Freedom in the World 2009


In late February 2008, riots against the high cost of living erupted in several major towns, and the authorities responded with scores of arrests and jail sentences. Fighting at the end of May between farmers and nomads in two southwestern provinces killed 15 people. Security forces also clashed with students at the University of Ouagadougou in June, resulting in the sentencing of four students to jail terms of up to six months. In July, the president signed a five-year development compact worth $481 million with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Burkina Faso experienced a series of military coups after gaining independence from France in 1960. In 1987, Thomas Sankara, a populist president who had risen to power through a coup in 1983, was ousted by army captain Blaise Compaore; Sankara and several of his supporters were killed. In 1991, a democratic constitution was approved in a referendum, and Compaore easily won that year’s presidential election due to an opposition boycott. Compaore secured another seven-year term in the November 1998 election.

The government undertook a series of political reforms after 1998, including the introduction of an independent electoral commission, a single-ballot voting system, public campaign financing, and a third vice presidential position in the legislature for the opposition leader. However, in December 1998, Norbert Zongo, a journalist investigating the death of an employee of Compaore’s brother, was assassinated. An independent investigative body concluded in 1999 that Zongo’s murder was linked to his reporting and identified six members of the presidential guard as suspects. Only one suspect was charged, and an appeals court dismissed the charges in August 2006, citing a lack of evidence.

The 2002 National Assembly elections were the first conducted without a significant opposition boycott. Compaore’s Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party won only 57 of the National Assembly’s 111 seats, compared with 101 in 1997. In 2000, a constitutional amendment had shortened presidential terms from seven to five years, and a 2001 amendment had limited presidents to two terms in office. However, the CDP argued that the latter change was not retroactive, and Compaore secured a third term in 2005. The country’s first municipal elections were held in 2006, with the CDP capturing nearly two-thirds of the local council seats. The CDP gained 16 seats in the May 2007 National Assembly elections, for a total of 73, while the largest opposition party, the Alliance for Democracy and Federation–African Democratic Rally (ADF-RDA) lost three seats, for a total of 14.

Civil unrest over the high cost of living erupted in late February 2008, following several months of price increases ranging from 10 to 65 percent. A two-day protest started on February 20 in the western city of Bobo-Dioulasso, with some protesters engaging in looting and property damage, leading to as many as 264 arrests. Mass demonstrations spread to other cities on February 21. The government on February 27 suspended taxes on certain imported food staples, but fresh riots broke out the next day in Ouagadougou due to public dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to lower import taxes rather than the prices of basic locally produced goods. Authorities arrested up to 184 protesters, according to some reports.

A court in Bobo-Dioulasso sentenced 29 riot suspects to between three and 36 months in prison on February 29. On March 11, a court in Ouagadougou sentenced Thibault Nana, leader of the small opposition Democratic and Popular Rally (RDP) party, to three years in prison for allegedly orchestrating the protests and 44 others to one year each for involvement in the unrest. Thousands protested again on March 15 in Ouagadougou and other towns against the high cost of living, but the demonstrations were peaceful and there were no reported arrests. Assane Sawadogo, the minister of security, was dismissed in September after facing criticism for his harsh response to the February riots.

Separately, clashes between farmers and nomads at the end of May in Poni and Bougouriba provinces in the southwest killed 15 people. The violence was ignited by the death of two farmers who were in police custody for previous involvement in clashes with nomads. In June, an unauthorized protest by students from the University of Ouagadougou ended in clashes with security forces. While 35 students were arrested, all but four were later acquitted, with the remainder receiving six-month jail sentences.

Compaore in July signed a five-year, $481 million development aid compact with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. The funds would be devoted to improvements in land security, agriculture, roads, and primary education. Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, and approximately 85 percent of the population engages in subsistence agriculture. The economy is highly dependent on cotton exports, leaving it vulnerable to poor harvests and fluctuations in global prices.

Officials from Burkina Faso and Benin reached an agreement in March to end a long-standing border dispute over a 68-square-kilometer area of land. The agreement bars either side from engaging in any “visible sovereignty act” in the disputed area, and residents will be permitted to vote in either country. In a sign of improving relations with Cote d’Ivoire, that country’s president, Laurent Gbagbo, addressed the Burkinabe parliament during a three-day visit in July. Tensions had developed between the two countries over accusations by Ivorian authorities that Burkina Faso had backed rebels in the country’s north, and over accusations that Burkinabe living in Cote d’Ivoire experienced mistreatment.

Also during the year, several hundred Malian refugees fled fighting between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, settling in Ouagadougou and in camps near the Malian border.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Burkina Faso is not an electoral democracy. International monitors have judged the most recent presidential, municipal, and legislative elections to be generally free but not entirely fair, due to the ruling CDP’s privileged access to state resources and the media. President Blaise Compaore is currently serving his final five-year term in office and will step down in 2010. The 111-seat National Assembly is unicameral, and members serve five-year terms. The legislature is independent but subject to executive influence.

The constitution guarantees the right to form political parties, and 13 parties are currently represented in the legislature. Opposition members have been critical of 2004 revisions to the electoral code, which tripled the number of electoral districts, saying the new system favors larger parties. Many parties have unclear ideologies, and while some private media outlets have organized political debates, opposition candidates’ access to the state media is limited.

Corruption remains widespread, despite a number of public and private anticorruption initiatives. The courts have been unwilling or unable to adequately prosecute many senior officials charged with corruption. However, the National Network to Fight Against Corruption (RENLAC) has been successful in raising awareness of the problem. Burkina Faso was ranked 80 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected, many media outlets practice self-censorship. Journalists occasionally face criminal libel prosecutions, death threats, and other forms of harassment and intimidation.There are over 50 private radio stations, a private television station, and several independent newspapers, and the government does not restrict internet access.

Burkina Faso is a secular state, and freedom of religion is respected. Academic freedom is also unrestricted.

The constitution provides for the right to assemble, though demonstrations are sometimes suppressed or banned, as evidenced by the authorities’ crackdown on protests in 2008. Many nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups that have reported abuses by security forces, operate openly and freely. The constitution guarantees the right to strike, and unions are able to engage freely in strikes and collective bargaining, although only a minority of the workforce is unionized. In April, the General Confederation of Burkinabe Workers (CGTB) organized a two-day general strike by both public- and private-sector workers to protest the high cost of living.

The judicial system is formally independent, but it is subject to executive influence and corruption. The judiciary is further weakened by a lack of resources and citizens’ poor knowledge of their rights. Although the right to own property is legally guaranteed, the inadequate judicial system and the recourse to traditional courts in rural areas limit this right in practice.

Human rights advocates in Burkina Faso have repeatedly criticized the military and police for acting with impunity. Police often use excessive force and disregard pretrial detention limits. Prison conditions are harsh.

Discrimination against members of Burkina Faso’s various ethnic minorities occurs but is not widespread. However, the disabled, homosexuals, and those infected with HIV routinely experience discrimination. The HIV prevalence rate is currently just under 2 percent.

The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, although security checks on travelers are common. Equality of opportunity is hampered in part by the advantages conferred on CDP members, who receive preferential treatment in securing public contracts.

Discrimination on the basis of gender is prohibited, but women’s rights are not consistently upheld in practice. Discrimination against women is common in employment, education, property, and family rights, particularly in rural areas. Unpaid child labor is illegal but common. Female genital mutilation still occurs, though it was banned in 1996. A provincial court in May 2008 sentenced a woman to two years in prison for carrying out the procedure on 14 young girls, and the girls’ mothers received one-year suspended sentences. Burkina Faso is a source, transit, and destination country for trafficking in women and children, who are subject to forced labor and sexual exploitation. The government criminalized child trafficking in 2003 and doubled the maximum prison term for traffickers to 10 years in May 2008. However, adult trafficking is still not prohibited, and sentences for convicted traffickers often lack severity.

2009 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights