Blaise Compaoré, the African peacemaker who faced rebellion at home

‏AFP | Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré campaigning for a fourth term in 2010

Having spent years burnishing his credentials as Africa's peacemaker, Burkina Faso's longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré may never get a chance to broker a peace deal in his own country.


On Friday, Compaoré announced he was stepping down from the presidency, a day after protesters torched parliament in protest at plans to extend his 27-year rule.

He was merely confirming what military spokesmen had already told a rapturous crowd gathered in front of the army headquarters in Ouagadougou.

"Compaoré is no longer in power," Colonel Boureima Farta told tens of thousands of protesters in the capital of the landlocked West African country, where more than half of the population has known no other ruler.

The 63-year-old veteran strongman had earlier vowed to begin negotiations with the opposition and steer the country through a transition phase.

On paper, crisis talks would have provided familiar territory for the man often described as Africa’s peacemaker.

But, barring a last-minute coup de théâtre, Compaoré will not get a chance to prove he can deliver at home as he has done abroad.

The troublemaker

A former coup leader, Compaoré has steered an unlikely course from regional troublemaker to peace broker.

“Handsome Blaise”, as he is known to Burkinabes, was aged just 36 when he seized power in a putsch, replacing his erstwhile companion Captain Thomas Sankara, who was killed in mysterious circumstances.

Both had allegedly been trained at Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's "World Revolutionary Centre" in Libya, whose other pupils included Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and his proxy in Sierra Leone, Foday Sankoh.

Ouagadougou's tumultuous day

Years later, Compaoré was accused of sending arms and mercenaries to fight UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone – in exchange for diamonds.

The Burkinabe leader has also been linked to a 2002 rebellion in neighbouring Ivory Coast, which left thousands dead and split the country in two.

Compaoré has denied any wrongdoing.

The peace broker

Ultimately, the Ivorian crisis gave Burkina Faso’s strongman a chance to reinvent himself as a mediator.

Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Ivory Coast, home to three million Burkinabes, resulted in a 2007 peace deal signed in Ouagadougou.

Soon, the capital of Burkina Faso became the de-facto hub of regional peace talks, successively hosting feuding delegations from conflict-torn Togo, Guinea and Mali.

While neighbouring countries were rocked by coups and rebellions, Compaoré’s tight grip on his country turned the former French colony into a beacon of stability in an otherwise troubled region.

This in turn bolstered the president’s credentials as a peacemaker – and largely exonerated him from Western criticism over his dubious democratic record.

Compaoré has also been described as a point man for negotiators seeking the release of Western hostages held by Islamist groups and other rebel militia in the restive Sahel region.

In 2009, talks led by Compaoré helped secure the release of two Canadian envoys for the United Nations, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were held captive in Niger for 150 days.

Incidentally, a decade earlier Fowler had penned a scathing UN report that publicly accused the Burkinabe ruler of funding Angola’s bloody 1990s civil war.

Prominent, but poor

Whether stirring crises abroad or soothing them, Compaoré has succeeded in giving Burkina Faso a prominence neither its size nor its economy could match.

Failure to improve the lot of his countrymen has gradually eroded his support and emboldened the country’s fledgling opposition.

Even by regional standards, Burkina Faso remains a poor country, prey to recurrent droughts and fluctuations in the price of cotton, the economic mainstay for many Burkinabes.

From coup leader to peace broker

Buoyed by the Arab Spring protests that swept North Africa, students took to the streets of Ouagadougou in 2011 in protest at corruption and declining living standards.

The protesters were soon joined by mutinous soldiers demanding better wages.

While the mutinies were successfully quelled, the simmering discontent expanded into full-blown outrage last week when Compaoré confirmed he would seek re-election next year.

France, which has a military base in the country, has expressed concern over the president’s plans to change the constitution in order to seek a fifth term in office.

In a statement released this week, France’s Foreign Ministry stressed Burkina Faso’s “key role in guaranteeing regional stability and conflict resolution”, and urged the country to “envisage its own future in a peaceful and consensual manner”.

Paris is said to have backed Compaoré to head the International Organisation of French-speaking countries (OIF) when its current leader steps down later this year, an offer the long-time ruler reportedly turned down.

“I have no trouble listening to others, or even being taught a lesson,” Compaoré told influential French-language weekly Jeune Afrique in July. “But what matters most to me, is what the people of Burkina Faso think.”

Judging by Thursday’s events, it appears a sizeable share of the people think it is high time “Handsome Blaise” retired.

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