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Burkina Faso Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in west Africa bordered by Mali to the north and west, Niger to the northeast, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo to the south, and Benin to the southeast. The population of Burkina Faso is 20 million people, the Mossi are Burkina Faso’s largest ethnolinguistic group and make up almost half of the population. Ouagadougou is the capital city and the largest city in the country originating from the powerful Mossi Kingdoms of the 11th century. The country’s official language for government and business is French.

Early history of Burkina Faso

Archaeological evidence suggest that Burkina Faso was populated by hunter-gatherers in the northwestern part of the country sometime between 14000 BC to 5000 BC. An expedition in 1973 would lead to discoveries of chisels, arrowheads, and scrapers believed to have belonged to the hunter-gather inhabitants.

Sometime around 1200 BC when the Iron Age would come to Africa the Bura-Asinda civilization would inhabit modern day Burkina Faso from the 3rd to the about 13th century in the southwest and southeast. Not much is known about the Bura-Asinda civilization except that they were of the Iron Age that existed around the Niger Valley and Bura-Asinda.

Mossi Empire

One of the earliest known Kingdoms and longest lasting of Burkina Faso was the Mossi Empire whose people arrived from the east sometime between the 8th and 12th century. By the 15th century, known for their mastery of horses, the Mossi’s cavalry would go on to conquer most of modern-day Burkina Faso. The Mossi Empire was sophisticated and would go on to develop well-organized city-states throughout the empire with irrigation systems.

The empire was organized into a federation of kingdoms with the Ouagadougou Kingdom being the capital city of the empire. Each kingdom would retain autonomy but shared kinship, military, and ritualistic bonds with one another. Each Kingdom would have a King, ministers, and other officials like the capital city of Ouagadougou. As the empire spread the capital city would appoint kings who were members of the court to the newly conquered lands.

In the 15th century, the Mossi kingdom attracted many gold traders including the Dyula people who were ethnic Mande traders. The Dyula were skilled craftsman, traders, and scholars of Islam who would bring Islam to most of west Africa peacefully. They would settle throughout the kingdom and marry local women and have families and grow to become a large portion of the population. The religion of Islam would begin to take hold throughout the Kingdom.

Being located near so many Islamic states the Mossi Empire developed a mixed religious system where the traditional ancestor-focused rituals would be practiced along with the recognition of Islam as an official religion in the empire.

By the 18th century the Mossi Empire became a regional super-power and economic trading center in west Africa. Foreign trade would increase with other nations including the Islamic nations surrounding the empire. As the Mossi Empire’s power and wealth grew they would get attacked by other regional Islamic powers the Massina Empire and Sokoto Caliphate and begin to lose portions of the Empire.

Colonization of Burkina Faso

By the 19th century European powers would begin incursions inland from their base colonies on the coast of West Africa. British, German, and French colonial rule would surround the Mossi Empire and left the nation with very little options for resistance. By 1896 the French had control of Ouagadougou and merged the Mossi Empire within the French Upper Volta colony.

During the Franco-British Convention of 1898 Burkina Faso’s modern borders were created and by 1904 the French had conquered most of the Volta Basin region and centralized control of the colonies under the French West Africa colony.

During World War I, discontent among local tribes in Mali, just north of Burkina Faso, would set the stage for the Volta-Bani War. The locals would create an army of roughly 15,000 soldiers and fight French occupation for a year. The French would create its largest army in Africa to defeat the rebels. After the conclusion of the rebellion the French created a buffer zone to isolate Mali by separating Burkina Faso into a separate colony called the French Upper Volta. A new governor would be appointed, and massive construction projects would begin to modernize Burkina Faso.

After World War II, France created the French Union, a political entity under the constitution of October 27, 1946. The French Union was created to replace the old colonial ruling system with a system that would assimilate the overseas territories with French citizenship and culture. The territories would be managed by the French Union President and have an assembly of representatives from the different territories. The territories would have their own legislative bodies and self-rule but ultimately power would lay with French parliament.

The French Union would ultimately cede control of the territories after uprisings in the territories, in particular the Algeria colony, which was on the brink of civil war. By the mid-20th century Algerians had become hostel to French settlers and French rule and sought complete independence. On January 31, 1956, the French Union would allow all territories to further develop their own governments, the French Union would ultimately be replaced by the French Community in 1958 which further granted the territories more autonomy and eventually a road-map for complete independence.

Independence of Burkina Faso

The Republic of Upper Volta was established on December 11, 1958 as a self-governing colony under the French Community. Two years later under the leadership of Maurice Yameogo from the Voltaic Democratic Union, the republic would gain full independence from France and hold elections. Maurice Yameogo would become President and ban all political parties except the Voltaic Democratic Union.

After massive protests and strikes by students, labor unions, and civil servants in 1966 the military led by Lt. Col. Sangoule Lamizana would depose Yameogo, the first of many military coups.

Burkina Faso and Capt. Thomas Sankara

Sankara was leader of the leftist wing of the Council of Popular Salvation, he was appointed to Prime Minister in January 1983, his policies would eventually lead to his arrest and another military coup that would free Sankara and appoint him as President. Sankara’s government would go on to rename the country to Burkina Faso and revolutionize regional politics. The government’s foreign policy would be based on anti-imperialism policies that was begun by nationalizing all land and mineral wealth in the country. The country would no longer accept foreign aid/debt with the hopes of reducing political and economic influence by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Sankara launched and ambitious social economic reform programs for change that would include a nationwide literacy program, land redistribution to peasants, building health facilities, vaccination programs for children, outlawing female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy.

On October 15, 1987, a military coup lead by Blaise Compaore, would end Sankara’s ambitious revolution and his life. Compaore aided by the French would seize control of the country, reverse all of Sankara’s policies and would retain power until 2014 when he was forced to resign after protests.

Economy of Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso’s 15 billion-dollar GDP is mostly driven by the agricultural and mining industry. The economy has seen a steady growth of GDP thanks to strong output from the cotton and gold industry. Burkina Faso is the world’s fourth largest producer of gold.


Accounting for almost 30% of GDP and employing 30% of the workforce the farming industry is critical to families in the country. Many crops are produced such as groundnuts, sesame, millet, rice, and sorghum but cotton by the far is the largest and most critical to the country’s exports.


The mining industry which is dominated by state-owned entities accounts for 20% of GDP, employs 30% of the workforce but accounts for the majority of the country’s total export revenue. Gold is the countries largest export product.


The service sector accounts for 44% of GDP and employs almost 40% of the country’s workforce. The banking industry is the largest employer of the service sector.

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