to say that I stand by my analysis. It is true that the ring roads are in a good state at the moment. But this is exactly the “handful” of roads that I mentioned.

    I guess you can always find a capital/large city, where the situation is even worse (I certainly know some of those). But the main point of the article is NOT to frantically search for a place where the situation is worse, just to be able to say that Compaoré did an acceptable job. He didn’t. Of course, some roads in Ouaga are in a good state, but compared to what could have been done to improve the infrastructure, if the administration handled the resources of the country well, the situation is abyssal.

    On a larger scale, my intention is to point out that local constituencies and international donors should attempt a critical assessment of the performance of governments and heads of states – in Africa and elsewhere. With “critical” I don’t mean “negative”, but consciously asking if the individual or institution in question really did their best in light of the circumstances and which interests define their agenda. Of course this would be less comfortable than just throwing money at the symptoms of bad governance, corruption and paternalism, but maybe it would actually help some people.

  4. This is a great piece, keenly observed, and much needed.

    Can I note that one of the two main interlocutors for French and U.S. involvement in the Mali crisis is Burkina? That Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole is flying into Gao and Kidal leading negotiations with Islamists and militias, or that he spent the better part of a month in Kati & Bamako negotiating with/drafting statements for Captain-President Sanogo? That the disgraced MNLA Gao leadership was evacuated by air to Ougadougou the moment they were ousted by a tiny Islamist milita? That Western hostages released from AQIM and related groups — with no ransom paid by European governments they stress — have since 2009 always been transported first to Ougadougou? It is undeniable that large and increasing amount of western money and indirect power now flows though this very broken Burkinabe system.

    Blaise learned well from his old ally Gaddaffi how to use local proxies and even small amounts of weapons and money to create and (never quite) solve big problems in other people’s societies. Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Tchad may grab the headlines, but the pernicious game was played from Cassamance to Timbuktu and most places between. It gave Lybia far greater influence in West Africa than the same amount of money delivered by China or the United States.

    The sudden end of this Libyan “management” is as much to blame for Mali’s recent destabilization than the number of guns and fighters which flowed in from the Libyan civil war. If Blaise continues to make himself indispensable, it creates an ecosystem in which low level conflicts are continually propagated, only to spiral out of hand when he leaves the stage. If they still refuse to see the suffering of the Bukinabe people, Western governments who now feed the Compaoré system in the name of regional stability should think hard on what will come at harvest.

  5. John, I would stand by Peter as well. I’ve been living in Ouagadougou the past 2 months and having previously traveled to 13 other African countries, including the Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and the DRC, I find the level of underdevelopment in Burkina Faso (and here I’m speaking now just about the roads, but also the education system, literacy rate, etc), given the relative peace, to be shocking and sad, a true waste of opportunity.

  6. @Tommy:

    Thanks for your comment! Yes, the role of Compaoré in “managing” (in the most ambivalent sense of the word) is not very well understood by his western donors and would warrant an article on its own (hmmm …). He is of course not the only one playing this kind of game, even after Gaddhafi has left the stage. In Africa, men and governments with regional ambitions are still meddling in the affairs of their neighbors, albeit less overt than it was the case in the 90s.

    It seems to be a really succesful strategy though, seeing that some of the worst offenders (Burkina, Ethiopia, Rwanda) are also the biggest donor darlings.


    Thanks for your comment and support in the matter as well. I think so far everybody who lived in Burkina for a longer time and has read the piece reacted much as you did.

  7. Blaise Campaore is an, as yet, unindicted war criminal with a bloody track record that goes back decades. In addition to his trafficking in blood diamonds and drugs he has sheltered criminals of all sorts in Burkina Faso and supplied weapons from France and Libya to civil uprisings in Guinea, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Liberia.

    he man in charge of the drugs business was Ibrahim Bah, a Libyan-trained former Senegalese rebel and the RUF’s principal diamond dealer. After fighting with the Casamance separatist movement in Senegal in the 1970s, Bah trained in Libya under the protection of Col. Moammar Gaddafi. He spent several years in the early 1980s fighting alongside Muslim guerrillas against Soviet forces in Afghanistan where he participated in the creation of Al Qaida. He then left to fight alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon. He returned to West Africa, to Ouagadougou, where he is sheltered and protected by the President, Blaise Campaore. Campaore was already using Burkina Faso as a depot for arms to the RUF, Liberia and the rebels of the Ivory Coast. He took, and takes, his share of the blood diamond money whether they are sold to Al Qaida or Hezbollah.

    The involvement of principal figures of Al Qaida in the brood diamond business is well documented.The Al Qaida and Hezbollah involvement in the illegal trade in diamonds, gold and other gemstones has tied in organised criminal activities with Islamic fundamentalism in the region, provoking a clash between the Islamists and the Christian/Animists. It has sparked civil unrest, as with Boku Haram in Nigeria and created a criminal enterprise which has taken over the Ivory Coast.

    With the French-inspired and funded rebellion against the government of Gbagbo in 2001 the country was divided. The legitimate government of Gbagbo ruled in the South but the country was divided by a military line provided by the French Force Licorne and the United Nations peacekeepers. The North was free and protected to get on with its own businesses. It was run by tin pot warlords who drew their strength from their marauding bands of mercenaries, misfits and sociophobes who created little kingdoms of their own which they ran win rapacious style. They paid no taxes, they paid no rents; they paid no duties and they provided no social services. They stole everything they could find and shipped it out, usually via their home base in Burkina Faso.

    In Burkina Faso, under the aegis of Blaise Campaore, they were introduced to the buyers from Hezbollah and Al Qaida. Ivory Coast has diamond mines. Illicit diamond mining in the northern part of Ivory Coast still continues and provides a healthy stream of diamonds to Al Qaida, especially Al Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

    There are four big mines – Bobi, Diarabala, Seguela and Tortiya. The US sent a CIA team in to discover what was happening, now that Ouattara is notionally President. They attempted to trace the origin of around 300,000 carats produced locally last year and which generated earnings of roughly USD 25 million. The business is mainly controlled by two warlords, Issiaka Ouattara AKA “Wattao” and Herve Toure AKA “Vetcho.” The diamonds are smuggled out mainly through Mali and Guinea before ending up on the international market in Tel Aviv. These warlords are the backbone of the new Ivory Coast Army and tied closely to the Prime Minister, Soro. With the support of Campaore and the needs of the new Army it is very unlikely that Soro will heed the call of his feeble President to stop the sale of blood diamonds to Al Qaida or to stop paying Campaore.

    That is the role of Campaore you left out.

  8. I am glad this article was published and I also enjoyed reading all the comments.
    I agree with Diana’s comment. (I’ve known Burkina since 1997, I lived there between 2000 and 2002 and since then I spend at least a month there every year.)
    Ouaga 2000 is an impressive part of the city for those of us who know the country for a long time, but it doesn’t represent the reality of the rest of the country. The roads are bad even in the capital as Peter says. And compared to other African countries (I only know 12 others, so I can not speak for the whole continent) the country is still very underdeveloped.
    About the roads: just take the 350 km drive on the country’s main road down to its second largest town, Bobo Dioulasso, also know as the economic capital of Burkina. Potholes galore. And this is a road that over the years of my knowing Burkina had received so much ‘aid’ money it is ridiculous. Every 12 or 18 months the road is repaired and we hear about dozens of millions of Euros invested into someones pockets, since they do not make it to the road. It is pathetic. You only have to drive over the border to Ghana to see what a proper road looks like (of course last time I was in Ghana was 2006 but the Tamele road was amazing (and my Burkinabe fellow travelers could not stop praising it)
    In Bobo Dioulasso they cut down dozens and dozens od ancient trees to expand one of the roads for the celebration of the Independece. It is just about the only good road in town, everything else, even the Boulevard, the main road in town is full of potholes that are getting bigger all the time. When I drive from my house in one of the suburbs to the city center, I have to be careful to find the one or two roads that are not full of potholes.
    You need a 4×4 in Burkina not to go off road, but to stay on the main road.

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  10. Burkina Faso had overall real GDP growth about 2.2% per capita over the Compaoré years 1987-2009 (according to WDI 2011). A handful of African countries had higher overall growth rates, most were mineral-rich countries in southern Africa. Chad did better because of oil.

    All of Burkina’s neighbors did worse on GDP per capita indicator. All of the statistical evidence suggests that Burkina Faso is in the middle to upper-third of the pack, especially taking into account that it started at pretty much rock-bottom (light-investment by the French colonial authorities, long non-development rule of Sangoule Lamizana, landlocked, multi-ethic, Sahelian geography…). Gold exports have grown greatly in recent years, but government royalty rates are perhaps a little low but not exceptionally low (according to EITI reports government gets overall about 10% of export value), and so only add up to a couple hundred million USD per year, not even exceeding aid levels.

    If aid is misappropriated, perhaps equal blame is on donors, who play right into the hands of corrupt elite by approving large infrastructure projects that are the easiest to “skim” rather than transparent, replicable, small-scale projects where it would be harder to extract large amounts.

    I appreciate very much Peter’s analysis, but too often a handful of anecdotes (potholes? really?) replace a more distanced and methodical approach (and overall statistics, unless blatantly false, are what we have to go by, no?). Of course, these overall GDP per capita rates may mask widening inequality. Ouaga 2000 is, in the eyes of most Burkinabè, the proof of widening inequality. And indeed many statistical analyses point to persisting, entrenched stubborn and high indicators of poverty. Overall slow and steady growth in GDP is not having a large anti-poverty effect.

    But that observation does not immediately lead to a conclusion in terms of large-scale change in policy. Jeffrey Sachs is not going to do much better for Burkina, in terms of overall growth, than Blaise Compaoré. We may wish there was some magic way for a very poor country to grow at 8% a year without large-scale mineral resources, but there are very few examples to go by.

    Burkina remains very poor, with poorly developed institutions. Any analysis presumes that the transition when Compaoré “leaves” will be messy indeed. Compaoré needs to be chastised right and left for that. Indeed, it is shocking given all the mediation that Burkina is doing, all resulting from instability arising from regime transitions, that Compaoré’s circle does not even take this most elementary lesson and move much more quickly to engineer a better “safe landing” from what remains, despite all the protestations of état de droit, a regime d’exception.

    Overall, Compaoré’s failing after 25-30 years is not being anti-development, it is being anti-institutions.

  11. @Michael:

    thanks for your perspective. I think you are right and wrong at the same time: Compaoré’s legacy is indeed about anti-institutions, but it is also about anti-development. On the connection between the two, see Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s excellent work: http://whynationsfail.com/

    And I think I demonstrated quite well that even in developmental terms (Human Development, though, not GDP), Burkina is doing worse than practically every other country in the world despite having a better framework (peace) than many.

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  15. I feel for Burkina faso given their history the people there must be in fear of their lifes…. compaore is a devil. his time will come.

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  24. How does the US invite this murderer not to mention, dictator to the White House for a summit on African economy when this man (using the term loosely) has maintained his country in the bottom ‘least developed country in the world’ through blood, oppression, co options and corruption? I guess his links to Charles Taylor, Garddafi and other tyrants who lorded or lord over the region is minute to the economic war between the U.S and China over Africa. $)9k democracy, lets talk about that once we are in!

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