By Thiam Ndiaga
OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) -Most of the Burkina Faso ex-presidents invited to a reconciliation summit organised on Friday by the country’s military ruler did not attend amid public outrage over former strongman Blaise Compaore’s participation.
Compaore, who fled Burkina Faso during an uprising in 2014 after 27 years in power, returned from exile on Thursday to take part in a summit intended to project political unity in the face of spiralling violence by Islamist militants.
But many Burkinabes have blasted Compaore’s return from exile as a free man. He was sentenced in absentia earlier this year to life in prison for complicity in the 1987 murder of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, during the coup that brought him to power.
Compaore’s return was agreed between the government of the interim president, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, and Ivory Coast, where he fled in 2014. The Ivorian government has repeatedly refused to extradite him over the years.
Compaore and Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, who governed from 1982-1983, met with Damiba at the presidential palace. The three other invitees – Isaac Zida, Michel Kafando and Roch Kabore – were absent.
Addressing reporters after the meeting, Damiba said Zida had not been able to travel from abroad for administrative reasons, while Kafando missed out for medical reasons.
Kabore, who was overthrown by Damiba’s junta in a coup in January, was prevented from leaving his house by dozens of protesters opposed to Compaore’s presence, witnesses said.
“To Burkinabes who have spoken out against our actions, we repeat that the process is not intended to give impunity but to contribute to a Burkina Faso of peace and cohesion,” said Damiba.
The 71-year-old Compaore, dressed in a blue suit and blue tie, stood next to Damiba but did not make any comment.
ANGER WITH THE JUNTA
Compaore’s return has sparked rare criticism of the junta, whose coup in January was cheered by crowds in Ouagadougou.
“This is in defiance of the law,” Bénéwendé Stanislas Sankara, a lawyer representing the families of Sankara and others killed during the 1987 coup, told reporters. “The lawyers’ collective … demands … the execution of the arrest warrant.”
Eloi Sawadogo, a trader in Ouagadougou, called the junta’s position “a shame”.
“These young soldiers that we believed to be there for the people are trampling on the justice system on the pretext of a so-called national reconciliation,” he said.
Damiba has touted the meeting as an opportunity to forge a unified response to repeated attacks by militant groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Some Burkinabes have expressed nostalgia for the relative stability of Compaore’s reign. His ouster and the resulting disorganisation of Burkina Faso’s security services are seen by some analysts as contributing to the surge in militant violence, which spread from neighbouring Mali, from 2015.
Arouna Loure, a representative in the transitional parliament, rejected the idea that Compaore’s return would bring stability.
“If you believe that Mr. Blaise Compaore is the lion that will come save our country, then you are deeply mistaken because this lion doesn’t have teeth anymore,” he said in a statement.
(Additional reporting and writing by Aaron RossEditing by Nick Macfie and Frances Kerry)