Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government

The overthrow of the first elected government in Upper Volta began a history of military involvement in the political process that would see several decades of subsequent democratic governments overthrown in the name of greater efficiency and the battling of political corruption.

Summary of Event

On January 3, 1966, members of the Upper Volta military assumed power in that small country, which borders the Sahara Desert. The military coup replaced the president, who had been elected during the early days of Upper Volta’s independence. The move from a civilian dictator to a military dictatorship would mark the first in a series of upheavals for the small African country. Upper Volta coup (1966)
Revolutions and coups;Upper Volta
Postcolonialism;Upper Volta
[kw]Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government (Jan. 3, 1966)
[kw]Coup Leads to Military Government, Upper Volta (Jan. 3, 1966)
[kw]Military Government, Upper Volta Coup Leads to (Jan. 3, 1966)
Upper Volta coup (1966)
Revolutions and coups;Upper Volta
Postcolonialism;Upper Volta
[g]Africa;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
[g]Burkina Faso;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
[g]Upper Volta;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
[c]Military history;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
[c]Geography;Jan. 3, 1966: Upper Volta Coup Leads to Military Government[08790]
Yaméogo, Maurice
Lamizana, Sangoulé

Upper Volta was one of several West African states to become independent in 1960 as France France;colonial empire weakened its hold on its colonies during the tenure of President Charles de Gaulle. Situated in the middle of French West Africa, Upper Volta—to be known as Burkina Faso starting in 1984—held no great promise and produced no memorable political leaders during its early years. Instead, at the time of independence, Upper Volta was one of the poorest countries in the world. Situated between the desert states of Mali and Niger and the coastal states of Ivory Coast and Ghana, Upper Volta lacked the access to the sea or the natural resources necessary for building a modern economy. Its namesake, the Volta River, was divided among three tributaries, all of which flowed into the larger Niger River. With limited rainfall and irrigation, farming was limited as well, and the economy suffered.

With France militarily and economically crippled by World War II, the French government sought to push its African colonies toward a greater degree of independence. Those territories were granted representation in the French general assembly. The Upper Volta region was combined politically with the Ivory Coast and saw its political leaders dominated by the more dynamic Félix Houphouët-Boigny Houphouët-Boigny, Félix , future leader of the Ivory Coast. As independence approached, Upper Volta lacked the type of charismatic or competent leader that other French colonies enjoyed.

Upper Volta may have one of the more unusual political histories of all the former French African colonies. In most states suffering under dictators, the major opponents of the dictator, including the church and labor unions, favor a move toward democratic “control.” In Upper Volta, most of those protesting against a dictatorship instead favored a military takeover of the government. Throughout its history, democracy and dictatorships alternated in Upper Volta, with the military being the one institution that would create and topple the democratic system. This process began some six years into Upper Volta’s history.

Though it achieved political independence on August 5, 1960, Upper Volta was not free from French influence. The country was part of a regional monetary zone that used the same currency, the French Community French Community (Communauté française d’Afrique, or CFA) franc, which was tied to the French franc at the time. The idea behind the single currency for the new countries was to allow the French to stabilize their economies, but the result was to tie the former colonies tightly to France and make them dependent upon their former colonial power.

At the same time, the Upper Volta political system began its march toward authoritarian rule. Its first president, Maurice Yaméogo, had served as a leader during the colonial period. He was also responsible for the constitution and its ratification by a suspiciously high 99 percent of voters. Almost immediately Yaméogo began eliminating political opposition, outlawing competing political parties and jailing politicians who dared to challenge his rule. Yaméogo also attacked civil society, mostly labor unions left over from the French colonial period.

As the Upper Volta economy began to spiral downward, Yaméogo engaged in ever more erratic behavior, including marrying a beauty pageant winner and holding another election, in which he once again won with a statistically improbable 99 percent of the vote. With his election win in 1965, Yaméogo appeared in control of the country, but the manufactured consensus would not last the year. His large win bred overconfidence, and he attacked the one group that supported his rule: government employees.

Yaméogo’s proposal to slash wages by up to one-fifth brought many ordinary citizens to the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou. They demanded that the military overthrow the civilian government. The protests lasted for several days, and the police and the military were unwilling, or unable, to put them down. The calls for a military ruler may have also prevented a bloodbath, as the generals realized they could seize control with some degree of popular support. Lacking support of the military and police, Yaméogo was forced to bend to the demands of the protesters and left office and the country in a bloodless coup. As 1966 opened, the people of Upper Volta found themselves ruled by generals, specifically General Sangoulé Lamizana, and a military government, a reality to which they would become accustomed over the following year.

While the coup against Yaméogo was partly attributed to conflict with government officials, there were other forces that challenged his presidency in the latter months of 1965. Popular support for the government had been falling even as the president was able to produce large electoral victories. Voter participation had been in steep decline during every election held between 1960 and 1965, and though there was no official political opposition in the form of a political party, many groups had joined together to oppose the government. Chief among these was the Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church;and Upper Volta[Upper Volta] , whose archbishop instructed his congregations not to participate in elections or give the government any legitimacy. The scandal over Yaméogo’s marriage ended any Church support for his government, and again the archbishop was responsible for organizing the protests in late 1965. The participation of religious figures may have well prevented violence against the demonstrators and led to the bloodless coup, which was supported by the Church.

Yaméogo also was no friend of the traditional power brokers in Upper Volta, the tribal leaders. The president was a member of the dominant Mossi tribe, and he packed his administration with Mossi members. Yaméogo, however, did not maintain close ties to the Mossi or to the tribal chiefs, who held the loyalty of many of the Mossi people. Without those ties, Yaméogo could not call on tribal loyalty to prop up his government when the troubles began.

Lamizana proved to be more effective than his predecessor. Much like other military men in the French African colonies, Lamizana was a longtime soldier in the French army, serving in World War II and many of the postwar hot spots in the French colonial empire, including Vietnam and Algeria. Unlike the corrupt rule of Yaméogo, who used the public purse for his own benefit, Lamizana promised a return to democracy within four years, a promise that he kept. He would even run for president in 1978 in a competitive election, winning the office.


One of the many newly independent countries established in the early 1960’s in Africa, Upper Volta experienced political and economic turmoil that eventually led to a military coup. The hopes for a democratic country faltered when Upper Volta fell under the sway of Maurice Yaméogo, the country’s first president and a leader who used his position to fulfill his own desires and to enrich himself and his closest friends. The 1966 overthrow of the country’s first elected government did remove a corrupt and dictatorial government and saw its replacement by a popular military government that eventually returned the country to an elected system. Unfortunately for the citizens of Upper Volta, the coup would begin forty years of unstable government that included two more republics and a Marxist totalitarian regime controlled by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The overthrow of the elected government also established the military as the decisive factor in political events, with several military takeovers to follow. Upper Volta would be renamed Burkina Faso in 1984, but a return to its African heritage did not halt the decline in the country’s economic condition or alleviate the suffering of the Burkinese people. Upper Volta coup (1966)
Revolutions and coups;Upper Volta
Postcolonialism;Upper Volta

Further Reading

  • Duignan, Peter, and Robert Jackson. Politics and Government in African States. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1986. Wide-ranging book that examines most of the countries in Africa since independence. Discusses the various changes in government. Also explores how different leaders have come to power, their attempts to provide government stability, or their failures to create prosperity.
  • Englebert, Pierre. Burkina Faso. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Detailed description of Upper Volta and Burkina Faso through the mid-1990’s. Discusses the political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of the country and the various changes in Burkina Faso’s government.
  • Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2005. Examines African countries since independence, describing in detail the economic and political upheaval of the continent, the many dictators, and their repression of ordinary Africans.

Africa’s Year of Independence

Military Coup Places Mobutu in Control of Congo

Military Coup Brings Dictatorship to Central African Republic

Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana

Khama Leads a Stable Botswana

Nimeiri Takes Charge in Khartoum

Military Takes Charge in Libya

Somali Democracy Ends in a Military Coup