Burkina Faso: Philippe Ouédraogo, cardinal mediator

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Tuesday, 20 December 2022 13:21

Philippe Ouédraogo was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2014 © Grzegorz Galazka/SIPA

He doesn't like the spotlight, but gladly works behind the scenes. From the fall of Blaise Compaoré to the coup d'état against Kaboré, he has been at the heart of all the political crises that have shaken Burkina Faso in recent years. The portrait of an influential and never indifferent cleric.

This is part 2 of a 7-part series

He is not the kind of man to let himself be shaken. The serenity of men of the Church, no doubt.

On January 24, the whole country was caught up in the unfolding of the coup d’état against Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, but he did not change his schedule.

Like every day, Cardinal Philippe Ouédraogo got up at dawn to pray.

Then he went to the minor seminary of Pabré – where he spent part of his schooling – for the feast of Saint Francis de Sales.

The metropolitan archbishop of Ouagadougou is on his way when he receives a call.

On the other end of the line, the person seemed to be in a hurry: he had to return urgently to Ouagadougou for a “meeting session” of the utmost importance, linked to the current political events.

The cardinal accepted but took the liberty of making his interlocutor, whose identity he still prefers not to reveal, wait.

There was no question of missing the long-planned celebration in Pabré.

Kaboré’s confidence

Holed up in the Paspanga gendarmerie camp, President Kaboré knows that the end of his regime is near.

The entire army has rallied to the putschists, who took action the day before.

Tension is growing between the mutineers and the gendarmes who form the presidential guard.

The head of state wants to avoid bloodshed at all costs: he agrees to resign.

All that remained was to obtain guarantees for himself and those close to him and then to organise the transfer of power to the new masters of the country, in the presence of a moral and customary authority.

The name Philippe Ouédraogo quickly emerged. A devout Catholic since childhood, Kaboré knew the priest well and trusted him completely.

The putschists, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, had no objection.

A consensus was reached. “Both sides wanted a witness to be present and to act as mediator. I was surprised to be chosen, but I accepted because I knew that this step was crucial to bringing back peace,” explains Philippe Ouédraogo.

At around 1pm, he returned to the archbishop’s palace in the Koulouba district of Dakar.

Two delegations arrived: the first, composed of officers of the future MPSR (Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration), and the second, formed by Kaboré and some gendarmes from his close security.

“I understood that the situation was irreversible. It was therefore necessary to move forward in a spirit of appeasement. I insisted on the need to respect the human dignity of the president, that of his family and that of his collaborators,” confided the cleric.

After submitting his letter of resignation, Kaboré was taken away by the coup plotters.

The coup, which everyone had felt was coming for months, was complete.

A follower of Pope Francis

The cardinal considers that he did “only his duty”.

Nothing could be more normal, he continues, than to have once again helped resolve a political crisis.

The 77-year-old native of the Kaya region, who has been archbishop of Ouagadougou since 2009, believes that “the Church cannot remain indifferent to what is happening around it” and that it must “work for peace”.

Reputed to be open and attached to universal values, the man who defines himself first and foremost as a “pastor close to the people” is also committed to humanitarian and social issues.

“He does a lot in this area, for example by organising donations or food distributions for the impoverished and the displaced,” comments a Burkinabe political figure.

In constant contact with laypeople, he has also created the Pastoral Service for the Formation and Accompaniment of Leaders (SEPAFAR), a kind of network for reflection and action that brings together believers and leaders from all walks of life, every month.

In February 2014, Philippe Ouédraogo was made a cardinal by Pope Francis, he is one of his most loyal followers on the continent.

This further strengthened his aura, to the great displeasure of the then president, Blaise Compaoré, and his clan.

For months, the clergyman had taken a stand against the modification of the constitution, which was supposed to allow the head of state to remain in power.

From Compaoré to Diendéré

On 31 October 2014, Compaoré was ousted by a popular uprising.

A page in the history of Burkina Faso was turned.

In the days that followed, Ouédraogo was a member of the group responsible for setting up the transitional authorities.

He opposed the appointment of one of his brothers in Christ, Paul Ouédraogo, the archbishop of Bobo-Dioulasso, as president of the transition, arguing that ‘the role of the Church is not to manage public affairs’.

Less than a year later, on 16 September 2015, General Gilbert Diendéré, Blaise Compaoré’s former right-hand man, attempted a coup.

But buckling under the twin pressures of the street and a loyalist fringe of the army, the putsch failed.

After handing over power, he took refuge with the apostolic nuncio in Ouagadougou.

“The nuncio had just arrived in Burkina,” says Philippe Ouédraogo. He had not even presented his credentials.

“As the situation was complicated, I was asked to mediate.”

Once again, he was active behind the scenes.

On 1 October, Diendéré surrendered quietly to the authorities and was taken into custody.

Dialogue with Islam

Since this stormy transition, the country has been plunged into insecurity and jihadist groups have taken control of large parts of the territory.

Faithful to the country’s long tradition of religious cohabitation, the cardinal remains firmly committed to dialogue with Islam, which he sees as a “major challenge”.

“We will always be present to take part in it,” assures the leader who presides over the Symposium of African and Madagascar Episcopal Conferences (SECAM) since 2019.

This year, the Muslim and Catholic Lenten months have partly overlapped.

On 22 April, Philippe Ouédraogo, therefore, organised a breaking of the fast with Muslims at the archbishop’s palace in Ouagadougou: “It was a very strong and far-reaching act of interreligious recognition.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options