Burkina Faso’s political transition is now underway. Michel Kafando, retired diplomat and former foreign minister, has been appointed interim President and Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Yacouba Zida, who assumed power after former president Blaise Compaoré’s departure, is Prime Minister.
Attention is focused on the challenges of the transition that will lead to the 2015 elections. But what impact has Compaoré’s downfall had on the West African region.
Burkina Faso and especially Compaoré were often presented by external partners as pillars of stability in West Africa. Having come to power following a coup on 15 October 1987, Compaoré had become a ‘peacemaker’ through his mediation in the various political and military crises that shook the sub-region notably in Togo,Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. However, he has equally been accused of promoting instability through his alleged involvement in the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. Compaoré’s role in the region is thus hard to define, being a peacemaker in some cases and a troublemaker in some others.
In Togo, Compaoré has played a long-standing role, starting with his facilitation of the inter-Togolese dialogue in 1993. A key mediator of the long socio-political crisis in that country, he was called in again in 2005 in the wake of the post-election violence that followed President Faure Gnassingbé’s controversial election.
It was under Compaoré’s auspices that the Global Political Agreement was signed on 20 August 2006, fostering a climate of trust between political actors in the country and paving the way for the 2007 parliamentary elections, which took place without major incidents. In 2010, his mediation led to a consensus on the composition of the Independent National Electoral Commission and the easing of the eligibility conditions for the position of president.
The debate on the implementation of constitutional and institutional reforms ahead of the 2015 presidential election in Togo is now being revived. The impact of the recent events in Burkina Faso cannot be discounted and there’s a real risk of a gradual rise in tension in the country.
On 21 November the Togolese opposition organised a march to the National Assembly demanding that the number of five-year terms a president can serve be limited to two, along with a two-round voting system before the 2015 elections. Political instability in the short term is a possibility especially since Compaoré’s downfall deprives Gnassingbé of one of his supporters in the sub-region, and increases the risks ahead of the presidential elections next year.
In Côte d’Ivoire, the opinion on Compaoré varies accordingly to whether it comes from the opposition or the ruling party. On the one hand, supporters of Laurent Gbagbo accuse Compaoré of having supported the failed coup of 19 September 2002 and the rebel group that subsequently took control of the north. On the other, supporters of Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara praise Compaoré for his mediation, which led to the 2007 Ouagadougou Political Agreement and presidential elections in 2010 which Ouattara won.
Guillaume Soro, the current President of the National Assembly and former head of the Ivorian rebellion, worked closely with Compaoré, including when he was prime minister from 2007 to 2010. Compaoré’s political and moral backing were significant for Soro in his on going power struggle with Hamed Bakayoko, the Minister for Home Security, over who will succeed Ouattara. Compaoré’s downfall could therefore also have an influence on the outcome.
In Mali, Compaoré played a central role in the ongoing stabilisation process. The mediation, co-led by Burkina Faso, resulted in a return to constitutional order in April 2012 and a peace agreement between the transitional government and armed groups from the north in June 2013. This agreement paved the way for the 2013 presidential elections and continued negotiations to restore Mali’s integrity and achieve lasting peace.
Burkina Faso’s mediation was however gradually repudiated by the Malian authorities who doubted Compaoré’s impartiality. His apparent favouritism towards certain leaders of the armed groups became a source of tension between Bamako and Ouagadougou. As a result Burkina Faso was eventually marginalised as a mediator in favour of Algeria. Compaoré’s departure is thus a loss to some of the armed groups in Northern Mali who may now be under pressure to compromise with the Malian government during the Algiers negotiations.
Compaoré was also involved in the release of several Western hostages held by Islamist groups in the Sahel. His Special Adviser, Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi, played an important role in the liberation of the Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and his assistant Louis Guay, and of three Spanish aid workers in 2009.
Compaoré’s departure means the West has lost a key partner whose networks in the region were critical to resolving the ongoing problem of hostage taking by Islamist groups. The recent liberation of French hostage Serge Lazarevic, and the role played by Niger and Mali in that context, however, demonstrate that Compaoré had, by no means, the exclusive control of such networks.
The effects of Compaoré’s downfall are already being felt in West Africa. Although it is still too early to measure the exact impact on the sub-region, what we do know is that another head of state will hardly fill the political vacuum left by his departure. Indeed, Compaoré’s influence chiefly resided in the personal relationships and networks he forged during the 27 years of his presidency. No other current president in the region has been in power for that long.
The departure of such a strong and influential individual may be an opportunity for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as an institution, to step into the void and be more assertive in the way it prevents and resolves conflicts.
Written by Ousmane Aly Diallo, Junior Fellow, Esso-Wèdeou Gnamke, Junior Fellow, Ibrahim Maïga, Junior Fellow, Fatimata Ouédraogo, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar