OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Nowhere can the positive presence of the United States in West Africa be more obvious than in the quiet, dusty nation of Burkina Faso, a mostly rural state surrounded by six other countries of ranging stability: Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger and Togo.
Near the heart of a well-coordinated international, regional and national effort to propel this country toward successfully conducting its first free and fair elections in November was the American ambassador to Burkina Faso, Tulinabo Mushingi. A Congolese-born diplomat, Mushingi was educated at Georgetown and Howard universities in Washington, D.C., and collected Peace Corps stints along the way.
By many accounts, the ambassador is a natural, moving adeptly through a crowd, using at least one of the local Burkina languages, Mooré, in strategic moments.
He played an important role in helping to manage the country’s momentous presidential and legislative elections on Nov. 29, after a year of political upheaval. Burkina Faso, with a predominately youthful population of 17 million, had been governed for nearly a generation by a president, Blaise Compaoré, who refused to give up power.
Many other government institutions had reputation problems, too, including the justice system, which its current minister, Joséphine Ouédraogo, called “rotten.” “Everyone knew it,” she said in an interview with PassBlue.
Through street protests of young male and female activists held in the capital, Ouagadougou, which began in small numbers in the summer of 2014 and led to a throng by the fall, Compaoré and his mafia of relatives and other close allies were swept from the country.
As the Parliament building burned, Compaoré and his convoy urgently left Ouagadougou on Oct. 31, 2014, into the arms of his friend, President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, where Compaoré now lives. (A Burkina military court has issued an international arrest warrant for Compaoré for his suspected role in the murder of Thomas Sankara, Burkina’s Marxist leader, in a 1987 coup. It is unlikely that Compaoré will be extradited.)
Burkina Faso conducted its orderly, if not exuberant election a year after Compaoré’s departure, with Burkinabé voting for a president in what was deemed a democratic process for the first time in decades. The election ushered in a politician, Roch Marc Kaboré, who had cut ties with Compaoré in 2014 and was considered “clean” by voters.
As certain countries in Central Africa move away from democracy — taking constitutional liberties by extending presidential terms — Burkina Faso is among many West African nations, including Guinea, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, that in 2015 held legitimate presidential elections, even as the deadliest extremist group in the world, Boko Haram, continued to operate in parts of Nigeria.
Burkina Faso, a poor nation whose most valuable exports are cotton and gold, will need major support, however, as it gains a footing amid intense social demands, the International Crisis Group said in a new report. Such needed support is “particularly important given Burkina Faso’s position as one of the last islands of stability in an increasingly troubled region,” the report noted.
Mushingi is integral to the US goals of helping Burkina maintain its security, step closer to democracy and build a strong economy. Since his arrival in 2013, he has won over Burkinabé citizens, having acquired almost saintly proportions. For young Burkinabé, Mushingi is a riveting departure from many of the Western diplomats who have worked in their country before.
“We have read on social media comments that people, particularly the youth, appreciate his candor and clarity,” Brenda Soya, a press officer for the US embassy in Ouagadougou, said. More than half the Burkina population is under 30; in another 15 to 20 years, these people will be the leaders of the country, Soya added.
For the US, Mushingi’s persuasive style could also enhance a long-term strategy of improving democracy in the West Africa region, like winning over young people who want their governments to look after their interests rather than favor elites. His good status with Burkina citizens can also help contribute to American military and other programs to combat terrorism and transnational crime in the Sahel region, the arid belt stretching across the continent right below the Sahara Desert.
The US, for example, has a small but significant presence of special operations forces in Burkina Faso that features, among other aspects, a role in the Trans-Sahara initiative, said Nick Turse, a contributing writer to The Intercept news site.
As the US African Command says about the country on its website, “U.S. relations with Burkina Faso are excellent.” American interests in the country, it adds, are to “promote continued democratization and greater respect for human rights and to encourage sustainable economic development. Countering terrorism and strengthening border security are of growing importance in Burkina Faso.”
France, a major European presence in the Sahel, has also set up special operation forces in Burkina Faso, part of a 3,500-troop contingent working in Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
“Burkina Faso has considerable importance above and beyond itself,” said John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The country’s relationship with the Ivory Coast, for one, is crucial to the harmony of Francophone West Africa, where the Ivory Coast is the main economic engine. Given that Burkina’s elections appeared to have gone well, Campbell added, they provided a stabilizing element in the region, notably with Ivory Coast.
As the polls closed the evening of Nov. 29 in Burkina Faso, Mushingi arrived with aides at Radio Omega, a privately owned station, to mingle in a postelection celebration with government officials amid a table set with a mountain of food. The mood at Omega was buoyant as honking on streets rang into the night. (The head of Omega, Alpha Barry, has just been named foreign minister of the country.)
Mushingi quickly crossed the room to meet a rarity in Burkina Faso: some American journalists. He also showed up later that night at the National Independent Electoral Commission, where voting results trickled in.
“The impression I got of him is one of a man who’s managed to integrate himself well in the Burkina Faso society and has gained popularity amongst its population,” said Hannane Ferdjani, an independent journalist based in the Ivory Coast who covered the election. “He was one of the few political figures to be interviewed by Radio Omega in the aftermath of the presidential polls — which is proof that his opinion matters.”
His popularity is grounded in his openness with the public, his American background and his African roots, noted another foreign journalist who covered the elections.
Compared with the French ambassador in the country, Gilles Thibault, who is considered an aloof intellectual by some Burkinabé, Mushingi thrives among the affable Burkinabé, posing, say, for selfies with people when the opportunity comes up.
He has forayed to the countryside, where farmers barely make ends meet, stepping outside the confines of a highly guarded Western embassy to get to know the people and see US government projects.
“This gives us the opportunity to meet people, see where they live, learn more about them and foster better understanding between our two peoples,” Soya, the spokeswoman, said. “That resonates well with the Burkinabé.”
One of the most important actions Mushingi took to convey his commitment to Burkinabé while getting closely involved in national affairs was in 2014, when President Compaoré tried to run for a third term despite the Constitution’s ban against it. The move was considered insulting, especially to young people, who had grown up under the repressive thumb of the Compaoré family and yearned for a new government that could offer jobs and better roads, schools and health care.
So when Compaoré announced he would hold a referendum to lock up a third term, Mushingi countered Compaoré, saying publicly there will be no “lenga,” the Mooré word for “extension.”
Such a pronouncement by a Western diplomat, relying on an indigenous language, reverberated throughout the country, securing the loyalty of many Burkinabé, who follow their country’s politics avidly and call their politicians by their first names (many people have the same last names in the country but may not be related).
Soon, the street protests that had begun rallying that summer in the capital swelled that fall, objecting to the planned referendum. The crowds became so insistent and powerful that Compaoré ended up fleeing for fear of his life. A transitional government was soon installed by political and religious leaders with advice from groups like the African Union and the United Nations, with a date set for elections a year later.
Mushingi, in another highly visible step at the time, also petitioned the US State Department to call the street protests a popular revolt rather than a coup to deter withdrawal of US government aid from the country.
Burkina’s instability, however, was not over. Right before the presidential and legislative elections were to take place in October 2015, a short-lived coup was played out by a general who had led Compaoré’s presidential guard, which was still intact after Compaoré’s departure but is now dissolved. The general and some soldiers seized the presidential palace, imprisoning the acting president and the prime minister.
That situation lasted a week, until Gen. Gilbert Diendéré, an American-trained officer, faced angry street protests as well as outside heat to give up the coup. (Elections were delayed to November.) He is now in a military jail, where he faces charges of crimes against humanity by the country’s judiciary and is separately accused of taking part in the murder of Thomas Sankara, the former president.
Mushingi immediately condemned the coup, whereas Thibault, the French ambassador, did not make a statement for several days, taking his cues from the African Union, which finally denounced it. The hesitancy by France, Burkina’s former colonizer, was not overlooked by Burkina citizens, who emulate France in some ways but cannot ignore the baggage that the French carried by backing Compaoré. The US was hardly immune to supporting him, either, as evidenced by an Africom visit in 2011 and the US relying on Compaoré as a mediator in the region.
“Mushingi is impressive,” said Fred Eckhard, an American and former spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who runs an education charity in Burkina Faso.
“During the street demonstrations that ousted President Compaore, I heard that he was intensely involved in preparing for a peaceful transition,” Eckhard wrote in an email. “One American who lives in Ouagadougou said to me: ‘During the revolution, Mushingi was everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever said something like this before, but frankly I was proud of my ambassador.’ “
To many Burkinabé, Mushingi is an ideal foreign diplomat: African born — in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1957 — but American shaped through his university education. Burkina Faso is his first ambassadorship. Previously, he held senior positions in the US foreign service. He was also deputy US mission chief in Ethiopia and has worked for the American government in such African places as Morocco, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
His stints in the Peace Corps, including in Congo, Niger and the Central African Republic, reinforced his links with Francophone Africa. Other staff members in the US embassy in Ouagadougou also served in the Peace Corps.
Although Mushingi’s birth in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, is not elaborated on in official biographies, there is no mistaking his credibility as a role model in Burkina Faso.
He described it this way in an email: “When I meet youth I continuously tell them that (1) there is no substitute to hard work and study; (2) you have to know people, be known by people, volunteer and be engaged in your communities, interact with those above you, your peers and those below you, learn about other cultures; (3) you need to set a goal i.e. that opportunity comes with preparation; and (4) finally there is a small bit that is always left to greater powers call it God, or Allah or Buddha or chance. When an opportunity comes, you have to try, which is what I have done in my life and what I encourage young people to do.”
As Eckhard said of Mushingi: “The first time I met him, I told him I had studied in the country of his birth, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He threw his arms around me and said, ‘My brother!’ “
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.