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Burkina Faso (10/03)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


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 (2002): 12.2 million.
Annual growth rate (2002): 5.64%.
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 20%, Muslim 55%, Christian 25%.
Languages: French (official), Moore, Dioula, others.
Education: Literacy (2001)--24.2%: male 33.9%; female 14.9%. Health: Infant mortality rate (2001)--89.4/1,000. Life expectancy (2001)--47.5 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 (head of state) prime minister (head of government). Legislative--two chambers.
Subdivisions: 45 provinces.
Political parties: Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), Alliance for Democracy Federation/ African Democratic Assembly (ADF/RDA), Party for Democracy and Progress (PDP), National Union for Democracy and Development (UNDD) and numerous small opposition parties.
Suffrage: Direct universal.
Central government budget (2001): $589.3 million.
Defense: 8.5% of government budget.

Flag: Burkina Faso flag

GDP (2002): $3.1 billion.
Annual growth rate: 5.5%.
Per capita income (2002): $239.
Avg. inflation rate (2001): 4.9%.
Natural resources (limited quantities): Manganese, gold, limestone, marble, phosphate.
Agriculture (32% of GDP): Products--cotton, millet, sorghum, rice, livestock, peanuts, shea nuts, maize.
Industry (19% of GDP): Type--mining, agricultural processing plants, brewing and bottling, light industry.
Trade (2001): Exports--$260 million: cotton ($127 million), gold, livestock, peanuts, shea nut products. Major markets--European Union, Taiwan. Imports--$643 million.
Official exchange rate: Fixed to the Euro. Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA) francs 655.957=1Euro (2002: approx. CFA francs 694= U.S.$1).

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country located in the in the middle of West Africa's "hump." It is geographically in the Sahel--the agricultural region between the Sahara Desert and the coastal rain forests. Most of central Burkina Faso lies on a savanna plateau, 200 meters-300 meters (650 ft.-1,000 ft.) above sea level, with fields, brush, and scattered trees. The largest river is the Mouhoun (Black Volta), which is partially navigable by small craft. Burkina Faso has West Africa's largest elephant population. Game preserves also are home to lions, hippos, monkeys, warthogs, and antelope. Infrastructure and tourism are, however, not well developed. Annual average rainfall varies from about 100 centimeters (40 in.) in the south to less than 25 centimeters (10 in.) in the north and northeast, where hot desert winds accentuate the dryness of the region. The cooler season, November to February, is pleasantly warm and dry (but dusty), with cool evenings. March-June can be very hot. In July-September, the rains bring a 3-month cooler and greener humid season.

Burkina Faso's 12 million people belong to two major West African cultural groups--the Voltaic and the Mande (whose common language is Dioula). The Voltaic Mossi make up about one-half of the population. The Mossi claim descent from warriors who migrated to present-day Burkina Faso from Ghana and established an empire that lasted more than 800 years. Predominantly farmers, the Mossi kingdom is still led by the Mogho Naba, whose court is in Ouagadougou.

Burkina Faso is an ethnically integrated, secular state. 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 migrations of hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe to Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, many for seasonal agricultural work. These flows of workers are obviously affected by external events; the September 2002 coup attempt in Cote d'Ivoire and the ensuing fighting there have meant that hundreds of thousands of Burkinabe returned to Burkina Faso. A plurality of Burkinabe are Moslem, but most also adhere to traditional African religions. The introduction of Islam to Burkina Faso was initially resisted by the Mossi rulers. Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, comprise about 25% of the population, with their largest concentration in urban areas.

Female genital mutilation, child labor, child trafficking, and social exclusion of accused sorcerers remain serious problems, although the government has taken steps in recent years to combat these phenomena. Workers and civil servants generally have the right to organize unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike for better pay and working conditions. Few Burkinabe have had formal education. Schooling is in theory free and compulsory until the age of 16, but only about 29% of Burkina's primary school-age children receive a basic education due to actual costs of school supplies and school fees and to opportunity costs of sending a child who could earn money for the family to school. 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. The French arrived and claimed the area in 1896, but Mossi resistance ended only with the capture of their capital Ouagadougou in 1901. The colony of Upper Volta was established in 1919, but it was dismembered and reconstituted several times until the present borders were recognized in 1947.

The French administered the area indirectly through Mossi authorities until independence was achieved on August 5, 1960. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, amended the constitution soon after taking office to ban opposition political parties. His government lasted until 1966, when the first of several military coups placed Lt. Col. Sangoule Lamizana at the head of a government of senior army officers. Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s, as president of military and then elected governments.

With the support of unions and civil groups, Col. Saye Zerbo overthrew President Lamizana in 1980. Colonel Zerbo also encountered resistance from trade unions and was overthrown 2 years later by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP). Factional infighting developed between moderates in the CSP and radicals, led by Capt. Thomas Sankara, who was appointed prime minister in January 1983, but was subsequently arrested. Efforts to bring about his release, directed by Capt. Blaise Compaore, resulted in yet another military coup d'etat, led by Sankara and Compaore on August 4, 1983.

Sankara established the National Revolutionary Committee with himself as President and vowed to "mobilize the masses." But the committee's membership remained secret and was dominated by Marxist-Leninist military officers. In 1984, Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, meaning "the country of honorable people." But many of the strict security and austerity measures taken by Sankara provoked resistance. Despite his initial popularity and personal charisma, Sankara was assassinated in a coup which brought Capt. Blaise Compaore to power in October 1987.

Compaore pledged to pursue the goals of the revolution but to "rectify" Sankara's "deviations" from the original aims. In fact, Compaore reversed most of Sankara's policies and combined the leftist party he headed with more centrist parties after the 1989 arrest and execution of two colonels who had supported Compaore and governed with him up to that point.

With Compaore alone at the helm, a democratic constitution was approved by referendum in 1991. In December 1991, Compaore was elected president, running unopposed after the opposition boycotted the election. The opposition did participate in the following year's legislative elections, in which the ruling party 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 unicameral National Assembly, and the judiciary. The legislature and judiciary are nominally independent but remain susceptible to executive influence.

Burkina held multiparty municipal elections in 1995 and 2000 and legislative elections in 1997 and 2002. Balloting was considered largely free and fair in all elections. The Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), the governing party, won overwhelming majorities in all the elections until the 2002 legislative election, where the CDP won with a small majority of the 111 seats. The opposition made large gains in the 2002 elections.

Compaore won the November 1998 presidential election for a second 7-year term against two minor-party candidates. But within weeks the domestic opposition took to the streets to protest the murder of leading independent journalist Norbert Zongo, whose investigations of the death of the President's brother's chauffeur suggested involvement of the Compaore family.

The opposition Collective Against Impunity, led by human rights activist Halidou Ouedraogo and including opposition political parties of Prof. Joseph Ki-Zerbo and (for a while) Hermann Yameogo, son of the first President, challenged Compaore and his government to bring Zongo's murderers to justice and make political reforms. The Zongo killings still resonate in Burkina politics, though not as strongly as in the past. There has been no significant progress on the investigation of the case.

The current cabinet is dominated by Compaore and the CDP. Given the fragile roots of democratic institutions, constitutional checks and balances are seldom effective in practice. The constitution was amended in 2000 to limit the President to a 5-year term, renewable once, beginning with the next presidential election in 2005. The amendment is controversial because it did not make any mention of retroactivity, meaning that President Compaore's eligibility to present himself is still a matter of debate. Most observers believe that the 2005 Presidential election will be a test of Burkina Faso's commitment to democracy, but the traditionally divided opposition also will have to come together and present a united front if it hopes to present a challenge to the ruling party.

Principal Government Officials
President--Blaise Compaore
Prime Minister--Paramanga Ernest Yonli

Economy and Development--Seydou Bouda
Foreign Affairs--Youssouf Ouedraogo
Justice --Boureima Badini
Defense--Kouame Lougue
Security--Djibril Yipene Bassole
Territorial Administration and Decentralization--Moumouni Fabre
Commerce, Enterprise Promotion and Handicrafts--Benoit Outtara
Mines and Energy--Abdoulaye Abdoulkader Cisse
Higher Education and Scientific Research--Laya Sawadogo
Basic Education and Mass Literacy--Mathieu Ouedraogo
Infrastructure, Housing and Transport--Hippolyte Lingani
Civil Service and Institutional Development--Lassane Sawadogo
Employment, Labor, and Social Security--Alain Ludovic Tou
Agriculture, Water, and Water Resources--Salif Diallo
Environment and Standard of Living--Dakar Djibrill
Regional Cooperation--Jean de Dieu Somda
Parliamentary Relations--Adama Fofana
Communications and Culture--Kilimite Theodore Hien
Health--Bedouma Alain Yoda
Sports and Leisure--Tioundoun Sessouma
Transport and Tourism--Salvador Yameogo
Telecommunications and Post--Justin Tieba Thiombiano
Arts, Culture, and Tourism--Mahamoudou Ouegraogo
Social and Family Affairs--Miriam Lamizana
Animal Resources--Alphonse Bonou
Human Rights Promotion--Monique Ilboudo
Women's Affairs--Gisele Guigma

Ambassador to the United States--Tertius Zongo (from December 2001)

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 $239. 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 an economy vulnerable to external shocks are all longstanding problems. The export economy also remains subject to fluctuations in world prices.

Burkina remains committed to the structural adjustment program it launched in 1991, and it has been one of the first beneficiaries of the World Bank/IMF debt-relief and poverty reduction programs for highly indebted poor countries. At least 20% of the government budget is financed from international aid, and the majority of infrastructure investments are externally financed. Growth rates have been more than 5% from the late 1990s through 2002.

Many Burkinabe migrate to neighboring countries for work, and their remittances provide a contribution to economy second only to cotton as a source of foreign exchange earnings to the balance of payments. Political and economic problems in Cote d'Ivoire have had a direct impact on this source of revenue for millions of Burkina households. The military crisis in neighboring Cote d'Ivoire negatively affected trade between the two countries, due to the year-long closure of the border between Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire from September 2002 to September 2003. Goods and services, as well as remittances, continue to flow from Burkinabe living in Cote d'Ivoire, but they have been rerouted through other countries in the region like Togo, Ghana, and Benin. Commercial and personal traffic across the border is slowly rebuilding steam.

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. 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.

Manufacturing is limited to cotton and food processing (mainly in Bobo Dioulasso) and 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 deposits of manganese, zinc, and gold have attracted the interest of international mining firms.

A railway connects Burkina with the port of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, 1,150 kilometers (712 mi.) away. Due to the closure of the border with Cote d'Ivoire, this railway was not operational between September 2002 and September 2003. Primary roads between main towns in Burkina Faso are paved. Domestic air service and flights within Africa are limited. Phones and Internet service providers are relatively reliable, but the cost of utilities is very high.

Burkina has excellent relations with European aid donors, as well as Libya, Taiwan, and other states which have offered financial aid. France and the European Union, in particular, provide significant aid. Other donors with large bilateral aid programs include Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada. President Compaore is active in subregional diplomacy in West Africa.

U.S. relations with Burkina Faso are good but subject to strains because of the Compaore government's past involvement in arms trading and other sanctions-breaking activity. In addition to regional peace and stability, U.S. interests in Burkina are to promote continued democratization and greater respect for human rights and to encourage sustainable economic development. Although the Agency for International Development (USAID) closed its office in Ouagadougou in 1995, about $18 million annually of USAID funding goes to Burkina's development through non-governmental and regional organizations. The largest is a Food for Peace school lunch program administered by Catholic Relief Services. Burkina has been the site of several development success stories. U.S. leadership in building food security in the Sahel after the 1968-74 drought has been successful in virtually eliminating famine, despite recurrent drought years. River blindness has been eliminated from the region. In both cases, the U.S. was the main donor to inter-African organizations headquartered in Ouagadougou which through sustained efforts have achieved and consolidated these gains.

In 1995, the Peace Corps program resumed, after a 10-year absence, with volunteers working in rural health and education. In 2003, over 90 Volunteers will be in Burkina Faso, including those working in a new sector of small business development. U.S. trade with Burkina is still extremely limited--$18.8 million in U.S. exports and $2.9 million in Burkinabe exports to the U.S. in 2002--but investment possibilities exist, especially in the mining and communications sectors.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--J. Anthony Holmes
Deputy Chief of Mission--Eric Benjaminson
Political/Economic Officer --Elizabeth Bailey
Administrative Officer--Jennifer Haskell
Peace Corps Country Director--Julie Donahue
Public Affairs Officer--Todd Haskell

The U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso is located on 602 Avenue Raoul Follereau in Ouagadougou. Mailing addresses are: International mail: Ambassade des Etats-Unis, 01 B.P. 35, Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso; Mail from the US: Department of State, 2440 Ouagadougou Place, Washington, DC 20521-2440, tel: (226) 30-67-23, fax: (226) 31-23-68 or (226) 30-38-90. Email address:

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.

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