History of Burkina Faso

The history of Burkina Faso is one of the great tragedies of Africa, and, indeed, the world.

The region was once part of the mighty Mossi empire, which ruled over a mostly orderly and vibrant population. As elsewhere in Africa, Europeans—in this case, primarily the French—destroyed all that, and their destruction continues to this day. Life expectancy in Burkina Faso is somewhere around 45 years. Nonetheless, Burkina Faso’s now-independent 11 million people have succeeded in building a culture whose films, music, and other art have garnered international acclaim.

History of Burkina Faso Before European Conquest

While Burkina Faso is a new country resulting from the European slicing and dicing of Africa, its people have much deeper roots. Very many, though not quite most, of Burkina Faso’s people are descendents of the Mossi empire.

The Mossi empire was founded over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. Ghanan cavalry soldiers overran the existing people, uniting them in a new empire. The new Mossi empire was one of the few places in norther sub-Saharan Africa to resist being overrun by Moslem peoples. To this day, Muslims are a minority in Burkina Faso, which has a variety of religions, both indigenous, and Christian and Muslim.

The Mossi empire, unlike other African empires, was hierarchical. The king was declared divine. A ruling nobility cherished their lineage, and ran the empire through numerous prestigious offices, including courts, ministeries, and the cavalry-dominated military.

However, this strength did not last forever, and within a few centuries, the empire starting atomizing into smaller kingdoms, which were eventually conquered by the neighboring Songhai empire.

French Colonization

Still, the Mossi kingdoms were able to resist being taken over body and soul by European aggression, the way so many other African peoples had. They very nearly managed to avoid colonization straight through WWI, which market the end of the Europe’s ruthless grab for territory. But not quite. In 1896, the French took over one of the Mossi kingdoms, Ouagadougou. By 1904, the French had conquered the entire Mossi realm, and incorporated it into the colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger.

The French ruthlessly carved up the old Mossi realm as though it no longer had any existence, setting the stage for political instability that still plagues Africa today. Parts of the Upper Volta, as the Mossi region came to be known, were given to Mali, Niger, and Cote d’Ivoire. The French also took many of the Mossi area’s people to work on plantations in Cote d’Ivoire, further destabilizing the region and destroying long-standing political units.

The new Upper Volta was one of the least important of the French African colonies. Cote d’Ivoire, as its name, Ivory Coast, might imply, was the rich man of the region—or at least, the richest place for the French to rob.


Upper Volta was one of the first African colonies to demand independence in the 1950s, during which many of the world’s colonies sought to throw off the shackles of their European overlords, who had been severely weakened in WWII.

In 1960, the ethnically Mossi man, Maurice Yameogo, became the country’s first president, as the result of a democratic election. However, Yameogo did a very bad job; corruption boomed, the economy tanked, and the population rioted and demonstrated against him.

In 1966, the military led a coup that removed Yameogo. For the next two decades, political stability was a pipe dream in the Upper Volta, as coup after coup wracked the country.

In the 1980s, Captain Thomas Sankara took over. A young socialist firmly in the left wing, Sankara ushered in a social revolution. He renamed the Upper Volta Burkina Faso, which meant, "the country of the honest," or, translated differently, "the country of incorruptibles." He rapidly had every child in the country immunized against measles and yellow fever, brought local doctors to rural villages, cut back on corruption, built over 350 schools, and began building a railroad to neighboring Niger.

The traditional elite could not tolerate this, especially when Sankara cut ministerial salaries by 25% and undermined traditional tribal leaders by communicating directly with the populace.

Europe, the US, and other powerful countries were none too happy that their old cronies were being supplanted, nor were they happy that Sankara railed against the continuing legacy of Western imperialism, and established normal relations with Libya.

Sankara's comrade and close advisor, Captain Blaise Campaoré, led a coup that ended with Sankara being shot. Campaoré rolled back all the reforms, taking away food subsidies to restore the old salaries of government officials.

Nonetheless, the new government failed to win broad international support, the US in particular upset that Burkina Faso maintained relationships with another neighbor, Liberia. The populace, meanwhile, still misses Sankara.

Meanwhile, Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war has created problems for Burkina Faso. The southern region of the country, which borders Cote d’Ivoire, has not only had to handle an influx of refugees, but has also seen its economy diminish as trade with the strife-ridden neighbor has fallen.

All this has only worsened the country’s poverty, which has never really abated since the time of French colonization, and in many ways has only gotten worse. Even as Burkina Faso’s art and culture are gaining a wider audience thanks to renewed international interest in Africa, most people here can expect a hard-scrabble life that will likely end before they turn fifty.

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