Hometown of ex-Burkina Faso strongman adjusts to life without him; many remain loyal

During his nearly three decades in power, the hometown of Burkina Faso's ex-president transformed from a dusty village into a fast-growing provincial capital boasting paved roads, a private presidential estate and even a zoo with hippos and giraffes.

Last year, however, longtime strongman Blaise Compaore resigned amid protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe into the streets, furious over the president's attempt to circumvent constitutional term limits and stay in office. The October 2014 uprising ushered in a transition that ends with presidential and legislative elections on Sunday, the most hotly contested in the history of this West African nation.

But as most of the country moves forward without Compaore, residents of Ziniare — where the ex-president's parents were born and where he invested huge sums of money — are having a harder time letting go. "Physically, he is gone, but we are still proud of him," said Adama Ouedraogo, who sells kebabs just a few meters from the local headquarters of Compaore's political party. "He still matters to us."

Compaore is currently keeping a low-profile in neighboring Ivory Coast, which took him in after he fled last year. In April, Burkina Faso's transitional government passed a new electoral code barring anyone who supported Compaore's plans to change the constitution from running, a rule that excluded his party's candidate.

The changed political landscape has blown open the presidential vote that in past years was dominated by Compaore, who never won with less than 80 percent. His party could still also take many seats in the legislative election but the contest will be much more competitive this time around.

Signs of the difference can be seen in the campaign fliers and posters covering tree trunks and mud walls along the roadside of Ziniare, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of the capital, Ouagadougou. During past campaigns, images of "Beautiful Blaise" — as he was widely known — were ubiquitous. This year, the former ruling party's signs compete for space with a host of rivals.

There are now 27 parties competing for legislative seats in this town, far more than in previous cycles.

"Now we can talk of real democracy, because people can freely express their views," said Mathias Sawadogo, local representative of the party whose candidate, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, is considered a presidential front-runner.

Members of Compaore's Congress for Democracy and Progress party, or CDP, say the new electoral code unfairly excludes them and complain that transitional authorities have frozen the assets of party leaders suspected of involvement in a brief, failed coup last September that nearly threw the transition off course entirely.

For a party once known for flush campaign spending, it is running a decidedly low-budget operation in Ziniare, where its campaign headquarters were all but deserted just days before the vote.

With new budgetary restrictions, campaigns have had to adapt. "We have to go door to door now," said Maimouna Ouedraogo, campaign director of one of the party's two local candidates in the legislative elections. "It is not easy."

Compaore's supporters retain faith in the party's appeal among ordinary Burkinabe and hope for a strong showing in the legislative vote.

"The CDP comes from a long tradition. We have been wrongly accused, we have no money but we are entrenched in the rural areas and we will take the two seats here," Mahamadi Koanda, a founding member of the party, told hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of a primary school at a village outside Ziniare.

That message brought comfort to Assimi Birba, a carpenter from Ziniare and a Compaore loyalist. For him and many other Ziniare residents, the party has accrued more than enough goodwill to overcome its current limitations.

"We have hospitals, schools and new buildings because of the CDP. Even our children know it," Birba said. "We are die-hard CDP. We will never betray them."