Until the end of the 19th century, the history of Burkina Faso was dominated by the empire-building Mossi, who are believed to have come from central or eastern Africa sometime in the 11th century. For centuries, the Mossi peasant was both farmer and soldier, and the Mossi people were able to defend their religious beliefs and social structure against forcible attempts to convert them to Islam by Muslims from the northwest.
When the French arrived and claimed the area in 1896, Mossi resistance ended with the capture of their capital at Ouagadougou. In 1919, certain provinces from Cote d'Ivoire were united into a separate colony called the Upper Volta in the French West Africa federation. In 1932, the new colony was dismembered in a move to economize; it was reconstituted in 1937 as an administrative division called the Upper Coast. After World War II, the Mossi renewed their pressure for separate territorial status and on September 4, 1947, Upper Volta became a French West African territory again in its own right.
A revision in the organization of French Overseas Territories began with the passage of the Basic Law (Loi Cadre) of July 23, 1956. This act was followed by reorganizational measures approved by the French parliament early in 1957 that ensured a large degree of self-government for individual territories. Upper Volta became an autonomous republic in the French community on December 11, 1958.
Upper Volta achieved independence on August 5, 1960. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, was the leader of the Voltaic Democratic Union (UDV). The 1960 constitution provided for election by universal suffrage of a president and a national assembly for 5-year terms. Soon after coming to power, Yameogo banned all political parties other than the UDV. The government lasted until 1966 when after much unrest-mass demonstrations and strikes by students, labor unions, and civil servants-the military intervened.
The military coup deposed Yameogo, suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and placed Lt. Col. Aboukar Sangoule Lamizana at the head of a government of senior army officers. The army remained in power for 4 years, and on June 14, 1970, the Voltans ratified a new constitution that established a 4-year transition period toward complete civilian rule. Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s as president of military or mixed civil-military governments. After conflict over the 1970 constitution, a new constitution was written and approved in 1977, and Lamizana was reelected by open elections in 1978.
Lamizana's government faced problems with the country's traditionally powerful trade unions, and on November 25, 1980, Col. Saye Zerbo overthrew President Lamizana in a bloodless coup. Colonel Zerbo established the Military Committee of Recovery for National Progress as the supreme governmental authority, thus eradicating the 1977 constitution.
Colonel Zerbo also encountered resistance from trade unions and was overthrown two years later, on November 7, 1982, by Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP). The CSP continued to ban political parties and organizations, yet promised a transition to civilian rule and a new constitution.
Factional infighting developed between moderates in the CSP and the radicals, led by Capt. Thomas Sankara who was appointed prime minister in January 1983. The internal political struggle and Sankara's leftist rhetoric led to his arrest and subsequent efforts to bring about his release, directed by Capt. Blaise Compaore. This release effort resulted in yet another military coup d'etat on August 4, 1983.
After the coup, Sankara formed the National Council for the Revolution (CNR), with himself as president. Sankara also established Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) to "mobilize the masses" and implement the CNR's revolutionary programs. The CNR, whose exact membership remained secret until the end, contained two small intellectual Marxist-Leninist groups. Sankara, Compaore, Capt. Henri Zongo, and Maj. Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lengani-all leftist military officers-dominated the regime.
On August 4, 1984, Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, meaning "the country of honorable people." Sankara, a charismatic leader, sought by word, deed, and example to mobilize the masses and launch a massive bootstrap development movement. But many of the strict austerity measures taken by Sankara met with growing resistance and disagreement. Despite his initial popularity and personal charisma, problems began to surface in the implementation of the revolutionary ideals.
The CDRs, which were formed as popular mass organizations, deteriorated in some areas into gangs of armed thugs and clashed with several trade unions. Tensions over the repressive tactics of the government and its overall direction mounted steadily. On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup which brought Capt. Blaise Compaore to power.
Compaore, Capt. Henri Zongo, and Maj. Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lengani formed the Popular Front (FP), which pledged to continue and pursue the goals of the revolution and to "rectify" Sankara's "deviations" from the original aims. The new government, realizing the need for popular support, tacitly moderated many of Sankara's policies. As part of a much-discussed political "opening" process, several political organizations, three of them non-Marxist, were accepted under an umbrella political organization created in June 1989 by the FP.
Some members of the leftist Organisation pour le Democratie Populaire/Movement du Travail (ODP/MT) were against the admission of non-Marxist groups in the front. On September 18, 1989, while Compaore was returning from a two-week trip to Asia, Lengani and Zongo were accused of plotting to overthrow the Popular Front. They were arrested and summarily executed the same night. Compaore reorganized the government, appointed several new ministers, and assumed the portfolio of Minister of Defense and Security. On December 23, 1989, a presidential security detail arrested about 30 civilians and military personnel accused of plotting a coup in collaboration with the Burkinabe external opposition.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1998