BURKINA Faso’s embattled President Blaise Compaore stepped down - it seems with the military holding a gun to his head - following violent protests demanding an end to his 27-year rule. Another soldier and ally, army chief Navere Honore Traore took over.
In a statement issued by the presidency and read on local television, Compaore declared a “power vacuum” in the west African country and called for “free and transparent” elections within 90 days.
The whereabouts of the former soldier now remain unclear, a big irony for a man seen as the ultimate political survivor.
The signs had been there over the last few years that his grip on power was loosening, facing outbreaks of violence on a number of occasions, including a mutiny in the influential military in 2011.
But it was still an ignominious end to a man who, having seized power unconstitutionally, then proceeded to reinvent himself as West Africa’s ultimate Mr Fix It, helping mediate in crises from Niger, Guinea and Togo to Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, among other hotspots, despite the UN accusing him of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
From a coup maker, he steadily grew in stature, assuming the role of a statesman in a region that rarely lacks for a dull moment, leading to nuanced references of a political chameleon.
This helped legitimise his stay in power, following the bloody events that led to his ascension to office in 1987, and he went on to win four presidential elections, before he overplayed his hand with a bid to extend his term.
So dull was his term that for most, his country was more recognisable for its links to CaptainThomas Sankara, a young revolutionary who was in power for four years before meeting his death at the age of 37 in October 1987 in the coup that brought Compaore, his close friend, to power.
Compaore, who served under Sankara as a minister of state to the presidency, was widely believed to be the hand who mastermined the assassination of a man revered as Africa’s “Che Guevara”. The stain refused to die nearly three decades on, as the Africa and global Sankara fan club kept his memory with t-shirts, and using his photo as their profile photo on their social media pages.
Sankara, however, also ascended to power in 1983 through a coup, ironically organised by Compaore, but his short stint in power remains the stuff of legend—and embellishment, some say.
Sankara however wasted little time in unveiling a revolutionary growth programme for the landlocked west African country, instilling a culture of frugality steeped in Marxist ideology.
Wasteful government spending was neutered, salaries in the public sector cut, including his own, and land from feudal landlords seized and redistributed to the peasants, among other radical socialist changes.
This, and his fervent anti-colonial stance, earned him many powerful enemies, from former colonial master France to avowed Francophiles like Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire.
Thomas Sankara inspiration
The single-minded pursuit of his goals, like for many revolutionaries, however numbed his awareness of the growing trail of foes he created, and when the inevitable push-back started to become coherent, he attempted to repress it, lending a tailwind to the autocratic side of him.
Ironically, the protest movement that was to eventually topple Compaore, at inception drew its inspiration from the spirit of Sankara.
Many would struggle to pin down any signature economic or social achievements under Compaore’s long tenure, despite in his resignation message insisting he believed he had “accomplished my task” towards the country’s march to development.
In keeping with his record, his legacy remains contradictory.
Burkina Faso over the last 15 years managed to record an average economic growth rate of 5.8%, the highest in the eight-member Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMOA) bloc that also counts Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.
That this was managed on the back of decreasing gold prices and stagnated cotton prices is of note, but the lack of diversification also exposed the country to the volatilities of the world market.
Economic and social record
Cotton remains its main export in a world where much-criticised western subsidies operate, while the benefits of revenue from gold, which in the last three years soared to record levels, have been slow to trickle down.
The country is also a tough place to do business: this year’s Doing Business ranked Burkina Faso 167th, a six-place slide from last year, while infrastructure remains poor despite recent increased investments.
But in keeping with Compaore’s flexibility, the country managed to record positive gains in reducing infant and maternal mortality, while also seeing an increase in the life expectancy at birth to 57.
The country also saw school enrollment rates rise, though the quality remained an issue of debate. The country of nearly 17 million ranked 181st of 187 countries in the latest Human Development Index, with only 28.7% of its adults being literate.
This ranking has changed little since 2005, when the UN begun computing data for the country.
As a result, unemployment has remained high and before Compaore’s ouster, was already a tinder box for a country where nearly two-thirds of the population are the youth. Poverty rates neared 50%, with small businesses and further liberalisation of economy having been seen by the World Bank as as the major hope in denting this.
With this type of dissatisfaction widespread in a number of countries it was perhaps only a matter of time before Africa’s first “Black Spring” took off, despite the argument that ethnic differences trumped politics of the stomach on the continent.
The only surprise appears to have been the setting of Burkina Faso as the launch pad, Compaore appeared to have it all under control, just like the Mr Cool image he projected.