Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso: A Measured Reconciliation

6 MINS READAug 12, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso: An Incipient Reconciliation
Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kabore steps down from a plane ahead of a July 28 meeting with his Ivorian counterpart, an important step toward normalizing relations between the two countries.
Forecast Highlights

  • Political unrest in both nations set the stage for a deterioration of ties, triggered by Ivorian protection of ousted Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore. The current leaders, however, will work to restore that relationship.
  • Economic interests and strong cultural links will continue to push the countries to mend relations with each other, despite Burkina Faso's political grievances with Ivory Coast.
  • Recent terrorist attacks in both nations may be an impetus behind the reconciliation process, and security concerns will persist.

Relations between Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso have begun to normalize in recent weeks, nearly two years after they were damaged in the aftermath of the fall of Burkina Faso's longtime president, Blaise Compaore. On July 28, the current Burkinabe president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, met with his Ivorian counterpart, Alassane Ouattara, to sign 13 bilateral agreements, including ones proposing infrastructure development and tighter border security to combat terrorism. The meeting marked the first high-level summit between the neighbors since 2014 and is an important step toward normalizing relations.

The 2014 uprising that drove Compaore out of Burkina Faso destabilized ties between the two West African countries. Compaore, who had ruled his country for 27 years and had recently moved to abolish presidential term limits, lost control over key factions of the government — including elements in the country's military and security apparatus — that had helped him maintain power. Faced with the collapse of his rule, Compaore announced his decision to quit the presidency on Oct. 31, 2014, and immediately fled to Ivory Coast. His exile in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's economic capital, eventually started a standoff between the new government in Burkina Faso, which demanded his extradition to face murder charges, and Ouattara's administration. Then this February it was revealed that Compaore had obtained Ivorian citizenship shortly after his exile began, effectively short-circuiting any future attempts to bring him back to Burkina Faso, even if the political winds in Ivory Coast shift.

The situation became all the more complicated when Burkina Faso issued an international arrest warrant for Guillaume Soro, the president of Ivory Coast's National Assembly and a former prime minister. Soro is accused of aiding the short-lived countercoup against the transitional government in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital; recordings of purported wiretapped conversations have linked him to the attempted September 2015 putsch by members of Burkina Faso's presidential guard still loyal to Compaore.

Soro's likely role in the Burkina Faso countercoup traces back to the Ivorian civil wars of the 2000s. During that time, he led the New Forces, a rebel group that took control of much of northern Ivory Coast from the government of Laurent Gbagbo, effectively dividing the country in two. As the group's commander, Soro procured arms, financing and political support from abroad, much of which he received from Burkina Faso, just to the north. Compaore's support was crucial for the rebel group, which eventually took power after a post-election crisis in 2010-11 when Gbagbo refused to concede to Ouattara. It makes sense, then, that Soro would try to engineer a way for Compaore to retake power and that the Ivorian government would give its former backer a passport to reduce his chances of extradition.

Close Relations, for Better or Worse

The rapid downturn in Ivorian-Burkinabe relations after Compaore's ouster highlights the potential pitfalls of the close relationship between the two countries. But their geographic proximity and cultural and familial bonds ensure closeness in informal and formal relations.

Following Ivory Coast's independence from France, longtime President Felix Houphouet-Boigny encouraged millions of Burkinabe, along with Malians and citizens of other African nations, to come to his country, mainly to work in its vital cocoa industry. Houphouet-Boigny, a master of political patronage and maneuvering, even gave Burkinabe in Ivory Coast the right to vote in presidential elections, ensuring their loyalty to him. Today, an estimated 3 million to 4 million Burkinabe consider Ivory Coast their home, and many send remittances to their families in Burkina Faso. Even Ouattara can trace his roots to Burkina Faso, and he, too, benefited from a Burkinabe government grant to further his studies abroad. (His background became a point of contention when he entered Ivory Coast's national political scene.)

As a landlocked country, Burkina Faso depends on its neighbors for supply chain connectivity to ports and overseas markets. But two of its neighbors, Mali and Niger, are themselves landlocked, leaving Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin as Burkina Faso's only efficient access points. Since Ghana was a British colony, infrastructure linking the two countries remains relatively modest. Burkina Faso relies instead on the other French-speaking countries once grouped together under the French West Africa political federation.

Because Ivory Coast has long been the economic and political heavyweight of French-speaking West Africa — during and after colonial rule — it is Burkina Faso's most natural gateway to supply chain connectivity. Benin and Togo, by comparison, are limited by their size and infrastructure development. Furthermore, only Ivory Coast is connected to Burkina Faso by rail. The 1,260-kilometer (780-mile) Sitarail and a parallel highway connect the Ivorian port of Abidjan — a major trade hub in West Africa — directly to the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou, ensuring reliable transport of goods and people.

Mutual Security Interests

In addition to their economic and cultural ties, a recent rise in terrorist activity in the two countries may be driving their leaders to bury the hatchet. In January, an attack on the Hotel Splendid in Ouagadougou, later claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun, killed more than 30 people. Two months later, in another attack claimed by the same groups, gunmen killed 19 tourists at a beach resort in Grand Bassam, near Abidjan. The attacks were the first of their kind in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Realizing that neither nation is immune to the terrorism that has plagued nearby countries such as Mali and Niger, security officials and counterterrorism experts from both countries (as well as from France, the region's counterterrorism leader) likely lobbied to mend ties to improve security. Burkina Faso's security services announced in June that they had connected the two attacks, leading Ivorian Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan to praise the cooperation between the two countries and stress the importance of joint security efforts. The agreement reached at the summit to boost border security underscores the leaders' understanding that increasing coordination against regional terrorist activity is in their countries' best interests.

With so many historical ties and shared interests joining them, restoring relations is an imperative for Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast alike. And even though Burkina Faso's two chief political grievances with its neighbor are unresolved, its relationship with Ivory Coast is too important to give up.

Lead Analyst: Stephen Rakowski

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