The world witnessed yet another African dictatorship topple this month in Burkina Faso, giving rise to hope for a better future yet fear of an uncertain present — my continent’s eternal paradox. Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré resigned on October 31st following massive protests opposing his attempt to eliminate term limits. Faso had served as head of state for 27 years, leaving a massive power vacuum that highlights Africa’s chronic juggling of democracy and development.
On Thursday, November 13th, the interim military government of Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida agreed to a one-year transitional civilian government to be led by former Foreign Minister Michel Kafando. As interim president, the former minister will not be eligible to run when elections are held, but Zida’s appointment has raised doubts about whether the military will ever be truly ready for such a civilian transition. Why, after all, would a right-wing junta give up power, stability, and international support for the uncertainty of democracy?
This is by no means the first time Burkina Faso has found itself compromising between democracy and development. Blaise Compaoré first came to power thanks to connections to international financial institutions, interests that his predecessor Thomas Sankara had been hostile to by suggesting that the country shouldn’t have to pay its debts.
As founder of the Congress for Democracy and Progress, “Handsome Blaise” came to power in 1987 by means of a coup that saw Sankara’s death. As a result of his predecessor’s untimely demise, African leaders gave Blaise the cold shoulders at summits. Compaoré saving grace was his policy of rectification that replaced his predecessor’s Marxist ideologies with one more suitable to Western interests. For his efforts, which involved the execution of two of his ministers in 1989 for denouncing his right-wing policies, foreign aid flowed freely into his government’s coffers.
The events in Burkina Faso are typical of a problem that faces African countries like Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Angola, where dictators who have been propped up by external support for political stability are promoted as developmental successes despite trampling on domestic laws.
Burkina Faso under Blaise Compaoré was seen as a regional ally and a reliable security partner to Western countries. As a result, the United States alone has given 1.2 billion of aid to the country since 2010. While Burkina Faso’s political stability of 27 years throughout Compaoré’s rule may have once be seen as a success in the halls of the U.S. State Department, the regime’s fall is the price it is paying for allowing domestic law to be trampled upon.
These problems are not unique to Burkina Faso but play out on the continent as a whole. External forces like France, the U.S., and the World Bank have prioritized stability over development, allowing the enrichment of dictators in countries like Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. Despite its noble intentions, foreign aid has helped dictators in many African countries like these entrench their rule. As the trajectory of Compaoré tenure shows, Africa’s strongmen will enjoy external support the longer they stay in power, so as not to disturb the auspicious climate for backhanded deals.
Sadly, the practice will only continue across the continent despite the occasional fall of a dictator like Compaoré. Angola’s José Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who have both been in power for over two decades, succeed in the selling of their country as a “secure business environment” to unscrupulous partners and foreign donors.
Compaoré ousting will not be the end of the uprisings in Africa. As long as cronyism accompanies the political stability entrenched by foreign aid, citizens of countries where dictators cavort with cronies are afforded no option but to resort to other alternatives — sometimes violence. The continent’s instability continues to be fueled by the facetious alliances of Western countries whose double standards are unfortunately seen as the true face of free trade in Africa.
Ajibola Adigun is a Young Voices Advocate and human rights activist in Nigeria.