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 Côte 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 François 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 mère 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 Côte 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 Côte 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.