“They tried to shoot one of the kids right outside,” says hotelier Alain Michel, 60, gesturing towards his garden gate. Lighting a cigarette, hand trembling slightly, the retired mining engineer inhales deeply. “We dragged him in. Others weren’t so lucky.”

Days before my scheduled arrival in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, troops loyal to dictator Blaise Compaoré, who was president from 1987 and a long-time ally of Taiwan, entered the capital, Ouagadougou. Led by General Gilbert Diendéré, they ousted the transitional government – which had been in place since Compaoré had himself been ousted, in last year’s Burkinabé uprising – and cancelled elections scheduled for October 11. Scores of unarmed civilians who opposed the putsch were killed or wounded.

Taiwanese officials were in a quandary. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one reported that contacts in the transitional government had asked Taipei for US$1 million to help restore civilian rule. Should President Ma Ying-jeou have failed to back a government seeking to achieve longterm stability in the impoverished nation, he could have jeopardised ties with one of only three African countries still maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

“Since 1949, when the Nationalists fled to Formosa [Taiwan] maintaining they were the legitimate government of China, 30 African states have recognised Taiwan. Now it’s only Burkina, Sao Tome and Principe and Swaziland,” says Adams Bodomo, professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna and author of Africans in China. “Each faces major domestic challenges. But their recognition by international bodies, such as the UN, is crucial for Taiwan, given Beijing’s political and economic influence.”

The significance of Beijing’s relationship with Africa was highlighted at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which ended on December 5 in Johannesburg, South Africa. President Xi Jinping and 50 heads of state attended.

On the record, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists, “[The request for US$1 million] is speculation … My government will not intervene in any domestic election in any foreign country”, but Taiwan’s “chequebook diplomacy”, its policy of offering aid in return for diplomatic recognition, has been on my radar since 2012, when I joined a tour Ma made of allied African countries.

After a morning workout with King Mswati III of Swaziland – the last absolute monarch of sub-Saharan Africa, one of 67 sons, husband to 15 women – Ma told me, “We try our best to let people know who we are and what our objectives are [in supporting our allies]. As the world moves towards a democratic society, I am sure that message is clear.”

By emphasising democracy, Ma was perhaps acknowledging the compromise inherent in Taipei’s quest for recognition: since Beijing has not countenanced ties with any nation recognising Taiwan, one by one old friends have turned their backs on Taipei to curry Chinese favour and investment. Taiwan has been left to “seek alliances with tinpot nations and despot leaders”, as one observer harshly puts it.

In Swaziland, in the south of the continent, a majority of the population survive on less than US$2 a day and life expectancy is 50 years. The kingdom is reputedly full of mainland fugitives living beyond the reach of Beijing. If reports are to be believed, the capital, Mbabane, is regularly visited by Chinese State Security officials looking to identify, arrest or, where necessary, kidnap these n’er do wells under Operation Fox Hunt: Xi’s campaign to repatriate billions in state assets and those former party members responsible for stealing them.

Taiwan made a cash gift of US$500,000 to Swaziland in April 2011, ostensibly to fund a biotech venture. In a country ruled by an autocrat, following the trail of those Taiwanese tax dollars is problematic. Speaking for the royal family in December 2011, then minister of public works Ntuthuko Dlamini acknowledged to local media, without an actual wink and a nod, that “we recommend methods of funding [from Taiwan] that come with no conditions”.

That same April, a luxury private jet landed in Mbabane. In an ongoing court case instigated by Singaporean creditors, Mswati is struggling to explain how he funded the purchase of this new toy.

Elsewhere, Taiwan’s message of diplomatic goodwill is clearer.

“This is one of West Africa’s most advanced medical facilities, open to even the poorest Burkinabés,” says the director of the National Hospital in Ouagadougou, Alexandre Sanfo. “This is where we treated many of the protesters shot resisting the putsch.”

As Sanfo discusses the hospital’s capacity, a man offers me a cold soda. He is, it transpires, the Taiwanese ambassador to Burkina Faso. As we tour the facility, built by Taiwanese companies and with Taiwanese money, the kindly Shen Cheng-hong explains, in French, “We try our best to help any nation that asks us for assistance. As a member of the international community, that’s our duty.” His words echo Ma’s repeated insistence that “Taiwan should not give allies cash only for political purposes”.

Guive Khan Mohammad, of the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, calculates Burkina Faso has received US$350 million in Taiwanese aid since 1994. Shen cites rice production, drinking water projects and Chinese-language and vocational training as other examples of Taiwanese support. It is an all-out effort to win hearts and minds.

ON OCTOBER 9, a truck carrying 10 coffins enters the stark, concrete Place de la Revolution, the spiritual heart of the civil struggle against Diendéré, who by now is in custody. Other than the usual traffic chaos, and occasional sound of landmines being detonated at installations previously held by the putschists, Ouagadougou is calm.

Ironically, observes Khan Mohammad, the square is a legacy of Chinese influence. It was built by China during one of those periods when Burkina Faso switched its allegiance from Taiwan, as opportunistic African nations regularly did before an informal 2008 cross-strait agreement not to poach each other’s allies, due to the escalating cost. Soldiers unload the coffins. Each is draped with the red and green Burkina Faso flag and bears the body of a person killed opposing the putsch.

Marched before a crowd of thousands, they are laid on wooden biers. For two hours in the blazing heat, Mr Ouédraogo watches over his son’s coffin.

“Mady was 16. He could not be saved,” he says, shattered but dignified.

“We are grateful Taiwan supports the hospital, and the doctors there helped these children,” chips in another parent.

Ouédraogo goes on, “A democratic government and foreign friends must now ensure those responsible for these deaths face justice.” While he speaks, he clutches a wooden board from his son’s coffin. It reads “Peace to His Soul”.

Sipping tea before the 11pm curfew – imposed to help maintain security after the putsch – Lea Sawadogo, a guest at Michel’s home, asks if it is true the hospital can repair the damage caused by female genital mutilation (FGM). “At least 70 per cent of Burkina women my age have been excised,” says the 43-year-old.

“I was seven, and can still ‘see’ the rusty razorblade. We were walked miles into the bush. Then the old women pinned us down. They pulled my legs apart, though I struggled and struggled. And then they sliced …”

Sawadogo sucks her teeth. Based in the Ivory Coast, to ride the economic boom there, partly fuelled by Chinese investment, she had popped back to Burkina Faso to vote before being caught up in the putsch.

“They call it tradition, but the aim is simply for men to control our bodies. They cut out my clitoris and labia, clotted the blood with charcoal, then made us walk miles back to the village … to celebrate. I would not wish such pain on my enemy.”

When asked, Sanfo says reconstructive surgery is a procedure he hopes to offer soon. The National Committee for the Fight Against Excision (CNLPE) hears about my inquiry, and reports that a woman will soon stand trial for FGM. Would I like to attend?

Reaching the court, near the Ghanaian border, would be problematic. Jihadists have killed several police officers in the north and rumours swirl in the capital that officers loyal to Diendéré might have been behind the attack. Roadblocks have been extended nationally.

In the meantime, it has been announced the election will take place on November 29.

“The future of Burkina’s diplomatic orientation is dependent on who wins the presidency,” says Khan Mohammad. “Take [Union for Progress and Reform] candidate Zéphirin Diabré. He was honorary president of a forum facilitating business between China and Burkina … The Taiwanese told me as far back as 2010 that a lot of MPs in the business sector want change. ‘Why stay with Taiwan when we can gain more economically by supporting China?’ they say.”

Determining later to pursue a discussion with election favourite Roch Kaboré (confirmed on Tuesday as the president elect), my thoughts return to the feasibility of reaching the village where the FGM case will be heard. Michel’s wife, Rosy, suggests a family friend drive me.

“You’ll love him,” she grins. “He’s one of the few Burkinabés to have visited China.”

The next morning, squeezed into a Peugeot that feasibly is older than our combined ages, his knees concertinaed somewhere around his ears, the affable, gentle and supremely modest former heavyweight boxing champion of Burkina Faso, Aboubacar Sanou, greets me.

Negotiating army checkpoints on the Tamale road, the 41-year-old reflects on having been in China during the 2005 world championships. “I liked it, and they love exercise. In the mornings in Mianyang [in Sichuan province] I’d see really old people in the bushes stretching. But they know little about Africa,” chuckles the father of three. “They thought Burkina was a town in America, and that I was related to Barack Obama! “Honestly, it’s the same for us,” says Sanou, as we pass a lake covered with water lilies. “Most Burkinabés can’t distinguish between China and Japan, let alone China and Taiwan.”

The trial of Bande Kadi for mutilating eight young girls is the first FGM prosecution in Zoundwéogo province in a year. The whitewashed courthouse is packed. Villagers who haven’t been able to get in picnic in the shade of the shea trees outside, where loudspeakers relay proceedings.

Twice the electricity fails, but the speakers are working when, to a wave of chatter, district judge Albert Kaobre sentences Kadi to a year in jail.

“Quarter of a century after we started fighting to end FGM in Burkina, we’re still at it,” says Viviane Taro, of the CNLPE. “But I am satisfied justice has been done. The real worry we face right now, though, is that the prevention message could be lost due to the social disorder the country has faced in the past year.”

This is a rural area and people at the court know Taiwan for the agricultural aid it provides. They also know that in neighbouring Ivory Coast, China’s economic clout is helping to build a US$500 million hydroelectric dam to sustain growth.

“They’ll have lots of electricity for their FGM trials,” observes a man clad in the colours of Barcelona football club.

As Sanou drops me back in Ouagadougou, news is breaking that China has signed a deal to build a deep sea port in Sao Tome and Principe. I hop a flight to the former Portuguese colony via Accra and Lisbon, aiming to be back in Burkina Faso for the election.

AN AIR OF VENERABLE decay pervades Sao Tome, a beautiful island in the Gulf of Guinea. Colonial manor houses crumble on the palm-lined seafront. Battered 4x4s bounce on cobbled streets. Think Cuba meets Macau circa 1970, and you are halfway to appreciating this genteel backwater, population 200,000, that possesses Africa’s smallest economy by gross domestic product.

The ocean sustains livelihoods. Weaving among the pirogues and fishermen mending nets on the beach, women in vivid dresses gracefully carry washing-up bowls of fish atop perfectly coiffed heads, a tuna tail visible here, a marlin beak there.

“My husband is worried trawlers from Spain and Asia are stealing from our seas,” says Celeste, cleaning a snapper.

He is not the only one. A report by Greenpeace in May found 74 boats owned by four Chinese companies were illegally trawling West African waters. Catch worth more than US$1 billion is disappearing each year. State-owned China National Fisheries Corporation is one of those allegedly benefiting. This activity is driving struggling local fishermen to piracy, in much the same way as those in Somalia were in the 1990s.

Sao Tome hopes to find oil and gas in the Gulf of Guinea. As yet, multinationals including China’s Sinopec remain empty handed, leading Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada to explore new avenues of growth in a country dependent on cocoa exports.

“Nations with a combined US$750 billion GDP are less than two hours away,” Trovoada explains at his office. “We are ideally placed to service their logistics routes and South America’s, too. That is what we want to do with the port – to become a Dubai of West Africa.”

Trovoada is dependent on Taiwan for US$15 million a year, or 10 per cent of his national budget. The US$120 million memorandum of understanding for the port with state-owned China Harbour Engineering was a surprise, says Taiwan’s ambassador to Sao Tome, Her Jian-gueng.

But cross-strait relations appear to be evolving quite radically in the African prism.

“Good relations between the sides [mean] we are not against the PRC working with our allies,” says Shen.

“President Ma is promoting ‘viable’ diplomacy,” adds Her.

For its part, Beijing appears to have set aside its rule that trade partners terminate diplomatic links with Taipei. Perhaps turning a blind eye is pragmatic in light of Sao Tome’s strategic location and potential oil reserves. China is working hard for a foothold. In late 2013, Beijing opened a trade office on the islands, the first in any of the three non-aligned nations. Last year, President Manuel Pinto da Costa was given a visa to make a “private” visit to Shanghai, to seek investment. Beijing is also fostering backchannels through Portuguese-speaking business networks in Macau.

“Contriving” might be a better word, suggests Her. “The Lusophone link is not viable,” says the amicable Foreign Ministry lifer, whose wife is reputedly the best Chinese chef for thousands of miles in any direction. “Portuguese is not widely spoken in Macau.”

The port is also something of a security threat to Washington, a potential extension of China’s Indian Ocean “Chain of Pearls”, or strategic naval bases. In 2008, the United States opened a surface radar station on Sao Tome, and considered developing its own blue water naval capacity here, justified by oil investments, piracy and terrorism threats in the Sahel.

Trovoada insists Chinese military use of the port would have to overlap with the interests of his country and its tradition of working with Nato.

“We all have to fight piracy and terrorism together,” the prime minister says. “If China comes to protect what I call common interests, fine. If there is not a proportion between what they bring in military force, then we need to question that.”

“I would not like to be in the prime minister’s shoes if it does come to choosing [sides],” says Nuno Rodrigues, chairman of the Sao Tome e Principe Business Association and chief executive of HBD, the largest private investor on Principe. “And to be honest, we’ve been here before. The MoU is for just a fraction of the port cost. The government still needs to find US$600 million.”

Rodrigues has just overseen construction of a €16 million (HK$131 million) runway on Principe, the smaller of the two islands that make up the nation, to serve the luxury BomBom resort and help develop this stunning, jurassic outcrop by opening it up to sub-100-seat aircraft. He sees the country as a “green, progressive offshore entity without any of the stigma of a tax haven”. Economic priorities would be low-impact, highyield investments such as luxury tourism, communications and fibre-optic supply for the region.

In a country where labour costs are cheaper than in China, local life remains simple and steeped in a unique culture. While mainland China is an unknown entity, Taiwan holds a place in local hearts.

“Their aid is highly visible in important areas like infrastructure, health and education,” says leading Sao Tome and Principe authority Gerhard Seibert.

“[Taiwan] eradicated malaria. Before, it killed lots of us,” says Milanca Fernao Dias, who lives in a small community on an old plantation surrounded by palm trees. The 31-year-old runs a kiosk and is pregnant with her fourth child. “Life has always been tough. My mother arrived here as a slave,” she says. “The Chinese have been taking measurements for the port. We just hope it brings jobs and salaries.”

Seibert clarifies that “slavery” and “indentured labour” are used interchangeably on the islands. He also confirms the historical sensitivity of the site earmarked for the port’s construction, next to Dias’ village in northern Sao Tome: “It is the location of a memorial to the victims of the Batepá massacre of 1953.

“This was the most violent event during Portuguese colonialism. Perhaps several hundred forro (local Creoles) died in the protest … Historians have lobbied to prevent the memorial being lost to the port development. I believe they have negotiated a new location.”

With US$600 million still to find to realise his port dream, the relocation of the memorial may not keep Trovoada awake at night. Not content with his balancing act with Taipei and Beijing, the last I see of him he is heading to the airport to tap China’s old enemy India for money, too.

BACK IN BURKINA FASO, the presidential election is in full swing and my welcome from the People’s Movement for Progress is positively rapturous. “You’re from China?” bellows an avuncular staffer, tickled by my European face. Clearing security, we enter the offices of Kaboré.

The larger-than-life former prime minister is not in but his campaign director, Seydou Zagre, is eager to discuss the China-Taiwan conundrum.

“We will have to take a position,” he says. “Compaoré [behaved] as if he had a private personal relationship with Taiwan. Funds were lodged with the [deposed] president, and there was opacity in their management … We will have to proceed in the best interests of Burkina, whether that be with Taiwan or China.”

I leave, feeling like the conduit of a warning to Taipei that funds had better keep flowing or diplomatic overtures will be made to Beijing.

In his garden, Michel smokes another roll-up while across Burkina Faso ballot boxes are being distributed to polling stations. Much as Ma anticipated in Swaziland three years ago, the move towards democracy is inexorable. Though at what price for Taiwan, and its “tinpot” allies, only time will tell.