Unrest: Burkina Faso's opposition supporters protest against a proposal to amend the constitution to extend Compaore's 27-year-rule, 28 October. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Exiled strongman: The tricky legacy of Blaise Compaoré

Impoverished Burkina Faso now has a military government, led by interim president Isaac Zida, who has promised a rapid handover to civilian rule but given no date for this transition.

On 31 October, Blaise Compaoré, the strongman who held Burkina Faso together for 27 years, went into exile following street protests against his attempt to extend his rule once again. The impoverished West African country now has a military government, led by the interim president, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, who has promised a rapid handover to civilian rule but has given no date for this transition.

Compaoré’s departure will be greeted with mixed emotions by western policymakers. Although his reputation was grim, there is deep concern that one of the west’s few secure allies in an unstable region has been overthrown.

Diplomats had few illusions about the man sometimes dubbed “handsome Blaise”. Compaoré was a repressive ruler who ruthlessly eliminated his opposition. Two ministers were executed in 1989 after denouncing the government’s “right-wing drift” and the country became a virtual one-party state. In 2011, he brutally crushed protests by students and the military.

Compaoré was also a notorious womaniser. Female foreign correspondents carefully avoided late-night “Burkinabé discussions” with the president. A leaked US diplomatic cable from 2008 quoted the views of a French diplomat about their mutual ally. Compaoré was reported to have a “reputation as a sexual ‘gourmand’ whose appetite was so strong that he had previously had ‘Rasputin-like’ escapades with the wife of at least one of his cabinet ministers”.

Compaoré overthrew the previous regime in 1983 with the help of Thomas Sankara. The presidency went to Sankara, who eschewed ceremony and good living. He developed a cult following and became known as the Che Guevara of Africa. Within four years, relations between the two men had soured. Sankara was assassinated and Compaoré assumed power. Compaoré always denied having a hand in Sankara’s death, describing it as “an accident”, but many in Burkina Faso did not believe him.

Having secured the presidency, he began consolidating his position. He made friends with key regional leaders. He had been close to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for years. He also maintained good relations with the notorious Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. A web of influence soon extended from Burkina Faso across West Africa and northwards, across the Sahara.

As a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) put it: “For 25 years, he has ensured he did not fall out with anybody.” The result was a reliable flow of foreign aid, averaging $400m a year – which accounted for 80 per cent of public expenditure. Compaoré cultivated his image as a man who could do deals with almost anyone. The ICG described how Burkina Faso “developed a kind of ‘mediation industry’, which has brought it political and economic dividends”.

Several times, Compaoré intervened to secure the release of hostages held by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which reinforced his reputation in international capitals. Burkina Faso was strategically placed between Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamists who threatened to capture Niger and Mali. It was an island of stability that could be relied on to provide the west with a friendly reception.

The US military began building its presence in Burkina Faso in 2007, when it signed a deal that enabled the Pentagon to establish a joint special operations air detachment in Ouagadougou. By the end of 2009, around 65 American military personnel and contractors were working in the country. An ­investigation by the Washington Post in 2012 found that the US had established around a dozen air bases in Africa from which planes or drones could operate across the continent. Burkina Faso was at the heart of these.

For Washington and Paris, the loss of Compaoré as a regional ally has come at a difficult time. For all their early promise, the Arab Spring revolutions have destabilised North Africa and allowed militant Islamist groups to flourish. The threat to western interests is evident. From the west’s perspective, the arrival of men such as the Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is by far preferable to the chaos now reigning in Libya.

The US has not yet decided whether the events in Burkina Faso represent a coup – a situation that would require cutting aid. It is too early to predict who will replace Compaoré, but it would be no surprise if the next president had a military background and was someone capable of ensuring that the country remains a western bulwark in this troubled region. l

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Getty
Show Hide image

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.