Burkina Faso | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


A former presidential guard in February 2001 was charged with the 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo in a case that has galvanized civil society to fight against the abuses committed with impunity by security forces. Zongo was killed while investigating the torture-death of a driver who had worked for President Blaise Compaore's brother. Three presidential guards in 2000, including the one charged in Zongo's killing, were sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment for the driver's killing. One died in jail under suspicious circumstances, and the guard sentenced in the Zongo case is reportedly seriously ill. Compaore in April announced a national day of pardon and promised compensation for economic and blood crimes, but rights advocates and the political opposition denounced the gesture because no specific proposals were offered. The government has created several commissions on politics, human rights, and other issues, but few of the recommendations offered have been implemented.

After gaining independence from France in 1960 as Upper Volta, Burkina Faso suffered a succession of army coups. In 1983, Blaise Compaore installed himself as president in a violent coup against members of a junta that had seized power four years earlier and had pursued a watered-down Marxist-Leninist ideology. The populist, charismatic President Thomas Sankara and 13 of his closest associates were murdered. More Sankara supporters were executed two years later.

Burkina Faso has come under widespread criticism for helping fuel the trade in "blood diamonds" by allegedly allowing its territory to be used for illegal arms shipments destined for Sierra Leone and Liberia, and providing support for the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries, although gains have been made in life expectancy, literacy, and school attendance. More than 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture. Remittances from Burkinabe working in Cote d'Ivoire are an important source of income for families.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Burkina Faso's 1991 constitution guarantees its people the right to elect their government freely through periodic multiparty elections. In practice, this right has not been fully realized. Presidential polls in December 1991 were marred by widespread violence and an opposition boycott. President Blaise Compaore was returned to office for a second seven-year term in November 1998 with nearly 88 percent of the vote. The polls were marked by heavy use of state patronage, resources, and media.

Opposition parties and independent observers charged that 1997 legislative elections for five-year national assembly terms were marred by systemic weaknesses. Opposition disunity and electoral rules sharply combined to reduce the opposition's representation in the legislature to well below the 31 percent of the popular vote that opposition parties had received. The ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress took 101 of 111 national assembly seats. The next legislative elections are scheduled for April 2002.

The Independent National Electoral Commission established in May 1998 did not have control over important parts of the electoral process, particularly electoral rolls and voter cards. A new commission was appointed in 2001, headed by an academic who is considered close to the president. It includes five representatives from each sector of the government, civil society, and the opposition. The commission was given more independence through the new electoral code passed by parliament in 2000.

The Burkinabe judiciary is subject to executive interference in political cases, but is more independent in civil and criminal cases. National security laws permit surveillance and arrest without warrants. Police routinely ignore proscribed limits on detention, search, and seizure. Security forces commit abuses with impunity, including torture and occasional extrajudicial killing. Prison conditions are harsh, with overcrowding, poor diets, and minimal medical attention. Many nongovernmental organizations operate openly and freely in Burkina Faso, including human rights groups, which have reported detailed accounts of abuses by security forces. A report by the Organization of African Unity in 2001 criticized Burkina Faso for failing to properly investigate rights violations.

Burkina Faso has a vibrant free press, and freedom of speech is protected by the constitution and generally respected in practice. There is some self-censorship. At least 50 private radio stations, a private television station, and numerous independent newspapers and magazines function with little governmental interference. The media, which are often highly critical of the government, play an important role in public debate. Two journalists of L'Independent newspaper in 2001, however, were briefly detained for investigating the death of a schoolboy who was killed during a demonstration in December 2000. Reporters Sans Frontieres filed a complaint against Compaore in France in 2001, but French authorities dismissed it, citing presidential immunity.

Burkina Faso is a secular state, and religious freedom is respected. Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected and generally respected, with required permits usually issued routinely. However, demonstrations sometimes are violently suppressed or banned. The government outlawed demonstrations in December 2000 and lifted the order in March 2001.

Customary law sanctions discrimination against women and is used by traditional courts to resolve civil and family disputes, especially in rural areas. Constitutional and legal protections for women's rights are nonexistent or poorly enforced. Women's educational and employment opportunities are scarce in the countryside. Female genital mutilation is still widely practiced, even though it is illegal, and a government campaign has been mounted against it. Burkina Faso is used as a transit point for the trafficking of women and children for purposes of forced labor and prostitution, but the government has made an effort to stop this criminal activity, including providing education, making public statements against it, and arresting suspects.

Labor unions and their rights are provided for in the constitution. Several labor confederations and independent unions bargain with employers. They are a strong force in society and have staged strikes about wages, human rights abuses, and the impunity of security forces. A one-day strike by truck drivers in September 2001 halted transportation across the country. It was called to protest the alleged shooting death of a truck driver by a presidential guard.