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
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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

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.