How Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore sparked his own downfall

  • 31 October 2014
  • From the section Africa
File photo: Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore in Ouagadougou, 26 July 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Blaise Compaore sparked public anger after he tried to extend his 27-year rule

There was just one more year to go before change could finally come, through the next presidential election.

After 27 years of Blaise Compaore, the people of Burkina Faso were set to wait patiently until November 2015.

But Mr Compaore's attempt to force a constitutional change sparked near unanimous outrage.

"It's as if he was disconnected from reality or not acknowledging what was going on," Rinaldo Depagne, director of ICG's West Africa programme, said.

"With nearly a million people in the streets [in a country of 17 million], any sensible politician would have withdrawn their proposed bill."

But he didn't.

Country on edge

Frustration and anger had been growing over the past few years in Burkina Faso and there had been multiple warnings that the society was on the edge of a social-political crisis.

Violent protests erupted in 2011 throughout the country.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption On Thursday, demonstrators set Burkina Faso's parliament on fire

First out were the students, following the death of one of their number in police custody.

Shopkeepers, traders, magistrates, lawyers, peasants and finally the rank-and-file soldiers followed.

But they didn't form a mass movement and this is what "saved Blaise Compaore", according to Mr Depagne, who lived in Burkina Faso for a number of years.

The opposition parties were not able to build a political platform to offer an alternative based on the people's discontent at high prices, low wages and Mr Compaore's undivided rule.

Yet, these upheavals lasted several months in the first half of 2011.

There hadn't been such major demonstrations since the murder of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo at the end of 1998.

Mr Zongo was investigating the killing of the driver of Francois Compaore, the then-president's younger brother and special adviser.

He had himself warned his readership that he may end up being killed after he received a series of death threats.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The murder of Norbert Zongo marked a turning point for many Burkinabes

His murder - which the government initially claimed was an accident - sparked unprecedented demonstrations.

To many, the Zongo case was a turning point during Mr Compaore's regime. The opposition was too divided to overthrow the system but "it created confidence among citizens about their own rights," Mr Depagne said.

Symbolic statue

There was an overwhelming presence of youth in this week's protests. Half of the country's population is believed to be under 18 and flocking to cities where unemployment fuels frustration.

Despite the economic growth, Burkina Faso remains at the very bottom of the United Nations' Human Development Index, making it one of the world's poorest countries.

The landlocked nation is heavily dependent on international aid, especially since one of its major financial partners, Col Muammar Gaddafi, was killed during the Libyan uprising in 2011.

Repeated promises of change haven't been fulfilled during Mr Compaore's rule, allowing public distrust to grow.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Compaore was close to former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi

Yet, Mr Compaore imposed himself as an indispensable regional mediator and had become the strongest ally to France and the US in the region.

He showed capacity to resolve crises - despite his own history of backing rebels and fuelling civil wars in the West African neighbourhood - and more importantly, he used his networks to help Western powers battling Islamist militancy in the Sahel.

Hours before Mr Compaore resigned, a letter he had received earlier this month from French President Francois Hollande - who has now welcomed his resignation - emerged in the media to reveal that France was ready to support him in finding a job within the international community at the end of his mandate, if he withdrew his proposed bill on presidential term limits.

But this wasn't enough. And there was one particular scene during this popular unrest earlier in the week that could have had Mr Compaore worried.

Angered youth took down a statue of him in Bobo Dioulasso, the country's second largest city.

Quite symbolically, the statue was erected in the mid-1990s next to that of Col Gaddafi, who had just visited the country.

Even though that signal was probably the strongest yet, Mr Compaore still thought he could get his bill passed in parliament two days later.

Instead, he precipitated his own downfall.

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