Lessons From Burkina Faso [opinion]

The ongoing political turmoil in the West African state of Burkina Faso could easily have found me in that nation’s capital, Ouagadougou.

But for logistical considerations, especially my very limited grasp of the French language, I avoided Burkina Faso as I embarked on my PhD dissertation field research.

Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Uganda have in recent decades been led by charismatic and reformist rulers. These rulers started out as revolutionaries who sought to reconstruct politics and reengineer society. In the post-Cold War global political order, they were billed by the Western powers as “new breed” leaders, a beacon of hope for Africa.

Two of these rulers are out of power: Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings handed over peacefully in 2000, and only last week, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore was forced out by a popular uprising. One died in power in 2012 – Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi – and three are still holding fort: Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. All three still in power have ruled for more than twenty years.

With the exception of the recluse Afewerki, who has become some sort of international pariah, the rest have been darlings of the West. Hardnosed critics like Uganda People’s Congress’ ideologue, Yoga Adhola, would say they have been the leading agents of imperialism.

To be sure, President Museveni, for one, has had an unrivalled and rhetorically charged stance against “Western imperialism.” Yet he remains the leading trusted player for the West in the geopolitics of the Great Lakes region and the horn of Africa. The now deposed Compaore was for long a key player in West Africa especially in doing the bidding for the French.

Most of these rulers maintained a firm grip on power by sustaining a politically-skewed environment, employing coercion and staging and winning flawed elections. The dramatic and rather humiliating departure of Compaore last week may have come unexpectedly, but it was hardly surprising. It is now almost a given that the longer a ruler brutally clings onto power, the more likely that the end will be chaotic.

What is perhaps surprising is that African rulers appear not to see this obvious historical trend. In 2003, the late Eriya Kategaya (RIP) attempted to articulate this point to persuade his long-time comrade, Yoweri Museveni, to relinquish power.

In his Impassioned for Freedom, Kategaya argued that the longer a leader stays in power ,the more he gets consumed by the trappings of power, with many hangers-on around, and ultimately loses touch with reality. Survival in power then becomes an end in itself and the possibility of an alternative leadership is totally out of the imagination.

Kategaya reasoned that after 20 years in power, a leader like Museveni would have made his contribution and should hand over the mantle of leadership. Museveni characteristically disregarded this wise counsel. He has insisted on only leaving when the people no longer want him. By this, perhaps, he means that he will leave when he loses an election.

But he knows that he can’t allow losing an election thus he must keep the electoral process firmly under his control. So, in a sense, he has his destiny in his hands and not in those of the voters. Here, Museveni has mastered Joseph Stalin’s dictum that it’s not so much important who votes but who counts the votes.

That said, the full import of Museveni’s insistence that he will leave only when he is not needed is that he will most likely be humiliated out of power. It now looks increasingly unlikely that Museveni will ever peacefully hand over power either after losing an election or by declining to seek another term in office. By making peaceful transfer of power impossible, African rulers make violent overthrow inevitable.

The site of the Burkinabe parliament going up in flames must have anguished many of us watching from afar but the irate crowd could have wanted more. Thus, President Compaore did not waste any more time: he swiftly fled to the Ivory Coast.

So after 27 years in power, you flee your country like a common criminal, a fugitive. The rationale here is strange: African misrulers would rather hang on for long enough and leave ignominiously than play your part and step down in good time!

Interestingly, our own President Museveni, after capturing power, defined Africa’s problem as leaders who overstayed in power. But after three decades in charge, he now finds it totally acceptable to cling on!

The author is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University, EvanstonChicago-USA.

Source : The Observer

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