With friends like our African allies - Taipei Times
Tue, Oct 02, 2007 - Page 8 News List

With friends like our African allies

By Kim Lee

As President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) hob-nobbed with the leaders of Taiwan's African allies last week, one could wonder what the "progressive" in last month's Taiwan-Africa Progressive Partnership Forum referred to.

Was it a reference to the progress being made in vocational education and information and communications technology in The Gambia? The memo signed with Swaziland, promising a stationed medical mission for the southern African kingdom, perhaps? Or maybe the commendable land-reclamation and irrigation projects being undertaken in Burkina Faso to furnish rural poor with thousands of hectares of workable paddy land?

One thing is certain: "Progressive" does not describe the nature of the regimes in these nations. As one who fought, and even served time in the name of press freedom, Chen should be ashamed to be seen indulging in mutual back-patting with virtual autocrats like Blaise Compaore.

Though there is nominal freedom of the press in Burkina Faso, just this year Reporters Without Borders (RWB) warned that criticizing the ruling elite is a "high-risk exercise." Just ask the family of Norbert Zongo, a respected newspaper editor and novelist whose charred remains were found in a burnt-out vehicle 100km outside the capital Ougadougou in late 1998. Zongo's paper L'Independant had been investigating the alleged complicity of Compaore's brother Francois in the torture and murder of his chauffeur.

Last year, after years of prevaricating, prosecutors dropped all charges against Marcel Kafando, former head of the Presidential Guard. Amazingly, this is the same Compaore crony who had been the prime suspect in the murder Zongo was investigating. An independent inquiry concluded the killing was politically motivated. It didn't come as a big surprise to most Burkinabes. Compaore's critics and competitors have had a habit of meeting sticky ends over the years.

When former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara was assassinated in 1987 as part of a bloody coup, which saw Compaore seize power, he was in the process of implementing some of the most radical reforms attempted by any contemporary African leader. These included stripping tribal chiefs of their feudal powers, the advancement of women's rights (female circumcision and polygamy were outlawed), overhauls of the health care and tax systems, and a massive anti-graft drive. He was also perhaps the first African head of state to publicly acknowledge the gravity of the threat posed by AIDS. Unfortunately, "Thom'Sank" had trodden on too many toes, and -- as is often the case in African politics -- paid for it with his life.

Again, no one was brought to book for the crime, though Compaore was contrite enough to label his close friend's murder a regrettable "accident," like he had just spilt someone's beer. Last year, at the behest of Sankara's widow, the UN condemned the way the affair had been swept under the carpet.

Meanwhile, never one to let annoying details like the Constitution get in the way of his megalomania, Campaore decided that, because an amendment limiting the number of presidential terms was not enacted until 2000, it could not be retroactively applied to his first stint, which ran from 1991 to 1998. The nation's constitutional council seemed to find this reasonable, paving the way for him to run again in 2005.

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