Blaise Compaore, a president on a quest for legitimacy

After almost two decades of iron-fisted rule over Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaore’s free-spending US-style bid for a third mandate is aimed at making over his image and winning new legitimacy, say friends and foes alike.

Decked out in a baseball cap or cowboy hat, the former army captain who seized power back in 1987 came bearing armfuls of badges, earrings and special wristwatches as he rode helicopters and four-wheel drives to crisscross the vast West African nation ahead of Sunday’s 13 November presidential vote.

Not a franc was spared to convince the country’s four million voters to deliver a massive victory to the president of 18 years, who for the first time in three election bids to date, faced a field of 12 combative if disorganised and somewhat impoverished opposition candidates.

“We are winning, the others are far behind,” he told supporters after Sunday’s vote.

“It will be a massacre, an electoral whipping for the opposition,” said Salif Diallo, campaign manager for the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) and Agriculture Minister, even before the release of final results, expected Thursday, 17 November.

“Given the machine we set in motion we believe he’ll rally 70 percent of the ballots,” said Diallo, who estimated the cost of the campaign in the world’s third poorest country at 983 million CFA francs (US $1.8 million) - a cost borne by the CDP and its benefactors, including Ghana and Libya.

“This sort of campaign was needed to justify victory, to be able to say ‘We won because we worked hard, because we campaigned’”, said Abdoulaye Diallo, a director at the Norbert Zongo media centre, which was named in remembrance of a journalist murdered in 1998 while investigating the death of the president’s brother’s chauffeur.

“One could consider that this is the first time he has been elected,” Diallo added, referring to Compaore’s wins in elections in 1991 and 1998 that were boycotted by the main opposition parties.

Although Burkina’s 100-odd political parties this time have put up contenders for the country’s first real pluralist vote, there is little doubt that due to his energetic campaigning and popularity, Compaore will ring in victory again.

“We wanted to show Burkina Faso was a stable and fundamentally democratic society,” campaign director Diallo told IRIN.

And one of Compaore’s aides, who asked not to be identified, said the authoritarian president “needed to show a human face, as well as efficiency and performance. This is what gives a head of state legitimacy. He had to show his likeable side, for he is after all a good guy.”

Bloody beginning

Compaore’s takeover was far from being a peaceful affair. The bloody 1987 putsch resulted in the death of his friend, revolutionary firebrand president Thomas Sankara, and he has been accused of fuelling conflict across the region not least in Sierra Leone, according to UN investigations.

But the strongman president was nearly brought down over the assassination of Norbert Zongo. Government security forces were implicated in his shooting prompting national strikes and demonstrations across the country.

“Blaise Compaore has been shaken several times, particularly after 1998 and the (still unsolved) murder of Norbert Zongo, which undermined his rule. He was seriously rocked then. These elections will enable to show that he has popular support,” said Cheriff Sy, who heads the weekly paper Bendre.

And because the opposition took part in the Sunday elections, Burkina’s first multiparty polls, Compaore stands to gain fresh legitimacy, Sy said. Public debate in the press and in villages and towns had opened up “a new democratic space”, he added.

Opposition adrift

A total 28 parties rallied behind Compaore in the campaign, but the opposition remained divided, failing to rally around a single name.

“We laugh when we see these opposition leaders on television,” said Jean-Baptiste, a 38-year-old executive who works in the capital, Ouagadougou. “If they can’t even get on among themselves how are they going to run the country? They fight among themselves openly, they just want power, how can you trust them?”

And even presidential candidate Laurent Bado, of the National Renaissance Party, last week told his supporters that “I prefer Blaise in office rather than these people … All they ever do is criticise instead of making proposals.”

Analysts such as Diallo say the president is largely to blame for sapping the opposition. “He bought them off one by one and they let him do it,” said Diallo, at the media centre. “It’s what Zongo used to call ‘the mummyfication’ of politics.”

But Compaore said in an interview with several members of the press last week that his success in undermining the opposition was due to his social and economic record.

“I worked to weaken this opposition,” said the president, who wore a badge of himself on the lapel of his trim white suit. He cited the country’s 2005 grain surplus (1.2 million tons), higher school enrolment and improvements in health and hygiene.

Campaign director Diallo underlined the president’s promise to build 1,500 dams over the next five years.

“The president’s main concerns used to be political, to stabilise the country,” Diallo said. “Now that this has been done he is more interested by socio-economic issues.”

Grinding poverty

Yet the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) in March this year harped on the “breadth and depth of poverty” in the landlocked Sahel nation, where 46 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, on less than one dollar a day, compared with 45.3 percent in 1998.

Largely dependent on cotton for export revenues, the fall in prices has driven thousands of people across the borders in search of work, notably in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer. But three years of war there have hurt the economy and contributed in sending some of Burkina’s emigrant workers back home.

“Life is hard here, there’s no work and everything’s expensive, food and fuel, we’re too poor,” said 50-year-old taxi-driver Issouf, who last week was undecided about who to vote for.

“I could vote for Blaise (Compaore), but what’s the point? I’ve voted for him twice now and nothing’s got better for me.”

But others believe that after 18 years at the helm, Compaore is sincerely planning on placing the onus on economic development.

“The media and the opposition expressed themselves freely during the campaign,” said Kenza, a 20-something university student in economics. “He is straightforward and understands how to manage public affairs. I am convinced he will begin afresh.”

At the Norbert Zongo media centre, Adouaye Diallo said the ball now was in Compaore’s camp.

“If he changes, if he works for Burkina and not to make sure he remains in office, people will be ready to back him,” he told IRIN. “But if he tightens the screws we will be here to make sure he doesn’t wander off course.”