On October 15, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso will celebrate his 25th year in power. To spend that much time in office, he had to run coups against two governments. In the first in 1983, he helped his friend and fellow revolutionary Thomas Sankara become president. In the second, four years later, Compaoré took power. Sankara was killed and Compaoré lost all appetite for socialism. He put in place a system of power so exploitative that 25 years later Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.
During this time, Compaoré has expertly managed to keep local elites and international donors happy, and marginalise all political opposition in Burkina Faso. It attests to his political prowess that he has had a hand in virtually all civil wars in the region, from Sierra Leone to Ivory Coast and Mali, but has been able to keep an exceptionally low profile internationally, avoiding criticism from western donors and NGOs.
But Compaoré’s time as his country’s “strong man” could be coming to an end. Like many of his colleagues on the continent, Compaoré was forced by the end of the Cold War to include the word “democracy” in his vocabulary. This did not change any of the structures of power in Burkina Faso, but it did change the lines of the constitution in 2000 to limit the number of presidential terms to two. Compaoré, however, navigated his way around this rule by arguing the amendment could not be applied retroactively and won elections in 2005 and then again in 2010, although the fairness of the votes has been disputed.
The next elections will be in 2015 after Compaoré completes his second term since the two-term limit was approved. What he plans to do remains to be seen.
At 61 years of age, the president may feel that he still has some terms left in him. There is little doubt that he would win the 2015 election were he to run. Compaoré and his supporters would have to change the constitution, but thanks to his total control over parliament, doing so would not be much more than a formality in legislative terms. His two main Western backers, France and the United States, are unlikely to do more than feel ‘deeply concerned’, as their main interest in Burkina Faso is its use as a base for reconnaissance and military operations in the region.
But the true risks of running are not in the formalities of government or donor relations. Instead, Compaoré would almost certainly lose something that he has fought hard to maintain over the last decades: the illusion of social peace.
Through skilful use of co-option and coercion, Compaoré has prevented any form of serious political opposition from emerging. For the first twenty years of his rule, this was relatively straightforward. Burkina Faso has a conservative, obedient society and Compaoré could rely on his allies (especially traditional rulers) to keep a lid on discontent.
But economic difficulties, combined with rising urbanisation have changed the picture somewhat. Today there is a large measure of frustration among many parts of the population. Without a way to channel these frustrations, they periodically explode into civil unrest.
This happened last year when parts of the military protested over late pay in the capital. They turned violent and the government was forced to temporarily flee to the countryside. Demonstrations against police violence have become common in Ouagadougou. While spontaneous events are unlikely to challenge the system of power, many Burkinabé predict that the renewed candidacy of Compaoré would push the country over the edge.
Compaoré has fought hard to portray himself as a respected statesman externally, mediating conflicts all over the region. He clearly aims to integrate himself into the international system and to avoid the status of pariah. Large scale protests in his own country – however unorganised – could taint this image beyond repair, especially if he were to resort to force to quell the resistance.
There are some indications that Compaoré might have accepted that his time as the official head of state is coming to an end. Firstly, parliament recently granted a general amnesty for former and current heads of state. This effectively protects Compaoré from any form of prosecution should he give up office.
There are also strong signs that Compaoré is organising his succession with his brother François is taking an increasingly public role in politics. Born three years after Blaise, François has stayed out of the limelight for much of his brother’s career despite being heavily involved in running the country and a key counsellor to the president. He has now taken an office in the executive bureau of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) for the first time. Many people see this as the first step in building up a minimum base of popular support before announcing his candidacy.
This projection would make sense. Blaise Compaoré has been careful to keep the power in the family. His close relatives can be found at many levels in the government, administration and the military, and François is a perfect fit for the job. He is liked by the international partners of the regime, well-connected in the region and loyal to Blaise.
There is only one problem: François is connected to an enormous political scandal: the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. Zongo investigated the murder of a former driver of François Compaoré who died after being tortured in the custody of the Presidential Guard. Several soldiers were convicted of Zongo’s murder, but all charges against François were dropped by a military tribunal. Nevertheless, many Burkinabé are convinced of François’ involvement in the crime and his candidacy would likely lead to protests.
Despite this, it is still probable Blaise Compaoré will name his brother as his heir apparent for the benefits it would offer him and his inner circle. But any ensuing instability could allow an ambitious member of the elite to attempt a palace coup. Burkina Faso’s neighbour Mali has shown how quickly a mutiny can topple a government and as in Mali, there is an undercurrent of frustration in Burkina Faso and few would be prepared to go to the streets for the current regime. A spontaneous mutiny or public protest could isolate the Compaoré clan and open the opportunity for another member of the elite to step into the ensuing power vacuum.
All options discussed above have one thing in common: they predict that any form of succession to the current regime will come from inside the ruling elite, essentially leaving the structures of power and exploitation intact, even if some of the names may change.
The reason for this pessimistic view is simple. There is no opposition movement in Burkina Faso capable of harnessing the disillusionment and frustration of the general population. Most opposition leaders have either been co-opted by Compaoré at some point in their career or have proven themselves unable to rally significant support. Moreover, large parts of Burkinabé society still follow the judgements of their ‘traditional’ rulers who have essentially been bought by Compaoré with political and economic incentives.
What remains of the political opposition is fractured and unwilling to cooperate. 2015 may be the best opportunity in decades to break the hold of the exploitative elite over the scant resources of Burkina Faso. But to have even a slim chance of success, any movement interested in real change would have to be untainted from cooperating with the elite, be able to formulate a clear alternative and do away with internal differences to allow for an effective coordination of public protest and election campaigning. There is a chance for change, but an unlikely one.
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