When Blaise Compaoré took power in Burkino Faso in a 1987 coup, he acted cunningly, overthrowing his old friend who acted as President, and immediately taking over his position. 27 years later, at the end of his rule, he acted like a complete idiot. Not only did he ruin his own career, which could still have been an extremely successful one even after his final presidential term expired, but more so, he also ruined the country he spent 27 years trying to build up. So does power corrupt, or does it perhaps just make people rather idiotic?
In November 2015, Burkina Faso would have had its presidential elections that would have led to the election of a different leader than the one they had had for such a long time. Compaoré could not have been re-elected, and the people were okay with that. They were willing to wait out that last year of Compaore’s rule, only to part peacefully, with the country democratically electing a new president and the old president himself probably being given some fancy diplomatic function in international politics, as had been promised by for instance president Hollande of France. Just one year of waiting, and most likely, all would have worked out just fine.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Compaoré tried to extend his rule despite the obvious signs that the people would not accept it, and this quite predictably led to another uprising. It wasn’t the first in this decade, but it was certainly the biggest. Not much later, Compaoré resigned a year earlier than planned and the people are left with an unstable country, a risk of civil war, and an upcoming democratic election that is bound to be a lot more chaotic, and possibly more corrupt, than it would have been in November 2015. In short: everyone loses.
What the future holds is something we can only guess about. The fact that the military has now taken charge could lead to enormous problems, with the fairness of the elections being seriously at risk. It could lead to a full out civil war and even more military coups, overthrowing the democracy that had made so much progress in the past few decades. Worse still, Burkina Faso could become a new battleground for the “Third Cold War”, as both the US and France have much vested interest in the country as it has long been a strong ally and has served as an important base for military action in the region. Then again, the riots could also die down, and the military regime that has taken over might be less power-driven than we so quickly assume, leading to perfectly fair elections and the continuation of a stable democracy.
What remains clear, however, is that Compaoré’s decision was a very bad one. He completely misjudged the situation, where anyone with at least some knowledge of the country would have been able to predict it. It shows a kind of ignorance, a failure of the elevated leader to understand the people he is supposed to serve. 27 years of power is too much for a man to remain attentive of what regular people need and want, something that Compaoré has clearly proven.
It also shows problems with politics in general: those who rule are necessarily of a different mindset than those who don’t. Ruling a country means being successful and being rich, quite different from the average Burkinabe, who lives in the third poorest country in the world and owns almost nothing. Perhaps a well-functioning democracy can solve these problems, but at the same time, even a president elected for a short term will struggle to truly understand the worries of the people.
Regardless of what will happen in the future, whether Burkina Faso will remain in our headlines for years as civil war and Western interest clash, or whether everything goes perfectly and a democratic regime is elected, what remains is that the case of Burkina Faso has underlined something fundamental about politics: becoming a leader means becoming irrational. No matter who that leader is, as soon as they acquire power and as soon as they are engulfed in success and riches, they will change, and it will make the actual ruling so much harder.
A question for discussion: Do you think Burkina Faso might become the next target of US intervention? I’m curious to hear your views!
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