Freedom in the World
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In elections for the National Assembly in May 2007, President Blaise Compaore’s Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) party increased its representation by 16 seats, winning 73 of the legislature’s 111 seats, while the main opposition party won only 14 seats, a loss of three. Also during the year, flooding that began in July displaced over 8,000 people and killed at least 30. In October, soldiers took to the streets to demand improvements in compensation and living standards.
Burkina Faso experienced a series of military coups after gaining independence from France in 1960. In 1987, Blaise Compaore, an army captain, seized power in a coup against Thomas Sankara, the populist president who had risen to power through a coup in 1983. 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 thanks to an opposition boycott. Compaore secured another seven-year term in the November 1998 election.
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 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. 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, for 350 newly created municipalities, were held in April 2006, with the CDP capturing nearly two-thirds of the local council seats.
National Assembly elections were held in May 2007, and the CDP gained 16 seats for a total of 73, with voter turnout just under 57 percent. The largest opposition party, the Alliance for Democracy and Federation–African Democratic Rally (ADF-RDA), won only 14 seats, a loss of three.
Burkina Faso’s relations with neighboring Cote d’Ivoire have been strained by allegations that Compaore has supported Ivorian rebels, as well as by Burkinabe migrants’ use of land and water resources in Cote d’Ivoire. However, Compaore has played a mediating role in the Ivorian civil conflict, and the two sides signed a peace agreement in Ouagadougou in March 2007. Also in early 2007, tensions increased between Burkina Faso and Niger, with mutual accusations that security forces had crossed the border and harassed villagers. The case was brought before the International Court of Justice in March; the body is also expected to adjudicate a border dispute between Burkina Faso and Benin.
In October 2007, soldiers took to the streets to demand further improvements in military living standards. The government had initially agreed to enact reforms after the December 2006 killing of a soldier by the police sparked fighting between the two services, causing five deaths and providing an opportunity for soldiers to voice other grievances.
The country remains a regional transshipment point for drugs, diamonds, and small arms. However, the government has used the UN General Assembly as a forum to address the issue, and Burkinabe authorities have successfully intercepted some illegal shipments.
Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, and over 80 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. Agricultural production was set back by flooding that began in July 2007. The disaster displaced some 8,000 people and killed at least 30.
Burkina Faso is not an electoral democracy. President Blaise Compaore’s CDP party dominates politics. International monitors concluded that the 2005 presidential election was generally free, although not entirely fair, due to Compaore’s privileged access to state resources and the media. The president is currently serving his final five-year term in office and will step down in 2010. Likewise, international observers considered the 2006 municipal elections, in which CDP members secured the vast majority of seats, to be free but not fair, due to the greater resources available to CDP candidates. The 111-seat National Assembly is unicameral, and members serve five-year terms. The legislature is independent, but subject to executive influence. Although election monitors from the African Union (AU) concluded that the voting in the May 2007 legislative elections was free and transparent, members of the opposition complained that the ruling party distributed gifts to potential voters in advance of the election.
The constitution guarantees the right to form political parties, and as of May 2007, a total of 126 parties were registered. However, Burkina Faso lacks a coherent party system, and only 13 parties are represented in the legislature. Opposition members have been critical of 2004 revisions to the electoral code, saying they favor larger parties. Many parties have unclear ideologies, and while some private media outlets have organized political debates, opposition parties’ 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), a countrywide anticorruption network, has been successful in raising awareness about corruption. Burkina Faso was ranked 105 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice, many media outlets practice self-censorship. There are over 50 private radio stations, a private television station, and several independent newspapers, and the government does not restrict internet access. However, in January 2007, a court convicted two journalists of libeling Compaore’s brother as part of their coverage of the Norbert Zongo murder case, and in March, a journalist was arrested for allegedly insulting an official in the National Gendarmerie. In April, a presenter at a private radio station received death threats for coverage critical of Compaore’s regime and, in October, his car was destroyed in a fire. In May, another journalist received death threats from a group insulted by his reporting.
Burkina Faso is a secular state, and freedom of religion is respected. Academic freedom is also unrestricted. Since 1991, political debate has been tolerated, and many competing groups openly criticize the government.
The constitution provides for the right to assemble, 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. There are six main labor unions and about a dozen smaller ones, although only a minority of the workforce is unionized. The constitution guarantees the right to strike, and unions are able to engage freely in strikes and collective bargaining.
The judicial system is formally independent, although it is subject to executive influence and is characterized by corruption. The judiciary is further weakened by a lack of adequate resources and citizens’ poor knowledge of their rights. Although the right to own property is legally guaranteed, the weak 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, although during 2007, renovations were completed on two prisons, and separate quarters for women were being constructed in two other locations.
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 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 enforced. Discrimination against women is common in employment, education, property, and family rights, particularly in rural areas. There are currently 13 women in parliament, and, in 2007, a proposal to establish a quota for women in government was drafted for legislative review. Abortion is prohibited, except when the mother’s life is at risk or in cases of fetal impairment, incest, or rape. Unpaid child labor is common, despite laws prohibiting forced labor. Although the government outlawed female genital mutilation in 1996, the practice still occurs. In September 2007, a 14-year-old girl died after an excision, the first such death in two years. 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 has criminalized child trafficking, but adult trafficking is not prohibited, and sentences for convicted traffickers often lack severity.