“The roads are wide and well maintained …”

"Well maintained" road in Ouagadougou. My picture.

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?

  • Andy Kubrin

    Nice piece, Peter. Yes, I’m interested in hearing about Blaise’s brother.

    • Glad you like it, Andy. I’ll write something about this stuff, maybe even for African Arguments (I’m discussing that with the editor at the moment), so watch this space ;-)

  • Liza Debevec

    I agree with your  comment on the African arguments website and I also posted my comment there (which is currently awaiting moderation). I think it is terrible that someone traveling through Burkina Faso for less than a month is allowed to write such claims on a supposedly respectable website like that one.

    • Hi Liza, thanks for your comment. Generally, I wouldn’t oppose publishing something on African Arguments, even if the author hasn’t spend much time at the scene. In this case, there is even a second author who seems to be a local Burkinabé journalist. So local knowledge doesn’t seem to be the real problem.

      I don’t know nothing about Mr. Nadoun and his agenda (everybody, me included, has one). So I can’t comment on why he went along with the “well maintained roads” claim, even though he has to know it better.

      Mr. Keating on the other hand seems to be a classical “development tourist”. The short time he spend in Burkina isn’t the only problem – that he neglected to do his own research certainly is a weightier one.

      One doesn’t need to be “in the know” to discover that Blaise Compaoré didn’t take good care of his people. One glance at the statistics page of the World Bank or UNDP is enough.

      What really angers me is how despots like Mr. Compaoré manage to develop a level of acceptance due to careless reporting like this. That way, journalists and researchers bear part of the responsibility for keeping people like him in power for decades.

      • Liza Debevec

         I am not sure as I have no proof for this, but I would assume that someone who works as a journalist for Sidwaaya like Mr Coulibaly Nadoun (somehow I think Coulibaly is the family name, as it is a common family name in Mande speaking societies), may wish to keep his job and doesn’t want to get in trouble (remember what happened to Norbert Zongo)

        • Yes, that is a possible assumption. But I don’t know anything about him (and couldn’t find out anything with a quick google search), so I’m not going to speculate about his agenda/interests.

  • Phaedra Haywood

    very interested

  • Liza

    I thought you could be interested in this article and also see the comment no1 where the person speaks about how roads are often built in Burkina and 6 months later they turn into potholes (I have also observed this in 15 years of knowing BUrkina faso ( in fact every year the road between Bobo and Ouaga is repaired and next time I come back, half of it is in a terrible state) and millions of euros are spent


    • Thanks for the link, Liza. Yes, the durability of the infrastructure is another matter that is often less well discussed than the glitzy opening ceremonies. Which is a shame, really.