By the 14th century the territory of present-day Burkina Faso was occupied by the Bobo, Lobi, Gourounsi and the Mossi. The Mossi, who now make up almost half of Burkina Faso’s population, founded their first kingdom more than 500 years ago in Ouagadougou. Three more Mossi states ruled over the remainder of the country, known for their devastating attacks against the Muslim empires in Mali.
During the Scramble for Africa in the second half of the 19th century, the French broke up the traditional Mossi states, but French rule in Upper Volta, as Burkina Faso was then known, saw money and resources go elsewhere. By the time that independence came in 1960, Upper Volta was neglected, desperately poor and had become little more than a repository for forced labour.
Maurice Yaméogo, Upper Volta’s first president, proved to be an autocratic ruler more adept at consolidating his own power than managing the challenges of the fledgling state. Between 1966 and 1982 Upper Volta suffered a cycle of coups and counter-coups and the country stagnated. In November 1982 Captain Thomas Sankara, an ambitious young left-wing military star, seized power.
Over the next four years ‘Thom Sank’ (as he was popularly known) recast the country. He changed its name to Burkina Faso (meaning ‘Land of the Incorruptible’), restructured the economy to promote self-reliance in rural areas, launched literacy and immunisation drives and tackled corruption with rare zeal. The economy improved, financial books were kept in good order and people developed a genuine pride in their country. In December 1985 Sankara engaged the country in a five-day war with Mali, which merely enhanced his appeal among ordinary Burkinabés.
Despite his popularity, in late 1987 a group of junior officers seized power; Sankara was taken outside Ouagadougou and shot.
The new junta was headed by Captain Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s former friend and co-revolutionary, and son-in-law of Côte d’Ivoire’s long-standing leader, the late Houphouët-Boigny. In late 1991 Compaoré achieved a modicum of legitimacy when, as sole candidate and on a low turnout, he was elected president. Clément Ouédraogo, the leading opposition figure, was assassinated a couple of weeks later.
In disputed legislative and presidential elections in 1997 and 1998, the president and his supporters won more than 85% of the vote. Since 2000 President Compaoré has been accused of involvement in the trade of illegal diamonds, and of meddling in the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.
Burkina Faso remains one of the more stable countries in the region, although rumblings of discontent continue. Street demonstrations in April 2000 forced the government to draft a constitutional amendment that limits presidents to two terms. Arguing that the two-term limit did not apply to terms served before the amendment was passed, and with the opposition divided, President Compaoré won re-election on 13 November 2005 with 80% of the vote.