AFRICANGLOBE – After overthrowing his close friend Thomas Sankara in a bloody coup d’état, Burkina Faso’s captain-turned-president, Blaise Compaoré, has held power for more than two decades. He was often accused of ruling with an iron fist and sponsoring rebellions all over west Africa. But nowadays Beau Blaise portrays himself as a respected statesman who can soothe rather than stir things up.
He was a key man in the coup that brought Thomas Sankara to power in 1983. Four years later, Mr. Sankara was killed. Mr Compaoré, then 36, took over one of the world’s poorest countries.
He soon won a reputation for making trouble in the region. UN reports accused him of backing Charles Taylor’s rebels in Liberia, during a civil war that spilled over bloodily into neighbouring Sierra Leone. “Burkina Faso is landlocked and impoverished, so he had an eye to make money… through diamonds and so on,” says Richard Moncrieff of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which tries to solve conflicts. In 2002 Mr. Compaoré was also accused of funding rebels who seized the north of Côte d’Ivoire, where as many as 3m people from Burkina Faso live; the rebels had plotted and trained in their original homeland.
But in the past two years Mr. Compaoré has become more conciliatory. He has mediated not only in Côte d’Ivoire but also in Togo and Niger. His new approach has benefited Burkina Faso. “Burkina and Côte d’Ivoire are like two legs of one person,” says his government spokesman. “If we don’t help the sub-region, it will never develop. Togo, like Côte d’Ivoire, is a place where we can have access to the sea.”
Mr Compaoré’s officials praise him for bringing in multi-party politics in 1991, under pressure from foreign donors and in particular from France. The opposition boycotted the polls on several occasions. Elections are due next year. Mr. Compaoré is almost sure to win what should, according to the constitution, be his final term.
But many doubt he will leave office in 2015, when he is meant to. “He’s a soldier, so he thinks strategically,” says a human-rights campaigner in Ouagadougou, the capital. “The rules of the game aren’t fair… Blaise Compaoré has money, the army, the administration and the powerful traditional chiefs. The opposition is weak because he has corrupted it.”
Despite a shady past and shaky democratic credentials, Mr. Compaoré has won a certain authority thanks to his longevity in office. He has chaired the Organisation of African Unity (the African Union’s forerunner) and the Economic Community of West African States, better known as ECOWAS. Though poor, Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, seems stable and better governed than many of its neighbours. The ICG’s regional man says Mr. Compaoré is “the ultimate political survivor”, a chameleon who has been “very good at catching the wind”, sensing that his adventurous policies would not succeed for ever. And he has granted just enough democracy and exercised enough financial prudence to keep foreign donor governments sweet.
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