Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country in western African, sharing borders with Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire. Slightly larger than the state of Colorado, Burkina Faso consists mainly of flat, occasionally undulating plains undercut with branches of the Volta River (Black, Red, and White). The branches of the Volta are not navigable by large commercial vessels.
In contrast with its southern neighbors Burkina Faso is poorly endowed with natural resources, has very limited rainfall, and has no coastal access. Small deposits of gold, manganese, copper, nickel, and silver exist, but the known quantities have not been of sufficient size to interest any significant international investment.
Over sixty distinct ethnic groups comprise the population of Burkina Faso; of these, the Mossi represent over 50% of the population. The nation is composed of a variety of religious groups; 50% are Muslim, 10% are Christian, and the remaining 40% are of indigenous animist faiths.
Per capita income is one of the lowest in the world; 2001 income estimates by the World Bank are listed at $210 US per day. Due to the lack of employment opportunities in Burkina Faso, many citizens migrate on a seasonal basis to nearby countries, such as Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. On the Human Development Index scale developed by the United Nations Development Programme, Burkina Faso scored 171st out of 176 nations.
As to be expected in a nation with such a low income, social indicators are generally poor. The nation has a literacy rate of only 19%, and life expectancy is a mere 45 years. The infant mortality rate is over 10%, and the rate of access to safe water is estimated at only 42%.
Health care in Burkina Faso is virtually non-existent; there are only 3 physicians per 100,000 people. Due to the structural adjustment program implemented by the government under the watchful eye of the IMF, health care spending has declined in the past ten years. This, coupled with West Africa’s 2nd –highest AIDS rate (officially, 6.9%; unofficial estimates exceed 10% of persons 18-54), has driven life expectancy down to 45, from 47 in 1990.
Over 90% of the population is involved in subsistence agriculture and nomadic stock keeping; however, only 13% of its area consists of arable land, and nearly 45% of the nation consists of arid and semiarid terrain. The Sahel (Arabic for “shore”, likening the southern boundary of the Sahara to the shore of a great sea) comprises the northern third of the country.
Recent droughts have negatively impacted agricultural activities; the nation has also been faced with several major insect plagues in the past ten years. Overgrazing, soil degradation and deforestation also present environmental problems; the Sahel region is in danger of becoming incapable of supporting future agricultural endeavors.
Left: Thomas Sankara, courtesy of BBC.
On August 4, 1984, Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso, meaning "the land of honorable people." Thomas Sankara, a charismatic socialist, sought to mobilize the masses and launch a massive bootstrap development movement. Sankara was venerated by the Burkinabe for imploring them to embrace and be proud of their African identity. For example, he made a point of eating local dishes on national television instead of avoiding them in favor of Western recipes.
Sankara was a proponent for a radical debt initiative: debt cancellation. In the following passage, he outlined his philosophy on African debt to Western concerns:
The debt problem needs to be analyzed starting from its origins. Those who lent money to us are the same people who colonized us, are the same who so long managed our states and our economies; they indebted Afrika with `donations' of money. We were not involved in the creation of this debt, so we should not pay it... In today's shape, controlled and dominated by imperialism, the foreign debt is a well-organized tool of colonial re-conquest: in order to make the Afrikan economy a slave of those who were so clever as to give us capital with the obligation of reimbursing them. We are asked to reimburse our debt. But if we do not pay, the capital lenders will not die; if we pay, we will die. We cannot pay; and we don't want to pay.
Thomas Sankara envisioned for Burkina Faso a nation that would become self-sufficient, not beholden to Western financial interests. IMF overtures were rejected; instead, his energy was focused upon agricultural price supports and domestic textile initiatives. By building a more stable agricultural base, he reasoned, Burkina Faso would be on better footing in the world marketplace. Author David Richards describes the Sankara era in this fashion:
Sankara took his idealism seriously. Reckoned the world’s poorest president, his most valuable possessions were a car, a refrigerator and four bicycles. Intrusive Coca-Cola culture was confronted by using African dance, music, film and popular theatre to raise awareness of key issues. Health posts were set up. Improved farming and soil conservation were promoted under the slogan of a ‘Green Burkina’. An innovative renewal programme gave the urban poor legal protection, provided basic amenities and encouraged self-help work. Women were given rights to property, credit facilities and access to literacy programmes.
However, many of the austerity measures taken by Sankara met with growing resistance and disagreement; in particular, his anti-corruption programs alienated him from government bureaucrats. In spite his initial esteem and personal charisma, problems began to surface in the implementation of the revolutionary ideals. The Committees for Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs, which were formed as popular mass political organizations, deteriorated in some areas into gangs of armed thugs; violence grew unabated, often clashing with trade unions. On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup that brought Blaise Compaore to power.
Left: Blaise Compaore, courtesy of BBC
Compaore formed the Popular Front (FP), which pledged to continue the goals of the revolution, thus rectifying Sankara's “deviations” from the original neo-Marxist aims. The new administration, realizing the need for popular support, tacitly moderated many of Sankara's policies; thus, as part of a much-discussed political "opening" process, numerous political organizations (three of them non-Marxist) were accepted under an umbrella political organization created in June 1989. By the end of the year, Compaore had officially eschewed himself from Marxist doctrine.
Compaore’s presidential position was officially recognized in 1991, following his unopposed election. During the years subsequent to the vote, Compaore has publicly created the impression of broadening his base of support. Compaore won the 1998 presidential election as well, earning a second seven-year term against weak opposition from two minor party candidates. However, the major opposition parties boycotted the election.
Interestingly, Compaore received an additional benefit in 1998; legislation was passed granting the President an unlimited term of office. The effect of this legislation, known as Article 37, essentially makes Blaise Compaore President-for-Life.
There continues to be a climate of political violence in Burkina Faso; while direct ties to Compaore have not been established, it is safe to say that people who are outspoken against government policies have a habit of turning up dead. Most notable among the series of political murders was that of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was killed along with companions in December 1998.
Left: Former Liberian president Charles Taylor
Compaore has also been very active in regional instability; he provided significant funding, arms, and soldiers to his good friend Charles Taylor in Taylor’s overthrow of the Liberian government in 1990. Taylor, who had been jailed for embezzlement until his escape from a US prison in 1984, has garnered the nickname of “The Butcher of Liberia” for the brutality exhibited by his soldiers.
President Compaore has also been implicated in rebel movements in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Angola, and Sierra Leone. It is not clear if Compaore’s actions are indicative of greater regional ambitions, but he is certainly not known as a force of unity, harmony, and leadership in West Africa.
Compaore, due to his courtship with the IMF and Western powers, has significant international backing. However, his domestic support is less than stellar; the CDP took only 57 of 111 seats in 2002 parliamentary elections. The 2002 elections were the first in which major opposition parties chose to end their boycotts. However, in typical Compaore fashion, all opposition was excluded from government minister posts; the nation continues to be dominated by Blaise Compaore.
Living conditions in Burkina Faso have worsened during the period of the IMF’s structural adjustment program implementation. Life expectancy has fallen from 47 to 45 years of age, literacy rates have remained at approximately 20%, and access to safe water has not improved significantly during this time period (1991-2001).
In addition, Burkina Faso’s external debt has risen by 67.8% in this ten-year period. Much of the new debt is simply borrowing to pay older loans or to lower regular debt service; the policy of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” has been the modus operandi for the past decade. By the year 2010, the IMF itself projects that debt will equal GDP.
This projection also includes the IMF’s rather rosy 10-year growth projections; during the period from 2000-2010, the IMF is projecting a 5.6% annual growth rate. Considering that the nation grew at an annual rate of 3.9% during the 1990’s, this seems to be an overly optimistic assessment. This buoyancy is doubly specious when considering the lethargic state of the world cotton market. Most of the growth in the 1990’s occurred before 1996; in fact, in the period from 1999-2001, the growth rate was only 2.9%.
Left: Burkinabe cotton farmer, courtesy of World Bank.
Interestingly, the IMF projects a 5.5% increase in exports from 2000-2010. One wonders what, given the stagnant cotton market, the Burkinabe will export that can generate this type of export growth. With little capital and foreign investment, Burkina Faso cannot make any rapid adjustments to a changing world market. Periphery nations like Burkina Faso find themselves in dire straits when their principal commodity is hammered by falling prices.
It is absurd to suggest that Burkina Faso can compete in the world marketplace under current conditions. The huge advantage given to US cotton producers prevents the Burkinabe from even playing on a level playing field.
The prospects for change in Burkina Faso are not promising under the current regime. Blaise Compaore has demonstrated that his primary concern is for the maintenance of his own power; many in Burkina Faso and West Africa view him as a puppet of the West.
Some form of permanent debt cancellation is the only realistic way for nations like Burkina Faso to extricate themselves from the web of debt entanglement. Whether this takes the form of international agreement, such as proposals to create bankruptcy procedures for impoverished nations, or unilateral debt repudiation by Burkina Faso, the situation cannot continue ad infinitum.