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

Lizzie Porter
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Where the Yazidis fled next

Two years ago this month, Islamic State slaughtered thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq. What happened to those who made it to Europe?

In the foothills of Mount Olympus, the location of the Petra refugee camp in Greece should make it a haven. Surrounded by pine trees, with the snow-topped summit of the gods’ mythological home in the distance, the quiet refuge houses groups of women sitting peacefully in the shade. Families cook vegetable pasties in hot oil and children dance in circles on sun-parched grass.

In reality, it is not, of course, an idyll. The tented site – on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital – is home to 1,300 of the 4,000 Yazidis currently in Greece. They fled the Islamic State advance on their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, when the terror group slaughtered 5,000 of their kin in an internationally recognised genocide.

But while these members of the religious minority escaped the immediate danger of IS, they found fear and poverty in their flight.

They are among 50,000 people trapped on Greek soil after European countries shut their borders in March. Housed in camps with poor water, electricity and food supplies, there is disquiet between ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidis.

The ethno-religious group, who numbered 600,000 in Iraq before the arrival of IS, follow a non-Abrahamic faith and worship Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel. Because their traditions are derived from multiple religions, some followers of other faiths consider them heretical and worthy of punishment.


Katsikas camp. All photos: Lizzie Porter

The poor health and sanitation conditions for Petra’s residents – half of whom are under 18 – are obvious. Cream canvas tents, searingly hot under the Mediterranean sun, are packed tightly, guy ropes tangled together. Some families have cooking equipment, and fires are lit in narrow alleyways.

“The water is not clean and the children are sick”, one Yazidi woman from Sinjar in northern Iraq tells me at the camp, in fluent English. “One day two long snakes came into the tent. The children have bites and the toilets here are very bad.”

According to the UNHCR, three daily meals are provided, including hot food, and authorities collect waste. But it also admits that there are just 30 toilets, 20 showers and 60 water taps for the whole camp. There are no separate washing facilities for women. The colonel managing Petra would not let me inspect the washing facilities.

Petra’s residents are solely Yazidi: they say they fear persecution and violence in camps housing people of mixed ethnicities and religions. The UNHCR admitted to me that there have been “tensions” between Yazidis and other refugee groups.


Yazidi babies.

Naji Haji, a 27-year-old resident also from Sinjar, said the authorities treated them well, but that friends in another camp north of Thessaloniki had been beaten by other refugees because of their faith.

“Yazidi people in other camps want to come to Petra,” he said. 

Several hundred other Yazidis initially gathered in Katsikas camp, near the Albanian border.

Falah, a 30-year-old Yazidi barber from Sinjar, is among them, along with his two children, wife and parents.

When IS invaded his village last summer, they kidnapped his mother’s father, four cousins and two of his brothers: “They came with guns and knives. I saw them kill people.”


A Syrian Kurd and his daughter.

The community fled to Mount Sinjar, where they stayed for ten days with little food or water, before escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, then to Turkey and onto Greece.

“The Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar died from no food or water or hope. I brought my children here because I wanted to live,” he adds.

A fortnight ago, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and a former ICC prosecutor visited Petra camp as part of a campaign to bring criminal charges on Islamic State. In June the UN recognised the August 2014 massacre as a genocide, echoing a declaration by US Secretary of State John Kerry in March.

But Haji, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in 2007, said he felt afraid even in Europe.

“We feel little hope in Europe. We managed to escape Daesh”, he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But now they are in France, Germany, and all states.”


Yazidi family.

While the UNHCR says it visits Petra daily to monitor the situation, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), is doing its best to support the Yazidi minority.

The NGO’s country co-ordinator, Julide Glanz, is mindful of the danger of exacerbating tensions between ethno-religious groups.

“When we speak of Muslims [who discriminate against Yazidis] we are referring to the brainless fanatics who drag the name of Islam into the dirt,” she says. “Muslims had to flee too and on their journey the Yazidis took them in and accepted them as one of their own.”

She insists Yazidi-only camps are the best way of minimising violence. On the Petra model, for example, Greek authorities moved Yazidis at Katsikas to their own camp nearby in July. “The fear is big and there is little protection,” Glanz says.

A lack of interpreters of Kermanji – the dialect of Kurdish spoken by Yazidis – is a problem, according to Greek authorities. A spokesperson tells me that there is a lack of interpreters in all refugee languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, “let alone a rare dialect like Kermanji. We are trying to manage the situation by using English-speaking refugees of the same ethnic group.”


Tent at Katsikas camp.

What of the future? Falah feels increasingly desperate. “Here there is no money, no tea, no food, nothing. Before, people had money, but we paid €10,000 (£8,600) to the people smuggler to get us to Greece.”

Elsewhere, there is some hope. Abu Roudyan, a 27-year-old Yazidi originally from Bahzani in northern Iraq, lived in Petra camp with his wife and young children for over three months. They have now managed to get to Germany, while Roudyan waits in Athens.

“Iraq is at war and women are kidnapped and children are killed,” he says. “The important thing for the future of my family is safety in Germany.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.