San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Economic History of Burkina Faso

Up until August of 1984 Burkina Faso was known as Upper Volta. As Upper Volta and as Burkina Faso this state has been politically unstable. The civilian government of General Sangoulé Lamizana was overthrown by a military coup d'état in November of 1980. In the next seven years there were four more coups d'état. These coups d'état were:

DateLeaderName of Subsequent
Leadership Group
November 25, 1980Colonel Zaye ZerboComité Militaire pour le Redressment Politique NationalCMRPN
November 7, 1982Commandant Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo Conseil de Salut du PeupleCSP
August 4, 1983Captain Thomas Sankara Conseil National de RévolutionCNR
October 15, 1987Captain Blaise CompaoréFront Populaire FP

It is notable that the military rank of the government leaders descended from general to captain. It is also notable that Captain Blaise Compaoré was Captain Thomas Sankara's second in command.

The nation was not always so politically unstable. In fact, Upper Volta was notable among West African countries for its pattern of democratic government and political freedom. It emerged at independence with one core region, Moogho, which was the remnant of the Mossi Empire. This core region tended to dominate national politics. The peripheral elements of the state were the village and lineage groups. These included the traditional chieftancies. Thus there was from the very beginning the struggle between the centrists and the federationalist; i.e., those who wanted the central government to be all powerful and those who wanted the local, regional elements to have autonomy and power.

The First Republic

Upper Volta achieved independence from France in 1960. Maurice Yaméogo, a member of the Gossi ethnic group, was the first leader. His party was the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA).

Maurice Yaméogo, tried to take power away from the chieftains by such tactics as:

Yaméogo not only tried to remove the power and the role of the chieftains, he tried to take away the autonomy of the labor unions. The unions were too powerful for Yaméogo and ultimately they defeated him. On January 6, 1966 the labor unions, through the public protests, they organized forced Yaméogo to retire. Thus ended, at least temporarily, the drive to centralize all political power in the hands of the leader of the central government and maintan single-party control of the country.

The Second and Third Republics

Yaméogo was replaced by General Sangoulé Lamizana. Lamizana allowed multiple political parties to operate and for the labor unions to maintain their traditional autonomy. Instead of the single-party, totalitarian state that his predecessor was trying to create, Sangoulé Lamizana organized a corporatist state in which the major interest groups such as the chieftains had some political influence in the decision-making of the government. The military held the positions of leadership but functioned as the agents of coordination for the corporatist complex of interest groups. Sangoulé Lamizana's government continued until November of 1980.In the 1970's the government adopted a policy of Voltaization; i.e. giving preferential treatment for Upper Volta businesses in trade and government policy. There was also a brief attmpt in 1975 to institute a single-party regime, but it did not last. The Lamizana government returned to pluralistic politics. The negotiating government of Sangoulé Lamizana was perceived of as an over-staffed but weak government. In particular, the Lamizana government was perceived to have given too much attention to the needs of the existing organized interest groups and not enough attention to the needs of the peasants who constituted about 95 percent of the population.

The Road to Radical Collectivism

The governments of Zerbo and Ouedraogo were more interventionist than the Lamizana government.

The government of Thomas Sankara which replaced Ouedraogo was more-or-less explicitly Marxist, almost Maoist in its concern for the peasantry. In a sense the govermnents of Zerbo and Ouedraogo were transition government on the way to the radically totalitarian government of Sankara. Sankara's regime was characterized by a radical institutional revolution carried out by a younger set of leaders.

The Socio-Political Radicalization of Burkina Faso

One of the first things the Sankara regime did was to set up tribunals, Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, to try people accused of corruption and misappropriation of public funds.

Their were about thirty thousand public employees. This level of bureaucracy was a drain on the limited funds of the government so Sankara's Conseil National de Révolution (CNR) promulgated a set of policies for reducing the national government's budget. These policies included the reduction of subsidies and the limits on wages for government employees. The tribunals and the policies for reducing the government budget were not radical policy measures.

The program for dealing with the problems of agriculture were more in the nature of collectivism. The problems of agriculture in Burkina Faso in the 1980's were extreme. Burkina Faso is in a zone of marginal agriculture. Droughts reduced production of millet and sorghum in the east and central regions. Even without reduced production the stock raisers were suffering from low cattle prices due to higher production in Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

Sankara and his CNR thought the solution to the peasants' problems were in programs of collectivization, democratic control structures, scientific exploitation and grand projects. In addition to measures having the ultimate goal of the collectivization of agriculture the Sankara regime undertook some less radical, more sensible measures to better the lot of the peasants. The produce of the peasantry was often purchased by state product marketing boards. The state purchased from the peasants at a lower price and marketed the product at a higher price. The difference in these prices constituted a tax on the peasants. Sankara's regime proposed to increase the price paid to the peasants. It also proposed to reduce the poll tax. Thus the regime proposed to improve the lot of the peasants by reducing the taxes imposed upon them.

There had been an intention to create a stock of produce such as grains that could be used to smooth out the rate at which the agricultural produce would be put on the market. But, as other governments around the world have found, it is very difficult politically to accutually use the accumulated surplus to moderate higher prices. Also the measures to benefit peasants by reducing the taxes have an impact on the government budget. If no other funds are found for the government programs then there is the loss of the results of those programs and the loss of the employment such programs provide. And there is always the risk that the reduction of taxes is compensated for by the creation of money and the concomitant inflation.

The Sankara regime also continued the ongoing battle of the central government with the chieftancies. The Sankara regime on the second day of its existence characterized the traditional hierarchy of chieftains as "the number one danger to the Revolution." But it was not easy and beneficial to the peasantry to destroy their traditional socio-political hierarchies. The CNR tried to surplant the traditional hierarchy by creating in every village a Popular Tribunal of Conciliation to prosecuted anti-social behavior, even when such behavior was not defined by law. These tribunal could confiscate land and livestock as punishment. They could even impose collective punishment on an entire village.

When a previously tribal or feudal state institutes nominally socialistic institutions this is usually interpreted as being progressive. In reality what this indicates is how close the socialist mode of thinking is to tribalism and feudalism. Tribalism was the ultimate collectivism.

Tribalism is not without its virtues and strengths. It sustained the human race for hundreds of thousands of years. But tribalism cannot raise the standard of living of humans above the level it achieved before the agricultural revolution.

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