Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa. It covers an area of around 105,900 square miles and is surrounded by six countries: Mali to the north; Niger to the east; Benin to the southeast; Togo and Ghana to the south; and Ivory Coast to the southwest. The July 2018 population estimate by the United Nations was 19,751,651. Burkina Faso is a francophone country, with French as the official language of government and business. Formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta (1958–1984), the country was renamed “Burkina Faso” on 4 August 1984 by then-President Thomas Sankara. Its citizens are known as Burkinabé. Its capital is Ouagadougou.
Burkina Faso experienced terrorist attacks in its capital in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and continues to mobilize resources to counter terrorist threats. In 2018, several governments were warning their citizens not to travel into the northern part of the country and into several provinces in the East Region. Burkina Faso’s high population growth, recurring drought, pervasive and perennial food insecurity, and limited natural resources result in poor economic prospects for the majority of its citizens. The report is optimistic in some aspects, particularly concerning activities being done with assistance by the International Monetary Fund. A new three-year IMF program (2018–2020), approved in 2018, will allow the government to reduce the budget deficit and preserve critical spending on social services and priority public investments.
Formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta, the country was renamed “Burkina Faso” on 4 August 1984 by then-President Thomas Sankara. The words “Burkina” and “Faso” both stem from different languages spoken in the country: “Burkina” comes from Mossi and means “upright”, showing how the people are proud of their integrity, while “Faso” comes from the Dyula language and means “fatherland” (lit. “father’s house”). The “bè” suffix added onto “Burkina” to form the demonym “Burkinabè” comes from the Fula language and means “men or women”. The CIA summarizes the etymology as “Land of the Honest (Incorruptible) Men”.
The French colony of Upper Volta was named for its location on the upper courses of the Volta River (the Black, Red and White Volta).
The northwestern part of present-day Burkina Faso was populated by hunter-gatherers from 14000 BC to 5000 BC. Their tools, including scrapers, chisels and arrowheads, were discovered in 1973 through archaeological excavations. Agricultural settlements were established between 3600 and 2600 BC. The Bura culture was an Iron-Age civilization centered in the southwest portion of modern-day Niger and in the southeast part of contemporary Burkina Faso. Iron industry, in smelting and forging for tools and weapons, had developed in Sub-Saharan Africa by 1200 BC. From the 3rd to the 13th centuries AD, the Iron Age Bura culture existed in the territory of present-day southeastern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger. Various ethnic groups of present-day Burkina Faso, such as the Mossi, Fula and Dyula, arrived in successive waves between the 8th and 15th centuries. From the 11th century, the Mossi people established several separate kingdoms.
Historians debate about the exact dates when Burkina Faso’s many ethnic groups arrived to the area. The Proto-Mossi arrived in the far Eastern part of what is today Burkina Faso sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Samo arrived around the 15th century, the Dogon lived in Burkina Faso’s north and northwest regions until sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries, and many of the other ethnic groups that make up the country’s population arrived in the region during this time.
During the Middle Ages the Mossi established several separate kingdoms including those of Tenkodogo, Yatenga, Zandoma, and Ouagadougou. Sometime between 1328 and 1338 Mossi warriors raided Timbuktu but the Mossi were defeated by Sonni Ali of Songhai at the Battle of Kobi in Mali in 1483.
During the early 16th century the Songhai conducted many slave raids into what is today Burkina Faso. During the 18th century the Gwiriko Empire was established at Bobo Dioulasso and ethnic groups such as the Dyan, Lobi, and Birifor settled along the Black Volta.
From Colony to Independence (1890s–1958):
Starting in the early 1890s a series of British, French and German military officers made attempts to claim parts of what is today Burkina Faso. At times these colonialists and their armies fought the local peoples; at times they forged alliances with them and made treaties. The colonialist officers and their home governments also made treaties among themselves. Through a complex series of events what is today Burkina Faso eventually became a French protectorate in 1896.
The eastern and western regions, where a standoff against the forces of the powerful ruler Samori Ture complicated the situation, came under French occupation in 1897. By 1898, the majority of the territory corresponding to Burkina Faso was nominally conquered; however, French control of many parts remained uncertain.
The Franco-British Convention of 14 June 1898 created the country’s modern borders. In the French territory, a war of conquest against local communities and political powers continued for about five years. In 1904, the largely pacified territories of the Volta basin were integrated into the Upper Senegal and Niger colony of French West Africa as part of the reorganization of the French West African colonial empire. The colony had its capital in Bamako.
The language of colonial administration and schooling became French. The public education system started from humble origins. Advanced education was provided for many years during the colonial period in Dakar.
Draftees from the territory participated in the European fronts of World War I in the battalions of the Senegalese Rifles. Between 1915 and 1916, the districts in the western part of what is now Burkina Faso and the bordering eastern fringe of Mali became the stage of one of the most important armed oppositions to colonial government: the Volta-Bani War.
The French government finally suppressed the movement but only after suffering defeats. It also had to organize its largest expeditionary force of its colonial history to send into the country to suppress the insurrection. Armed opposition wracked the Sahelian north when the Tuareg and allied groups of the Dori region ended their truce with the government.
French Upper Volta was established on 1 March 1919. The French feared a recurrence of armed uprising and had related economic considerations. To bolster its administration, the colonial government separated the present territory of Burkina Faso from Upper Senegal and Niger.
The new colony was named Haute Volta, and François Charles Alexis Édouard Hesling became its first governor. Hesling initiated an ambitious road-making program to improve infrastructure and promoted the growth of cotton for export. The cotton policy – based on coercion – failed, and revenue generated by the colony stagnated. The colony was dismantled on 5 September 1932, being split between the French colonies of Ivory Coast, French Sudan and Niger. Ivory Coast received the largest share, which contained most of the population as well as the cities of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.
France reversed this change during the period of intense anti-colonial agitation that followed the end of World War II. On 4 September 1947, it revived the colony of Upper Volta, with its previous boundaries, as a part of the French Union. The French designated its colonies as departments of metropolitan France on the European continent.
On 11 December 1958 the colony achieved self-government as the Republic of Upper Volta; it joined the Franco-African Community. A revision in the organization of French Overseas Territories had begun with the passage of the Basic Law (Loi Cadre) of 23 July 1956. This act was followed by reorganization measures approved by the French parliament early in 1957 to ensure a large degree of self-government for individual territories. Upper Volta became an autonomous republic in the French community on 11 December 1958. Full independence from France was received in 1960.
Upper Volta (1958–1984):
The first president, Maurice Yaméogo, was the leader of the Voltaic Democratic Union (UDV). The 1960 constitution provided for election by universal suffrage of a president and a national assembly for five-year terms. Soon after coming to power, Yaméogo banned all political parties other than the UDV. The government lasted until 1966. After much unrest, including mass demonstrations and strikes by students, labor unions, and civil servants, the military intervened.
The 1966 military coup deposed Yaméogo, suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and placed Lt. Col. Sangoulé Lamizana at the head of a government of senior army officers. The army remained in power for four years. Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s as president of military or mixed civil-military governments. Lamizana’s rule coincided with the beginning of the Sahel drought and famine which had a devastating impact on Upper Volta and neighboring countries. Lamizana was re-elected by open elections in 1978.
Lamizana’s government faced problems with the country’s traditionally powerful trade unions, and on 25 November 1980, Col. Saye Zerbo overthrew President Lamizana in a bloodless coup. Colonel Zerbo established the Military Committee of Recovery for National Progress as the supreme governmental authority, thus eradicating the 1977 constitution.
Colonel Zerbo also encountered resistance from trade unions and was overthrown two years later by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP) in the 1982 Upper Voltan coup d’état. The CSP continued to ban political parties and organizations, yet promised a transition to civilian rule and a new constitution.
Infighting developed between the right and left factions of the CSP. The leader of the leftists, Capt. Thomas Sankara, was appointed prime minister in January 1983, but subsequently arrested. Efforts to free him, directed by Capt. Blaise Compaoré, resulted in a military coup d’état on 4 August 1983.
The coup brought Sankara to power and his government began to implement a series of revolutionary programs which included mass-vaccinations, infrastructure improvements, the expansion of women’s rights, encouragement of domestic agricultural consumption and anti-desertification projects.
Burkina Faso 1984 – Present:
On 4 August 1984, on President Sankara’s initiative, the country’s name was changed from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso or land of the honest men; (the literal translation is land of the upright men.)
Sankara’s government formed the National Council for the Revolution (CNR), with Sankara as its president, and established popular Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). The Pioneers of the Revolution youth programmer was also established.
Sankara launched an ambitious socioeconomic program for change, one of the largest ever undertaken on the African continent. His foreign policies were centered on anti-imperialism, his government denying all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies included a nationwide literacy campaign, land redistribution to peasants, railway and road construction and the outlawing of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy.
Sankara pushed for agrarian self-sufficiency and promoted public health by vaccinating 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. His national agenda also included planting over 10,000,000 trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. Sankara called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities build schools with their own labor.
On 15 October 1987, Sankara, along with twelve other officials, was killed in a coup d’état organized by Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s former colleague and Burkina Faso’s president until October 2014. A majority of Burkinabé citizens hold that France’s foreign ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, was behind Compaoré in organizing the coup.
Deterioration in relations with neighboring countries was one of the reasons given by Compaoré for the coup. Compaoré argued that Sankara had jeopardized foreign relations with the former colonial power France and neighboring Ivory Coast. Following the coup Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, overturned nearly all of Sankara’s policies, returned the country back into the IMF fold, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy. Following an alleged coup attempt in 1989, limited democratic reforms were introduced in 1990 by Compaoré. Under the new constitution, Compaoré was re-elected without opposition in 1991. In 1998 Compaoré won re-election in a landslide. In 2004, 13 people were tried for plotting a coup against President Compaoré and the coup’s alleged mastermind was sentenced to life imprisonment. As of 2014, Burkina Faso remained one of the least developed countries in the world.
Starting on 28 October 2014 protesters began to march and demonstrate in Ouagadougou against President Blaise Compaoré who appeared ready to amend the constitution and extend his 27-year rule. On 30 October, some protesters set fire to the parliament and took over the national TV headquarters. Ouagadougou International Airport was closed and MPs suspended the vote on changing the constitution to allow Compaoré to stand for re-election in 2015. Later in the day, the military dissolved all government institutions and set a curfew.
On 31 October 2014, President Compaoré, facing mounting pressure, resigned after 27 years in office. Lt. Col. Isaac Zida said that he would lead the country during its transitional period before the planned 2015 presidential election but there were concerns over his close ties to the former president. In November 2014 opposition parties, civil society groups and religious leaders adopted a plan for a transitional authority to guide Burkina Faso to elections. Under the plan Michel Kafando was made the transitional President of Burkina Faso and Lt. Col. Zida became the acting Prime Minister and Defense Minister.
In September 2015, the Regiment of Presidential Security (RSP) seized the country’s president and prime minister, and declared the National Council for Democracy the new national government. However, on 22 September 2015, the coup leader, Gilbert Diendéré, apologized and promised to restore the civilian government. On 23 September 2015, the prime minister and interim president were restored to power.
General elections were held in Burkina Faso on 29 November 2015. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré won the election in the first round with 53.5% of the vote, defeating businessman Zéphirin Diabré who took 29.7%. Kaboré was sworn in as President on 29 December 2015.
Burkina Faso is made up of two major types of countryside. The larger part of the country is covered by a peneplain, which forms a gently undulating landscape with, in some areas, a few isolated hills, the last vestiges of a Precambrian massif. The southwest of the country, on the other hand, forms a sandstone massif, where the highest peak, Ténakourou, is found at an elevation of 2,457 feet. The massif is bordered by sheer cliffs up to 492 feet high. The average altitude of Burkina Faso is 1,312 feet and the difference between the highest and lowest terrain is no greater than 1,969 feet. Burkina Faso is therefore a relatively flat country.
The country owes its former name of Upper Volta to three rivers which cross it: the Black Volta (or Mouhoun), the White Volta (Nakambé) and the Red Volta (Nazinon). The Black Volta is one of the country’s only two rivers which flow year-round, the other being the Komoé, which flows to the southwest. The basin of the Niger River also drains 27% of the country’s surface.
The Niger’s tributaries – the Béli, Gorouol, Goudébo, and Dargol – are seasonal streams and flow for only four to six months a year. They still can flood and overflow, however. The country also contains numerous lakes – the principal ones are Tingrela, Bam, and Dem. The country contains large ponds, as well, such as Oursi, Béli, Yomboli, and Markoye. Water shortages are often a problem, especially in the north of the country.
Agriculture represents 32% of Burkina Faso’s gross domestic product and occupies 80% of the working population. It consists mostly of rearing livestock. Especially in the south and southwest, the people grow crops of sorghum, pearl millet, maize, peanuts, rice, and cotton, with surpluses to be sold. A large part of the economic activity of the country is funded by international aid.
The top five export commodities in 2017 were as follows, in order of importance: gems, precious metals, US$1.9 billion (78.5% of total exports), cotton, $198.7 million (8.3%), ores, slag, ash, $137.6 million (5.8%), fruits, nuts: $76.6 million (3.2%) and oil seeds: $59.5 million (2.5%).
In 2018, tourism was almost non-existent in large parts of the country. The U.S. government (and others) warn their citizens not to travel into large parts of Burkina Fasino: “The northern Sahel border region shared with Mali and Niger due to crime and terrorism. The provinces of Kmoandjari, Tapoa, Kompienga, and Gourma in East Region due to crime and terrorism”.
There is mining of copper, iron, manganese, gold, cassiterite (tin ore), and phosphates. These operations provide employment and generate international aid. Gold production increased 32% in 2011 at six gold mine sites, making Burkina Faso the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, after South Africa, Mali and Ghana.
A 2018 report indicated that the country expected record 55 tonnes of gold in that year, a two-thirds increase over 2013. According to Oumarou Idani, there is a more important issue. “We have to diversify production. We mostly only produce gold, but we have huge potential in manganese, zinc, lead, copper, nickel and limestone”.
Transport in Burkina Faso is limited by relatively underdeveloped infrastructure.
As of June 2014 the main international airport, Ouagadougou Airport, had regularly scheduled flights to many destinations in West Africa as well as Paris, Brussels and Istanbul. The other international airport, Bobo Dioulasso Airport, has flights to Ouagadougou and Abidjan.
Rail transport in Burkina Faso consists of a single line which runs from Kaya to Abidjan in Ivory Coast via Ouagadougou, Koudougou, Bobo Dioulasso and Banfora. Sitarail operates a passenger train three times a week along the route.
There are 15,000 kilometres of roads in Burkina Faso, of which 2,500 kilometres are paved.
Flag of Burkina Faso:
The national flag of Burkina Faso is formed by two equal horizontal bands of red (top) and green, with a yellow five-pointed star resting in the center. The flag was adopted on 4 August 1984. The flag is colored in the popular Pan-African colors of the Ethiopian flag, reflecting both a break with the country’s colonial past and its unity with other African ex-colonies. The red is also said to symbolize the revolution and the green the abundance of agricultural and natural riches. The yellow star placed over the red and green stripes is the guiding light of the revolution. The flag was adopted following the coup of 1983 which brought Thomas Sankara to power.
The original flag of Upper Volta, adopted at independence, contained three horizontal stripes of black, white, and red. These colors represented the three major tributaries of the Volta River, which flows south through the country: the Black Volta, the White Volta and the Red Volta. It is similar to the tricolor flag used by the German Empire from 1871 to 1918. The flag was changed when Upper Volta became Burkina Faso on 4 August 1984.