exiled by force

Life after power – Burkina Faso: Blaise Compaoré, homesick blues

By Anna Sylvestre-Treiner, Benjamin Roger

Posted on September 9, 2019 08:33

 Former Burkinabe Head of State Blaise Compaoré. ©Francois Mori/AP/SIPA
Former Burkinabe Head of State Blaise Compaoré. ©Francois Mori/AP/SIPA

The former Burkinabe president loves dancing, especially rumba and rock ‘n roll.

Finally, a bit of fun. On 31 December 2018, Blaise Compaoré was invited to visit his close friend, Adama Toungara. A crowd awaits him in Alassane Ouattara’s adviser’s wealthy house in Cocody. Politicians, entrepreneurs, friends… it’s one of the most popular places in the area to celebrate the New Year.

The champagne flows, and there are plenty of petits fours: they eat, laugh, and some even sketch a few dance steps. The former Burkinabe president loves dancing, especially rumba and rock ‘n roll.

He’s having fun, alongside his wife, Chantal. Born Terrasson de Fougères, his Franco-Ivorian wife is at home in Abidjan, near her sisters, whom she often sees. But Blaise, on the other hand, has trouble getting used to it.

For more than four years now, since his escape from the presidential palace on 31 October 2014, the former Burkinabe president has been moping around. The high white walls of the house owned by Hamed Bakayoko, the Ivorian Minister of Defence, have nothing in common with those of the Ouagadougou prison in which Gilbert Diendéré, his private former chief of staff and long-time accomplice, is imprisoned. Yet this life is not really about freedom either.

Steep fall

“When he arrived in Côte d’Ivoire, it was clear that the president was depressed, that he was not well. We were talking to him but he was not there,” said one of his advisors. Leaving power was tough. From time to time, he even had blackouts. Blaise Compaoré lacks nothing, of course, in this modern villa next to those of the Director of Customs and former President Henri Konan Bédié – the residence of France is not far either, just at the end of the street. The residence has a nice swimming pool, a workout area (the former military paratrooper maintains his health by riding his exercise bike), and a small lounge to welcome guests.

“Did he ever understand what happened? At first, he was stunned, almost disoriented. Yet many of us warned him that this constitutional amendment was too risky,” he continues. It must be said that the fall was staggering.

By October 2014, the strategist seemed to have lost his flair. He did not hear the anger of the hundreds of thousands of Burkinabè, from the opposition and civil society, in the streets. Four terms are not enough for him, “the strong man of Ouaga” wants five more years at the head of the State. In a few hours, things got out of hand. The National Assembly was devoured by the flames, which quickly spread to all the other symbols of the faltering regime. Innocent people fell under bullets.

After twenty-seven years in power, this man who has made and defeated regimes and rebellions in West Africa had no choice but to flee in haste in a car with tinted windows. He followed GPS coordinates to the south of the country, where a French special forces helicopter was waiting to exfiltrate him to Côte d’Ivoire.

With him are his wife, Chantal; his younger brother, François; the former President of the National Assembly, Soungalo Ouattara; and two personal assistants. As the helicopter’s blades start spinning, does he know that he will not see his native land again any time soon?

Once respected as France’s key man, he is now vilified, an undesirable mediator. During his first night out of Kosyam’s palace, Blaise Compaoré, ironically spent it at the Président Hotel – a grand hotel built by Félix Houphouët-Boigny – in Yamoussoukro. He is a little “lost”, but “relieved that there was no more damage and deaths in Ouaga,” says one of his close friends. For three weeks, before reaching Abidjan, he clears his head by running through a vast floral park where deer keep him company.

Tight, secret and careful

In Côte d’Ivoire, Blaise Compaoré is a friend of the government. He knows everyone – before supporting Alassane Ouattara and becoming the godfather of Guillaume Soro and his rebels, the former mediator of the Ivorian crisis was close to Laurent Gbagbo. But, he needs to be discreet. Even today, the soldiers of the Presidential Security Group dressed in civilian clothes, are positioned behind the gate, and the President’s trips outside are rare.

From time to time, he dines in the city’s upscale restaurants, such as Le Montparnasse and Le Grand Large. He is sometimes seen on the beach of Assinie. He also visited Abengourou recently, but that’s about it.

Fortunately, he travels abroad a little. He visits Morocco for medical check-ups and had a fractured femur treated in 2015. He went to Senegal last year to enjoy the pleasures of the seaside on the Petite-Côte. Always well dressed in impeccably tailored outfits, he welcomes some visiting heads of state with the utmost discretion. There was Faure Gnassingbé, who offered some of his regime’s leaders exile in Togo, or recently the Ghanaian Nana Akufo-Addo. They have not forgotten who he was.

Even to the most illustrious of his interlocutors, the former president betrays nothing of his feelings. Silent, secretive and cautious, he was nevertheless unable to hide his distress when his brother, François Compaoré was arrested at Roissy airport in October 2017.

At the end of June 2019, the French courts authorized François’ extradition to Burkina Faso. “This is now his number one concern. He worries about him, about his future,” says a man who knew them. During these difficult days, Blaise Compaoré regularly spoke to his younger brother on the phone, even though he never said anything important, an old habit of a man familiar with intelligence and parallel networks.

Politics one day….

Some of his relatives still believe they can see nostalgia and sadness on his face. “It has never regained its vitality from before,” says one of them. But, he seems to be doing better. “He’s very strong in his head. He takes it without saying anything. So when he smiles or is in a teasing mood, you say to yourself that you’re fine,” says another.

As a remedy for the depression, he has returned to Burkinabe politics. In exchange for his hospitality, Ouattara had asked him never to go back. The ties between their two countries are too tenuous, and recent history too sensitive to allow for any discrepancy. The Ivorian president is well aware of this, and does not want to spoil his relations with the new masters of Ouaga.

But in Blaise Compaoré’s living room, we meet the same men as before in Kosyam’s corridors: his adviser, Moustapha Ould Limam Chafi, former ministers Boureima Badini and Salif Kaboré, and former chief of staff, Assimi Kouanda. Cocody houses a branch of his party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), of which he is still the honorary president.

He passes his instructions, and has recently become involved in trying to ease tensions between members of the party. In recent months, the party’s presidential nominees, Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo and Eddie Komboïgo have been jostling for the top spot in Abidjan. It was necessary to obtain the approval of the “boss” but, as usual, the “chief” did not say anything about his preference.

The letter to Kaboré

It is not surprising that, in Ouaga, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré is convinced that Blaise Compaoré’s exile in Abidjan represents a threat. First, there was the “world’s dumbest” coup d’état during the transition in 2015. It was led by General Gilbert Diendéré, but many saw the hand of the deposed president in it. There are also serial attacks which, every day, spread insecurity a little more widely. Since the first jihadist attack on the Burkinabe capital in January 2016, accusations have been levelled against Compaoré. According to the head of state’s staff, the former leader and his networks in the Sahel are no strangers.

The more Burkina Faso is subjected to terrorist attacks, the more precise the criticism becomes. On several occasions, the Burkinabe president has denounced the “links” and even the “deal” allegedly made by his predecessor and the groups that harass the country. For Compaoré, it was too much. Deeply annoyed, he broke his silence, first in a statement, and then by letter addressed to Kaboré. In this letter sent in April, he also testifies to his “availability and support” to help stem the growing insecurity.

Basically, he hopes to leave Abidjan as soon as possible. After a very uncertain presidential election, Côte d’Ivoire no longer seems to be able to guarantee his protection. The country’s relations have become more complicated with Alassane Ouattara.

He still sees the Ivorian president from time to time, and several of the regime’s key members, Marcel Amon Tanoh, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or Amadou Soumahoro, the Speaker of the National Assembly – both of whom are old friends. But the break between Ouattara and Guillaume Soro, who considers Blaise Compaoré as his father, has put some distance between them. The Burkinabe tried to reconcile the two men, but to no avail.

Attempts to reconcile

Behind the scenes, several intermediaries are quietly working to bring Blaise Compaoré closer to Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and allow him to return in the name of national unity and reconciliation. “He wants to help his country,” explains one of his close friends. When we were together with Roch, Burkina Faso was better. We need to meet again. “For in reality, Compaoré only dreams of one thing: to return home to Ziniaré. “He is ready to face justice as long as it is impartial,” swears one of his advisors. He wants to go to his village and rest. He is so tired of Abidjan…”

For the time being, the Burkinabe president has not wished to respond. He probably perceives that power is like a drug: once you have tasted it, it is terribly hard to do without it. Does he know that during his hasty escape Blaise Compaoré took care to bring with him some of the memories from his 27 years of splendour? For example, pens which he stored in the console of the small living room of his Abidjan villa. In the early days, he liked to offer them to his visitors. On the pens, in gold letters, it is engraved “President Blaise Compaoré”.

Return to Ziniaré

Another Compaoré, Pascal Compaoré is a member of the CDP, heads the village where the former Burkinabe leader was born. In Ziniaré, a small town about 30km from Ouaga, the former president still owns a large residence, and the park surrounding it. For 500 to 1,000 CFA francs, visitors can see his animals: lions, hippos, elephants, ostriches, and even a three-legged goat. Very attached to his fiefdom, where he hopes to return to live, Blaise Compaoré buried his father and son, Stéphane, who died during his childhood as a result of an illness.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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