Compaore’s Devastating Leadership

On Friday, October 31, the long time president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, announced his resignation after twenty-seven years in office.  His resignation comes after the Burkinabe people stormed Parliament the day before and set it on fire.  Beau Blaise, as he has come to be called, had attempted to make a reformation to the constitution that would allow him to serve another term, but the people took to the streets demanding an immediate change to leadership for the country.  The Burkinabe people had allowed unrest from a 2009 protest of corruption and poor living conditions to simmer, despite signs then that the President would make an attempt to prolong his rule.  When those fears were realized, primarily young men of the country descended upon the city square and the building that housed parliament.  Immediately following the president’s resignation, two military leaders, Lieutenant Colonel Yacouba Issaac Zida and General Honore Traore, assumed power, both declaring they were the new Head of State. (Bonkoungou, 2014) Fortunately, by the end of the day on November 1, the military had declared its allegiance to Zida and ended any split of national power. With all of the events of the last three days, the question has to be considered, had proper leadership been exercised by President Compouri, and an effective succession plan put into place, then could all of this turmoil and strife been avoided among the Burkinabe people?

This paper is focused on an article entitled “Blaise Compaoré, the African Peacemaker Who Faced Rebellion at Home” published in France24 covering the political transition in the country of Burkina Faso.  The poor, landlocked country has jumped onto the world stage in the last couple of days due to the political unrest and unstable transition threatening to rock the small nation of West Africa.  An analysis of the situation, primarily the leadership exercised by President Blaise Compaore, will show his oppressive style of leadership on his people led to the political unrest, as did his lack of a succession plan resulted in the power grab that followed. Both could have been avoided through more effective and forward thinking leadership on his part.

Engstrom (1976) said leadership is “an act or behavior required by a group to meet its goals, rather than a condition”. (p. 20) In order for leadership to be effective, it is required to move beyond an individual; unfortunately it appears Compaore did not understand this.  His 27 years created pseuo-stability for the country, but with an iron fist and an oppressive nature for the people of the country.  Rather than internal stability through genuine followership, Compaore created internal control over the people in order to appear stable from an international perspective.  His style of leadership was one of coercion to maintain control of the people for the advancement of his own agenda.  Northouse (2012) defines coercive leadership as having the capacity to penalize or punish others. (Kindle Locations 560-561) Followership is not presented to people as a choice or privilege, rather it is mandated at the cost of pain or neglect. Coercion is a form of positional power that is derived from a position held within an organization rather than gained through influence with followers. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Locations 564-565)  Coercive leadership often uses threats and punishments because the leader is not interested in the wants and needs of subordinates, but in the advancement of their own goals, such as securing their own influence levels. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Locations 588, 593-595)  This is apparent in the presidency of Compaore.  Throughout his political career he went from supporting rebellions throughout the West African region, to brokering peace in the same region, making Burkina Faso the defacto hub of regional peace talks. (Dodman, 2014)  This reinvention showed the level of charisma Compaore possessed, revealing his trait to self-monitor and make adjustments for the sake of public image. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Location 731) All of this reinventing and political maneuvering occurred while the nation Compaore ruled remained impoverished and unable to develop.  He exercised enough democracy and financial prudence to appease foreign donor governments and keep money coming in for him and his friends to live a privileged lifestyle. (“A canny chameleon,” 2009) While his influence grew with Western governments such as France and the U.S. on the international stage (Dodman, 2014), his coercive handle on the people created frustration and pain at home that festered as the years passed. Compaore’s ‘great man’ perspective of himself may have been the thrust of his attempt at continued presidency, believing he is the great man of the Burkinabes who is fit to lead. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Location 1246)

It is possible that if Compaore had adopted more of an authentic leadership style such as his predecessor, Sankara, who was a close friend to Campaore and possibly killed by him as well (“Waiting on the Wings”, 2009), that things would have turned out differently. Sankara expressed a leadership that was more authentic in nature, seeking to assist the Burkinabes to be an independently sufficient people.  In true fashion of authentic leadership, the leader is concerned with the collective good of others beyond their own interests, which Sankara displayed in his four years of presidency. (Howell, 1993) If Compaore were to have adopted an authentic leadership style early on in his time in office, his followers may have come to more of a personal realization of themselves leading to stronger moral identities and emotions. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Location 3626-3627)  This individual development leads to greater moral decisions and actions, which in turn leads to a positive perspective on the existence of each individual and the collective community, or country, they belong to.  Compaore had the opportunity to turn the perspective of his people around from an impoverished, insignificant country of West Africa to a leader throughout the region.  Instead, the country wasn’t positioned as a leader; Compaore was, at the cost of his people.

Authentic leadership shares authority and develops others (Huizing, 2011, p. 21), which is not a value of Compaore’s throughout his presidency.  Had he chosen to develop others, the worth of the people throughout the country may have grown and developed, leading to more internal development, stability, and advancement.  Authentic leadership is a partnership between the leader and followers, which yield an environment of collaboration and partnership. (Northouse, 2012, Kindle Locations 4800-4801)  Unfortunately, Compaore chose to go the route of coercion, which is a direct violation of the authentic leadership style characterized by strong values, trusting relationships, and self-discipline. (George 2003) As evidenced by the burning of parliament on Thursday, the people of Burkina Faso did not seem to feel they followed a leader which such characteristics.  The Burkinabe people had come to the end of their ability to tolerate a leader who seemed more interested in advancing his own career on the world stage than the country he served (Bonkoungou, 2014)

Compaore also failed to put in place a solid succession plan to insure a smooth transition when he fulfilled his term.  Every organization needs a plan of succession, even countries.  According to Perez-Linan (2014), countries without succession plans can fall into a pattern of governmental power shifting through the use of coups. (p. 1107) Tragically, countries who have a history of coups are highly likely to repeat this form of power transition, which leaves countries war torn, split idealistically, and often militarily weak. (Lehoucq & Pérez-Liñán, 2014, p. 1108) Burkina Faso is a prime example given the fact it is a poor country that has had coups historically, primarily in its last two political changes.  Compaore had the opportunity coming into power to end this cycle for his country, but instead he ended up with visions of grandeur assuming he would remain in power indefinitely.  This is why the events of the past couple days have taken place, and why, once again, the country is in disarray.

National stability is found in the ability for it to transition power peaceably through a plan of succession.  Democratic societies hold elections, monarchies have family ascension, but coup led countries have nothing.  This is often because leaders are reluctant to give up power and rise up a successor. (Kets de Vries, 1988, p.25) Compaore’s pursuit of continual presidency despite the parameters of the democratic governance in place reveals his reluctance to give up power.  However, as with all other leaders, transition is inevitable, and without a plan, the people are the ones who suffer.  (Farquhar, 1994, p. 47) As the world watches Burkina Faso, a country without a succession plan, the culture is disrupted and there is potential to send it off course. (Gilmore, 1988)  Had Compaore been clear about his plan for succession, and followed through with the democratic process that is in place, the unrest would have ended with his resignation.  Instead, he has been accused of paying off members of the National Assembly to vote for the referendum while hiding behind his political party, resulting in the loss of influence with the military and members of his party. (Bonkoungou, 2014)

Burkina Faso sits on the precipice of a new future.  A future without Blaise Compaore, the President who killed his close friend for power, who made a name for himself at the cost of the people of his country, and who is leaving his country in shambles at the end of 27 years.  After such tenure as the prime authority in a country, one would hope the situation would be stronger than when they took power.  Possibly, Beau Blaise had higher hopes for his time as president, planning on putting his country first and the people of his country in a better position in life.  Possibly.  The reality is that his coercive leadership, his heavy-handed rule, and his personal aspirations got in the way.  He controlled his people from the standpoint of fear, most likely because he gained power through force and believed, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he would lose power by force.  Instead, Friday he steps down as the President with a possible career on the national stage continuing to assist war torn countries in West Africa find peace and stability.  Compaore walks away from a privileged life of power and significance on the backs of his people to a life likely very similar funded from the pocketbooks of Western superpowers.  In his wake, though, he leaves a country broken, lost, and seeking hope from its impoverished state.  If only he had developed his leadership beyond the power grabbing, personally ambitious, iron-fisted style he used.  If only he had been an authentic leader who valued his people and pursued the advancement of their causes and lives.  If only he had been more like Thomas Sankara, his long time friend and military comrade who led from an authentic leadership model seeking the advancement and self sufficiency of his people.  If only some of those traits would have rubbed off on Compaore and the lives of the Burkinabes would be different today.  If only Compaore would not have had a coup and killed Sankara; Burkina Faso would be stronger, healthier, and more advanced today.


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