New Internationalist

Burkina Faso

October 1990

new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990


Burkina Faso

Where is Burkina Faso? At first sight Burkina Faso - the 'Land of the Incorruptible' - would not appear to have enough wealth to make corruption possible. Much of its countryside is fighting a losing battle against the southward march of the Sahara while the capital, Ouagadougou, is a pleasant, overgrown village without a trace of gloss. Under French rule, what was then Upper Volta was used as a labour reservoir for those parts of the Empire more blessed with natural resources - and even today about 1.5 million Burkinabe have to find work in neighbouring countries.

Nominal independence in 1960 brought a succession of inept, mostly military governments. Drought in the 1970s and again in 1983 brought four-wheel-drive Toyotas emblazoned with aid-agency logos but aid failed to alleviate the chronic poverty faced by the peasants, 90 per cent of the population.

In 1983 a group of leftist army officers led by Thomas Sankara seized power. The ruling National Revolutionary Council (NRC) started to develop a more self-sufficient economy. Rejecting overtures from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the NRC began to revitalize the agricultural base by guaranteeing prices of basic food crops and promoting the use of local textiles.

Intrusive Coca-Cola culture was confronted by using African dance, music, film and popular theatre to raise awareness of key issues. Health posts were set up. Improved farming and soil conservation were promoted under the slogan of a 'Green Burkina'. An innovative renewal programme gave the urban poor legal protection, provided basic amenities and encouraged self-help work. Women were given rights to property, credit facilities and access to literacy programmes.

Sankara took his idealism seriously. Reckoned the world's poorest president, his most valuable possessions were a car, a refrigerator and four bicycles.

But in 1987 tensions surfaced between Sankara, who wanted so divert resources to the rural sector, and Captain Blaise Compaoré, who represented the relatively privileged government employees and trade unions. The split led to Sankara's assassination in October 1987.

Since then the country has been plunged into uncertainty as Compaoré struggles to consolidate his power and turn back the clock. The military have resumed their parasitic role, the basic-needs development strategy has been jettisoned, foreign investment encouraged and the IMF has stepped in. A heavily armed convoy signals Compaoré's passage around Ouagadougou. An air of fear has replaced the sense of purpose which marked the Sankara years.

David Richards

Leader Captain Blaise Compaoré

Economy GNP per capita $190 (US $18,530)

Exports are cotton, animals and hides, shea nuts, sesame seeds and rubber products. Main imports include transport equipment, cereals and oil. Food crops are sorghum, millet, yam, maize and beans; stockrearing is the other major farming activity.

People 8.5 million

Health Infant mortality 137 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

Culture Over 50 per cent of the population are Mossi; 20 or so other groups and sub-groups.
Religion Mostly animist; Muslims in the North and about five per cent Christians.
Language Official language is French but the Mossi language, More, is more widely used. Other languages are Dioula, Gourmantche and Peul.

Sources: Africa Review and State of the World's Children 1990.

Last profiled in May 1982


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Gap between peasants and rural/urban élites.
1982: *

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80% of development budget from foreign aid.
1982: **

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Gap between peasants and rural/urban
1982: **

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Nominally Marxist but effectively military rule.
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14% slow improvement. 45% boys, 26% girls in primary education.
1982: *

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Political detainees, executions. Opposition underground or in exile.
1982: **

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47 years
(US 75 years).
Among the world's lowest.

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This feature was published in the October 1990 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 212

New Internationalist Magazine issue 212
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