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