In 1936, after primary school, like many young Voltaics, he joined the French army. In December of that year, he was made secretary to the military commander of Mauritania in St Louis, Senegal, where he continued his secondary studies.
Transferred to North Africa in 1943, he returned to Upper Volta with the rank of chief adjutant in 1947. Two years later, as a sublieutenant, he was, for a time, an instructor in Bambara, at the Centre for African and Asian Studies in Paris, before going for two tours to Indochina, where France was embroiled in colonial war. There he was awarded the Legion of Honour and was promoted lieutenant in 1951.
In October 1956 he was made Deputy Head of Military Staff of the Governor of Ivory Coast and in 1957 was promoted captain. From 1959 to 1961 he commanded a company in North Africa. With independence in 1960 he was sent back to Upper Volta to help with the setting up of a national army, and as one of the most senior officers, he was soon appointed the first Voltaic Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces.
By late 1965 the political situation in Upper Volta had seriously deteriorated owing to the misrule of President Maurice Yameogo, following an ill-timed austerity budget. Various influential sections of the community were hostile, such as the civil service, the church and, most notably, the unions, so that when a demonstration inspired by the unions, but actually led by school children, called for Yameogo’s overthrow, and for the army to take over, Lamizana responded, even though he himself was not politically minded and had no ambition for power.
Initially, the army was only temporarily in power and his avowed aim was to get the various political factions, which had sprung up in the wake of Yameogo’s fall, to try and form a working coalition at round-table talks. When these failed, and there was a threat of political violence, he showed he could, on occasion, be tough and in December 1966 announced that the army was going to stay in power for the four-year period of the development plan, to put the economy in working order. His government was at least able to introduce much fiercer austerity measures than Yameogo had tried, because the psychological atmosphere was right and the unions, having called for the army to take power, could hardly object to their actions. Thus Upper Volta was able, after a couple of years, to balance its budget, although it basically lacks natural resources.
In 1968, in one of the few corruption trials ever held in francophone Africa, Yameogo was gaoled for embezzling over £1 million from the Solidarity Fund of the Council of the Entente. In 1970 a constitutional committee produced a new draft constitution for quasi-civilian rule, with an original formula in which the army remained in a position of power in a democratic parliamentary system.
The President would remain the head of the army for a further provisional period of four years and five members of the government would be soldiers. Plans for some members of the National Assembly to be soldiers were quashed under pressure from the civilians. The constitution was approved overwhelmingly by referendum in June 1970 and elections for a new assembly were held in December. This resulted in the return to power of Yameogo’s party, the UDV-RDA, but without Yameogo who, although amnestied, was deprived of his civil rights.
A benign father figure, thrust unwillingly into power, he has presided over four years of military rule, followed by a period of joint rule by civilians and military. His strength has been the fact that he was head of the army when he became President and was able to preserve the military hierarchy intact in power. His own modesty and willingness to listen has also been a strength in that it has enabled him to work with the younger, more ebullient officers who have sometimes been impatient with the moderation of his policies.