Burkina Faso | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Burkina Faso received an upward trend arrow due to the holding of legislative elections that were more free and fair than in previous years.


Burkina Faso in 2002 was bracing for the possible influx of up to two million Burkinabe who have been working in neighboring Cote d'Ivoire. Burkinabe, Muslims, and members of northern Ivorian ethnic groups were among those being targeted after Cote d'Ivoire accused Burkina Faso of supporting mutinous Ivorian soldiers. The rebellious troops had seized much of the northern region of Cote d'Ivoire following a failed coup attempt in September 2002. Burkina Faso denied that it had supported the rebellion. A sudden repatriation of Burkinabe would have a devastating effect on Burkina Faso's economy, straining limited resources and cutting off remittances used to support families. In May 2002, the country held legislative elections that were considered more free and fair than previous polls. Opposition parties made significant gains.

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 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.

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 election was marked by heavy use of state patronage, resources, and media by the ruling party.

The 2002 National Assembly elections were overseen by the reconstituted Independent National Electoral Commission and were considered among the most free and fair polls in Burkina Faso to date. The commission includes representatives from the government, civil society, and the opposition. The 2002 polls marked the first time that a simple ballot was used in voting, which was a measure that opposition parties had urged for several years. The ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress party won 57 of the 111 National Assembly seats, compared with 101 during the 1997 polls. Opposition parties in 2002 fared better than they had any time previously.

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 prescribed 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, including human rights groups, which have reported detailed accounts of abuses by security forces, operate openly and freely. The London-based human rights group Amnesty International, in February 2002, called for an investigation into allegations that more than 100 people had been killed extrajudicially in a crackdown on suspected criminals. Authorities acknowledged there had been killings but said the deaths occurred during shoot-outs.

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.

There has been less press repression since demands began for an investigation into the 1998 murder of prominent journalist Norbert Zongo. His death galvanized civil society to fight against the abuses committed by the country's security forces. A former presidential guard in 2001 was charged with Zongo's murder. Zongo was killed while investigating the torture death of a driver who had worked for President Compaore's brother. Three presidential guards, including the one charged in Zongo's killing, were sentenced to between 10 and 20 years of imprisonment for the driver's killing.

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 are sometimes violently suppressed or banned altogether.

Constitutional and legal protections for women's rights are nonexistent or poorly enforced. Customary law sanctions discrimination against women. 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.

Labor unions and their rights are provided for in the constitution. Unions are a strong force in society and routinely stage strikes about wages, human rights abuses, and the impunity of security forces.