Burkina Faso and the West: Turning Rhetoric into Action

by Bernard Zongo

During his first trip to Africa in July 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” The grim irony is that the United States and many Western countries still side with the “strongman” of Burkina Faso rather than back the people’s calls for greater political rights and freedoms. Over the last three years, the people of Burkina Faso have started exercising their political rights through public protests and demonstrations against Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso. Despite such protests, Western foreign policy leaders have not publicly voiced concerns about the regime’s undemocratic behavior. The silence of the West raises the question of whether promoting democracy and good governance in Burkina Faso through foreign aid is just a cover up to distract the people from the West’s real interests and intentions.

From 2009 to 2012, Burkina Faso received an average of $1 billion annually in net official development assistance and official aid from Western countries, whose interests in the country include promoting democracy and good governance. The reality on the ground suggests this assistance has not produced the desired effect. Compaoré, a former army captain, seized power in a military coup in October 1987 and has been in office for the past twenty-seven years. His governments have changed Article 37 of the Constitution, which stipulates the number and length of presidential terms, multiple times over the past two decades. Opposition leaders consider the President’s recent attempt to create a new senate as another tactic to remain in power past the end of his term in 2015.

Moreover, after nearly three decades of unchecked rule, and despite large flows of foreign aid, the Compaoré regime has failed to deliver meaningful reforms of institutions and the rule of law. Since 2002, Freedom House has ranked the country as only “partially free” each year. Corruption continues to spread in the public sector and the judicial system is far from independent. In fifteen of the past sixteen years, Burkina Faso has been ranked among the bottom five countries of theHuman Development Index.

The West’s silence on the Compaoré regime’s undemocratic behavior may have its roots in Burkina Faso’s geopolitical significance. Canada fears that political instability in Burkina Faso may delay investment projects for many of its mining companies in Burkina Faso and West Africa. From France’s perspective, Compaoré is a key player who can help this former colonial power hold its influence in the region. For the United States, Burkina Faso is a strategically located ally for the success of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), which was established in 2005 to combat and defeat terrorist organizations and Islamist extremists in West Africa. Thus, several influential Western countries view the Compaoré regime as a guarantor of security and stability in both Burkina Faso and the region, causing them to turn a blind eye on anauthoritarian regime that denies its own people their political rights and freedoms.

It is natural for a country’s foreign policy to reflect its national and security interests, but the means to achieve that goal matter. In the case of Burkina Faso, the West would be better off choosing to build a strong, long-term relationship with the people of Burkina Faso instead of focusing on short-term gains by siding with a strongman. Only a truly free country can guarantee security and political stability, not one under an autocratic regime. It is my opinion that the people of Burkina Faso expect the West to be consistent with its rhetoric of promoting democracy, freedom, and political rights. If the West can spend millions of dollars to promote democratic values in Burkina Faso, it should publicly support the people of this country who are rising to break up the Compaoré regime’s monopoly on power. The West must speak up now and not wait until there is blood on the streets.

Short-term thinking based on national interests cannot remain the default strategy for Western foreign policy. It is time for the West to take a long-term view and build real bridges with oppressed people abroad to achieve lasting security in the twenty-first century. Speaking up against autocrats and dictators can often be an effective form of foreign aid that the West can give to “we the people” of the rest of the world. 

About the Author

Bernard Zongo is an international development expert from Burkina Faso with nearly ten years of experience working across Africa in governance, community development, and urban development. He is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (GMAP 2013).

An Interview with Ambassador Marc Grossman

An Interview with Tamara Cofman Wittes: The Politics of Sectarianism in the Middle East