Letter from Africa: Did suave Compaore outsmart Ghana?

File photo: Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore (left) and Libyan head of state Muammar Gaddafi in Dakar, 3 April 2007 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Compaore was close to killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene, a former government minister and member of the opposition, reports that Burkina's Faso's ousted president was a suave operator on the global stage.

Blaise Compaore, who was deposed recently as Burkina Faso's president, was always a difficult subject to handle for us here in Ghana.

As the man who for 27 years was in charge of the country to the north of us, we had to deal with him.

The suave, sharp-suited former soldier of few words posed difficulties for our rulers and diplomats in deciding how to categorise him.

The problem started with how Mr Compaore came to power in 1987. He was accused of complicity in the killing of his predecessor Thomas Sankara, who had been described as his "blood brother". Mr Compaore denied the charges.


Back then our leader, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings was best friends with Thomas Sankara, and the suspicions made it difficult for relations to be warm between the two soldiers.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ghana's ex-President Jerry Rawlings was a close ally of Mr Compaore's predecessor, Thomas Sankara
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Sankara remained popular after his death

Unlike Mr Sankara and Mr Rawlings, Mr Compaore was not a great talker.

He did not rant or rave about anything or anybody, or about what he liked or didn't like.

Without making any announcements or speeches, he became close friends with Muammar Gaddafi when the then Libyan leader was the bugbear of the Western world.

A lot of Libyan money started going into Burkina Faso. Nowhere near that kind of money came into Ghana even though we were officially friends of Col Gaddafi.

Blaise Compaore

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Media captionBBC News looks back at Blaise Compaore's three decades of power
  • Former soldier and served under President Thomas Sankara as minister of state to the presidency
  • Took power after Sankara was killed in mysterious circumstances by a group of soldiers in 1987
  • First elected president in 1991 and again in 1998
  • A new constitution in 2000 limited presidents to two terms in office, and limited terms to five years
  • Won two further terms
  • Faced outbreaks of violence on several occasions, including a military mutiny in 2011
  • Overthrown in October after mass protests against his rule
  • Exiled in neighbouring Ivory Coast

The 'heroes' of Burkina Faso's revolution

The rise and fall of Blaise Compaore

Before very long and without his saying so, it became evident that Mr Compaore had become good friends with France, the US and other Western countries.

Again, the evidence of this came with the amount of Western money that was going into Burkina Faso.

'Supported insurrections'

In the early 1990s, Mr Compaore, our neighbour, always seemed to manage to get the best of both worlds.

I remember Captain Valentine Strasser telling me soon after he had overthrown Sierra Leone's President Joseph Momoh in 1992 that his inspiration was Mr Rawlings.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption French President Francois Hollande (C) maintained ties with Mr Compaore (L)

Two years later when Yahya Jammeh overthrew Dauda Jawarah to seize power in The Gambia, he also claimed his inspiration was Mr Rawlings.

When Charles Taylor would narrate his journey, from being locked up in an American jail to warlord to president of Liberia, he always made mention of his stop in Ghana.

None of these people ever mentioned that they had received crucial support from the smooth operator of Burkina Faso in staging their coups or starting their wars.

We in Ghana got the bad name and he was alleged to have got the diamonds - charges he denied.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Compaore was accused of backing rebels in diamond-rich Sierra Leone
Image copyright AFP
Image caption He denied allegations, made by UN officials, that he was given diamonds in return

Before our very eyes, our smooth Burkinabe operator managed to shed all trace of ever having instigated or supported insurrections and he was transformed into a regional peacemaker.

He became the Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) man to pour oil over troubled waters.

'Dishevelled and ruffled'

In Ivory Coast, Mali or Guinea, he was there; never saying very much publicly but always seeming to be a critical cog in the peace process.

In the international arena, Mr Compaore was seen as a reliable man in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Americans were generous in return.

To us, Burkina Faso remained a poor country, though we were beginning to re-examine our attitude to our neighbour.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Burkina Faso is seen as the poor cousin of Ghana

We import a lot of livestock from Burkina Faso; sheep, goats and cattle and we continue to do so in increasingly big numbers.

In the past few years it has been a source of deep embarrassment to us that we also import lots of vegetables and fruits, like onions, tomatoes, runner beans, water melon and mangoes from our desert neighbour.

We look on with puzzlement as Burkina Faso exports high quality vegetables and potatoes and strawberries to France.

We take refuge only in our belief that we have a democracy and Mr Compaore, for all his peace-making and sophisticated outlook, was presiding over a fragile state.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Fruit and vegetables from Burkina Faso are increasingly being exported to Ghana

When he built an impressive beachfront estate in the central region of our country, some of us wondered if Mr Compaore could possibly have been making retirement plans.

Unfortunately he had obviously come to believe he was so much smarter than his neighbours; he had seen off three Ghanaian presidents - Mr Rawlings, John Kufuor and John Atta Mills. So why would he not outlast the incumbent, John Dramani Mahama?

But the Burkinabe people had had enough, they intervened dramatically and the smooth operator had to flee to Ivory Coast; dishevelled and ruffled.

I wish I could see the photo.

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