Burkina Faso is hardly ever a topic of conversation around the planning tables of world politics. A poor, landlocked country in West Africa, it is notable primarily for its lack of notability: unlike its neighbors, it has remained virtually conflict-free throughout most of its post-colonial history. Even as bloody, gruesome wars and terrorist actions raged through its neighbors, like Mali or Côte d’Ivoire, the country has remained untouched by the bloodshed that has so tainted the history of the region.
Peace can largely be attributed to the steadfast rule of its president, Blaise Compaoré, who has been in power since 1987. However, 2015 marks the constitutionally imposed end of his terms as president, and the insecurity marked by the potential transition has the country in a state of major uncertainty.
The story of Blaise Compaoré’s rise to power sounds rather fictitious. His childhood best friend, Thomas Sankara, was the leader of a Socialist military coup that took power in the late 1970s. Handsome, charming, and an excellent orator, Sankara was the consummate populist leader, and under his presidency, Burkina Faso cut itself off from capitalist countries, enacted wide-sweeping campaigns to “Consume Burkinabé,” and mobilized to help the struggling poor. However, the rise of a socialist government in one of its former colonies was hardly desirable for the French, a problem compounded by the country’s abrupt decision to eliminate trade with its former colonizer, which once had a virtual monopoly over all trade in or out of Burkina Faso.
And so in the late 80’s — or at least, as the rumor goes — the French, with CIA support, found a mole within Sankara’s government willing to exchange youthful idealism for economic and political support: Blaise Compaoré. One assassination later, he stood at the head of the country’s government, swiftly undoing the vast majority of Sankara’s changes (through a process called “rectification”) and thrusting Burkina Faso into the capitalist world economy.
Today, the results of this program are mixed at best. Although it has remained remarkably stable politically despite the turmoil around it, Burkina Faso remains trapped in poverty, its average yearly income hovering around US$300 per person. It has the 9th highest infant mortality rate in the world, compounded by a life expectancy of just under 55 years. Despite Compaoré’s efforts to introduce a modern industrialized economy, 90% of the population relies directly on agriculture to survive. Western NGOs have taken over substantial sectors of the economy, making it difficult for local industries to compete. Huge migrant populations live in Côte d’Ivoire, working on plantations and sending money back to their families. Other than some small gold mines in the north, there are not many exportable resources in the country, further stifling growth.
Further, the rumors of how Compaoré has held on to power for such a long time are abundant and hardly flattering. Though the elections which have kept him in office are at least nominally democratic, stories of SNP men going into rural villages during election season and threatening voters abound. During the recent civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, which overlapped with an election season, SNP officials reportedly told villagers that they had to vote for the SNP, lest a war break out here too; then where would they go? To Mali? To Côte d’Ivoire? Nigeria?
Compaoré has been priming his younger brother to take over for him after the constitution — should he fail to change it — keeps him from running once more. But the rumors about him are yet more scandalous: an affair with an Ivoirian singer, a journalist murdered for exposing the tryst, and ties with organized crime. And though Compaoré remains fairly popular, the same people who support him are virulently against his brother’s ascension, creating an uncomfortable, internally divided situation.
January saw the largest anti-Compaoré protest in Burkinabé history in the capital of Ouagadougou. Though the elections are still two years away, they are the overwhelming topic of conversation. On a recent trip, it seemed as though most conversations would inevitably turn to the murmurs of anti-government activism. It was a hard dry season: hotter than usual, and tensions are high. Violence seems likely to increase, from both sides. Reports of violence have already started circulating: the story of a woman who painted a pro-Compaoré slogan on the side of her wall who was beaten by anti-presidential demonstrators is repeated quietly but insistently by locals.
It remains to be seen whether the coming of the rains will calm people or whether the president will be able to muster the lukewarm political support that has kept him in power all these years. No one wants violence; migrants from Burkina Faso have been caught up in the civil wars of all of its neighbors, and the most recent Ivoirian war remains a personal trauma for much of the population. And Burkina Faso has factors working in its favor: an overwhelmingly dominant Mossi ethnicity, extremely low religious tension, and little outside interest in making the results of the election skew one way or the other.
It remains to be seen whether those will be enough to counteract a regional trend towards election violence. The fervent hope, of course, is that it will. For Burkina Faso itself, and for the region.
Photo credit AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images