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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution