The Flag of Burkina Faso: History, Meaning, and Symbolism

closeup of Burkina Faso national flag
© Steve Allen/Shutterstock.com

Written by Alan Lemus

Published: December 29, 2022

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The year is 1984. President Thomas Sankara moves to change his country’s name from the Republic of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso 24 years after independence from French rule. This name change gives way to new national symbols such as the anthem, motto, and flag (more later). 

He composed a new national anthem, “Une Seule Nuit,” to replace the “Hymne Nationale Voltaique” of the Upper Volta. 

From all indications, Sankara was on a mission to transform the country from its colonial identity, Upper Volta, derived from a river, to one that the Burkinabé people can be proud of. Accordingly, he launched one of the most comprehensive reformation plans ever implemented in Africa. It aimed to profoundly alter the systemic socio-economic injustices the French colonial regime left behind.

Historical Context

The Republic of Upper Volta (French: Haute Volta) was an autonomous colony founded in December 1958 within the French Community. It was formerly known as the French Upper Volta. It was a member of the French Union before becoming fully independent in 1960 with Maurice Yaméogo as president.

The Upper Volta French colony took its name from the upper tributaries of the Volta River, where it was located.

Upper Volta was a colony of French West Africa created in 1919 from regions that had previously been a part of the Upper Senegal, Niger, and Côte d’Ivoire colonies. On September 5, 1932, the territory was dissolved and split between the French colonies of Niger, French Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire.

Becoming Burkina Faso

President Sankara derived the name “Burkina Faso” from two of the main languages in the country, Mooré and Dioula. In Mooré, Burkina means “men of integrity,” while Faso is a Dioula word that means “fatherland.”

As a result, Burkina Faso is known as “the land of upright people” or “the land of honest people.”

The term “Burkinabé” refers to the nation’s inhabitants; the suffix “bé” signifies men or women in the Fulfuldé language of the Peul people. The Peul people are also called Fulani or Fulbe. It’s a tribe found in various nations throughout West Africa.

Burkina Faso, the land of the upright people, is a landlocked West African country bordered by six countries. Mali to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Benin to the southeast, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Ghana to the south. The capital city is Ouagadougou.

Geographically, the northern part of the country is located in the Sahel region, which links the tropical savanna in the south and the Sahara Desert in the north.

The nation occupies a vast plateau. With a total area of about 274,000 km2 (105,792 square miles), Burkina Faso is slightly bigger than New Zealand and the U.S. state of Colorado. It is also roughly three times the size of Austria.

Burkina Faso’s climate is typically sunny, warm, and dry. The Sahelian zone in the north is a semiarid steppe region with sporadic rainfall that occurs three to five months out of the year. With more temperature and rainfall fluctuation and higher overall rainfall than the north, the Sudanic zone, to the south, experiences a climate that is increasingly tropical wet-dry.

Over half of the population speaks Mooré, one of the 60 indigenous languages in the country. As a former French colony, French is the official language of Burkina Faso. However, it’s not spoken as commonly as Mooré. The indigenous Dyula language is often used for business transactions. 

Major ethnolinguistic groups in Burkina Faso include Moosi, Fulani, Gurma, Bobo, Gurunsi, and Senufo.

History of the Burkina Faso Flag

The national flag was one of the symbols altered by President Sankara as part of his attempt to eliminate the remnants of the country’s colonial past and embrace an identity genuinely representative of the people. Let’s take you through the historical turning points that necessitated changes to the flag of Burkina Faso. 

The Late 19th Century

During the Scramble for Africa, which started in the 1880s, European military forces launched bids to annex portions of what is now Burkina Faso. In their attempts to outbid rival imperialists, the colonialists and their troops often engaged in combat with the indigenous peoples. Other times, they formed allies with them and signed treaties.

France seized Burkina Faso’s land, which it later ruled as a protectorate starting in 1896. However, the resistance of the Mossi people persisted until Ouagadougou was taken by French forces in 1901. 

The Franco-British Convention established the country’s present-day borders on June 14, 1898. The French West African colonial empire was reorganized in 1904. As part of that process, the pacified areas of the Volta basin were incorporated into Upper Senegal and Niger. Bamako (the present-day capital of Mali) served as the colony’s capital.

France’s triple-colored national flag was the country’s official flag during the French imperial era in the late 19th Century. 

French Upper Volta was created in 1919 as part of the French West Africa federation by combining some Ivory Coast districts. 

The newly established colony was divided in 1932 due to financial concerns; it was reassembled in 1937 as an administrative region known as the Upper Coast. The Mossi vigorously pressed the French colonialists for a special territorial status after World War II. On September 4, 1947, Upper Volta became a French West African colony.

With the passing of the Basic Law (Loi Cadre) on July 23, 1956, a change to how French Overseas Territories were structured got underway. Following this law, the French parliament adopted reorganization plans that gave each territory significant autonomy at the start of 1957. 

On December 11, 1958, Upper Volta was recognized and given the status of a republic. Complete independence from France was approved on July 11, 1960.

The Upper Volta Flag (1959-1984)

At independence, the flag of Upper Volta was tricolored and horizontally lined. The Black Volta, White Volta, and Red Volta branches of the Volta River, which flows south of the nation, were represented by the flag’s black, white, and red colors.

This flag looked like the tri-colored flag of the German Empire (1871-1918).

Then-President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo was overthrown in a 1983 coup d’etat which ushered in the Sankara administration. The flag underwent a complete redesign and continued to be used even after Sankara was ousted by another coup in 1987. 

Sankara’s former colleague, Blaise Compaoré, and two other people led the coup that resulted in Sankara’s murder on October 15, 1987. Compaoré remained in power in Burkina Faso until 2014, when unrest forced him to step down.

Between 1984 and 1997, the official coat of arms of Burkina Faso was displayed alongside a dig of the Soviet AK-47 assault weapon and an open book. These are a visual representation of the value of education and the study of revolutionary principles. 

The Burkina Faso Flag (1984- till date)

The current flag of Burkina Faso was adopted 38 years ago on August 4. This adoption coincided with the official change of name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, the new coat of arms, and the national anthem. The national motto was also changed from “Fatherland or death, we will overcome” to “Unity, Progress, and Justice.”

The flag serves as a representation of both the country itself and its solidarity with other African nations. It incorporates design elements from a long-standing tradition that extends back to the country’s independence.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Burkina Faso Flag

Flag of Burkina Faso flies against a cloudless blue sky

The Burkina Faso national flag is horizontally striped red and green with a central five-pointed yellow star and a 2:3 width-to-length ratio.

©Black Pearl Footage/Shutterstock.com

The national flag of Burkina Faso has a 2:3 width-to-length ratio of red and green presented horizontally and a five-pointed yellow star at the center.

Why does the green, red and yellow color combination seem to be a recurring theme on the flags of African countries? The color scheme of the Ethiopian flag inspired this arrangement. 

Having defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, Ethiopia remained the only African country not colonized. This status earned Ethiopia the admiration of many newly independent African republics. Ghana was the first to adopt the colors after gaining freedom from British rule in 1957.

It’s also not uncommon to see the colors on the flags of Pan-African organizations.

There are reports that the flag design could have also been modeled after the flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. However, the developing countries highly respected the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist) guerrilla force because it was an example of anti-imperialism and dedication to political and economic transformation.

While the colors on the flag are synonymous with Pan-Africanism, they’re rooted in the revolutionary ideals of the Burkinabé people. 

Red

The revolution that installed Thomas Sankara as President in 1983 and laid the foundation of Burkina Faso is said to be symbolized by the color red. It also honors the struggles for freedom and the efforts of the founding leaders.

Green

Green is a representation of hope, rich agricultural heritage, and plentiful natural resources.

The Five-Pointed Yellow Star

The yellow star serves as a beacon for the revolutionary leadership of Burkina Faso and the dominating influence of revolution principles on the country. It also denotes the nation’s abundant mineral resources.

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About the Author

Alan is a freelance writer and an avid traveler. He specializes in travel content. When he visits home he enjoys spending time with his family Rottie, Opie.

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