Little is known of the area that became Burkina Faso until the 15th century A.D., when the Mossi people organized themselves into several city-states. The strongest of these states were Ouagadougou, Yatenga, and Gourma. (Other Mossi states, notably Mamprussi and Dangomba, developed farther south, in the area that is now Ghana.) The Mossi states throughout most of their history were surrounded by powerful empires, but by developing strong cavalry forces held off all attempts to conquer them.

When French military forces arrived in the early 1890's, they met fierce resistance, but after several years of warfare they conquered all the northern Mossi states. (The English, meanwhile, subdued the southern states.) The last to fall was Ouagadougou, in 1896. France organized its conquests into the colony of Upper Volta, which became a part of the French West Africa federation.

In 1932 the colony was divided among neighboring French colonies; it was reestablished, as the Territory of Upper Volta, in 1947. In 1958 it became semi-independent as a member of the French Community, and in 1960 it achieved full independence.

The new country was established as a democracy, but in 1966 the armed forces seized control and established a dictatorship headed by Lieutenant Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana. Upper Volta suffered severely from a drought during 1969–74. Lamizana returned the country to civilian rule in 1977, and the following year won the presidential election. He was overthrown in 1980.

Another coup, in 1983, brought an army captain, Thomas Sankara, to power; he promised to eliminate widespread corruption. Revolutionary tribunals were established and many former public officials and army officers were convicted of embezzlement. In 1987, Sankara was killed in a military coup led by Captain Blaise Compaore. In 1991 Burkina Faso adopted a new constitution and Compaore was elected president.

In 1998 and 2005, Compaore was reelected to his second and third terms as president. Although a new constitution limited the number of presidential terms to two, the Constitutional Court decided that the term limit did not apply to Campaore because it went into effect after he was already in office.