December 07, 2014

Africa: Another Strongman Falls

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE dramatic events that gripped the landlocked African nation of Burkina Faso in the last week of October, has resulted in the exit of its long serving authoritarian ruler, President Blaise Compaore. The 64 year old Compaore, in a foolhardy move, tried to once again tinker with the constitution to indefinitely extend his rule. On October 22, the ruling party suddenly announced that it was proposing to table a bill in the national assembly that would amend Article 27 of the Constitution that would give the president yet another five year term in office. On October 28, the country’s pliant legislature was on the verge of rubber stamping the changes required in the constitution when the citizens of the capital, Ouagadougou, stormed the parliament building and set portions of it on fire. The protest had started a week earlier in the capital as well as in the country’s second biggest city, Bobo Dioulaso. HUGE PROTESTS According to reports, the protests on October 28 were the biggest so far witnessed in the history of the country. More than a million people had gathered in the capital itself. The last big anti-government protests which rocked the country had happened in 2011. The elite Presidential Guards had ruthlessly helped crush the protests three years ago. The opposition at the time had also shown a lack of unity. This time, the security forces were unable to control the crowds despite resorting to firing. According to reports, more than 30 protestors were killed by the security forces in the week long uprising. With the people determined to oust the ruler, fissures started emerging in the armed forces. The Presidential Guards noticeably did not swing into action to protect the Compaore and his close circle. Compaore initially tried to brazen it out. He first declared martial law but when he realized that the armed forces were no longer united behind him, he announced that he was no longer interested in seeking another term in office. Compaore then asked his Party to withdraw the offending bill from Parliament. But the protestors and the opposition parties stood their ground demanding the immediate resignation of the president. When he had begun his last presidential term, Compaore had pledged that it would be his last. Compaore had contested four elections since seizing power in 1987. The opposition has alleged that widespread fraud was employed by the ruling party in all the four elections. The people were now no longer willing to take the president’s promises seriously. Under his rule, the country continued to stagnate. Despite being the fourth largest exporter of gold in Africa, Burkina Faso is 183 in the list of 186 countries in the UN’s human development index. The unemployment rate is among the highest in the region. 60 per cent of the population of 16.9 million is below 30 years of age. The youth were in the forefront of the protests against Compoare. On October 31, the president finally announced that he was quitting and the next day he was given asylum in neighbouring Ivory Coast, where his close political ally, Allasane Outtara, is in power. Compaore had played a key role in ending the civil war in the country and the installation of Outtara as president. Compaore’s hasty exit has left a political vacuum. Despite being in power almost since the mid-eighties, he had not designated or groomed a successor. First to stake his claim for succession was the army chief, Gen. Honore Nabere Traore, a confidant of Compaore. Within hours, another army commander, Lt. Col. Isaac Zida, put his hat in the ring. Zida was the second in command of the presidential security regiment and has operational command over the army’s best trained and equipped unit. He proclaimed himself as the “interim” president to “guarantee the continuity of the state”. According to reports, the bulk of the Burkinabe army is supporting the Colonel. Gen. Traore has since withdrawn his bid for the presidency. But the protestors and the opposition did not want a military man to hold the levers of power, even for an interim period. The opposition has described the exit of Compaore and his replacement by another uniformed man as “a military coup”. Col. Zida had insisted that the military has stepped in “to avoid anarchy” and publicly acknowledged that the ouster of Compaore was a result of a popular uprising. Col. Zida had pledged that his rule “will be as brief as possible” and elections will be organised in a short time. However, he has not specified a time frame. The opposition did not buy the rationale that was put forward by the military. “The victory of the popular uprising – and consequently the management of the transition –belongs to the people and should not be in any way be confiscated by the army”, a joint statement issued by the coalition of political parties and civil society groups participating in the protests emphasized. The statement pointed out that the constitution of the country made it clear that political transition should be democratic and transparent in character. The speaker of the national assembly, according to the country’s 1991 constitution is to take over the top post if the president resigns and hold elections within 90 days. One of the first steps the new military leaders of the country had taken was to dissolve the national assembly. The military leadership in a statement said that the time frame for the duration of their rule and the holding of elections will be announced later. The African Union (AU) came down heavily on the military take over in a member country. In a strongly worded statement, the AU asked the military to hand over power to the civilian authorities. The UN had warned the military officers that stringent sanctions will be imposed on the country if they refuse to hand over power to civilian authority. The army had used force to disperse a protest on November 2 and had taken over administrative buildings and the television broadcasting centre. The US and the EU have also urged the military to step aside. The American and French governments along with the European Union (EU) had earlier voiced apprehensions about Compaore’s plans to unilaterally extend his rule. In the third week of November, the army leadership under intense domestic and international pressure, accepted a power sharing deal. A former foreign minister, Michel Kafando was appointed as the interim president, his candidature was proposed by the military. Compaore has been a close ally of the West in its various military and political machinations in the region. He has been a key ally in Washington’s war against Islamist groups on the African continent and was an honoured guest in Washington when President Barack Obama hosted the first American-African summit. The French have a military base in the country and have been instrumental in keeping him in power for the last three decades. Compaore had a deft diplomatic touch. During the 1990’s, he was a frequent visitor to Delhi and had become a lynchpin for Indian diplomacy in the African continent. The two countries had even issued an “Ouagadougou Declaration” in 1993 when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visited the country. Compaore was among the first African leaders to support India’s membership of the UN Security Council. Compaore also supported the Indian stand on Kashmir. This correspondent met him on one of his frequent visits to Delhi in the 1990’s. A tall and handsome man with a ready smile, he came across as an affable personality. CONTROVERSIAL CIRCUMSTANCES A former military man, Compaore had come to power under controversial circumstances in 1987 in a military coup. The man he replaced was the charismatic Thomas Sankara, affectionately remembered as “Africa’s Che Guevara” by many. Sankara and Compaore were comrade-in-arms in the army. Sankara during his comparatively brief tenure as president had identified neo-colonialism and imperialism as existential threats to the sovereignty and dignity of African nations. In Francophone Africa especially, the former colonial masters were still running the show. One of the first things the government under Sankara did after overthrowing the old order was to shed the colonial name bestowed on the country by the French colonial master. The name they chose was Burkina Faso—“the land of the upright”. Before that the country was known as Upper Volta. Sankara and a group of radical officers, which included Compaore, had set out to change the political map of Africa. Inspired by the ideology of pan-Africanism expounded by leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Sankara and his comrades once in power immediately started striving to build a new anti colonial bloc on the continent, together with Jerry Rawlings in Ghana and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Sankara was the most radical of the group and had espoused Marxist ideals. He cut a dashing figure at international conferences wearing his trade mark beret, clad in military fatigues with his personal revolver. Like Che, Sankara has become a political icon in sub-Saharan Africa. “You cannot carry out fundamental changes without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from non-conformity, the courage to turn your back on old formulas, the courage to invent the future”, Sankara had said. The newly formed South African Economic Freedom Fighters Party which fared well in the recent elections has adopted Sankara as a mascot. Sankara’s dream was that of achieving a “second independence” from the former colonial masters. As things stand today, the former colonial masters are once again running the show, changing regimes at will and intervening militarily all over the continent. The ouster of Muammar Gaddafi is the latest illustration. Compaore on the other hand has been compared to a Brutus or Macbeth like figure. Many in Burkina Faso and the region still consider Compaore as the man responsible for the killing of Sankara in the 1987 coup. “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”, Sankara had remarked a few weeks before his untimely demise. Sankara’s death is shrouded in mystery. One of the reasons why Compaore was reluctant to relinquish his hold on power was his fear that he would have to answer questions surrounding the death of the man who was supposed to his best friend and closest comrade. Immediately after taking over from Sankara, Compaore reversed the political and economic course the country had taken under the stewardship of Sankara and once again became a close ally of the former imperial power France and later on of the United States. Sankara during his four years in power had made his country self sufficient in food production and had almost rooted out corruption. Today, the country has to import all its basic food needs. Protestors on the streets of Ouagadougou were seen carrying banners with the portrait of Sankara with signs reading “Sankara, look at your sons. We are fighting your fight”. The overthrow of Compaore could signal the beginning of a “black spring” in sub-Saharan Africa on the lines of the Arab Spring. There are quite a few authoritarian rulers in power in the region who may have reasons to be worried about the turn of events in Burkina Faso. Paul Biya has been in power in the West African state of Cameroun since the early eighties. Yoweri Museveni, another close ally of the West has indicated that he will be seeking another term in office. He has been in power since 1986. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan strongman brooks no opposition but he too has the unstinted backing of the West. The former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, once said that African leaders cling to power because “of the fear of the unknown”. Compaore, like many of his contemporaries in power in other African capitals, feared the “loss of immunity from prosecution”. Compaore has many questions to answer including those relating to Sankara’s death and his strong links with the imprisoned former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor and the former rebels in Sierra Leone. The Nigerian government had alleged that Compaore had allowed the “Boko Haram” group to set up training camps in Burkina Faso.