Country, West Africa.
A landlocked country, it lies south of the Sahara Desert. Area:
103,456 sq mi (267,950 sq km). Population (2008 est.): 14,391,000.
Capital: Ouagadougou. Ethnic groups include the Mossi, Fulani, Mande,
Bobo, Senufo, and Hausa. Languages: French (official), Moore, Dyula, and
others. Religions: Islam, traditional beliefs, Christianity. Currency:
CFA franc. Burkina Faso consists of an extensive plateau characterized
by a savanna, grassy in the north and sparsely forested in the south.
The plateau is notched by the valleys of the Black Volta (Mouhoun), Red
Volta (Nazinon), and White Volta (Nakambé) rivers, which flow south into
Ghana. The economy is largely agricultural. Burkina Faso is a republic
with one legislative body; its chief of state is the president and its
head of government the prime minister. Probably in the 15th century, the
Mossi and Gurma peoples established themselves in eastern and central
areas. The Mossi kingdoms of Yatenga and Ouagadougou existed into the
early 20th century. A French protectorate was established over the
region (1895–97), and its southern boundary was demarcated through an
Anglo-French agreement. It was part of the Upper Senegal–Niger (see
Mali) colony, then became a separate colony in 1919. It was constituted
an overseas territory within the French Union in 1947, became an
autonomous republic within the French Community in 1958, and achieved
total independence in 1960. Since then it has been ruled primarily by
the military and has experienced several coups. The country received its
present name in 1984. A new constitution, adopted in 1991, restored
multiparty rule; elected government returned in the 1990s. Economic
problems plagued the country at the beginning of the 21st century.
Official name Burkina Faso (Burkina Faso)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative body
(National Assembly )
Chief of state President
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language French
Official religion none
Monetary unit CFA franc (CFAF)
Population estimate (2008) 14,391,000
Total area (sq mi) 103,456
Total area (sq km) 267,950
landlocked country in western Africa. The country occupies an
extensive plateau, and its geography is characterized by a savanna that
is grassy in the north and gradually gives way to sparse forests in the
A former French colony, it gained independence as Upper Volta in
1960; the name Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Incorruptible People,”
was adopted in 1984. Since independence it has been ruled primarily by
the military and has experienced several coups. A new constitution was
promulgated in 1991, and the country’s first multiparty presidential
elections were held soon after. The capital, Ouagadougou, is in the
centre of the country and lies about 500 miles (800 km) from the
Burkina Faso is bounded by Mali to the north and west, Niger to
the northeast, Benin to the southeast, and Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and
Togo to the south.
Relief, drainage, and soils
Burkina Faso is situated on an extensive plateau, which is slightly
inclined toward the south. The lateritic (red, leached, iron-bearing)
layer of rock that covers the underlying crystalline rocks is deeply
incised by the country’s three principal rivers—the Black Volta
(Mouhoun), the Red Volta (Nazinon), and the White Volta (Nakambé)—all of
which converge in Ghana to the south to form the Volta River. The Oti,
another tributary of the Volta, rises in southeastern Burkina Faso.
Great seasonal variation occurs in the flow of the rivers, and some
rivers become dry beds during the dry season. In the southwest there are
sandstone plateaus bordered by the Banfora Escarpment, which is about
500 feet (150 metres) high and faces southeast. Much of the soil in the
country is infertile.
The climate of Burkina Faso is generally sunny, hot, and dry. Two
principal climate zones can be distinguished. The Sahelian zone in the
north is semiarid steppe, characterized by three to five months of
rainfall, which is often erratic. To the south, in the Sudanic zone, the
climate becomes increasingly of the tropical wet-dry type, with a
greater variability of temperature and rainfall and greater total
rainfall than the north.
Four seasons may be distinguished in Burkina Faso: a dry and cool
season from mid-November to mid-February, with temperatures dropping to
about 60 °F (16 °C) at night; a hot season from mid-February to June,
when maximum temperatures rise into the low 100s F (about 40 °C) in the
shade and the harmattan—a hot, dry, dust-laden wind blowing off the
Sahara desert—is prevalent; a rainy season, which lasts from June to
September; and an intermediate season, which lasts from September until
mid-November. Annual rainfall varies from about 40 inches (1,000 mm) in
the south to less than 10 inches (250 mm) in the north.
Plant and animal life
The northern part of the country consists of savanna, with prickly
shrubs and stunted trees that flourish during the rainy season. In the
south, the prickly shrubs give way to scattered forests, which become
more dense along the banks of the perennial rivers. The karite (shea
tree) and the baobab (hibiscus tree) are endemic in this region.
Animal life includes buffalo, antelope, lions, hippopotamuses,
elephants, crocodiles, and monkeys. Bird and insect life is rich and
varied, and there are many species of fish in the rivers. Burkina Faso’s
national parks include Po in the south-centre of the country, Arly in
the southeast, and “W” in the east, straddling the border with Benin and
Ethnic groups and languages
Two principal ethnolinguistic groups live in Burkina Faso. The first
of these is the Gur-speaking peoples: the Mossi, which includes the
Gurma and the Yarse; the Gurunsi; the Senufo; the Bobo; and the Lobi.
The second group, the Mande, includes the Samo, the Marka, the Busansi,
and the Dyula. Other groups found in the country include the Hausa, the
Fulani, and the Tuareg. Citizens of Burkina Faso, regardless of their
ethnic origin, are collectively known as Burkinabé.
Each ethnic group has its own language; most of those languages
belong to either the Gur or the Mande branch of the Niger-Congo language
family. French is the official language, although it is not widely
spoken. Moore, the language of the Mossi, is spoken by a great majority
of the population, and Dyula is widely used in commerce.
About half the population is Muslim. About one-third of the
Burkinabé follow traditional animist religions. The majority of the
remainder are Roman Catholic or Protestant. The seat of the Roman
Catholic archbishopric is in Ouagadougou, and there are several
bishoprics throughout the country.
The population as a whole is unevenly distributed among the
different regions. The eastern and central regions are densely settled
and contain about half the total population. In the remaining regions
the population is scattered.
About four-fifths of the people are rural—the highest percentage in
western Africa—and live in villages, which tend to be grouped toward the
centre of the country at higher elevations away from the Volta river
valleys. For several miles on either side of the Volta rivers, the land
is mostly uninhabited because of the prevalence of the deadly tsetse
fly, which carries sleeping sickness, and the Simulium fly, which
carries onchocerciasis, or river blindness.
Ouagadougou, the administrative capital and the seat of government,
is a modern city where several companies have their headquarters. It is
also the residence of the morho naba (“great lord”) of the Mossi and an
important regional centre for international aid programs.
Apart from Ouagadougou, the principal towns are Bobo Dioulasso,
Koudougou, Banfora, Ouahigouya, Pouytenga, and Kaya. Bobo Dioulasso, in
the west, was the economic and business capital of the country when it
formed the terminus of the railroad running to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire,
on the coast. Since 1955, however, when the railroad was extended to
Ouagadougou, it has lost some of its former importance, although it
remains a commercial centre.
In the early 21st century, yearly population growth averaged about 3
percent; nearly half the population was below age 15. Average life
expectancy was about 50 years—lower than the global average but similar
to that of neighbouring countries.
About nine-tenths of the population is engaged in subsistence
agriculture or livestock raising. Difficult economic conditions, made
worse by severe intermittent droughts, have provoked considerable
migration from rural to urban areas within Burkina Faso and to
neighbouring countries, most notably Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. As many as
1.5 million people, or almost one-third of the country’s labour force,
have been abroad at any given time. (In the early 21st century, however,
unrest in neighbouring countries, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, made it
difficult for Burkinabés to find employment.) The development of
industry in Burkina Faso is hampered by the small size of the market
economy and by the absence of a direct outlet to the sea. Beginning in
the late 1990s, the government began to privatize some state-owned
entities in order to attract foreign investment.
Agricultural production consists of subsistence foodstuffs, with the
surplus being sold as cash crops. Surplus cotton, shea nuts, sesame, and
sugarcane are exported, while sorghum, millet, corn (maize), peanuts
(groundnuts), and rice are grown for local consumption. Fonio (a
crabgrass with seeds that are used as cereal), cassava (manioc), sweet
potatoes, and beans are also grown. Livestock raising is one of the
principal sources of revenue; animals raised include cattle, sheep,
goats, pigs, donkeys, horses, camels, chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl.
Minerals, particularly manganese and gold, are the chief sources of
potential wealth for the country. There are gold mines at Poura,
southwest of Koudougou, and smaller gold deposits near Sebba and
Dori-Yalogo in the north exist. Reserves of nickel, bauxite, zinc, lead,
and silver are also found in the country. Burkina Faso’s substantial
manganese deposits at Tambao in the northeast potentially represent its
most important resource and one of the world’s richest sources of this
mineral. Exploitation is limited by existing transport inadequacies.
Industry is limited to a number of plants that are mainly in the
cities and larger towns. Chief manufactures include foodstuffs,
beverages, textiles, shoes, and bicycle parts.
Burkina Faso’s currency is the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine)
franc, which has been officially pegged to the euro. It is issued by the
Central Bank of West African States, an agency of the West African
Economic and Monetary Union, which consists of eight countries (Benin,
Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and
Togo) that were once French colonies in Africa. Branches of the central
bank in Burkina Faso are located in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso.
Among the partially or wholly state-owned commercial banks, the most
important is the Banque Internationale du Burkina in Ouagadougou.
Burkina Faso is also a member of the Economic Community of West
African States (ECOWAS), a body encompassing most states in western
Africa, which attempts to integrate and harmonize the economic interests
of the region. One of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso
relies heavily on international aid and on remittances from migrants to
help offset its current account deficit.
Burkina Faso’s main exports in the early 21st century included
cotton, gold, livestock, sugar, and fruit. Most of its exports are sent
to neighbouring African countries, but some, including cotton and
minerals, are exported to China, Singapore, and the countries of the
European Union. Chief imports include petroleum, chemical products,
machinery, and foodstuffs, which mainly come from surrounding countries
as well as from France. There is a deficit in the balance of payments,
largely because of the relatively small amounts of exports, which are
not of sufficient value to equal the value of imported materials
required for promoting further development.
A rail line links Ouagadougou to the port of Abidjan in Côte
d’Ivoire; it is some 700 miles (1,100 km) long, of which about 320 miles
(500 km) run through Burkina Faso. (For several years in the early
2000s, the line was closed because of civil war in Côte d’Ivoire).
Running from east to west before crossing the border, the line serves
the towns of Koudougou, Bobo Dioulasso, and Banfora.
The capital is also linked by road to the principal administrative
centres in the country and to the capitals of neighbouring countries.
Burkina Faso’s road networks are poorly developed, with only a small
percentage of the network usable year-round. The remainder consists
mostly of unpaved rural roads.
International airports are located at Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso.
Numerous smaller airstrips are found throughout the country.
Government and society
Burkina Faso’s constitution was adopted by referendum in 1991 and
has since been amended. It allows for multiparty elections and a
parliamentary republic with a president as chief of state and a prime
minister, who is appointed by the president, as the head of the
government. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year
term and may serve up to two consecutive terms. The legislative branch
of the government is represented by the National Assembly, whose members
are elected by universal suffrage for five-year terms.
Burkina Faso is divided into régions, which in turn are divided into
provinces, which are further divided into départements. Each région is
administered by a governor, and each province is administered by a high
Health and welfare
The state of health of the Burkinabé is generally poor. Most
hospitals are in the larger towns, but the government has improved
access to primary health care by increasing the number of village
clinics. Main causes of death in Burkina Faso include lower respiratory
diseases, malaria, and diarrheal diseases. Other diseases in the country
include onchocerciasis, sleeping sickness, leprosy, yellow fever, and
schistosomiasis. Periodic droughts have contributed to malnutrition and
related diseases, especially among young children and pregnant women.
Burkina Faso has a lower prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS than do many other
African countries, although it is higher than the world average. The
government has focused on prevention and treatment of AIDS with some
success, and the prevalence rate has decreased since the beginning of
the 21st century.
School enrollment is one of the lowest in Africa, even though the
government devotes a large portion of the national budget to education.
French is the language of instruction in primary and secondary schools.
About one-fourth of the population aged 15 and older is literate. The
primary institution for higher education is Ouagadougou University
(established 1974). Research institutes in Ouagadougou offer degrees in
rural engineering and hydrology. There are a polytechnic university and
a college for rural development in Bobo Dioulasso. A university was
established in Koudougou in 2005. Some Burkinabé seek higher education
in France, Senegal, or Côte d’Ivoire.
Folkloric traditions are rich in Burkina Faso, reflecting the
country’s ethnic diversity. The Mossi are known for creating antelope
masks that reach heights of up to 7 feet (2 metres). Bobo butterfly
masks and the wood carvings of the Lobi are also well regarded for their
artistry. The biennial Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO) in
Ouagadougou is popular, as is the International Crafts Fair, which
celebrates the country’s artisans. The National Museum (1962) in the
capital city houses artifacts from the country’s diverse ethnic groups.
Information about earlier inhabitants of the area can be gleaned from
the ruins of a fortified settlement at Loropéni, located in the southern
part of the country. The ruins date back some 1,000 years and were
designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.
Several daily newspapers are published, including the
government-sponsored Sidwaya (“Truth”), as well as a number of weeklies.
Burkina Faso has made a major effort to become competitive on the
African sports scene. Wrestling is popular in the country, and Burkinabé
athletes have competed in the African Nations Traditional Wrestling
Championship. The country has its own basketball league and an annual
international cycling tour. Football (soccer), however, is by far the
country’s passion. Burkina Faso boasts a highly competitive national
football league, and the national team has competed in the African
Nations Cup tournament.
Upper Volta first sent an Olympic team to the 1972 Munich Games,
although the first athletes from Upper Volta to participate in the
Olympics were two javelin throwers who competed in the 1928 Amsterdam
Olympics as members of the French team. The country’s first
participation in the Olympics as Burkina Faso was in the 1988 Seoul
Pierre H. Guiguemde
Axes belonging to a Neolithic culture have been found in the north
of Burkina Faso. The Bobo, the Lobi, and the Gurunsi are the earliest
known inhabitants of the country. About the 15th century ce, conquering
horsemen invaded the region from the south and founded the Gurma and the
Mossi kingdoms, in the eastern and central areas, respectively. Several
Mossi kingdoms developed, the most powerful of which was that of
Ouagadougou, located in the centre of the country. Headed by an emperor,
the morho naba (“great lord”), the Ouagadougou Mossi state defeated
attempted invasions by the Songhai and Fulani empires yet maintained
valuable commercial links with major western African trading powers,
including the Dyula, the Hausa, and the Asante.
European exploration and colonization
The German explorer Gottlob Adolf Krause traversed the Mossi country
in 1886, and the French army officer Louis-Gustave Binger visited the
morho naba in 1888. France obtained a protectorate over the Yatenga
empire in 1895, and Paul Voulet and Charles-Paul-Louis Chanoine defeated
the morho naba Boukari-Koutou (Wobogo) of Mossi in 1896 and then
proceeded to overrun the Gurunsi lands. The Gurma accepted a French
protectorate in 1897, and in that same year the lands of the Bobo and of
the Lobi were annexed by the French (though the Lobi, armed with
poisoned arrows, were not effectively subdued until 1903). An
Anglo-French convention of 1898 fixed the frontier between France’s new
acquisitions and the northern territories of the Gold Coast.
The French divided the country into administrative cercles
(“circles”) but maintained the chiefs, including the morho naba, in
their traditional seats. The country at first was attached to Upper
Senegal–Niger (as that colony was called from 1904 to 1920; now Mali)
but was organized as a separate colony, Upper Volta (Haute-Volta), in
1919. In 1932 it was partitioned between Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and
French Sudan. In 1947, however, Upper Volta was reestablished to become
an overseas territory of the French Union, with a territorial assembly
of its own. The assembly in 1957 received the right to elect an
executive council of government for the territory, which at the end of
1958 was transformed into an autonomous republic within the French
Community. When independence was proclaimed on Aug. 5, 1960, the new
constitution provided for an executive president elected by universal
adult suffrage for a five-year term and an elected Legislative Assembly.
Hubert Jules Deschamps
Since Burkina Faso became an independent nation, the military has
on several occasions intervened during times of crisis. In 1966 the
military, led by Lieut. Col. (later Gen.) Sangoulé Lamizana, ousted the
elected government of Maurice Yaméogo. Lamizana dominated the country’s
politics until November 1980, when a series of strikes launched by
workers, teachers, and civil servants led to another coup, this time
headed by Col. Saye Zerbo.
Zerbo’s short-lived rule ended in November 1982 when noncommissioned
army officers rebelled and installed Maj. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo as
president. The Ouedraogo government soon split into conservative and
radical factions, with the radicals seizing power on Aug. 4, 1983. They
set up a National Revolutionary Council (CNR), with Capt. Thomas Sankara
as head of state.
A year after taking power, Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso,
meaning “Land of Incorruptible People,” and ordered all officials,
including himself, to open their bank accounts to public scrutiny. His
government was responsible for several concrete achievements:
vaccination and housing projects, tree planting to hold back the Sahel,
promotion of women’s rights, and curbing of waste in government.
During Sankara’s rule, tensions with Mali over the mineral-rich
Agacher Strip erupted in a brief border war in December 1985. The
dispute was settled in the International Court of Justice at The Hague a
year later, to the satisfaction of both countries.
Initially a coalition of radical groups that included army officers,
trade unionists, and members of small opposition groups, the Sankara
regime gradually lost most of its popular support as power became
concentrated in the hands of a few military officers—the most important
of which were Sankara, Capt. Blaise Compaoré, Maj. Jean-Baptiste Boukari
Lingani, and Capt. Henri Zongo. Popular support continued to decline,
and on Oct. 15, 1987, a military coup overthrew Sankara, who was killed
along with several others.
Compaoré took power at the head of a triumvirate that included Zongo
and Lingani. However, as time went on, Lingani and Zongo disagreed with
Compaoré about economic reform issues, and in 1989 they were accused of
plotting to overthrow him. The two were arrested and quickly executed,
and Compaoré continued to pursue his political agenda. In 1991 a new
constitution was promulgated, and Compaoré was elected president in an
election that was boycotted by opposition candidates.
Compaoré was reelected in 1998 and 2005. His regime, however, was not
without opposition or controversy. Unpopular political and economic
developments and the suspicious death in 1989 of Norbert Zongo, a
prominent journalist known for speaking out against Compaoré’s
administration, contributed to periodic episodes of social and political
unrest that continued into the 2000s. In October 2003 several people
were arrested and accused of planning a coup to oust Compaoré.
Meanwhile, economic troubles were exacerbated by the civil war that had
begun in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire in 2002. The conflict disrupted an
important source of trade for Burkina Faso as well as the livelihoods of
several hundred thousand Burkinabé who had found work there. Compaoré’s
administration also faced public discontent over high living costs,
which lead to riots in February 2008, weeks of protests, and a general
strike in April.