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History of Burkina Faso

Related subjects: African History

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Children of the 1983-1987 revolution.

Ancient and medieval history

Recent archeological discoveries at Bura in southwest Niger and in adjacent southwest Burkina Faso have documented the existence of the iron-age Bura culture from the 200s CE to the 1200s CE. The Bura-Asinda system of settlements apparently covered the lower Niger River valley, including the Boura region of Burkina Faso. But further research is needed to understand the role this early civilization played in the ancient and medieval history of West Africa.

From medieval times until the end of the 19th century, the region of Burkina Faso was ruled by the empire-building Mossi people, who are believed to have come up to their present location from northern Ghana, where there still live the ethnically-related Dagomba people. For several centuries, the Mossi peasant was both a farmer and a soldier; as the Mossi Kingdoms successfully defended their indigenous religious beliefs and social structure against forcible attempts to convert them to Islam by Muslims from the northwest.

French Upper Volta

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 Côte d'Ivoire were united into the French 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.

The Republic of Upper Volta

The Republic of Upper Volta achieved independence on August 5, 1960. 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 5-year terms. Soon after coming to power, Yaméogo 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 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 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 Ouédraogo 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 Compaoré. This release effort resulted in yet another military coup d'état 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 Lingani-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.

Five-day War with Mali

On Christmas Day 1985, tensions with Mali over the mineral-rich Agacher Strip erupted in a war that lasted five days and killed about 100 people. The conflict ended after mediation by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast. The conflict is known as the "Christmas war" in Burkina Faso.

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.

Modern Day Burkina Faso

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 Compaoré to power.

Compaoré, 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 bourgeois 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 la Démocratie Populaire/Mouvement du Travail (ODP/MT) were against the admission of non-Marxist groups in the front. On September 18, 1989, while Compaoré 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. Compaoré 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.

A New Constitution

A new constitution, establishing the fourth republic, was adopted on June 2, 1991. Among other provisions, it called for an Assembly of People’s Deputies with 107 seats (now 111). The7 president is chief of state, chairs a council of ministers, appoints a prime minister, who with the legislature’s consent, serves as head of government. In April 2000, the constitution was amended reducing the p7 residential term from seven to five years, enforceable as of 2005, and allowing the president to be reelected only once. The legislative branch is a unicameral National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) consisting of 111 seats. Members are elected by popular vote for five-year terms.

In April 2005, President Compaoré was re–elected for a third straight term. He won 80.3% of the vote, while Benewende Stanislas Sankara came a distant second with a mere 4.9%. The next presidential election is due in November 2010.

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