How did perhaps the most reviled African head of state of his generation manage to rehabilitate himself as a statesman? This act of political escapism—a “stay out of jail free” card—is the greatest accomplishment of former Blaise Compaoré, former president of Burkina Faso. A more appropriate title for him—and one that better captures his ability to remain in power—would have been the CEO of Burkina Faso Incorporated. Compaoré ran a political-business enterprise that simultaneously created a violent and corrupt disorder, and then ensured that it could prosper in that very same warlords’ bazaar.
African heads of state have a high threshold for tolerating thuggery among their peers. The continental organization has had, among roster of annual chairmen, such individuals as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi (who infamously objected to handing over to his successor) and (recently, disturbingly) Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.
Two leaders, however, stood out because their actions were deemed so unacceptable that their fellow leaders were less forgiving. One was Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, who was a member of the armed squad that assassinated the country’s independence leader, Sylvanus Olympio, in January 1963, and was thereby debarred from attending the inaugural summit of the Organisation of African Unity four months later. Eyadéma lasted in power so long that, forgetful of his bloody entry into the halls of African leadership, embarrassed about the fact that so many others had followed that sanguinary precedent he set, and following the mindless mechanics of rotation, his fellow African heads of state finally chose him as chairman of the OAU in 2001.
Compaoré is another member of that select group of leaders who led an armed unit that stormed the palace and killed the incumbent, in this case his former friend Thomas Sankara. Widely admired as a man of humility who spoke to the real needs of the people, Sankara was in a sense the father of the Burkinabe nation, as he was the one who changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “the land of upright people.” The shock of his murder reverberated. For years, Compaoré was shunned at African leaders’ meetings, with fellow presidents refusing to shake his hand. I remember the physical shudder of revulsion expressed by my friend Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, of the Pan African Movement, when the Burkinabe putchist was in the vicinity, and there were other leaders who noticeably grimaced when they were obliged to speak his name.
One of the exceptions was Charles Taylor, who won the elections in Liberia with the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I will vote for him.” Taylor’s insurgency was sponsored and funded by Compaoré (and indeed Taylor’s co-insurgents are rumored to be implicated in Compaoré’s original conspiracy). Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh was another Compaoré protégé. Although Nigeria’s military leader Sani Abacha was a regional adversary, he recognized Compaoré as one of his own. In West Africa’s warlord politics of the late 1990s, intimidation and destabilization paid off, and in due course Abacha blessed Compaoré as West Africa’s candidate for OAU chairman in 1998.
But what distinguished Compaoré was his skill in political business management, and in particular his ability to reposition himself as an agent of stability, even a peacemaker. Key to this was his role in Côte d’Ivoire, where France turned Compaoré’s troublemaking skills to their political advantage. More recently he played the role of gendarme in Guinea and Mali—putting his troops on the international payroll in the latter case.
There is no better illustration of the cynical politics of Francafrique than Parisian readiness to launder Compaoré’s reputation, rebrand him as a statesman, and utilize him for their own purposes. It is a textbook example of the politics of the marketplace, where everything is up for auction, and the only virtue is the ability to deliver on the deal.
In due course, Taylor and Sankoh became the targets of international criminal proceedings. Had the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Taylor on the basis of joint criminal enterprise, as some lawyers urged, Compaoré would have been implicated as the senior member of that same enterprise, along with their common patron, Gaddafi. In the event, Taylor was convicted by the Special Court for “aiding and abetting crimes” committed by the Sierra Leonean insurgents, and his partner escaped. Burkinabe observers immediately began asking, “why are Gaddafi and Compaoré not next?” and, “after Charles Taylor, get Compaoré.” Their argument is straightforward: justice for Liberians, Sierra Leoneans and above all, Burkinabes, will not be served until Compaoré is put at last in the dock.
Let me suggest that Compaoré’s career be adopted as a case study of political business entrepreneurship. Just as the study of gangsters and drug lords is necessary for law enforcement, so too understanding the political cosmetic surgery that created “beautiful Blaise” is important to the agenda of democratization.
Let me also suggest that the Burkinabe citizens who so patiently waited out the career of their political business manager, but finally deposed him, be the final determinants of Compaoré’s fate. They have many tasks at hand, not least because the last 27 years of mafia politics mean that so many of the former leader’s disciples are in positions of influence. But in due course, as part of restoring their country to a position that truly reflects its name, many Burkinabes will demand a truth commission, and they and other West African victims of his political-business career will want former CEO Compaoré to explain all.