Burkina Faso - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso, country in western Africa, formerly known as Upper Volta. It was a French colony until 1960, when it gained independence. The country took the name Burkina Faso, meaning “land of upright people” in 1985. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries of what was formerly French West Africa, and each year thousands of its people seek jobs in neighboring countries, chiefly seasonal farm work in Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire.

Burkina Faso is situated in drought-prone grasslands in the heart of western Africa. This landlocked country lies between the Sahara to its north and tropical rain forests to its south. Most of its people, who are known as Burkinabe, live in the southern part of the country, which is densely populated. They live chiefly by farming, despite poor soil and frequent droughts.

Kingdoms established by the Mossi people in what is now Burkina Faso rank among Africa’s oldest kingdoms, and date back hundreds of years. After gaining independence in 1960, the country experienced repeated coups and periods of military rule. Burkina Faso has had a democratic government since a new constitution was introduced in 1991.

Burkina Faso is bounded on the north and west by Mali, on the east by Niger, and on the south by Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire. Ouagadougou is the capital and largest city.


Burkina Faso is located on a plateau, and most of the country is between 300 and 400 m (1,000 and 1,300 ft) above sea level. The plateau slopes generally to the south, but the altitude never falls below 198 m (650 ft). Most of the country consists of vast plains, broken by occasional low hills. On the sandstone plateau west of Bobo-Dioulasso, a few summits reach heights exceeding 760 m (2,500 ft).

Rivers of Burkina Faso

In the east are small rivers that eventually flow into the Niger. More important are the Black Volta (Mouhoun), Red Volta (Nazinon), and White Volta (Nakanbe) rivers, which drain the plateau to the south. These rivers join in Ghana as the Volta River. None of Burkina Faso’s rivers are navigable. They are either seasonally dry or else in flood.

Plants and Animals in Burkina Faso

Most of the country is covered with grass and small trees. In the north and east the vegetation consists of acacia woodland and scrub. Elsewhere sparse savanna grasslands prevail. Only in the southwest does the savanna appear to have adequate water. In the north the grassland reverts to semidesert in the dry season.

There are a number of wild animals in Burkina Faso, including elephants, hippopotamuses, buffalo, antelope, monkeys, and crocodiles. Harmful insects include the malaria-carrying mosquito and the tsetse fly, which infects people with sleeping sickness (see Trypanosomiasis) and livestock with a disease called nagana.

Climate in Burkina Faso

There are three main seasons in Burkina Faso. A dry, cool season extends from November through March; a hot, dry one from April through May; and a hot, wet one from June through October. Rainfall decreases inland from more than 1,000 mm (more than 40 in) in the southwest (the most agriculturally productive part of the country) to less than 250 mm (less than 10 in) in the north. It is heaviest in the summer. Temperatures increase from south to north. Average temperatures at Ouagadougou, in the center of the country, vary from 24°C (76°F) in January to 28°C (83°F) in July. In the north and northeast a dry, dust-laden desert wind called the harmattan adds to the heat and dryness in April and May.


Generally, Burkina Faso’s land is much drier than the figures on rainfall suggest. Most of the soils are infertile and, in general, do not retain groundwater, hindering agricultural efforts. Water supply is a problem in so dry a country and offers few opportunities for irrigation. About 18 percent of the land is cultivated.

Burkina Faso is known to have valuable deposits of manganese, gold, and zinc, and mining of these minerals is planned or underway. The country also has resources of copper, iron ore, cassiterite (tin ore), and phosphates.

Environmental Issues in Burkina Faso

The desert nation of Burkina Faso suffers from desertification and recurring droughts. Burkina Faso’s government is party to several international agreements such as those pertaining to ozone layer protection and endangered species.


Most of the people of Burkina Faso live in the central and southern regions. Despite relatively infertile land, the country supports a large rural population. About 81 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Ouagadougou is the capital and largest city. Other major cities are Bobo-Dioulasso, an important economic center, and Koudougou.

The people of Burkina Faso, who are known as Burkinabe, belong to two major West African cultural groups, the Voltaic and the Mande. The Voltaic are the most numerous and include the Mossi, who make up nearly half the population. Other important Voltaic ethnic groups in Burkina Faso are the Lobi, Bobo, and Gourounsi, Bissa, and Gourmantche.

The Mossi are mainly farmers who live in the central part of the country. They are organized into four centralized Mossi kingdoms: Yatenga, Ouagadougou, Tenkodogo, and Fada N’Gourma. Ouagadougou, under its leader, the mogho naba, is the most important. The power of the king in Mossi kingdoms is exercised through a court and extends over the many lesser chiefs in charge of tightly knit districts and villages. The village earth priest directs the religious life, which centers on ancestor worship, and serves as a leader complementary to the village chief. The kings are at the top of the religious hierarchy, serving as the mediums for attracting supernatural powers to promote the welfare of the people.

The Lobi live in the southwest as farmers and hunters. Defiant of newcomers, they live in small terraced fortifications. The Bobo are chiefly farmers, artisans, and metal workers living in large villages in the west-central part of the country. The Gourounsi are mainly artisans and farmers in the south-central areas. Their society is less highly structured than that of the other Voltaic groups. Christianity has made substantial inroads among them.

The Mande are divided into four main groups. They are interspersed among the Voltaic people but retain much of their own culture. The Mande live by farming, trading, and weaving. Other ethnic groups in Burkina Faso include the Hausa, who are prominent as merchants; the seminomadic Fulani; the Tuareg, who are desert nomads of Berber stock and live in the north; and the Senufo, who live in the far west.

Language and Religion in Burkina Faso

French is the official language of Burkina Faso. Languages of the Sudanic family are spoken by about 90 percent of the population. About 49 percent percent of the people of Burkina Faso are Muslims. About 34 percent follow traditional religions, and 16 percent are Christian, mostly Roman Catholic.

Education in Burkina Faso

Education is free and officially compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 16. However, only 47 percent of all primary school-age children were enrolled in 2006; only 11 percent of secondary school-age children attended school. The literacy rate for the adult population is 29 percent.

A university with an enrollment of 33,500 is at Ouagadougou, and government grants are available for higher education in European and African universities. A number of individuals study at Dakar, Senegal; at Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; and overseas.


Burkina Faso is a poor country whose development has been impeded by its being landlocked and by its having poor soils and very little water. The economy is vulnerable to weather conditions, especially drought, and to fluctuating world prices for its products. A low literacy rate and inadequate communications have also hampered the country’s development. The basis of the economy of Burkina Faso is agriculture, primarily for subsistence consumption. Although economic assistance, chiefly from the European Union, has subsidized Burkina Faso since independence, the nation remains one of the world’s poorest. The national budget for 2006 included $748 million in revenues and $741 million in expenditures.

Labor in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso 92 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, raising food crops or herding livestock. Unemployment and underemployment are widespread, and many workers seek employment permanently or seasonally in richer nations to the south, especially Côte d’Ivoire.

Agriculture of Burkina Faso

Aridity and erosion seriously hamper agricultural development, and most farming is concentrated in southern and southwestern Burkina Faso. Leading food crops are cereal grains, including sorghum, millet, rice, and corn, and pulses. The chief cash crop is cotton, which accounts for a large share of the country’s export income. The principal wealth of Burkina Faso is its livestock: cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, horses and asses, and poultry. Drought has at times severely reduced livestock herds and crop harvests.

Mining and Manufacturing in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso has begun to develop its mineral resources in an effort to improve its economy. But inadequate transportation and a lack of investment capital has delayed the process. Gold was the chief mineral produced in the early 2000s. Other mineral resources included manganese, phosphates, and zinc.

Manufacturing in Burkina Faso is principally related to processing agricultural products, particularly cotton, oils and fats, and sugar, and the production of such consumer items as soap, footwear, motorcycles, and motor scooters. Traditional handicrafts—including embroidery, cotton weaving, working in bronze, and leatherwork—are well developed and continue to supply the rural population’s demand for finished goods.

Energy in Burkina Faso

Some 85 percent of the country’s electricity is produced in thermal installations, most of which burn refined petroleum; the remainder is produced by hydroelectric facilities. In 2006, Burkina Faso generated 550 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Currency and Banking of Burkina Faso

The currency of Burkina Faso is the CFA franc, issued by the Central Bank of West Africa. An official exchange rate of 1 French franc equal to 50 CFA francs was in force from 1948 to January 1994, when the CFA franc was devalued by 50 percent. The country has several banks that finance economic development.

Commerce and Trade in Burkina Faso

Like many developing nations, Burkina Faso imports far more than it exports. Imports consist of food, petroleum, textiles, iron, steel, metal products, vehicles, electrical equipment, and machinery. Major exports include raw cotton, gold, and livestock products. In 2007 imports were valued at $1,618 million, and exports totaled $679 million. Major trading partners for exports include France, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Japan; principal partners for imports are France, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan, Germany, Togo, China, and the United States.

Transportation and Communications in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso’s distance from the coast adds to the cost of its exports and imports. A railroad links Ouagadougou to the port city of Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire, a distance of 1,144 km (711 mi) by rail. The country has 15,272 km (9,490 mi) of roads. Main roads connecting the cities are paved. Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso both have international airports. The national airline is Air Burkina.

Burkina Faso’s television service is government-owned. Radio broadcasts are made in French and African languages by a government station and commercial stations. The nation has 5 daily newspapers.


The difficulty of solving the country’s economic and social problems, as well as persistent ethnic and regional differences, have combined to produce an unstable political situation. Burkina Faso’s current, democratic constitution was approved by national referendum in 1991. It allows multiparty politics and guarantees the political and social rights of all citizens. For purposes of local administration, Burkina Faso is divided into 13 regions, which are subdivided into 45 provinces.

Executive and Legislature of Burkina Faso

Under the country’s constitution, executive power in Burkina Faso is vested in a president. A constitutional amendment in 2000 limited the president to a single five-year term. The amendment went into effect for the 2005 elections. The president appoints a Council of Ministers to advise him.

The country’s legislature is called the National Assembly. The 111 members of the National Assembly are directly elected to five-year terms.

Judiciary in Burkina Faso

The judicial system of Burkina Faso consists of a Constitutional Council, a Council of State, a Court of Cassation, and a National Audit Court. Judges are appointed by the Council of Ministers. Appeals courts are located in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.

Health and Welfare in Burkina Faso

The government provides hospitals and rural medical services and special health services for schools. An old-age and veterans’ pension system was established in 1960, and workers’ insurance plans were started in 1967. Average life expectancy at birth in 2009 was short: only 55 years for women and 51 for men. Meningitis epidemics, which periodically hit West Africa, have caused many deaths in Burkina Faso.

Defense of Burkina Faso

Military service is voluntary. The armed forces included 10,800 people in 2006: 6,400 personnel in the army; 200 in the air force; and the remainder in the gendarmerie, a civil police force.


Possibly as early as the 11th century, invaders of mixed ancestry riding north from what is now Ghana entered the Upper Volta plains. They gradually subdued the loosely organized agriculturalists in the central and eastern plains, but those of the western area, ancestors of the Bobo, Lobi, and Gourounsi peoples, effectively resisted them. The invaders gradually intermarried with, and adopted the languages and religions of, the peoples they had conquered. The descendants of the invaders ultimately became the ruling aristocracies of the Mossi kingdoms of Yatenga, Ouagadougou, Tenkodogo, and Fada N’Gourma.

The Mossi Kingdoms

The history of Burkina Faso is largely the history of the ancient Mossi kingdoms. The survival of the Mossi kingdoms, especially Ouagadougou, into the 21st century resulted from a number of interrelated historical factors. The Mossi ruling classes used ancestor worship and their own quasi-divine status as descendants of the kingdoms’ founders to weld the various conquered peoples into entities whose members thought of themselves as Mossi. They promoted peaceful relations based on kinship with potential rivals to the south.

The Mossi ruling classes also developed an administrative system which, though resting on a fragile economic base, struck a delicate balance between centralized authority and local autonomy. In the Ouagadougou kingdom headed by the mogho naba (“ruler of the world”), five provincial governors living at the royal court supervised the administration of some 300 district chiefs.

In the 16th century the Mossi checked attempts of the Songhai empire to conquer them and forcibly convert them to Islam. Although the Mossi kings did not convert to Islam, they gained the allegiance of Muslim traders and herders who came to their lands by becoming protectors of Islam and by bringing Muslim scholars to their courts.

The Mossi kingdoms attracted European attention in the late 19th century as Europeans attempted to gain control of the hinterlands north and east of their coastal colonies. In 1888 a French army officer visited the mogho naba but failed to gain his assent to a French protectorate. After peacefully obtaining a protectorate over Yatenga in 1895, French forces defeated the mogho naba and occupied the kingdom of Ouagadougou in 1896. The following year France annexed the lands of the Fada N’Gourma, Gourounsi, Bobo, and Lobi peoples.

A French Territory

Between 1904 and 1919 the Upper Volta area was administered as part of the colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger (Upper Senegal-Niger). In 1919 Upper Volta was made into a separate constituent territory of French West Africa, only to be divided up in 1932 between the French Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. It was reconstituted as the colony of Upper Volta in 1947, in part to satisfy Mossi desires for a separate region and also to reduce the influence of the then radical party, the African Democratic Rally (RDA). The RDA failed to win over the Mossi, but it did succeed in making inroads among the smaller Bobo, Gourounsi, Lobi, and Fulani peoples, who feared Mossi domination. A local section of the RDA, the Voltaic Democratic Union, later emerged as the dominant political force in Upper Volta.

From 1947 to 1958 Upper Volta was officially an overseas territory of France and elected representatives to a territorial assembly and to the parliament of France. These representatives firmly resisted attempts by the mogho naba to play a major political role. However, they exercised little real power themselves until 1958, when Upper Volta became a self-governing member of the French Community. In 1959 Upper Volta joined the council of the Entente, a loose association based on mutual political and economic interests. The Entente was composed of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Dahomey (now Benin), and Togo.


Upper Volta became independent on August 5, 1960, with Maurice Yaméogo, leader of the Voltaic Democratic Union, as president. After independence Upper Volta remained an associated state of the European Community (now called the European Union). Yaméogo was reelected in 1965; he was the sole candidate.

After the National Assembly adopted austerity measures in 1965, a crisis erupted between the government and the labor unions. At the call of the latter, General Sangoulé Lamizana, then army chief of staff, overthrew Yaméogo. Lamizana assumed power in 1966 and suspended the constitution. Shortly thereafter, the new government embarked on an austerity program of its own, which eventually succeeded in halting the deterioration of the economy. A new constitution providing for a partial return to civilian rule was adopted in 1970, and Lamizana became president for four years.

In the early 1970s the effect of a five-year drought threatened famine in Upper Volta and other West African countries. The resulting economic dislocation brought a second dissolution of the government. Lamizana seized power and ruled as dictator until the reintroduction of parliamentary government in 1978, when he won the presidency in a democratic election. Two years later he was ousted in a bloodless military coup; two more coups followed during the next 33 months.

In 1983 a coup brought the National Revolutionary Council to power, and its Marxist leader Thomas Sankara became head of state. The following year, on the anniversary of the coup (August 3), the official name of the country was changed to Burkina Faso, and a new national flag and anthem were decreed. Although Sankara instituted reforms that helped rural Burkinabe, he angered Mossi chiefs by trying to curb their power.

The Compaoré Regime

Sankara was ousted and executed in a 1987 coup led by his chief adviser, Blaise Compaoré. The Revolutionary Council was abolished and Compaoré ruled as head of the Popular Front. Compaoré suspended socialist reforms and instituted conservative economic reforms. In response to public unrest, he introduced limited democratic reforms in 1990, and a new constitution took effect the following year. Compaoré ran for president in 1991 without opposition, and his party won a legislative majority in multiparty elections in 1992. Compaoré was reelected by a landslide to another seven-year term in multiparty presidential elections in 1998. In 1999 he appointed a 16-member College of Elders to promote social peace and national reconciliation. A constitutional amendment in 2000 limited the president to a single five-year term. When Compaoré announced that he would seek reelection in 2005, the Constitutional Council ruled that because the amendment went into effect after the 1998 elections, it did not prevent Compaoré from running again.

Burkina Faso’s relations with Côte d’Ivoire deteriorated during the course of 2002. Burkina Faso was accused of sheltering dissident members of the Côte d’Ivoire army, while at the same time the 2 million Burkinabe immigrants in Côte d’Ivoire were being blamed for a military uprising in that country. The border between the two countries was closed for a year but reopened in 2003. Compaoré was easily reelected in the November 2005 presidential election.

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