Burkina Faso | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso

Freedom in the World 2007

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After President Blaise Compaore’s reelection in November 2005, his Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party won more than two-thirds of local council seats in Burkina Faso’s first municipal elections in April 2006. In August, an appeals court confirmed the dismissal of charges against the sole suspect in the 1998 murder of internationally recognized journalist Norbert Zongo. The court’s decision to end the protracted struggle to resolve the case prompted domestic and international criticism of Burkina Faso’s judiciary. In late December, a clash between the police and the army left five dead in the capital.

After gaining independence from France in 1960, Burkina Faso suffered a succession of army coups. In 1987, Blaise Compaore, an army captain, mounted a coup against members of a junta that had seized power four years earlier. The populist, charismatic President Thomas Sankara and 13 of his closest associates were murdered, and many more Sankara supporters were executed two years later.

The promulgation of a new constitution in 1991 paved the way for a multiparty system, but widespread violence and an opposition boycott discredited the December 1991 presidential election, which Compaore won by default. He was returned to office for a second seven-year term in November 1998 with nearly 88 percent of the vote.

The December 1998 assassination of Norbert Zongo, a journalist investigating the death of an employee of Compaore’s brother, prompted the formation of a loose coalition of opposition parties, human rights organizations, civic groups, and media representatives whose public protests drew domestic and international attention to the government’s weak commitment to accountable and transparent democracy. An independent investigative body concluded in 1999 that Zongo’s death was linked to his journalistic work and named six members of the Presidential Guard Regiment as serious suspects in the murder, though only one, Marcel Kafondo, was formally charged for the crime.

Political reforms introduced in the wake of Zongo’s death included the creation of an independent electoral commission, the establishment of a single-ballot voting system, the introduction of public financing for parties presenting candidates, and the creation of a third vice presidential position within the National Assembly for the designated opposition leader. These measures contributed to the success of the 2002 National Assembly elections, the first to be conducted without a major opposition boycott. The ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party won 57 of the 111 seats, compared with 101 during the 1997 polls. Opposition parties fared better than they had in any previous elections, capturing the remainder of the seats.

A 2000 constitutional amendment had shortened future presidential terms from seven to five years, and a 2001 amendment limited presidents to two terms in office. However, the ruling CDP maintained that the latter change could not be enforced retroactively and nominated Compaore for a third term in 2005. A total of 12 candidates contested that year’s election, which Compaore won with more than 80 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was less than 60 percent.

Municipal elections took place in April 2006, resulting in the first-time election of local governments for 350 newly created urban and rural municipalities, the final step in a decentralization process begun in the mid-1990s. The CDP won nearly two-thirds of the local council seats. Voter turnout was estimated at less than 50 percent.

In August 2006, the protracted effort to solve the Zongo murder case and bring the perpetrators to justice ended when an appeals court confirmed the July 2006 decision by an investigating judge to dismiss charges against Kafondo and his unknown accomplices (referred to in the case as “X”) for lack of evidence. Zongo’s outraged supporters decried the ruling and claimed that the government never intended the judicial investigation to find the killers. Thousands of people participated in a rally in Ouagadougou in December 2007 to mark Zongo’s death and demand an end to impunity.

Fighting between police forces and army elements in Ouagadougou killed five people in late December. Sparked by the killing of an army soldier by the police, hundreds of prisoners fled police headquarters under military bombardment, and the military later claimed that their actions went beyond retaliation to include grievances over living conditions and retirement packages.

Burkina Faso’s relations with neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, where thousands of Burkinabe and other West African migrant workers have been entangled in an ethno-religious conflict over land and resources, have been strained since the conflict began in 2002. Though the government consistently denies allegations that it supports Ivorian rebels, Burkina Faso is the main market for cocoa, coffee, and cotton from rebel-controlled territory, and rebel leaders regularly visit Ouagadougou. Compaore has sought to play a mediating role in Togo’s political crisis and in 2006 brokered an agreement between the government and opposition political parties as a first step toward the creation of a transitional government and the organization of elections.

Burkina Faso has in the past been cited in reports by the New York–based Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and others as a transshipment point for the region’s illicit trade in small arms and diamonds. However, this trade appears to have declined since the removal from power of former Liberian president Charles Taylor in 2003.

The country is one of the poorest in the world. More than 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, and the economy is highly vulnerable to drought, flooding, and fluctuations in international commodity prices. War in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire has forced landlocked Burkina Faso to use more costly trade routes through the ports of Ghana, Togo, and Benin. The influx of more than 350,000 ethnic Burkinabe from Cote d’Ivoire has strained the country’s weak infrastructure, though no additional returning migrants registered in 2006.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Burkina Faso is not an electoral democracy. The ruling party continues to dominate the country’s politics, and although election observers judged the November 2005 presidential election to be generally credible, they noted the widespread and unfair use of government resources on behalf of the incumbent’s campaign. Observers judged the 2006 municipal elections to be generally free as well, but likewise noted the unfair advantage of ruling party candidates with access to far greater resources than opposition party rivals. According to the constitution, President Blaise Compaore is serving his final term in office; a 2000 amendment shortened the presidential term from seven to five years, meaning he is scheduled to step down in 2010.

The 111 members of the unicameral National Assembly serve five-year terms, and the next legislative elections are scheduled for 2007. The legislature is independent, but susceptible to influence from the executive branch. Opposition parties represented in the National Assembly have failed to coalesce around issues of shared concern, despite their gains in the 2002 elections. The National Assembly’s minority leader supported Compaore’s candidacy in the 2005 presidential election.

There are more than 100 political parties in Burkina Faso. Coalition building among them is difficult as politicians tend to address differences by creating new parties driven by the personal rivalries and ambitions of their leaders. Many parties are characterized by ambiguous political ideologies and platforms of limited substance.

Despite a number of public and private anticorruption initiatives, corruption is a growing problem in Burkina Faso, particularly in the award of public contracts. The judiciary has come under increased scrutiny for its failure to pursue or adequately prosecute corruption cases. Corruption within the police and the customs service is widespread. The Reseau National de Lutte Anti-Corruption (REN-LAC), a nationwide anticorruption network of more than 30 civic organizations, is particularly active in raising awareness and pressing for reform. Burkina Faso was ranked 79 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The country has a relatively free press, though many media outlets practice self-censorship. Freedom of speech is protected by the constitution and generally respected in practice. At least 50 private radio stations, a private television station, and numerous independent newspapers and magazines function with little governmental interference, though all private and public media are under the supervision of the Ministry of Information. There is unrestricted internet access.

Burkina Faso is a secular state, and religious freedom is respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom. Political debate is tolerated, and many groups and individuals openly criticize the government and its policies.

Freedom of assembly is generally upheld, though demonstrations are sometimes suppressed or banned. Many nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups that have reported detailed accounts of abuses by security forces, operate openly and freely. Though only a minority of workers belong to labor unions, the groups engage in collective bargaining and freely stage strikes and demonstrations.

The dismissal of the charges in the Norbert Zongo murder case prompted widespread criticism of Burkina Faso’s judicial system, which is subject to executive interference in politically sensitive cases. Judicial proceedings are hampered by a shortage of resources and citizens’ lack of understanding of their rights. Burkina Faso’s weak judicial system and the recourse to traditional courts in rural areas limit the protection of property rights.

The military and the police act with impunity, and command and control of the armed forces is limited. Police often ignore prescribed limits on detention, search, and seizure, and on occasion have used excessive force that resulted in death. Prison conditions are harsh and include overcrowding, poor diet, and minimal medical attention.

Incidents of discrimination against the country’s various ethnic groups occur but do not appear to be widespread. Disabled persons, homosexuals, and those with HIV/AIDS experience routine discrimination. Burkina Faso’s HIV infection rate is currently 2 percent.

There are no restrictions on travel, residency, or employment, though security forces routinely perform identity checks on travelers and often levy informal road taxes. Membership in the ruling party is advantageous for businesspeople and traders bidding on public contracts. The return of more than 350,000 migrant workers from Cote d’Ivoire has increased competition for jobs and scarce land resources, leading to charges of discrimination. Children, particularly in rural areas, are regularly exploited as farm and domestic workers.

Constitutional and legal protections for women’s rights are poorly understood and enforced. Discrimination against women in education, employment, and property and family rights is commonplace, especially in rural areas. Though the law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, children, especially young girls, are sometimes forced to engage in domestic labor outside their homes without any legal status or formal remuneration. Female genital mutilation is widespread, though the government reports that the practice has decreased by nearly 50 percent since legislation made it a crime in 1996. Abortion is prohibited, with exceptions to preserve the life of the mother or in cases involving rape, incest, or fetal impairment. Burkina Faso is a transit point for the trafficking of women and children, but the government cooperates with international organizations and donor countries to limit these practices.