When THEN-Burkinabe president Blaise Compaore and his ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party were swept from power at the end of last month, Burkina Faso found itself on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The west African nation seldom makes the headlines.
Burkina Faso has long been seen as a bastion of stability in the restive Sahel region, particularly for its assistance with anti-terror operations. Say what you want about Compaore’s plutocratic regime, it maintained peace and order for decades, whereas violence and disarray reigned over its borders. There simply has not been much to report as far as the foreign media are concerned.
Like other African strongmen before him, Compaore was seen by the West as a safe pair of hands. His rule was relatively benign and he was quite happy to open the doors to foreign investment in mining and telecommunications, as long as he and his cronies were taken care of. In the end, it was a combination of growing frustration over the economy and his latest attempt to manipulate the constitution ahead of next year’s elections that sent Compaore packing.
As has been observed in the international coverage of Compaore’s ouster, the specter of his predecessor, former Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara, which has never disappeared from public consciousness, loomed large. Many of those who took to the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, demanding Compaore’s resignation were not old enough to remember “Africa’s Che Guevara” as Sankara was dubbed. Yet Sankara’s image and slogans were prominent in the protests.
Whatever they thought of Compaore, most Burkinabe are proud that he was allowed to leave office unharmed. They feel it is a testament to the spirit of the movement that violence was kept to a minimum. The mass clean-up of the streets by the aptly dubbed “Citizen’s Broom” movement in the aftermath of the protests led one US diplomat to say he had never seen anything like it during his many years in Africa.
Burkinabe have largely eschewed an unconstrained mob-rule response in favor of grassroots civil agitation. Yes, there have inevitably been some transgressions, but they have been remarkably few. Among many Burkinabe, there remains a yearning for justice premised on a hope that Compaore and his cabal could yet face extradition and due legal process for their alleged complicity in Sankara’s murder in 1987.
Along with the West — particularly the US and Burkina Faso’s former colonial ruler France — Asian countries will be keeping a close eye on developments in Ouagadougou. Singapore is the biggest importer of raw materials from Burkina Faso, with India and Thailand among other notable trade partners in Asia.
As ever, the situation for Taiwan is more nuanced. As one of Taipei’s three remaining diplomatic allies in Africa, Burkina Faso is the recipient of millions of dollars in development aid from Taiwan annually. Cooperation between the two countries stretches back more than half a century when the first technical missions were dispatched from Taiwan.
Notable achievements involving Taiwanese agricultural know-how include land-reclamation projects in the Kou River District in the late 1960s and the Bagre in 2002. These turned barren regions of desert into lush rice paddies, greatly improving the lives of thousands of Burkinabe.
Taiwan’s relationships with its partner countries are often notoriously lopsided. Development aid in exchange for diplomatic recognition is the general formula. However, Burkina Faso is a little different. Taiwan is among the world’s biggest importers of cotton, and a large chunk of this comes from Burkina Faso, which has ramped up annual output to more than 630,000 tonnes as of last year thanks to the introduction of a variety of genetically modified cotton developed by US firm Monsanto.
The cotton industry in Burkina Faso is largely controlled by wealthy families who inherited a monopolistic system from the French colonial era. These families were seen as a major force for pressure on Compaore when unrest over the economy began to surface in 2011. With the little-known Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida now at the helm in Ouagadougou, albeit in a purportedly interim capacity, there is naturally concern on the part of importers over what lies ahead both politically and economically for Taiwan’s relations with Burkina Faso.
“The situation in Burkina Faso obviously remains fluid and unpredictable at this point with various factions jousting for power, including Compaore loyalists,” says J. Berkshire Miller, a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute, who has previously covered Burkina Faso’s trade relations with Asia.
“With regard to Ouagadougou’s ties with Taipei, it remains too early to speculate on what the new interim government or a future administration would or would not change,” Miller adds.
“However there might be an opening for the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to push harder on Ouagadougou and try to dislodge Taiwan’s recognition — a move to further isolate Taiwan in Africa,” he said. “The other two [African] states that recognize Taiwan — Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland — are much smaller and of less strategic importance than Burkina Faso.”
While policymakers in Taiwan would not be oblivious to such a scenario, it seems unlikely in the short term for a number of reasons.
First, there is the unofficial moratorium on checkbook diplomacy that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has struck up with the PRC. Since Ma came to power in 2008, there has not been a single case of a partner country switching sides.
In the case of the Gambia, it would now seem that the severing of ties in November last year was petulance on the part of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, precipitated by his belief that his pockets were not being sufficiently lined. Whatever the situation behind closed doors, China has made no public show of welcoming the Gambia into the fold.
Taking a broader perspective, China appears to have been developing more self-awareness in its conduct in Africa in recent years. In July, there was an unprecedented example of this introspection as the PRC’s ambassador to Tanzania publicly chastised his compatriots’ unscrupulous conduct in the east African nation.
Another reason that Beijing is unlikely to agitate for full diplomatic relations with Ouagadougou is that it already enjoys a relatively unrestricted trade relationship with Burkina Faso. Many PRC companies have operations in Burkina Faso, and since ties with China were dropped in favor of Taiwan in 1994, bilateral trade — especially cotton imports — has actually increased each year.
Meanwhile, China’s recent announcement that it is set to slash its cotton import quota to the WTO minimum next year to spur domestic production means there is little incentive to rock the boat from a trade perspective.
Finally, there is the guessing game surrounding who will come out on top if and when, as Zida has promised, democratic elections take place next year. Of those currently in the frame, the most likely victor would appear to be Roch Marc Christian Kabore.
A former head of the National Assembly and one-time CDP president, Kabore now heads the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP), a party formed by 75 former Compaore officials who broke from the CDP to align themselves with the grassroots movement in January. While the defection of these long-time members of the regime is understandably viewed by some as last-minute ship jumping by political opportunists who saw the game was up, there is no doubt that Kabore’s visibility and experience give him an edge. He, or any of the figures broadly allied with the MPP, is unlikely to consider switching ties.
Taipei’s only cause for concern might be main opposition leader Zephirin Diabre, the president of the Union for Progress and Change. Considered more sympathetic toward the PRC than the other major players, Diabre could yet emerge as a power broker in any political settlement. Realistically, though, he is considered to have only an outsider’s chance of ascending to power.
Whatever lies ahead for Burkina Faso, its citizens are facing the future with an optimism that has been sorely lacking in west Africa for far too long. There is an immense feeling of pride at what has been achieved so far, but most Burkinabe are under no illusion that tough times lie ahead.
To ensure that their efforts are not in vain, Burkinabe will be looking to maintain good relations with important partners like Taiwan. However, any incoming government must be realistic. As a struggling developing nation with a languishing economy, Burkina Faso must leave itself open to multilateral economic cooperation with a range of partners.
Right now Burkinabe need friends who can offer support unfettered by political considerations.
James Baron is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. Viviane Bayala is a doctoral candidate at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies.
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