Much fought over by the French and British in the past, French is now the predominant language (another bequest of colonialism, this loss of native language; alongside the loss of native culture, native tradition, and thereby native identity – no wonder Africa is in such a mess). Under the French it was called Upper Volta, and gained independence under that name in 1958. And then a typical tale of independence. First (1960) a constitution based on universal suffrage and multiple parties, with a president and a national assembly. Then (1961) the first President Yaméogo banned all political parties except his own UDV (Union Democratique Voltaique). That despotism lasted six years, and was overthrown by an even more thoroughly democratic military coup. Its leader then declared himself a civilian, instituted a new constitution, stood for President, and ruled until 1980, when it was his turn to be overthrown by a military coup, which established the Military Committee of Recovery for National Progress, until it was overthrown in a coup by the Council of Popular Salvation, who of course promised a return to constitutional government and free elections while maintaining the ban on all other political parties except their own. Enough already!
On the subject of national identity being dependent upon a shared historic language, in 1984 Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, combining one word of Mossi origin with another of Mande origin, a delightful approach to inclusiveness of all the country’s many ethnic groups. A more idealistic choice cannot be imagined, as the name translates as "the land of honest people". And no doubt it does apply to many ordinary people. If only it could be applied to the political leaders too.
Another military coup in 1987 brought Blaise Compaoré to power, where he still sits today (June 2014), immensely wealthy in spite of the fact that his country has few resources (gold and cotton mostly) and its population mostly live in dire poverty (the UN rates it as the world’s 3rd poorest). Credit to Compaoré that he has brought back a multi-party national assembly, but the constitution gives supreme power to the President, who holds office for seven years, and no limit to the number of times he can hold that office.
[Update, October 30th 2014 - it looks like the people have overthrown him. The Parliament is burning, a state of emergency has been declared, the army have taken power…and now, the following morning, Beau Blaise has resigned, and fled…and army chief Navere Honore Traore has taken over…only for a putsch the same day to remove him, and now its Lt-Col Isaac Zida who’s in charge. He claims that he only intends to be an interim ruler, with elections to be held within the year...we shall have to wait and see.]
[Update, January 28th, 2015 - given the current turmoils in any number of African countries, Burkina Faso clearly is not high on the United States list of priorities, as the CIA website still believes that Beau Blaise is in power, and ranks among its concerns that he may try to stand for office once again in 2015. Amnesty International is still calling for an investigation into the manner in which Blaise's police and presidential guard reacted to the protests that brought him down, killing at least ten and wounding hundreds more. The British Foreign office is still running a travel alert, advising against all travel to the area of Burkina Faso north of the town of Boulsa and against all but essential travel to the rest of the country. Clearly they know something that they haven't told the Americans yet.]
[Further update, September 2015: another coup, this time by the Presidential Guard, but within days the army has seized back control from its own elite corps, and as I write this on the 29th of the month there is artillery fire at the barracks where the Presidential Guard are housed, a suggestion that their agreement to surrender has been abrogated or rescinded.]
Clearly Burkina Fasso is not a place for tourists at the moment, but if eventually you do manage to get there, make sure you visit the extraordinary Sindou Peaks, and even more the Grand Mosque, in Bobo Dioulasso, the country's second city after the capital after Ouagadougou.
Marks For: -3 (based on the number of coups in just this space of writing)
Marks Against: sorry, but I don't have that many fingers
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