Poor even by the standards of West Africa, Burkina Faso has been plagued by political instability since independence from France in 1960. It has suffered five military coups, the last of which cost the life of Thomas Sankara, who had waged war on poverty, corruption and illiteracy. Yet Burkina Faso's growth was surprisingly strong during the 1980s, as it made the best of its meagre assets in cotton, gold and livestock. The country is also fortunate in its relative lack of ethnic conflict, and the several religions practised coexist peacefully. There have, however, been two wars with Mali, and support for Taylor's rebels in the Liberian civil war. This introduction to Burkina Faso highlights the historical and contemporary factors that account for the country's instability, considers its ethnic, religious and social contours, examines its economic policies and prospects, analyzes its external relations, and assesses the chances of democracy.