By Staff Reporter
The protests that on Friday ended the rule of Burkina Faso’s long-serving president may have seemed like another African drama in an isolated corner of the continent. However, they have created a possible problem for the US and France, which rely heavily on the west African nation in their fight against Islamic extremism in the semi-desert south of the Sahara.
Much as the Arab spring toppled western allies in north Africa such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, what demonstrators called Burkina’s “black spring” led to the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré. His departure removes an important regional supporter of both Washington and Paris, the former colonial power, in the volatile Sahel, where the jihadist threat is growing.
Analysts say a new government is unlikely to change the long-term relationship between Burkina Faso, Paris and Washington. But they warn of uncertainty now that the army has seized power. General Honoré Traoré, chief of the army staff who has assumed control and promised fresh elections, is a former ally of Mr Compaoré.
The abrupt political change, after almost three decades of stability, will nonetheless create challenges for Paris in a region long known as “Françafrique”.
Over his 27-year rule Mr Compaoré evolved from being a host to traders in blood diamonds and regional rebels into an elder statesman capable of finding solutions to intractable conflicts on behalf of France.
For years, he has one of France’s main point-men in crises across what was formerly French West Africa. Until independence in the 1960s, this colonial entity loosely grouped together countries including Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Niger, and those known today as Mali and Burkina Faso.
In a note to clients, Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst at DaMina Advisors, a frontier-markets consultancy, compared the fall of Mr Compaoré for France to the collapse of the Mubarak regime for the US. Washington long relied on the Egyptian leader to mediate in conflicts in the Middle East.
“Mr Compaoré’s quiet, behind the scenes political, intelligence, financial and military support [was] critical to maintaining the regimes of several domestically challenged west African governments”, he said.
For example, Mr Compaoré hosted talks between Mali’s government and rebel Tuaregs, leading to the deal that made possible a presidential election there in 2013. France had been forced to launch a military operation in Mali in late 2012, deploying more than 4,000 soldiers.
Mr Compaoré also mediated between the government and rebel Tuaregs in nearby Niger, and played a crucial role in crises in Ivory Coast, most recently in 2011 when a spat over elections led to a short civil conflict.
Mr Compaoré’s quiet, behind the scenes political, intelligence, financial and military support [was] critical to maintaining the regimes of several domestically challenged west Africangovernments– Sebastian Spio-Garbrah
In an interview in 2007, Djibril Bassolé, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, explained why Mr Compaoré was able to play such a role: “Burkina has the advantage of having a president who has been in office for 20 years . . . That means that, in any country in the subregion, he knows people from the opposition and the military. That’s what gives him an added advantage”.
The importance of Burkina Faso to France increased this year after Paris launched a campaign against al-Qaeda in the Sahel codenamed Operation Barkhane. A special operations detachment from the 3,000-strong counter-terrorism force, based mainly in Mali and Chad, is stationed at a base close to the Burkinabè capital, Ouagadougou. Islamist militants were boosted when Muammer Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya in 2011 and large parts of his arsenal ended up in the hands of jihadis.
Despite his close relations with Paris, Mr Compaoré, who became president in a 1987 coup, for years had a difficult relationship with Washington, in part because of his support for Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was later convicted of war crimes. That began to change about a decade ago, allowing Mr Compaoré to become a partner of the US in its so-called war on terror.
The Pentagon has for the past five years flown unmanned spy planes from a base inside Ouagadougou airport. The drones fly across the Sahel, mostly over Mali and Niger, analysts say. Washington also trains Burkina’s army at the Kaya military base, and recently provided its military with $1.8m worth of support materials for peacekeeping missions.
In a sign of the country’s importance, both France and the US on Friday welcomed the swift end to the crisis – even as the Burkinabè military staged what many believed was dangerously close to a full coup d’état.