On October 15, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso will celebrate his 25th year in power. To spend that much time in office, he had to run coups against two governments. In the first in 1983, he helped his friend and fellow revolutionary Thomas Sankara become president. In the second, four years later, Compaoré took power. Sankara was killed and Compaoré lost all appetite for socialism. He put in place a system of power so exploitative that 25 years later Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.
During this time, Compaoré has expertly managed to keep local elites and international donors happy, and marginalise all political opposition in Burkina Faso. It attests to his political prowess that he has had a hand in virtually all civil wars in the region, from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast and Mali, but has been able to keep an exceptionally low profile internationally, avoiding criticism from western donors and NGOs. […]
I'm extremely happy to have a piece about Burkina Faso/Blaise Compaoré published on the excellent African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society today. The article developed from this earlier rant and develops some arguments further.
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. […]
I was incredibly happy to see that the African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society published an article on Burkina Faso today. Well researched analysis of political affairs here are few and far between and usually, African Arguments is the place to go for this kind of stuff.
The piece titled "Compaoré's Continuing Will to Power", by Michael Keating and Coulibaly Nadoun, showed some initial promise, tackling the dark past of President Compaoré's 25 year reign over Burkina and delving into the question, if he has the will to push this reign over the constitutional term limit of the 2015 election. But then the article unfortunately degrades quite a bit, with little critical analysis regarding Compaoré's legacy as a leader of the Burkinabé state and his current involvement in regional politics.
Let's start with his frantic efforts at mediating in every conflict in the wider region, which are internationally "much appreciated" as Keating and Nadoun assure us. Clearly, the region has plenty of those and everybody would be happy to have a skilled and capable mediator bringing the parties to a table and negotiating a peaceful solution. The post-election violence in Côte d'Ivoire and the current rebellion in North Mali come to mind. But while Compaoré has jumped at every opportunity to involve himself with these conflicts, his success must be questioned. With regard to Côte d'Ivoire, he is hardly a neutral power, having organized financial and military support for the northern Rebels, as well as allowing them to recruit fighters in Burkina, basically helping to "resolve" a conflict he helped to create. In Mali, he has been involved in negotiating a settlement for the 2007-09 Tuareg rebellion. This basically followed the pattern of all settlements in this conflict before it: money and army positions for the fighters, hollow promises of political participation and development for the population. Needless to say that the "peace" held only a good two years.
I would argue that President Compaoré follows one objective in these negotiations and one only: To secure a maximum of regional political cloud, so as nobody (western donors included) gets funny ideas like supporting the domestic burkinabé opposition. He has without doubt succeeded in this, though I fail to see how the resulting length of his term - bought through marginalizing all local opposition and keeping outside intervention at bay - "in some sense confers legitimacy" on him, like Keating and Nadoun would have it.
Which brings us to the question of Compaoré's legacy of bringing development/wealth/health/enter-your-favourite-indicator-here to his people. Keating and Nadoun concede that "the poverty needle for the majority of citizens has not budged" during his 25 years in office, but they argue that the feeling of Ouagadougou (the capital) "is different from neighboring capitals" and that "the streets are wide and well maintained", building the argument up to the crescendo that Compaoré deserves to be called a "benign" dictator.
Regarding the streets: Wide they are, but you may judge the typical level of maintenance on the picture on the top of this article. I took this ten minutes ago, stepping out of my front door. The house of the local mayor is two houses down on the same street. Every street in Ouagadougou looks more or less similar, safe the main arteries and some streets in the city center (but not even there all are paved). Those which are paved have often been patched over many times, making for a bumpy ride on a Scooter, which becomes downright dangerous due to the many ginourmos potholes.
I honestly fail to see how you would have something positive to say about President Compaoré in the department of development. After 25 years in office, only every fifth Burkinabé is literate. After 25 years in office, almost 40% of all children under the age of five are underweight. In 2015, when his current term ends, Burkina Faso will likely not reach a single Millenium development goal.
Meanwhile, years of subtle but deadly (ask the children of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo) suppression has left Burkina without a political opposition to speak of. The government is filled with relatives and cronies and the army is so undisciplined and incapable, that nobody even mentioned them when it was discussed who should provide the troops for an intervention in Mali (this is probably on purpose, as Compaoré knows the danger of a well organized army, having used one in two coup d'États himself).
The only possible nice thing to say about Blaise Compaoré is that he has kept his country from the all-out civil wars that some neighboring countries descended into. If that is really enough to describe an African statesman as reasonably successful in an article on a respected blog on African affairs, (West) Africa is in a sorry state indeed.
I could go on about how the article left out some important aspects of the coming 2015 power struggle in Burkina, like the role of Blaise Compaoré's brother as a possible successor. But I have already written enough. If you are interested, I will cover this in a future post. Interested?