Argument

The Fiery Fall of Burkina Faso’s ‘Beautiful Blaise’

The leader, who, for decades, avoided the uprisings that dislodged neighboring strongmen from power, finally met his political end.

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images
SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The last time I was in Burkina Faso was in early March 2011, when the winds of the so-called Arab Spring were howling through the northern rim of the African continent. Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had fled into exile, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had resigned, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi was facing an uprising in Benghazi.

But more than a thousand miles south of the Libyan port city of Benghazi, in Ouagadougou, the capital of landlocked Burkina Faso, Qaddafi was still a popular figure. A portrait of the "mad dog of Libya" hung proudly in the marbled lobby of the Hotel Laico (named after the acronym of the Libyan African Investment Company) — simply "Hotel Libya" to locals. An opulent testament to Qaddafi’s largesse across the continent, the hotel also featured a presidential photograph of the Libyan leader’s protégé, Blaise Compaoré. An alumnus of Qaddafi’s infamous World Revolutionary Center (WRC), dubbed "the Harvard for Tyrants," Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré had learned vital survival lessons from his Libyan mentor. But while the old tricks were clearly not working anymore in Libya, across the Sahara in Burkina Faso, the old dog appeared politically secure. A couple of protests had broken out across the tiny West African nation following the death of a student in police custody in February 2011. But at that time, it looked like the long-standing Burkinabé leader would weather the latest domestic storm.

On the international stage, "Beautiful Blaise" — as Compaoré was popularly called — was still going strong. The French have a term, "pompier pyromane," that can best be translated as a pyromaniac fireman who compulsively starts fires so he can rise to the occasion to put them out. Compaoré, a former troublemaker turned man of peace, was busy playing regional pompier pyromane, negotiating peace deals in his new avatar as an "homme de dialogue" ("man of dialogue"). In the upscale Ouaga 2000 neighborhood of the Burkinabé capital that spring, I was treated to a rather surreal poolside dinner with then Ivorian Prime Minister Guillaume Soro in the Burkinabé foreign minister’s home. Neighboring Ivory Coast was in the throes of a post-electoral crisis following the 2010 presidential poll, with incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refusing to concede defeat while the international community had recognized opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara as the winner. Soro, a former rebel leader turned former prime minister, had supported Ouattara’s claim to victory. With a 2007 Compaoré-negotiated peace deal in tatters, Ivory Coast, once a West African powerhouse, was heading for another civil war — and Beautiful Blaise was once again offering his homme de dialogue services to put out the latest friendly neighborhood fire. This meant all sorts of West African political and former political players were surreptitiously slipping in and out of the Burkinabé capital for not-so-secret discussions.

This also meant it was pretty much business as usual in this corner of the globe. The Arab Spring may have fired up the masses in North Africa and the Middle East, but Burkina Faso was sub-Saharan Africa, I was repeatedly reminded during conversations at Ouagadougou’s iconic Hôtel Indépendance, where seemingly every local and regional notable dropped in for a drink on the sidelines of a pan-African film festival. South of the Sahara, the culture of the African strongman was deeply entrenched and assiduously imposed, I was told. In Burkina Faso, Beautiful Blaise was not about to join the ranks of the ousted dictator’s club, at least not yet. From the lush poolside gardens of Hôtel Indépendance, where tropical lizards turned catatonic under the blazing sun, the tumult in Arab North Africa seemed another planet away.

What a difference three years and a few months make. In the news photographs and TV footage streaming in from Burkina Faso over the past few days, the country today is almost unrecognizable. Ouagadougou’s Hôtel Indépendance stands ransacked and looted after protesters last week tore through the premises, where parliamentarians were staying during a session that would have amended the constitution, extending Compaoré’s 27 years in power. In a surprising display of sheer courage and rage for a people known for their genteel disposition, protesters on Oct. 30 burned the national assembly building, preventing the controversial vote. By the next day, Compaoré had resigned. As jubilant Burkinabés hailed the victory of their "Lwili Revolution" (named after a bird native to the region), Twitter exploded with forecasts of a new "sub-Saharan Spring," as graphics of other long-standing African leaders on an exit wish list went viral on social media sites.

Did the winds of the Arab Spring finally blow over the Sahara to Burkina Faso, as some commentators have suggested? Just days after Compaoré stepped down, the parallels with the Arab Spring are flying fast and hard, with terms like "sub-Saharan Spring," "Burkinabé Spring," and "Black Spring" circulating on news and social media sites.

But while it’s tempting to coin another weather analogy, we would be doing ourselves and the brave people of Burkina Faso a disservice by clumping their mass mobilization campaign with what happened on the northern rim of the continent. In the end, the Lwili Revolution is a conflagration of a domestic blaze that Beautiful Blaise ignited, but then failed to put out. The early fires were sparked in February 2011, when the death of a Burkinabé student, Justin Zongo, in police custody led to demonstrations against police brutality, which then morphed into protests against rising food prices and unemployment levels. Mutinies among military ranks over unpaid allowances also added to the general discontent of that time.

The seeds of discontent were sown and the protesters were undoubtedly inspired by the uprisings north of the Sahara. But the pompier pyromane managed to weather it out by dismissing his government, replacing top military leaders, and placating the army rank and file with allowance hikes. The end only came when Compaoré, with the classic hubris of an old-style African autocrat, tried to push his people to accept a term extension. This would be the final incendiary straw. In rising up against another Compaoré presidential term, the people of Burkina Faso were voicing a long-standing sub-Saharan grievance over their "Big Men" who have clung onto power by crushing or enfeebling the opposition.

The fact that the Lwili Revolution, or Burkinabé Spring, or whatever you call it, managed to topple an entrenched leader is also due to the fact that — and this is not something many Burkinabés would like to hear — France, the old colonial power, helped Compaoré through the exit door. After months during which France offered its support for a high-profile international post for the leader if he respected his term limits, the sheer ferocity of last week’s protests forced Paris to realize that Beautiful Blaise was not about to go in a blaze of glory. For his hubris, the pompier pyromane had to endure an undignified scramble into exile. French President François Hollande has admitted that France helped ensure that Compaoré was able to leave for the Ivory Coast "without drama." In other words, France was there to ensure that an undignified exit would be as dignified as possible. This, after all, is not just sub-Sahara, it is francophone sub-Sahara. Paris may protest that the days of Françafrique — or the opaque web of ties between France and its former African colonies — may be over. But Paris can still pull some strings in its African pré carré (backyard), and Beautiful Blaise’s time had come.

Compaoré’s exit and the post-ouster drama are being closely monitored in other African states where the local Big Man has obliterated the opposition and amassed fortunes while crushing human rights and press freedoms. In Cameroon, France’s old friend Paul Biya has hung on to power for over three decades by keeping the opposition on a tight leash. The 81-year-old leader currently spends extended periods abroad living in a Swiss hotel, earning himself the moniker "the absentee landlord" as his country faces an overspill from the Boko Haram threat from neighboring Nigeria. Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Gabon, and Benin are all believed to be contemplating some sort of constitutional massaging to enable unconstitutional term extensions. Then there’s Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe has reigned for 34 years, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, the list goes on….

But for those hoping the Lwili Revolution will have a domino effect across sub-Saharan Africa, Burkina Faso has also provided some early warning signals. Since Compaoré’s ouster on Oct. 31, the country has seen two military men declare themselves head of state. One lasted barely a day. On Nov. 2, the country narrowly missed having a fourth — even a fifth — leader, as a bizarre drama unfolded outside the national radio and television headquarters (RTB), where at least one person died as security officials opened fire. By the afternoon of Nov. 3, following marathon meetings among military officials, opposition figures, civil society representatives, and Western ambassadors in Ouagadougou, it was decided that Lt. Col. Isaac Zida — the relatively unknown deputy head of the elite presidential guard — would serve as Burkina Faso’s leader until power is transferred to civilian authorities. The African Union (AU) has given Zida two weeks to make the transfer, failing which, sanctions will be imposed on the impoverished West African nation, which has consistently sat on the bottom ranks of the U.N. Human Development Index.

The AU’s tight handover timeline reflects serious domestic and international concerns over a military takeover in a country that has seen five military coups in its 54-year history, where army men turned presidents have stayed closely connected to the military. Seeking to placate domestic and international concerns over a military takeover, Zida told reporters on Monday, "We are not here to usurp power and to sit in place and run the country but to help the country come out of this situation." But his assurances did not sound very reassuring when he noted, "Our understanding is that the executive powers will be led by a transitional body but within a constitutional framework that we will watch over carefully."

Nobody doubts that the military will be closely monitoring the transitional process. The army in this impoverished, landlocked nation is so powerful, chances are that some civilian transitional figures would prefer the men in uniforms be involved in the process rather than risk imperiling the country’s fragile return to constitutional order. Many members of the country’s tiny elite hail from the same military-political background and the ties between the political and military circles run deep.

After 27 years of strongman rule, Burkina Faso’s enfeebled, divided opposition has to face up to extraordinary challenges under the watchful eyes of the military, the international community, and ordinary Burkinabés who showed extraordinary bravery in rising up to their entrenched president. It should come as no surprise that during the anti-Compaoré demonstrations last month, protesters were calling for Kwame Lougue, a popular former general and defense minister who fell out with Compaoré in 2003, to take over. Compaoré, a military man himself, came to power in 1987, when the former army captain ousted a fellow former army captain, the charismatic Thomas Sankara. Beautiful Blaise lasted nearly three decades by sticking to the time-honored survival strategy in countries prone to coups, by keeping elite divisions loyal to the presidency while ensuring the regular army did not get too powerful and threaten another military coup.

If the opposition does not get its act together soon, the military will feel compelled to fill the power vacuum created by Compaoré’s exit. And that would be a colossal waste of the extraordinary mobilization of this sub-Saharan African nation that rose up to proclaim, "Enough is enough."

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