Downfall of a murderer
In the summer of 1985, when I first visited Burkina Faso, the newly renamed country was in the middle of a revolution led by Thomas Sankara. Although he came to power in a military coup, this revolution was anything but on the standard African model. Among its early acts were to nationalize all land and mineral wealth, to outlaw tribute payments to traditional village chiefs and to abolish the rural poll tax. Later on, top civil servants and army officers were required to give a month’s pay each year to fund social development projects. There were mass campaigns to immunize children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, to plant 10 million trees to slow the Sahara’s southward march, and to build houses. More unusually still, men throughout the country were encouraged on a particular day to show solidarity with their womenfolk by going to market and preparing the family meal.
But this creative experiment was brought to a bitter end when Sankara was assassinated by his former comrade-in-arms, Compaoré, who claimed to be launching a ‘rectification’ of the revolution. It was a ‘rectification’ profoundly to the taste of the established order that Sankara had so threatened. Business as usual was restored with Burkina’s former colonial masters in France and, over the next three decades, Blaise became Paris’s go-to guy in the region, as well as offering a home hub for US spies. Whatever kind of dirty business he became involved in – backing the ruthless Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and trafficking blood diamonds were among his shadier exploits – it did not seem to threaten this favoured position.
Whereas Thomas Sankara was famous for being Africa’s poorest president as a matter of principle – he refused to use the air-conditioning in his office as a gesture of solidarity with ordinary people – Blaise soon accrued a massive fortune, bought a presidential plane and built himself a palace.
Eventually, in 1991, he was forced for the sake of his West-friendly image to concede that he needed an electoral figleaf and managed to rack up the kinds of numbers that only dictators find believable. One of my visits to the country, in 2005, coincided with one of these electoral jamborees. Every available poster space was taken up by vaunting images of the Big Man, whose party patronage controlled almost every element of public space from television to local government.
I can concede a couple of things to his credit. Sankara’s opposition to female genital mutilation was carried through into consistent public education campaigns by Compaoré, and I saw the effect that this was having at local level; Burkina was one of the few countries actually to prosecute some of those who conducted these brutal ‘operations’. I can also testify that, for all the corruption at the heart of his regime, at least some of the money that Blaise won in debt relief as a prize for being one of the West’s favoured sons did actually find its way into clinics and schools in obscure villages.
But in general Compaoré was a huge, monolithic obstacle to sustainable development, democracy and human rights in Burkina. The popular uprising that followed the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 – Zongo had been investigating the suspicious death of Blaise’s brother’s driver – gave some hope that Blaise’s regime might not last. But he rolled with the punch and consolidated his control, managing to extend his empire of cronyism for another 16 years.
My latest visit to the country – and to the particular village that I have returned to every ten years since that first memorable experience of African revolution – is due next year and I have been hoping against hope that Blaise would meet his comeuppance before then. Addicted to power and wealth, and to the immunity from prosecution that his position provided, the Big Man duly overplayed his hand, seeking to change the constitution yet again so as to allow another presidential term. Decades’ worth of repressed popular outrage found their outlet in massed angry demonstrations not only in the capital Ouagadougou but all over the country; the statue of Compaoré in the middle of Bobo-Dioulasso was pulled down; and Blaise was forced to flee to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire for fear of his life.
As it stands, of course, the army is still in power – and has already fired on demonstrators in Ouagadougou demanding a genuinely democratic transition, killing at least one. We have seen all too clearly in Egypt in recent years how easily a popular uprising can result in the continuation of the old regime by military means. Burkinabès now need to remember the inspiration of Sankara and the last time one of Africa’s poorest countries commanded the attention and admiration of the progressive world – and we need to get our own governments to stand with them in insisting on a new order and a fresh start.
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