Burkina Faso still wading through murky waters, one year after coup

Just over a year after Capt. Blaise Compaore seized power in a coup here, Burkina Faso is still plagued by a volatile economy and political uncertainty. President Compaore is hailed by his supporters for having ushered in a more orderly government, after four years of fast, erratic, and sometimes violent measures taken during the regime of his predecessor and best friend, Thomas Sankara.

But he has yet to set a clear political and economic course for the country and to quell the doubts of many Burkinabes, as the residents of this country are called, about his bloody power grab and his extravagant lifestyle.

Such doubts have robbed him of enthusiastic support at home and left him still not fully accepted by some African heads of state.

Much of the problem stems from the widely accepted belief that Sankara was assassinated in cold blood by Compaore's men during the 1987 coup. Burkinabes still resent the killing enormously, according to a long-time foreign resident here.

``Killing is not part of our culture, especially killing a best friend,'' says one Burkinabe - whose country's name translates as ``land of upright men.''

And in a country where the average income is only $150 a year, Compaore's purchase of a $14 million luxury jet - in contrast to Sankara's self-imposed life of austerity - has increased doubts about the President, even among his supporters.

At the same time, the President is faced with developing a new political and economic plan for this West African nation of some 8 million people.

``We're in a searching phase,'' says Gabriel Tamini, Compaore's press secretary.

While the government may continue to talk in the revolutionary slogans of Sankara's regime, a Western diplomat says, ``the government is heading to the right.''

Revolutionary banners denouncing imperialism still hang over some streets and Cuban publications are still seen in some officials' offices, but now it's not unusual to see remarks of the American Ambassador in a government newspaper.

And, while talk against Western domination of the economy continues, Burkina Faso is now engaged in serious negotiations for World Bank loans.

Such evidence may suggest a shift toward a less revolutionary, more Western direction for the country, but as of yet, Compaore's plan of action is not clear.

Economically, he has not been able to balance demands on the left from civilian and military Marxists with business interests and traditional tribal chiefs on the right.

That appears to account for the fact that his government's published economic plan is, in the opinion of a number of Burkinabes and diplomats, little more than a mix of Marxist slogans and a wish list of economic projects.

The leader's political plans for Burkina Faso are no less vague.

So far, Compaore has ruled out presidential elections, claiming they are not his people's main concern. He cites economic progress as a more important issue.

Elections have not served the country well in the past, says Press Secretary Tamini. Since gaining independence from the French in 1960, each civilian government of Burkina Faso (Sankara changed the name from Upper Volta) has been ended by a military coup.

That politically things are still volatile here is illustrated by two facts.

Early this month, a senior military officer was assassinated, apparently by a hand grenade. While news of his burial was published, the circumstances, confirmed here by Burkinabe and diplomatic sources, was censored by the government.

And no list of the leaders of the country's top political body, the Popular Front, has ever been published, some 14 months after taking power. The names remain secret, Tamini says, because the leaders are still ``provisional.'' Permanent ones will not be chosen until sometime in 1989, he explains.

While Compaore works to strengthen his position at home, his reception abroad has been mixed. His conservative West African neighbors - who were troubled by Sankara's revolutionary brand of government - have welcomed him.

But the more radical governments of Ghana and Uganda are still openly cool to the new President. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni recently questioned Compaore's credentials as a revolutionary leader and called for an international investigation into the circumstances of Sankara's death.

The Compaore government's version of the controversial incident is that Sankara had planned to arrest Compaore and some of his associates - with whom Sankara disagreed on how to proceed with the revolution. According to this version, Compaore's forces acted first, Sankara and his men resisted, and were killed in the ensuing gunfight.

Compaore was Sankara's top assistant before the coup, and says he had become increasingly worried about Sankara's government becoming a one-man rule.

Legacy of a revolutionary leader

For four years, until last year, the leader of this nation - one of the world's poorest - captured the imagination of much of Africa.

Thomas Sankara called himself a revolutionary. But his message was much like what the conservative World Bank is urging other African leaders to do: help small farmers and cut back privileges for urban workers.

He was assassinated on Oct. 15, 1987, partially for ignoring one of the hard realities of this rural-urban balancing act: that the real political power in Africa still lies in the city. In that respect, part of Sankara's legacy is a warning to other African leaders of the difficulty of balancing the demands of both groups.

Today, nearly 14 months after his death in a coup lead by his top aide, Capt. Blaise Compaore, the effect of Sankara is still felt by Burkinabes and discussed among foreigners here.

Some of his programs are still followed, though with less urgency and far less excitement. Others have been discarded as too unorthodox.

But the feeling Sankara awakened in farmers continues, one Burkinabe explained. Now many farmers are more eager than they once were to learn new techniques and move ahead. That's a big change, he said.

Sankara urged the nation's small farmers to organize themselves, to speak out about their needs. He also built thousands of new primary schools and health units in rural areas. School enrollment climbed. But many health units remain unstaffed and unequipped.

Sankara ended certain taxes that were a burden on rural residents and created a government ministry dedicated to rural concerns. These measures continue under Compaore.

But Sankara not only kindled the dreams of the rural poor, he ``destroyed the dream'' of the urban workers, especially the civil servants, a European aid official said.

Sankara curbed the power of the once-powerful trade unions and trimmed civil servants' salaries.

Now, in a period a Western development official called the ``revenge of the bureaucrats,'' President Compaore has raised their pay again.

A Burkinabe who supported both Sankara and now his successor may best capture the more wistful feelings about the loss of Sankara: ``You always know what you have lost,'' he said. ``You never know what you have won.''

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