Burkina Faso: Reading Through Wikileaks Cables on Blaise Compaoré and AQIM

As the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso grows, recurring questions have surfaced about whether and how much complicity existed between the previous administration of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014) and al-Qaida in the islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and whether Compaoré’s presidential guard is involved in the current violence. One of the most comprehensive investigations of these issues comes from Joe Penney. His piece must be read in full to be understood, but here is a brief excerpt:

Under Compaoré, Tuareg rebel groups who had allied with Al Qaeda were able to come in and out of Burkina while the country hosted peace talks between them and the Malian government, giving way to rumors that Compaoré had a tacit agreement to allow their presence in exchange for no attacks. The new government made a conscious decision to cut off their access to the country.

Burkina Faso’s current president, Roch Kaboré, has also mentioned “collusions” between Compaoré’s regime and AQIM.

One obvious and additional step toward shedding light on this issue involves searching through leaked State Department cables to see what American diplomats wrote about Compaoré and AQIM during some of the years when the regional kidnapping economy was at its peak (those years would be 2008-2012 for the kidnapping economy, but the cables cut off in 2010) . I tried various searches (Compaore AQIM, Burkina AQIM, Compaore Qaeda, Compaore GSPC, etc.), which yielded five cables that had what I consider substantive and relevant content for this post’s topic. Most of these cables date from 2009, and this is important partly because Penney refers above to events in 2012.

There are no bombshells in the cables, and most of the mentions of AQIM were vague and brief, although of course it is possible that more sensitive information and analysis was transmitted in more highly classified documents and in meetings and discussions not captured by the cablegate archive. It is also possible that more explosive information is contained in later cables.

Overall, the five cables I found suggest that (a) Burkinabé officials were worried about AQIM infiltration in northern Burkina Faso by 2009; (b) U.S. and French officials were somewhat worried about the possibility of AQIM expansion into Burkina, but in the context of worrying about a broader expansion of AQIM from Senegal to northern Nigeria; and (c) U.S. officials seemed to like Compaoré, consider him and his government worthy of further investment as a security partner in the Sahel, and to have relatively few concerns about whether Compaoré’s role in hostage negotiations implicated him in any nefarious way. The cables do not give evidence of any non-aggression pact between Compaoré and AQIM, but they do suggest that Compaoré’s government lacked a strategy (and possibly lacked the will) to deal with what officials considered AQIM infiltration. None of this undermines Penney’s arguments (again, the cables date from an earlier period than the one he is discussing in the excerpt above); but neither does it necessarily confirm them.

Here are the cables I found, with pertinent excerpts. The first two digits of each number refer to the year the cable was sent.

  • 09OUAGADOUGOU1136, “MOD DISCUSSES WIDE RANGE OF REGIONAL SECURITY ISSUES WITH CDA.” This is by far the most important cable and deserves to be read in full. The abbreviations in the title refer to the (Burkinabé) Minister of Defense Yero Boly and the (American) Chargé d’Affairs. The most relevant lines are these: “Noting the recent AQIM kidnappings in Mali and Mauritania, Charge asked whether the Burkinabe armed forces were increasing their security measures. Boly responded that Burkina Faso’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Burkina/Niger/Mali border and collecting important information. Despite these efforts, the country remains vulnerable from a security standpoint. The MOD mused about how to properly exploit the intelligence information and leads they had obtained thus far. The Minister of Defense explained that the northern cities of Markoy (and its market), Gorom-Gorom, and Deou are of particular interest as they are ‘infiltrated’ and ‘Islamicized’. Burkinabe intelligence sources have uncovered Nigerian trained Nigerien nationals (particularly former students of Koranic school in Nigeria) who are operating in that region in a believed liaison with AQIM. The GOBF [Government of Burkina Faso] has their names, they know who they are, but don’t know how to move forward and properly exploit that information. Boly noted that small cells of the type AQIM are know to dispatch currently have a relatively high chance of circulating undetected by Burkinabe security forces…Boly recognized that Burkina Faso has probably only been lucky up to now that AQIM has not focused activities here.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU135, “PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL WITH AMBASSADOR.” This is a readout of a meeting between Compaoré and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in February 2009 (though the cable was filed in March). Some important lines: “In something of a new twist, Compaore raised concerns about regional security in the Sahel region. He said that he was worried that ‘Salafists’ had ‘installed themselves’ in Northern Mali. Specifically he said that he was concerned because they had seized hostages and that there might be further instability stemming from these activities. Without providing further details, he indicated that Burkina Faso would soon be approaching the US with certain concrete proposals on how to combat instability in the Sahel region.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU298, “REQUEST FOR ESTABLISHMENT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POSITION IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO.” As the title suggests, this cable deals with the embassy’s request for more DOD personnel in light of the exponential increase in U.S. military activities in Burkina Faso. For this post’s purposes, the most relevant lines are these: “Geographically, Burkina Faso occupies a key strategic location in West Africa. It borders states with known AQIM activity and may serve as a safe haven or transit point. At present, intelligence on this critical terrorist and security-related threat is absent.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU569, “A REGIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS AQIM.” Key excerpt: “Although Burkina Faso is a somewhat peripheral actor in these events, it has functioned in a mediating capacity in both conflict resolution and hostage issues. It would certainly play a secondary role in any regional solution, but nonetheless we would like to propose some thoughts on what a regional solution might look like and suggest some steps as to how we might get there.”
  • 10ADDISABABA288, “AU SUMMIT – A/S FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS CARSON MEETS FRENCH COUNTERPART.” This cable, from February 2010, describes a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and a senior French official. Key lines: “Gompertz thinks the security situation in the Sahel remains fairly unchanged from the Paris meetings on Sahel counter-terrorism (CT) issues six months ago. He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is expanding into northern Burkina Faso and recruiting in Senegal. The DGSE [French intelligence] believes AQIM will find weakness in northern Nigeria.”

If readers find any cables I missed, please let me know.

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The Guiro Affair: Corruption, Accountability, and Questions in Burkina Faso

On June 20, the Court of Appeal (French) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, found Ousmane Guiro guilty of corruption involving 900 million FCFA (about $1.5 million). The Court ordered the confiscation of his assets, gave him a suspended prison term of two years, and fined him 10 million FCFA (about $17,000). The “Guiro Affair” began in the final phase of ex-President Blaise Compaore’s rule, but has lasted into Burkina Faso’s post-revolutionary period.

The case is important because it touches on broader themes of corruption, accountability, and politics. Guiro, a former Director-General of Customs, was first arrested in January 2012. He was immediately fired by Compaore. Jeune Afrique (French) wrote at the time:

In Ouagadougou, the news surprised people, and for good reason: in the memory of the Burkinabe, it is the first time that such a high personality has been incarcerated. To cut rumors short, the Commandant of the Gendermarie Hubert Yaméogo had to appear on the set of Burkinabe national television and tell part of the story. 

Jeune Afrique noted that Guiro had survived earlier accusations of corruption in 2008, allegedly because his “well-placed friends” protected him. The magazine went on to imply, though, the in the aftermath of protests and mutinies that swept Burkina Faso in 2011 – a dry run of sorts for the revolution of 2014 – the presidency may have been willing to offer up a sacrificial lamb to the voices demanding accountability for corruption. Guiro, who apparently had trunks full of cash (French), may have been ideal because of the egregious nature of his theft.

Civil society reactions (French) to Guiro’s sentencing have been complex, with some prominent leaders saying that the sentence was too light. Burkinabe observers have raised questions about who else was involved in corruption under Compaore, and whether the relatively light sentence for Guiro sends a “noxious” message to officeholders. Some have even taken the verdict as evidence that “the system of Mr. Blaise Compaore is still intact” – that Burkina Faso’s governing institutions, including the judiciary, will continue to protect high-placed wrongdoers. Guiro now has time to appeal, but even if his case closes, the issues at stake in his trial will continue to resonate for some time.

Journalists’ Syndicate Protests in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, state media employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions and the censorship they reportedly face. The Autonomous Syndicate of Information and Culture Workers (SYNATIC) organized demonstrations on July 16 in Ouagadougou (French), the political capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso (French), a major economic center. In Ouagadougou, the journalists staged a sit-in by the Ministry of Communications, and in Bobo-Dioulasso they rallied in front of the regional government building.

From the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which adds that the Association of Journalists of Burkina helped organize the sit-ins:

It was the first time that journalists from state-run media have publicly broken their collective silence over what the public has long believed to be entrenched practices of editorial direction and control by official censors. The show of discontent was the latest in a series of recent demonstrations by various segments of society opposing government policies and protesting the standard of living, according to news reports.

The government tried to dismiss accusations of tampering with news coverage after the sit-in was announced. “I have never given directives to anybody,” Communications Minister and Government Spokesman Alain Edouard Traoré declared at a press conference on Monday, according to RTB. He said the station “operates in total independence” from his office. “We do not constitute a ministry of propaganda,” private news site Burkina 24 quoted him as saying.

During the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso experienced waves of protests and mutinies that drew serious concern from the government of President Blaise Compaore. The current protests have not yet reached nearly the same level of seriousness. Yet when journalists protest in Burkina Faso, it is worth paying attention. For one thing, the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998 continues to cast a shadow over relations between the state, the press, and the people. Protests against censorship, in other words, speak to broader tensions in the country.

Burkina Faso: After “Coupled Elections,” A Shifting Political Landscape

On December 2, Burkina Faso held “coupled” legislative and municipal elections. Legislative results can be found here, and municipal results here (.pdf, French). In the legislative elections, the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) won 70 of 127 seats in the National Assembly, a slight decline from when it won 73 of 111 seats in the last elections in 2007. The new president of the National Assembly is outgoing cabinet minister and current CDP member Soungalo Ouattara.

Two parties tied for second place with 19 seats respectively. The Alliance for Democracy and Federation-African Democratic Rally (ADF-RDA, whose French-language website can be found here), which supported President Blaise Compaoré in the 2005 and 2010 presidential elections, increased its total seats in parliament by five. The absence of the ADF-RDA (French, includes a list of cabinet members) in Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao’s new government, whose formation was announced around the new year, has generated some discussion in the Burkinabé press (French). The other party, the Union for Progress and Change, is new, having been created in 2010 (French). RFI (French) calls its leader, Zéphirin Diabré, “the new head of the Burkinabé opposition.” According to Jeune Afrique (French), the president’s camp controls 97 seats (this tally must include ADF-RDA), while Diabré’s controls 30.

Turning briefly to the local elections, the Burkinabé press has two notable stories about conflicts playing out in different localities: a tense-sounding wait for revised results in certain quarters of the economic capital Bobo-Dioulasso (French), and a struggle between two conflicting versions of the official results in the rural commune of Tema Bokin (French).

Finally, this editorial (French) contains some interesting musings on the coupled elections as a “crucial step before the presidential election of 2015” and on their results as evidencing not so much “change,” but rather “renewal.” The author writes, “The national political chessboard is indeed being completely rearranged, between announced divorces and assumed reconciliations…”

Quick Notes on Elections in Somaliland and Burkina Faso

Two major elections took place recently within this blog’s zone of coverage. On November 28, Somaliland held municipal elections. On December 2, Burkina Faso held parliamentary and municipal elections.

Somaliland

Initial international commentary on the elections in Somaliland has largely focused on assessing the integrity of the process. You can read the preliminary report from an international election observation mission here. An excerpt:

With a fuller team assessment to come in early December, preliminary indications suggest that, despite some reports of violence, and no voting taking place in some disputed districts in the country’s east, Somaliland’s electorate has, once again,turned out with enthusiasm and in large numbers.

Particularly heartening has been wide participation by female voters, a boost in numbers of female candidates and, thanks to the lowering of the qualifying age, youthful candidates standing in significant numbers. However, at this interim stage, a few concerns have emerged, including, once again, apparent attempts at underage and multiple voting.

Observers have also reported excessive use of force by security forces outside polling stations in some areas; some poor organisation surrounding the electoral process, including delayed opening of polling stations; insufficient electoral materials; and technical problems with voter safeguards, such as the ink designed to prevent multiple voting.

Aaron Pangburn has more on various concerns about the elections. He also lays out how the outcome of these elections will affect the political arena going forward:

The new electoral law passed in 2011, allows for officially registered political associations to challenge Somaliland’s three legal political parties (President Silanyo’s KULMIYE, UCID and UDUB) in municipal elections. Five new associations (UMADDA, DALSAN, RAYS, WADANI and HAQSOOR) met the registration requirements and were approved by the RAC.

In order to become an official party, the law initially requires a minimum of 20% in each of Somaliland’s six regions. The system limits their populations’ choices to three political parties to ensure broad based policy platforms, and to avoid previous tendency of narrow clan-based coalitions. The campaign was particularly vibrant and regulated, with each party adopting a different color and symbol to bring their supporters together, but with a structured schedule for the party rallies.

Pangburn also comments, significantly, that “unfortunately for the people of Somaliland a transparent and mostly peaceful process will not drastically redefine their standing in the international community. Rather, it will be how they manage their external relationships with Somalia and their regional neighbors that will have the greatest effect on their pending application for statehood.”

Burkina Faso

International coverage of the “coupled” parliamentary and municipal elections in Burkina Faso has focused on several interlinked themes. Commentary has focused largely on assessing the prospects for the stability of the regime of President Blaise Compaore. Recurring themes in coverage include:

  • Noting that these elections follow the protests and mutinies of spring/summer 2011 (see AP and AFP);
  • Assessing the integrity of the vote, especially the performance of the National Independent Electoral Commission, which was reformed after the protests (see VOA);
  • Speculating that if the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress wins a “decisive” majority, it could seek to undo term limits on Compaore’s tenure as president (see Reuters).

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Results are expected by December 7 in Burkina Faso (French), and soon (though I have not seen a specific date) in Somaliland.

What do you see as the significance of these elections?

Burkina Faso: Parliamentary Elections Twelve Days from Now

On December 2, Burkina Faso will hold elections for seats in its 111-member National Assembly, along with elections for local government positions. Parliamentary elections take place every five years, and the previous election occurred in May 2007. Presidential elections also take place every five years, but on a different track – the last presidential vote happened in 2010, when President Blaise Compaore was re-elected for the fourth time. The President’s party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP, whose official website is in French here), currently controls 73 seats in the National Assembly.

Here are several resources you can consult for information on the upcoming vote and Burkina Faso’s political landscape:

  • The Assembly’s official website and a list of members elected in 2007 (both pages are in French);
  • The Assembly’s Wikipedia page;
  • The website (French) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI). Here, you can read about the reformulation of CENI in July 2011 in the wake of several months of protests and mutinies in Burkina Faso. You can find more on the reformed CENI and its new president, Barthélémy Kéré, here (French);
  • The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ overview of elections in Burkina Faso;
  • and Freedom House’s 2011 “Countries at the Crossroads” report on Burkina Faso.

Given the paucity of news sites that focus on Burkina Faso, it is difficult for me to get a sense of the campaign from a distance. This article (French) reports on the campaign of a relatively new party, the Union for Progress and Change, to win the mayor’s seat in Tenkodogo (map) as well as legislative seats in the surrounding province. This article (French), meanwhile, reports on the Socialist Party’s campaign.

As the ruling CDP, under its National Security Assimi Kouanda, mobilizes its partisans for the elections (French), it seems likely – given President Compaore’s dominance and the substantial majority the Party enjoys – that they will hold the majority. Yet the election bears watching as the first contest held under the new CENI, the first vote since the crisis of spring 2011, and one possible indication of the country’s political trajectory as we look toward the 2015 presidential election.

Mali and Multi-Level Negotiations

On November 6, two meetings – one in Ouagadougou, one in Bamako – brought developments that could portend changes for the situation in Mali. If taken at face value (and there are reasons to do so), the results of these meetings point toward two very different paths the crisis in northern Mali could take. Those paths are negotiation or war. If the meetings themselves are viewed as gambits in a deeper, less explicit sort of negotiation, then they communicate something different about the positions of the key players who will shape the future of northern Mali.

The meeting in Ouagadougou was between representatives from the Islamist movement Ansar al Din, which controls part of northern Mali, and regional mediators led by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore. Following talks on Tuesday, Ansar al Din’s delegation “agreed to commit to peace talks with Mali’s government and observe a ceasefire,” and also pledged to allow aid agencies into territory the movement controls. As AFP has reported, mediators have urged Ansar al Din to cut its ties to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is part of Ansar al Din’s Islamist coalition in northern Mali, and Ansar al Din’s actions on that front could determine the viability of negotiations. While the delegates in Ouagadougou made no commitments regarding AQIM, they did stress their group’s “independent” nature, which AFP calls “a signal” of their potential willingness to abandon AQIM. As AFP notes in a separate article, Ansar al Din also has envoys in Algeria for talks.

Ansar al Din has offered to negotiate with authorities in Bamako before (French), but the movement’s demand for the country-wide application of shari’a seemed to make the idea a non-starter. Malian Foreign Minister Tiéman Coulibaly (French) has said that “the territorial integrity, secularism/laicite, and republican character of Mali are not negotiable.” Shari’a has, from what I have read, not come up yet in this round of talks, except perhaps through veiled references.

The Tuareg-led, ostensibly secular rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) has a presence in Ouagadougou, and welcomed Ansar al Din’s willingness to negotiate.

In Bamako, meanwhile, military commanders from member states within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have developed a “military blueprint” for retaking northern Mali by force. The plan goes next to presidents from ECOWAS members, and then to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on November 26. On October 12, the UNSC “held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.”

As AP notes, however, any military offensive in northern Mali is unlikely to happen before 2013. The deployment of troops may be contingent on the completion of new elections for a national Malian government – a process that will pose its own severe logistical difficulties.

So who is serious, and who is bluffing? Is everyone bluffing? And who speaks for whom?

If we take things at face value, Ansar al Din is ready to talk, and ECOWAS is ready to fight. Perhaps ECOWAS’ threats have scared Ansar al Din into coming to the negotiating table, and perhaps ECOWAS doubts Ansar al Din’s sincerity. ECOWAS leaders such as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan have expressed their preference for talking rather than fighting. But perhaps ECOWAS’ leaders hold little hope that Ansar al Din will repudiate AQIM, or that talks will materialize, or that talks will get past Ansar al Din’s insistence on shari’a – and so ECOWAS continues to mobilize, or give the appearance of mobilizing.

One can read the whole process, then, as a form of negotiation. In this view, all parties expect the conflict to end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. And so ECOWAS mobilizes in order to strengthen its hand at the table, and Ansar al Din hints at future concessions while the Islamist coalition still makes sure to demonstrate its capacity to strike at “border” towns like Douentza, all more or less as a form of positioning. I’ve even heard the theory that the war as a whole started off as a bid for a strong negotiating position – ie, that the MNLA never expected matters to go this far, but rather hoped to win concessions from the new president of a post-Amadou Toumani Toure Mali.

Ansar al Din, of course, does not demand the break-up of Mali, but its (deeper) Islamization. Are the cooler heads in the Islamist coalition, then, looking toward a future, reunited Mali, and angling for a) a say in determining the role Islam plays in government at the national and local levels and b) continued political influence, official and unofficial, in northern Mali, even beyond religious affairs?

The danger with all the levels of negotiation taking place, or potentially taking place, is that the various sides may well misread each other’s signals, with the result that more blood is shed. Even if all sides proclaim a desire for peace and a willingness to talk, there are so many sticking points – shari’a, elections, etc. – that the conflict seems likely to endure for quite some time.