The Economist has an interesting and useful profile of Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré in its most recent edition. It inspires some lazy commentary here.
Readers should note Burkina Faso’s important role in hostage negotiations between western and regional governments and AQIM. This is a testiment to the degree to which Compaoré has, through fair and fowl means, turned his country into a quiet superpower in northwest Africa over 23 years. Compaoré’s power brokering often works in conjunction with other African strongmen. He is held in high regard by the Algerian leadership and keeps close contacts with Qadhafi while remaining on good terms with Morocco. His dealings in Guinean and Togolese politics often make use of his North African connections. As an experienced operator he survives because he can quickly identify and adapt to changes in power relationships. And once he has mastered the general trend, he proceeds with attention to detail and logistics.
Dusty, landlocked and poor, Burkina Faso is classically pragmatic. Its southern policy is designed to give it access to the sea and pull inland some of west Africa’s mineral riches; its northern policy is designed to help maintain internal stability and procure financial support. The country has aggressively moved to expand roads and air port capacity to encourage investment and trade, and establish itself as a relevant patch of land. Ouagadougou’s close relations with Libya, which have cooled somewhat in recent years, have made relations with the United States difficult at times. But Compaoré’s role in routing out Charles Taylor and Dadis Camara (who is, of yet, still in Ouagadougou) have eased those tensions. Unlike many of its neighbors, it deals with Taiwan, rather than the PRC, and receives substantial economic aid and infrastructure assistance as a result. When Kosovo announced its independence, Compaoré announced his intention to recognize the new country — likely a low cost way of trying to get his hands on still more aid money. Assisting Libya in moving arms from north to south during times of crisis has given Compaoré extensive contacts in the region’s underground. He wields enormous influence throughout west Africa to the point where one can reasonably argue that if rebellion were to break out in northern Ivory Coast it would have been impossible to start to stop without him. Some of these contacts make Ouagadougou of some interest to western countries concerned about drug and gun running, not least with respect to AQIM.
None of this comes without blood, though, and his rise and survival have been dependent on selective and decisive brutality over years. He was a co-conspirator in a communist officers’ putsch in the early 1980s, becoming a Cold War “moderate” backed by France and Libya within a decade. After ousting and killing his old comrade Thomas Sankara in 1987, he undid leftist reforms and made himself a rich man, neutralizing or winning over all the important sectoral basins that might conspire against his rule: the army, the bureaucrats, the traditional elders. Last week he won a presidential election with 80% of the vote and is likely to abolish term limits. His parliamentary allies will probably set out reforms to create a senate, further entrenching his power.
His role as an intermediary in Libya’s African adventures and the security operations between the Maghrebine and Sahel states make him especially interesting for the purposes of this blog. Compaoré’s foreign policy elides the diverse political interests that make it possible to write about a “north” and a “west” Africa as distinct geopolitical regions. He provided sanctuary to the schemers behind the botched 2003 coup attempt in Mauritania. Burkina Faso was key in providing a base for plotting the 2005 Mauritania coup and the country played a minor role in the diplomatic fixing that followed the 2008 coup. The two countries are on good terms mostly because they share a patron in Libya, despite deep personal animosity between Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Compaoré (according to Mauritanians), which is kept in check by Qadhafi.
Readers should keep a keen eye on Burkina Faso especially considering (western) military and financial moves against AQIM in Mali, Niger and Mauritania (note also that the only Wikileaks document, at least that has been released, concerned specifically with the Sahel goes puts a high value on Burkina Faso for intelligence gathering purposes). Ouagadougou is a diplomatic and travel hub in the region that deserves more attention in English, though focus should not lead to exaggeration. Jeune Afrique has a series of important articles on Burkina Faso; start here.