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Background Notes: Burkina Faso, March 1998

Released by the Office of West African Affairs, Bureau of African Affairs.

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Official Name: Burkina Faso



Area: 274,200 sq. km. (106,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Colorado.
Cities: Capital--Ouagadougou (pop. 1 million). Other cities--Bobo-Dioulasso (450,000), Koudougou (90,000).
Terrain: Savanna; brushy plains, and scattered hills.
Climate: Sahelian; pronounced wet and dry seasons.


Nationality: Noun and adjective--Burkinabe (accent on last "e").
Population (1995): 10.4 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.8%.
Ethnic groups: 63 ethnic groups among which are Mossi (almost half of the total population), Bobo, Mande, Lobi, Fulani, Gurunsi, and Senufo.
Religions: Traditional beliefs 40%, Muslim 40%, Christian 20%.
Languages: French (official), More, Dioula, others.
Education: Literacy (1997)--22%: male 29.5%; female 9.2%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (1995)--99/1,000. Life expectancy--49 years.
Work force: Agriculture--92%. Industry--2.1%. Commerce, services, and government--5.5%.


Type: Republic.
Independence: August 5, 1960.
Constitution: June 11, 1991.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state) prime minister (head of government). Legislative--two chambers. Judicial--independent.
Subdivisions: 45 provinces.
Political parties: Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), Alliance for Democracy Federation (ADF), African Democratic Assembly (RDA), Party for Democracy and Progress (PDP), and numerous small opposition parties.
Suffrage: Direct universal.
Central government budget (1996): $394.5 million.
Defense: 16% of government budget.


GDP (1996): $2.4 billion.
Annual growth rate (1996): 6.1%.
Per capita income (1996): $300.
Avg. inflation rate (1996): 6.1%.
Natural resources (limited quantities): manganese, gold, limestone, marble, phosphate, zinc. Agriculture (34% of GDP): Products--cotton, millet, sorghum, rice, livestock, peanuts, shea nuts, maize.
Industry (27% of GDP): Type--mining, agricultural processing plants, brewing and bottling, light industry.
Trade (1995): Exports--$306 million: cotton, gold, livestock, peanuts, shea nut products. Major markets--European Union, Taiwan. Imports--$731 million.
Official exchange rate: Floats with French franc. Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA) francs 100=1 FF; CFA francs 595=US$1.


Burkina Faso is a landlocked Sahel country that shares borders with six nations. It lies between the Sahara Desert and the Gulf of Guinea, south of the loop of the Niger River. The land is green in the south, with forests and fruit trees, and desert in the north. Most of central Burkina Faso lies on a savanna plateau, 198-305 meters (650-1,000 ft.) above sea level, with fields, brush, and scattered trees. Burkina Faso's game preserves--the most important of which are Arly, Nazinga, and W National Park--contain lions, elephants, hippopotamus, monkeys, warthogs, and antelopes. Tourism is not well developed.

Annual rainfall varies from about 100 centimeters (40 in.) in the south to less than 25 centimeters (10 in.) in the extreme north and northeast, where hot desert winds accentuate the dryness of the region. Burkina Faso has three distinct seasons: warm and dry (November-March), hot and dry (March-May), and hot and wet (June-October). Rivers are not navigable.


Burkina Faso's 10 million people belong to two major West African cultural groups--the Voltaic and the Mande. The Voltaic are far more numerous and include the Mossi, which make up about one-half of the population. The Mossi claim descent from warriors who migrated to present-day Burkina Faso and established an empire that lasted more than 800 years. Predominantly farmers, the Mossi are still bound by the traditions of the Mogho Naba, who hold court in Ouagadougou.

About 5,000 Europeans reside in Burkina Faso.

Most of Burkina's people are concentrated in the south and center of the country, sometimes exceeding 48 per square kilometer (125/sq. mi.). This population density, high for Africa, causes annual migrations of hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe to Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana for seasonal agricultural work. A plurality of Burkinabe adhere to traditional African religions. The introduction of Islam to Burkina Faso was initially resisted by the Mossi rulers. Christians, predominantly Catholics, are largely concentrated among the urban elite.

Few Burkinabe have had formal education. Schooling is free but not compulsory, and only about 29% of Burkina's primary school-age children receive a basic education. The University of Ouagadougou, founded in 1974, was the country's first institution of higher education. The Polytechnical University in Bobo-Dioulasso was opened in 1995.


Until the end of the 19th century, the history of Burkina Faso was dominated by the empire-building Mossi, who are believed to have come from central or eastern Africa sometime in the 11th century. For centuries, the Mossi peasant was both farmer and soldier, and the Mossi people were able to defend their religious beliefs and social structure against forcible attempts to convert them to Islam by Muslims from the northwest.

When the French arrived and claimed the area in 1896, Mossi resistance ended with the capture of their capital at Ouagadougou. In 1919, certain provinces from Cote d'Ivoire were united into a separate colony called the Upper Volta in the French West Africa federation. In 1932, the new colony was dismembered in a move to economize; it was reconstituted in 1937 as an administrative division called the Upper Coast. After World War II, the Mossi renewed their pressure for separate territorial status and on September 4, 1947, Upper Volta became a French West African territory again in its own right.

A revision in the organization of French Overseas Territories began with the passage of the Basic Law (Loi Cadre) of July 23, 1956. This act was followed by reorganizational measures approved by the French parliament early in 1957 that ensured a large degree of self-government for individual territories. Upper Volta became an autonomous republic in the French community on December 11, 1958.

Upper Volta achieved independence on August 5, 1960. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, 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 5-year terms. Soon after coming to power, Yameogo banned all political parties other than the UDV. The government lasted until 1966 when after much unrest-mass demonstrations and strikes by students, labor unions, and civil servants-the military intervened.

The military coup deposed Yameogo, suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and placed Lt. Col. Aboukar Sangoule Lamizana at the head of a government of senior army officers. The army remained in power for 4 years, and on June 14, 1970, the Voltans ratified a new constitution that established a 4-year transition period toward complete civilian rule. Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s as president of military or mixed civil-military governments. After conflict over the 1970 constitution, a new constitution was written and approved in 1977, and Lamizana was reelected by open elections in 1978.

Lamizana's government faced problems with the country's traditionally powerful trade unions, and on November 25, 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, on November 7, 1982, by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP). The CSP continued to ban political parties and organizations, yet promised a transition to civilian rule and a new constitution.

Factional infighting developed between moderates in the CSP and the radicals, led by Capt. Thomas Sankara who was appointed prime minister in January 1983. The internal political struggle and Sankara's leftist rhetoric led to his arrest and subsequent efforts to bring about his release, directed by Capt. Blaise Compaore. This release effort resulted in yet another military coup d'etat on August 4, 1983.

After the coup, Sankara formed the National Council for the Revolution (CNR), with himself as president. Sankara also established Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) to "mobilize the masses" and implement the CNR's revolutionary programs. The CNR, whose exact membership remained secret until the end, contained two small intellectual Marxist-Leninist groups. Sankara, Compaore, Capt. Henri Zongo, and Maj. Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lengani-all leftist military officers-dominated the regime.

On August 4, 1984, Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, meaning "the country of honorable people." Sankara, a charismatic leader, sought by word, deed, and example to mobilize the masses and launch a massive bootstrap development movement. But many of the strict austerity measures taken by Sankara met with growing resistance and disagreement. Despite his initial popularity and personal charisma, problems began to surface in the implementation of the revolutionary ideals.

The CDRs, which were formed as popular mass organizations, deteriorated in some areas into gangs of armed thugs and clashed with several trade unions. Tensions over the repressive tactics of the government and its overall direction mounted steadily. On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup which brought Capt. Blaise Compaore to power.

Compaore, Capt. Henri Zongo, and Maj. Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lengani formed the Popular Front (FP), which pledged to continue and pursue the goals of the revolution and to "rectify" Sankara's "deviations" from the original aims. The new government, realizing the need for popular support, tacitly moderated many of Sankara's policies. As part of a much-discussed political "opening" process, several political organizations, three of them non-Marxist, were accepted under an umbrella political organization created in June 1989 by the FP.

Some members of the leftist Organisation pour le Democratie Populaire/Movement du Travail (ODP/MT) were against the admission of non-Marxist groups in the front. On September 18, 1989, while Compaore was returning from a two-week trip to Asia, Lengani and Zongo were accused of plotting to overthrow the Popular Front. They were arrested and summarily executed the same night. Compaore reorganized the government, appointed several new ministers, and assumed the portfolio of Minister of Defense and Security. On December 23, 1989, a presidential security detail arrested about 30 civilians and military personnel accused of plotting a coup in collaboration with the Burkinabe external opposition.


In 1990, the Popular Front held its first National Congress, which formed a committee to draft a national constitution. The constitution was approved by referendum in 1991. In 1992, Compaore was elected president, running unopposed after the opposition boycotted the election because of Compaore's refusal to accede to demands of the opposition such as a sovereign National Conference to set modalities. The opposition did participate in the following year's legislative elections, in which the ODP/MT won a majority of seats.

The government of the Fourth Republic includes a strong presidency, a prime minister, a Council of Ministers presided over by the president, a two-chamber National Assembly, and the judiciary. The legislature and judiciary are independent but remain susceptible to outside influence.

In 1995, Burkina held its first multiparty municipal elections since independence. With minor exceptions, balloting was considered free and fair by the local human rights organizations which monitored the contest. The president's ODP/MT won over 1,100 of some 1,700 councillor seats being contested.

In February 1996, the ruling ODP/MT merged with several small opposition parties to form the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP). This effectively co-opted much of what little viable opposition to Compaore existed. The remaining opposition parties regrouped in preparation for 1997 legislative elections and the 1998 presidential election. The 1997 legislative elections, which international observers pronounced to be substantially free, fair, and transparent, resulted in a large CDP majority--101 to 111 seats.

Principal Government Officials

President--Blaise Compaore
Prime Minister--Kadre Desire Ouedraogo

Ministers of State
Environment and Water--Salif Diallo
Integration and African Solidarity--Bongnessan Arsene Ye

Economy and Finance, Government Spokesman--Tertius Zongo
Foreign Affairs--Ablasse Ouedraogo
Justice--Larba Yarga
Territorial Administration and Security--Yero Boly
Commerce, Industry, and Crafts--Idrissa Zampalegre
Energy and Mines--Elie Ouedraogo
Higher Education and Scientific Research--Christophe Dabire
Basic Education and Mass Literacy--Banworo Seydou Sanou
Infrastructure, Housing and Urban Planning--Joseph Kabore
Civil Service and Institutional Development--Juliette Bonkoungou
Employment, Labor, and Social Security--Elie Sarre
Agriculture--Michel Koutaba
Regional Integration--Viviane Yolande Compaore
Parliamentary Relations--Cyril Goungounga
Communications and Culture--Mahamadou Ouedraogo
Health--Ludovic Alain Tou
Youth and Sports--Andre Joseph Tiendrebeogo
Transport and Tourism--Bedouma Alain Yoda
Social and Family Affairs--Bana Ouandaogo
Animal Resources--Alassane Sere
Promotion of Women--Alice Tiendrebeogo

Minister Delegates
Budget--Daouda Bayuli
Finance--Hamidou Wibgha
Water Resources--Soma Barro
Housing and Urban Planning--Idsiaka Drabo
Employment Promotion--Emile Kabore
Ambassador to the United States--Bruno Nongoma Zidouemba

Burkina Faso maintains an embassy in the United States at 2340 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-332-5577).


Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world with per capita GNP of $300. More than 80% of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, with only a small fraction directly involved in industry and services. Drought, poor soil, lack of adequate communications and other infrastructure, a low literacy rate, and a stagnant economy are all long-standing problems. The export economy also remains subject to fluctuations in world prices.

Though hobbled by an extremely resource-deprived domestic economy, Burkina remains committed to the structural adjustment program it launched in 1991. It has largely recovered from the devaluation of the CFA in January 1994, with a 1996 growth rate of 5.9%.

Many Burkinabe migrate to neighboring countries for work, and their remittances provide a substantial contribution to the balance of payments. Burkina is attempting to improve the economy by developing its mineral resources, improving its infrastructure, making its agricultural and livestock sectors more productive and competitive, and stabilizing the supplies and prices of food grains.

The agricultural economy remains highly vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall. The Mossi Plateau in north central Burkina faces encroachment from the Sahara. The resultant southward migration means heightened competition for control of very limited water resources south of the Mossi Plateau. Most of the population ekes out a living as subsistence farmers, living with problems of climate, soil erosion, and rudimentary technology. The staple crops are millet, sorghum, maize, and rice. The cash crops are cotton, groundnuts, karite (shea nuts), and sesame. Livestock, once a major export, has declined.

Industry, still in an embryonic stage, is located primarily in Bobo-Dioulasso, Ouagadougou, Banfora, and Koudougou. Manufacturing is limited to food processing, textiles, and other import substitution heavily protected by tariffs. Some factories are privately owned, and others are set to be privatized. Burkina's exploitable natural resources are limited, although a manganese ore deposit is located in the remote northeast. Gold mining has increased greatly since the mid-1980s and, along with cotton, is a leading export moneyearner.

A railway connects Burkina with the excellent deepwater port at Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, 1,150 kilometers (712 mi.) away. Burkina has over 13,000 kilometers (7,800 mi.) of roads, although only about 14% are paved.


Burkina has excellent relations with European--including the European Union--North African, and Asian donors, which are all active development partners. France, in particular, continues to provide significant aid and supports Compaore's developing role as a regional powerbroker. Compaore has mediated a political crisis in Togo and helped to resolve the Tuareg conflict in Niger. Several thousand Tuareg refugees from Mali, who sought protection in Burkina, will be repatriated by the end of 1997. Burkina maintains cordial relations with Libya.


U.S. relations with Burkina Faso, once strained because of Burkina's past involvement in Liberia's civil war, are improving. U.S. interests in Burkina are to promote continued democratization and greater respect for human rights.

U.S. trade with Burkina is still extremely limited--$14.5 million in U.S. exports in 1995--but investment possibilities exist, especially in the mining and communications sectors.

In response to the drought that plagued the Sahel countries from 1968 to 1974, the U.S. provided significant emergency food assistance to Burkina Faso. Following this, the United States and other international donors began to work with the Sahel countries to plan and implement long-term development assistance programs.

While the overall amount of U.S. assistance to Burkina dropped with the 1995 closure of the USAID mission in Ouagadougou, the U.S. contributes about $10 million to a feeding program managed by an American non-governmental organization. The embassy also maintains a variety of programs to support social and economic development projects throughout the country.

In 1995, the Peace Corps program resumed, after a 10-year absence, with volunteers working in rural health. In 1997, the program was expanded to include education.

Principal U.S. Officials

Ambassador-Sharon Wilkinson
Deputy Chief of Mission--Stephen Brundage
Political/Economic Officer; Commercial Attache--Linda Cowher
Administrative Officer--John Olson
Peace Corps Country Director--Jan Wessel
Public Affairs Officer (USIS)--Anne Grimes

The U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso is located on Avenue Raoul Follereau in Ouagadougou. Its mailing addresses are: (international mail) 01 B.P. 35, Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso; (US mail) Ouagadougou/DOS, Washington, D.C. 20521-2440, tel: (226) 30-67-23/24/25, fax: (226) 31-23-68 or (226) 30-38-90.


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Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).

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Further Electronic Information:

Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.

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National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.

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