Burkina Faso

October 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

BurkWho lives there?: Around 16 million people. There are a number of different tribal groups but most fall into one of two linguistic and cultural supergroups: the dominant Gur and the Mandé. Around 60 to 70% are Muslim (mostly Maliki Sunni, but with significant Ismaili Shia and Ahmadi minorities) with around 20% following Catholicism and 20% local beliefs. There is a saying that Burkina is 50% Muslim, 50% Christian and 100% animist – and there is a wide co-opting of local beliefs and customs into mainstream religions.

How does the system work? (the theory): Burkina Faso has an elected president who wields considerable executive and legislative power. A two term limit and terms of five years have been introduced. The president is elected by first past the post with a runoff if necessary.

There is a unicameral National Assembly with some power – although the Prime Minister is appointed by the President. It is elected by PR via the closed list largest remainder (Hare quota) method – 30% of candidates on the parties’ lists must be women.

Burkina Faso is divided into 13 regions, 45 provinces and thousands of municipalities. Provincial and regional governments are appointed by the centre, whilst municipalities have directly elected councils. However, most power in Burkina Faso is centralised.

How does the system work? (the practice): Elections are seen as being free but not fair. Problems encountered by the opposition include a biased state owned press, intimidation and arrest on charges of dubious merit, the assassinations of key figures, and interference in the judiciary. The courts have been unwilling to intervene when key figures have been caught in corruption scandals – and have interpreted the constitution helpfully.

To take the most glaring example: the current President has been in power since the coup of 1987. He won elections in 1991 and 1998. In 2000 a constitutional amendment was passed limiting the President to two terms. Yet in 2005 the constitutional courts decided that ,as the law had not explicitly stated that it was retroactive, he could run again. Elections are due in December, and it is expected that the constitutional courts will rule that the decision of 2005 should be taken as the starting point for the new law, that as such he has only served one term under the new rules, and that he can therefore run again. (Update: that is exactly what happened)

It can be questioned how strong the remit of the state is outside the capital Ouagadougou, although a strong military do ensure that the law, at least, is enforced in all areas.

How did we get here?: There were Gur and Mandé based kingdoms in the area by the 16th century at the latest, possibly much earlier. The rival kingdoms became pawns in power games between England and France, and in 1896 the French conquered the whole area for security’s sake. Administration was split between the French colonies of Senegal and Niger. However, the area became known as one of the most troublesome parts of the French Empire and revolts were only crushed with the aid of the largest expeditionary force France had ever assembled. As a result the French decided stronger governance was needed and created a separate new colony – calling it the Upper Volta.

The French developed a policy – called “the cotton policy” – whereby the area would be used to grow cash crops, such as cotton, and a huge road network would be developed to export the goods. The policy was such a  colossal failure that the Upper Volta went bankrupt as an entity and the French disbanded it in 1932 – splitting the land between French Sudan, the Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. However, as part of the cotton policy, powerful indigenous political forces were activated for the first time, and a Burkinan middle class had begun to be formed – which became politically active.

The result of their agitation was that the Upper Volta was reformed in 1947, achieved self-rule in 1958, and full independence in 1960. It started as a democracy, albeit an unstable one, but quickly fell prey to military coups. In total there have been four military coups in the intervening years, interspersed with two reasonably democratic elections. In the most recent coup, in 1987,  Captain Blaise Compaoré deposed the leftist Thomas Sankara (viewed by some as the father of the nation). It is thought he may have had a hand in Sankara’s murder, although these allegations may be the result of mischief making by political opponents. Early Compaoré elections were certainly not fair; they have been getting fairer since but there is a feeling that the opposition – deeply divided in any case – are not really given much of a chance.

Who’s in charge?: Politics is traditionally dominated by two groups between which there is a huge amount of overlap: the Army and the left wing. Compaoré and his appointed Prime Minister Tertius Zongo are fully in charge and can be broadly said to represent both. Their political vessel is the CDC, often described as leftist but in reality more of an umbrella group for vested interests. They have 73 of the 111 seats in the National Assembly and Compaoré won 80% of the vote at the last presidential election (his nearest rival got 4%). (Update, we have just had another presidential election which Compaoré again won on the first round with 80%, the second place improved slightly to 6%. There were worries that low turnout would embarrass the government but in the end it was respectable 55%)

There have been several attempts to form united opposition fronts against Compaoré, but no party is really willing to give up their spots on the ballot paper. As a result the opposition is deeply fragmented. The only other party of any size is the snappily named Alliance for Democracy and Federation – African Democratic Rally. Having struggled as an outright opposition party it now styles itself as a party of constructive criticism and conditional support for the Compaoré regime from a position on the liberal left. They have 14 seats.

In total the other parties got 32% of the vote at the last legislative election – but there are so many hundreds of them that none really profited. 11 parties share the other 24 seats. They are mostly brand new and many come and go with every election. In full the results were: UPR (rural interest group) 5, Union for Rebirth/Sankaraist movement (main outright opposition umbrella group) 4, CFD (alliance of opposition and green groups) 3, Union of Sankaraist Parties (a rival opposition umbrella groups) 2, Socialist Party 2, Rally for the Development of Burkina (a splinter group of the CFD) 2, Party for Democracy and Socialism (a faction of the pro-government PAI) 2, National Rebirth Party (opposition group) 1, PAI (a once huge leftist pro government party) 1, Citizens Popular Rally (opposition group) 1, Union for Democracy and Social Progress (opposition group) 1.

burkina parties


There are also some moderately powerful watchdog and human rights groups. In addition overseas NGOs hold some sway.

What does it look like?: Most of Burkina Faso is undulating Savannah but there is a sandstone massif in the south-west. There are three main rivers: the Black, White and Red Voltas – but only the Black flows all year round and water shortages are a  huge problem.


What are the issues?: Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world and the main concern is keeping body and soul together. One of the main sources of wealth was remittances from relatives working seasonally in Benin, Togo, the Code d’Ivoire and France. France has recently cut down on unskilled migration as part of Sarkozy’s selective migration policy. This has proven hugely unpopular in Burkina Faso and led to this response from Burkinan artists:

Burkina Faso has a huge problem with Female genital mutilation – it is thought up to 75% of women could be affected. It also has a significant problem with HIV infection

A good source of impartial information is: There is no free press in Burkina Faso and little English language press so your best source is probably Afrol news.

A good book is: There are far more books on the subject in French than in English. In English the most recent book is 1999’s Burkina Faso: Unsteady Statehood in West Africa. Le Président Thomas Sankara: Chef de la Révolution Burkinabé : 1983-1987 : portrait is sometimes available in English. It is a very interesting read – although arguably paints a slightly rosy picture of him

When are the next elections?: The legislative will be elected in 2012


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