Burkina Faso, or at least the capital Ouagadougou, is commemorating the 20th anniversary of power for president Blaise Compaore. Certain constituencies of the country are also marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Tomas Sankara, the fiery leader who came to power through a coup (instigated by Compaore) in 1983.
Compaore and his retinue have kept a pretty high profile for the anniversary, with planned marches, concerts and the like going on throughout the city. The president is hosting a three-day colloquium on democracy and development in Africa, where he called for the rich countries to cancel all African debt.
“Canceling debt in Africa is one of the measures of compensation for the multiple prejudices suffered by the continent,” he said at yesterday’s opening ceremony.
No matter how Compaore celebrated, the 20th anniversary was always going to sensitive and emotional. Compaore came to power through a coup that struck down and killed his brother-in-arm Tomas Sankara, a populist politician who towards the end of his mandate had become increasingly distant and paranoid, not even speaking to his inner cabinet.
Yet he still remains beloved in Burkina Faso. Sankara Stickers and t-shirts are found everywhere. Stories of the Sankara revolution still percolate through the city. “People were scared to do the wrong thing during Sankara,” someone told me yesterday. “They aren’t scared anymore.” Sankara was the president without pretensions, the soldier who stood up for the little people.
He was also the leader who put the fear of God into rich people. And, in Burkina Faso, rich was defined by anyone with, say, a refrigerator. Middle class people still talk about standing in front of their entire neighborhood and recounting what they had done for the revolution, all the while being mocked by their neighbors. “He was a good man in the beginning, but he stopped listening to people,” another person told me last week.
Pro Blaise or not
You can argue only two sides of the political spectrum exist in today's Burkina Faso: Pro Blaise and Pro Sankara. (Although Blaise has been at pains to instill the idea he’s merely continuing Sankara’s revolution and some do buy into that idea.) Anyway, each faction spent the past few months preparing for the celebration/remembrance. The animosity rose to a new level when Mariam Sankara, Tomas’s widow, announced she would end twenty years of exile and return to Ouagadougou for a celebration of her late husband’s life. (She’s currently suing the Burkinabé government for its role in the death of her husband.)
Cynical Burkinabé point out that the Compaore regime was taking no chances Mrs. Sankara’s arrival would help stir up anti-government sentiment. Some cellular phone service was interrupted late last week, and the state-run internet company has been down for much of the previous four days. Questionable as the timing is, it should be pointed out the government has made plenty of overtures to Mrs. Sankara in the hopes that she would return home and allow the country to put the past behind.
Remembering and forgetting
This is the subtext the 20th anniversary/remembrance: How much Burkina Faso – the name Sankara gave to the country – has changed since his assassination. No matter what we think of Sankara, we live in a completely different epoch, said Halidou Ouedraego, head of the largest human rights association in the country. Sankara came to power in the height of the Cold War, he made a name for himself around Africa by offending both superpowers, worrying publicly about the role debt on African economies and famously kicking out the aid and development organizations, hoping to jump start the country to become self reliant.
Compaore came to power in 1987, survived the turbulent 1990s in West Africa, getting slapped on the wrist for by the United Nations for dabbling into too many of the continent’s dirty wars. During this period, his rule (and ruling clique) could mostly be described as alternating between brutish and thuggish. By the turn of the new century, however, a modicum of stability rings throughout the country.
Here’s a Nigerian writer’s take on it the anniversary:
Since becoming the president after winning elections thrice, Compaore has practised religiously the true principles of democratic system, allowing for free speech, fairness, justice and non-interference with other arms of government. In order to give credibility to the electoral system, he has put in place a truly independent National Electoral Commission called CENI, a 27-member body which has representatives of the opposition, religious bodies, traditional rulers, trade unions, the civil society and human rights' groups. Every organization has freedom to choose who they prefer to be on the CENI, and because of this unique and unprecedented electoral commission, any result from the commission is never disputed.
Before Burkinabé are able to come to terms with the future, they must come to terms with the past, said Halidou Ouedraogo. That can’t happen until more light is shined on the details surrounding Sankara’s death:
"The people don’t know what happened October 15, 1987 when their president had been killed. Why was he killed? They don’t know,” he told RFI.
“There is no freedom of expression; there are no economic rights…and justice? And the [problem of] impunity? Where are those? You must settle all of that.”
The real meaning
For the international community, this anniversary brings up a few issues. First, it feels odd to celebrate a “president’s” 20th anniversary in power. But in Africa, it’s a common marker. Compaore is currently the 25th longest-serving head of state in the world. El Hadj Omar Bongo in Gabon will celebrate his 40th anniversary in December; Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi will hit forty years of power in 2009, the same year Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea and José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola will celebrate the big 30. Zimbabwe will mark 30 years of President Robert Mugabe in 2010. Common entries on Dictator of the Year lists, Honsi Mubarek in Egypt, Paul Biya in Cameroon, and Lansana Conté in Guinea came to power between 1981 and 1984. Finally, Yoweri Museveni beat Compaore and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia to office by a year. Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan will celebrate 20 years in 2009 and Idriss Déby of Chad in 2010.
There is more to democracy than elections, Robert Kaplan would say. Institutions must be strong, a healthy opposition must be in place, respect for the rule of law instilled by an independent judiciary. There are 53 states in Africa, and this list barely scratches the surface of presidents on the continent. But this register is not a who’s who of democrats.
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been much talk of U.S. funding and aid supporting nasty dictators. (In the past: Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire; In the present: Museveni in Ethiopia, Pervez Musharref in Pakistan).
Talk from the State Dept. now centers on using the frame of good governance to dictate the amount of funds a country receives: freedom of the press, the fight against corruption, etc. It’s true that more “democratic” countries are often better run , which translates into higher levels of development for citizens. The truth is, however, the U.S. government throws very little money around the continent. It doesn’t really have the leverage to make a country more “democratic” – even if it decides that African democracy is in its real interests.
In the end, this may not be a question of how long these rulers stay in power, but how effective they are in office. This answer shouldn't come from foreign governments or the international aid complex. It should be decided by Africans, who already know enough of the pratfalls of their leaders.