France helps Compaore flee, underscoring its continued Africa influence as Burkina Faso talks strike deal

Regional bloc ECOWAS to hold meeting Thursday as Paris shadow looms large.

THE admission by France that it had helped Blaise Compaore flee Burkina Faso continue its decades-long influence over high-level Francophone Africa politics, or at least a still-strong appetite for intervention in the region.

President Francois Hollande on Tuesday said that Paris had helped evacuate the ousted Compaore on his request to stave off a potential “bloodbath”, having earlier denied France’s active participation.

Compaore and his wife are staying in Yamoussoukro, the political capital of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, following a torturous escape that took them to the south of Burkina Faso before finally ending up in an Ivorian luxury government mansion, where little has been seen of him. 

The destination of Cote d’Ivoire was not an accident—France remains a major player in the west African country, typified by its romantic relationship with its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

French domination

French companies control up to 30% of Ivorian Gross Domestic Product, and Hollande in July took a business delegation to Abidjan, the commercial capital, while also addressing an economic forum. Paris is looking to double its current $30 billion trade with Africa over the next five years, creating 200,000 jobs for France’s teetering economy.

The military interventions, which are now backed by UN mandates, have also been political balm for Hollande’s battered domestic ratings, helping ratchet up his engagement with a continent he had looked to sideline early in his days in office. 

Ivorian reception to Compaore’s presence has been mixed, with some residents noting Burkina Faso provided a haven for fleeing Ivorians following a post electoral dispute of 2011, while others see his hand in fomenting the same armed conflict.  

France has also in recent years intervened militarily in Mali, Central African Republic and Libya, and in May hosted a high-level summit that agreed to wage “war” on Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist menace.

In 2011, some 17 African countries marked 50 years of independence from their former colonial master, and despite rhetoric of things not being “business as usual”, France has sought to strengthen its African foreign policy hand in the wider region.

Paris had welcomed the ouster of erstwhile ally Compaore, calling for calm and restraint. It has also been quietly active behind the scenes in negotiations for the political transition.

Transition talks

On Wednesday, Burkina Faso’s army, politicians and civil society leaders agreed to a one-year political transition with elections in November 2015 following highly charged crisis talks.

The talks, mediated by three west African presidents and also attended by religious and tribal chiefs, failed to name a new leader to head the transitional government.

But a statement after the meeting said all parties had agreed that an “eminent civilian personality” should take the job.

Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama, who mediated alongside his Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan and Senegal’s President Macky Sall, said he was not concerned about the failure to agree on a unity leader at this stage.

“I believe that… in days rather than weeks, we’ll be able to achieve an agreement and install a transitional government,” he said.

“Our intention was not to take names back to the ECOWAS summit,” he added, referring to an emergency meeting of African leaders due to be held in Accra on Thursday.

“It’s a decision for the people of Burkina Faso. They must be the ones to decide. Pain is still fresh in people’s mind.”

The trio of presidents had travelled to Ouagadougou to press for the swift return of civilian rule after the military appointed one of its own, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, to run the country following last week’s ouster of president Blaise Compaore.

In scenes compared to the Arab Spring, Compaore was forced to flee the country after tens of thousands took to the streets and set parliament ablaze in violent protests against efforts to extend his 27-year rule.

The talks did not start well on Wednesday, with opposition leaders storming out in protest over the possible involvement of Compaore loyalists in any provisional government.

“We haven’t even buried our dead yet and they are putting arrogant people back in office who held the people in contempt,” said Luc Marius Ibriga, spokesman for the civil society groups, as their representatives left the room.

Emotions run high

Security guards had to intervene as emotions ran high.

“We do not want to talk with the old governing party. They represent Blaise Compaore,” said Rose-Marie Compaore, parliamentary leader of the main opposition group, the Union for Progress and Change.

Both groups were persuaded to return to the negotiations, only for members of the ruling party to then refuse to sit with them.

The opposition’s main leader Zephirin Diabre objected to a proposal by the west African leaders that each group submit three candidates for a transition government.

It is a “question of sovereignty,” said Diabre.

Tensions were already running high after the military arrested pro-Compaore politician Assimi Kouanda on Tuesday night for calling for demonstrations in support of the deposed ruler.

But the final deal was welcomed by all sides, including the current interim leader, Zida.

“The meeting went very well,” he said, adding that he hoped the teams would be able to “find a solution in order to achieve a civilian transition”.

There has been mounting international pressure on Zida and the military to return the country to civilian rule, with the African Union threatening sanctions and Canada withdrawing aid.

Zida told unions on Tuesday he would restore civilian rule within two weeks.

“If everyone agrees, there is no reason that the transition shouldn’t be done within two weeks,” Zida said, according to union leader Joseph Tiendrebeogo.

Former prime minister Roch Marc Christian Kabore said whoever takes over the country should be a civil society figure rather than a politician or military chief.

“It’s obvious we have to find someone who has no clear political affiliations so as not to have a biased view on the transition,” said Kabore, who heads the Movement of the People for Progress.

The UN Security Council called for “a peaceful, civilian-led and democratic transition process leading to the holding of free, fair, inclusive and credible elections as soon as possible”.

International donors, whose funding is crucial to the impoverished country, were watching the situation closely.

Canada, which provided some $35.6 million in aid to Burkina Faso between 2012 and 2013, suspended assistance, saying funding would be restored when a “legitimate and accountable civil authority has been re-established”.

Washington said it was still “gathering facts” but could yet withdraw its $14 million annual aid package.

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