Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, still has the engaging feel of an overgrown village. The country’s leader, President Blaise Compaoré, has long had delusions of grandeur about his place in Africa and the world but despite much building in the 1990s ‘Ouaga’ remains a homely slap in the face for such pretensions. The capital’s main claim to international fame is its biennial Pan-African film festival, instituted by Compaoré’s inspirational predecessor, Thomas Sankara. But in 1999 the festival opened on an unprecedented and humiliating note for the President, who was roundly booed.
Only four months before, following the presidential election of 1998, Compaoré must have thought his position finally unassailable. He had seized power in 1987 by arranging the murder of his one-time friend Sankara. The West, particularly the former colonial power, France, may have publicly disapproved of such methods but they welcomed a man with whom they could do business after the ‘threat of a good example’ that the revolution had posed.
Compaoré proceeded to consolidate his power, reviving the cronyism of pre-revolutionary days and doing the bidding of the International Monetary Fund as part of his campaign for respectability. He introduced a multiparty democracy while at the same time working to co-opt, buy off or repress opposition: the Burkina of the 1990s was a one-party state in all but name. In 1992 Compaoré stood unopposed as President; in 1997 he had his rubber-stamp national assembly change the constitution (which allowed a president only two terms) so he could be elected ‘President-for-life’.
‘What will the President do to impose himself on intellectuals who are wise to the extent of his dictatorship and its tragic implications for our people? ... There is only one thing he can do: put them in prison, kill them, make them disappear.’ So wrote Norbert Zongo, editor of the newspaper L’Indépendant, who fearlessly exposed corruption in the Government and nepotism in Compaoré’s family. A month after the 1998 elections Zongo was himself murdered though his popularity ensured that long-dormant resistance broke into the open.Thousands of students took to the streets in protest while tens of thousands of citizens took part in Zongo’s funeral procession in Ouagadougou. In addition, the Coalition of Democratic Grassroots Organizations and Political Parties (Codempo) was established, bringing together human-rights campaigners, trade unionists, lawyers and journalists. By the summer of 1999 the mood of protest had spread throughout the country: unions called for the first general strike since 1966 while even the army demanded its wage arrears.
For the present Compaoré is hanging on to what he has. And in money terms alone that is considerable, since he has succeeded in making a mockery of his country’s name (Sankara replaced the former colonial name of Upper Volta with words which mean ‘Land of the Incorruptible’).
But he may well be unable to extinguish Codempo’s democratic fire by his old means — and his former gloss as a regional ‘statesman’ may be difficult to recapture after his destructive meddling in the civil wars of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola. A recent UN report lambasted Compaoré for breaching UN sanctions on Angola and for accepting illegal diamonds from warlord Jonas Savimbi.
One thing is clear: the Compaoré regime has done nothing to address the crying needs of the vast rural majority of Burkinabès, who continue to scratch a subsistence living out of evermore unpromising soil. The ghost of Thomas Sankara, the first of the country’s leaders to advance the interests of the rural poor, may yet come back to haunt his murderer.