Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long:

Our hotel room in Ouagadougou, unlike all the other rooms we have stayed in on our trip, has a television. This allows us to watch the celebrations marking fifty years of Burkina Faso’s independence, which are being held on a football field in Bobo-Dioulasso. Blaise Compaoré is the guest of honour.

Compaoré has ruled his country for much longer than the man he replaced, but he remains a sullen, unloved figure. Sankara has streets named after him in African capitals, with pilgrims trekking to his grave from all corners of the continent. Compaoré, on the other hand, inspires only suspicion and fear; like a stepfather replacing an adored father, he has never gained his people’s affection.

In the first months of his presidency he attempted to mend fences. He disarmed Sankara’s revolutionary committees, legalised political parties, and declared an amnesty for political prisoners. Still he was not trusted, however: he had too much blood on his hands. Realising that he would not win any popularity contests and that holding fair democratic elections would therefore leave him vulnerable, he tightened his grip on power by other means. The media was silenced, rivals locked up or executed, ballots rigged, and opposition parties ground into insignificance. When he stood unopposed for election in 1991, three-quarters of his countrymen abstained from voting.

On the television, a soldier presents his president with the Burkinabe flag – the flag Sankara designed – while the master of ceremonies tells the audience of seated dignitaries that the red half of the flag symbolises the blood spilt for the freedom of the country. Compaoré, balding but still physically robust, looks humble, almost shy as he joins in the singing of the national anthem (which Sankara composed on his guitar). Dressed in a dark suit, crimson tie and polished black shoes, he steps up to a podium to deliver his speech.


It is not easy being an African dictator. Attaining and then holding onto power require resourcefulness, cunning, patience and endurance. You can never drop your guard, must never lose sight of your single overriding imperative of clinging to office. All your energies – your entire existence – must be permanently focused on this. It is an exhausting choice of career.

To acquire power, you first need to gather around you a loyal band of supporters. You can start with family members, but as you rise through the ranks in the army or the political party you will need to branch out. Colleagues who admire your charisma and respect your obvious leadership qualities will be your first port of call. You will need to grease their palms from time to time, either with financial rewards or promises of high office when you reach your goal (be especially generous with military officials, whom you will rely on to stage your coup d’état). To obtain the financial rewards and to bolster the long-term solvency of your project, take the time to garner the favour of a handful of wealthy businessmen; you can repay these benefactors with public works contracts once you have your hands on the national purse.

You will need support in the wider population, too. It is possible to lead a country without universal popular backing, but with no support at all from your citizenry you will be defenceless when rivals move to unseat you. You turn, therefore, to the people from your village, your town, your tribe. You promise them that you will give them jobs when you assume power, and in the meantime you must give them sweeteners – food, cash, land or assistance in resolving disputes.

To really make certain that your push for glory will prevail, you must obtain the sponsorship of a Western power, for only they can provide the financial muscle that will guarantee your success. During the Cold War this was easy. However incompetent, corrupt and bloodthirsty you were, however many of your innocent fellow citizens you tortured and murdered, as long as you claimed to be fighting off the communist tide or resisting the capitalist oppressor you could count on financial and military aid from the United States or the Soviet Union. This option is now closed off, although perhaps with the growing presence of the Chinese in Africa it might one day open up again.

Today your best hope is the former colonial power. France in particular is happy to support dictators in return for influence, business contracts, and access to your country’s natural resources. The Ministère des Affaires Etrangères has been a steadfast ally to a panoply of West African dictators, from the mad cannibal Jean-Bédel Bokassa to the kleptocratic Omar Bongo and Félix Houphouet-Boigny. France has even supported dictators whose countries it never colonised, propping up ruthless tyrants like Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and the doyen of all despots, Mobutu Sese Seko, who while appropriating two-thirds of Zaire’s national budget for his “discretionary spending” openly advised members of his party not to steal too much at once but to ‘steal cleverly, little by little.’ Most of these men (including Blaise Compaoré, who quickly turned his back on the austerity of the Sankara years) have villas in the south of France, palaces in the Parisian suburbs, and penthouse apartments in the City of Light itself. They have fleets of Mercedes and Bugattis to ferry them around when they visit the metropolis. As a budding dictator you have all this to look forward to, and you can count on the French to assist your rise with money and arms, confer legitimacy by recognising your government, and help you quash opposition once you have attained the presidency.

Now that you have the French, your tribe, a few wealthy businessmen and a cadre of military and party colleagues onside, you are ready to make your push for power. In West Africa coups d’état are often bloody. Your opponent will not go down without a fight, so you must be ready to use extreme violence. If you do not eliminate him outright, you must at least force him into exile, preferably after seizing his assets (while Charles Taylor’s rebel soldiers were relieving Samuel Doe of his ears, they yelled at him to give them his bank account numbers). When he is gone, to nullify the risk of a counter-coup you must immediately purge his followers. Siaka Stevens executed dozens of potential rivals during his first few years in power, and Nino Vieira and Compaoré himself were quick to do likewise whenever they smelt a conspiracy brewing.

Once you are ensconced in office, your travails intensify, for you must always be alert to the threat of sedition. This danger is real, your paranoia fully justified. From the 1960s to the turn of the millennium, three in five African leaders ended their rule in a coffin or in exile. ‘I expected a coup any day,’ said the former Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida. ‘From day one I was there, I knew that somehow, some day there would be a coup. Because we took it by force, somebody is going to try and take by force.’ You will need eyes everywhere – in the villages, in the cities, among your friends and close colleagues, even within your own family – to protect you against usurpers.

While you are watching your back, you must not take your eye off your supporters. Now that you are president, their expectations skyrocket, and you must continue to slake their thirst. The French demand mining contracts and free rein for their businesses. Your military colleagues expect promotion and power (you will have to create new positions, new battalions, to give each of them the status and access to national funds he requires). Nor must you forget your tribe and your village. They are your rock, the critical mass which will give you the numbers you need to fend off rebellions or popular revolt. You need them to love you, everybody else to fear you.

To satisfy these grassroots followers you must first provide them with a source of income. This is likely to mean expanding the government bureaucracy to create jobs. This makes your administration less efficient, but by increasing the number of hoops citizens and businesses must go through to accomplish anything, it also multiplies the opportunities for your supporters to extract bribes. Further demonstrations of your largesse will come in the shape of grand projects in your home community. The Ivory Coast dictator Houphouet-Boigny built the world’s largest cathedral in his provincial hometown of Yamoussoukro. Compaoré has opened a wildlife park in the grounds of his palace in the dusty backwater of Ziniaré, and has drawn up plans to relocate the country’s main airport there from Ouagadougou. The town, unlike those around it, has schools, a hospital, and numerous development projects, all in the service of cementing its inhabitants’ loyalty to their leader.

Although your task as a dictator is never straightforward, however, neither, as many of your predecessors have shown, is it impossible. There are a number of advantages to pursuing your choice of career in Africa as opposed to a less benighted part of the world. Chief among them is the weakness of your subjects. The masses are too poor, too hungry and too busy finding food to eat each day to plot rebellion; they are uneducated, and therefore easy to manipulate once you gain control of the media (Compaoré’s first act after dispatching Sankara was to take over state radio); and they are accustomed to repression – to them, one despotic leader resembles another (Western governments take a similar view, and exert only half-hearted pressure for you to step down).

The weakness of your country’s economic and political institutions is another blessing. The business sector, for example, is undeveloped, and laws to protect its assets nonexistent – this makes it easy for you to appropriate your nation’s natural resources to enrich yourself and your cronies. The authority of chiefs was hollowed out by colonialism, making it easier for you to centralise power in the capital. And political parties, if they exist at all, are often mere husks, vehicles for their leaders to amass wealth and furnish the demands of their supporters; they are in no position to stop you plundering state finances and siphoning off foreign aid. You can use the fruits of your pillage, indeed, to guarantee their silence. They will happily comply, for their people must eat too: Compaoré’s own coalition contains more than thirty other parties.

That you are not alone is a further advantage bestowed on you by your continent. Once you have established a reputation as an effective custodian of power, your fellow dictators will rally to your cause. Charles Taylor gave Compaoré conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, and received weapons and men for the RUF invasion in return. Compaoré also befriended Libya’s Gaddafi and Gambia’s Jammeh, who claims to be able to cure AIDS (but only on Thursdays). The late Houphouet-Boigny gave the Burkinabe leader his daughter’s hand in marriage. If a rebel group somehow manages to elude your all-seeing eye and make a grab for power, you can usually count on your neighbouring despots to help you extinguish the threat.

Solidarity with your peers is essential, for like them you are in this for the long haul. This job, once embarked upon, is for life. Even if you weary of spending all your time smoking out opponents and attending to supporters’ needs, even if all the extrajudicial executions and betrayals of close friends finally breach your psychological defences and envelop you in guilt, it will be impossible for you to step down. Your power is a prison. If you allow someone else to take the reins, your life will be at his mercy – in the unlikely event that he does not send you to the gallows or the firing squad, at the very least he will target the assets you have so patiently accumulated.

But let us imagine that you can be sure of your survival, perhaps after reaching an agreement with your successor to stand down in return for being left alone. Maybe then you can fade peacefully from the political scene and slip into a quiet retirement. But wait! You cannot! You have forgotten the most important thing! If you step aside, what will become of your villagers, your tribespeople, your long-standing political and military allies? They will all be cast out onto the street, penniless. You cannot do this to us, they will say, an appalled look on their faces, their palms upturned in a pleading gesture. After all we have done for you! This is Africa – you have obligations. You cannot just turn your back on your people! Did your venerable ancestors bring you into the world for this? To spit on us, to betray those who gave you everything? No, you must stay the course, they agree, nodding sagely, the wisdom of generations on their side. We are in this together. You have no choice. You wanted power, we put you in power, and in power you must remain.

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

As the anniversary celebrations in Bobo reach their climax, Blaise Compaoré concludes his speech. It is possible that my imagination is deceiving me after spending the past few days thinking about Sankara, but I detect in his successor a great, crushing sadness. His eyes, sloping down at the outer edges, look careworn, lacklustre. His shoulders are slumped, his brow furrowed. His speech, fluent but turgid, has merely gone through the motions, its repeated references to ‘solidarity’ and the Revolution containing none of the vigour and excitement that filled his predecessor’s proclamations. Compaoré is in the process of amending the constitution to allow himself to stand for yet another five-year term in office. If he finishes that term, he will have ruled Burkina Faso for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years of looking over his shoulder, fielding demands, nurturing loyalty – thirty-three years in a jail of his own making. As I sit there watching the speech in my new Thomas Sankara T-shirt, I cannot suppress a pang of sympathy for the late revolutionary’s nemesis.