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Thomas Sankara: an African leader with a message for Europe

On the 25th anniversary of Sankara's assassination, Nick Dearden argues we need to remember him to challenge dominant views of Africa and fight our own debt crisis in Europe

October 14, 2012
7 min read


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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On 15 October 1987 a revolution was brought to an abrupt and bloody end by the murder of Thomas Sankara, President of the newly named state of Burkina Faso. In the years following Sankara’s assassination, by his once trusted friend Blaise Compaoré who runs Burkina Faso to this day, his revolution was overturned and the country became just another African fiefdom of the International Monetary Fund. But for a brief period of 4 years, Burkina Faso shone brightly, a stunning example of what can be achieved even in one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

Sankara was a junior officer in the army of Upper Volta, a former French colony which was run as a source of cheap labour for neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire to benefit a tiny ruling class and their patrons in Paris. As a student in Madagascar, Sankara had been radicalised by waves of demonstrations and strikes taking place. In 1981, he was appointed to the military government in Upper Volta, but his outspoken support for the liberation of ordinary people in his country and outside eventually led to his arrest. In August 1983, a successful coup led by his friend Blaise Compaoré, brought him to power at the age of only 33.

Sankara saw his government as part of a wider process of the liberation of his people. Immediately he called for mobilisations and committees to defend the revolution. These committees became the cornerstone of popular participation in power. Political parties on the other hand were dissolved, seen by Sankara as representatives of the forces of the old regime. In 1984, Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso (land of people of integrity).

Sankara purged corruption from the government, slashing ministerial salaries and adopting a simpler approach to life. Journalist Paula Akugizibwe says Sankara “rode a bicycle to work before he upgraded, at his Cabinet’s insistence, to a Renault 5 – one of the cheapest cars available in Burkina Faso at the time. He lived in a small brick house and wore only cotton that was produced, weaved and sewn in Burkina Faso.”

In fact the adoption of local clothes and local foods was central to Sankara’s economic strategy to break the country from the domination of the West. He famously said:

“’Where is imperialism?” Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.”

His solution was to grow food – “Let us consume only what we ourselves control!” The results were incredible: self-sufficiency in 4 years. Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler says that a combination of massive land distribution, fertiliser and irrigation saw agricultural productivity boom; “hunger was a thing of the past”.

Similar gains were made in health, with the immunisation of millions of children, and education in a country which had had over 90% illiteracy. Basic infrastructure was built to connect the country. Resources were nationalised, local industry was supported. Millions of trees were planted in an attempt to stop desertification. All of this involved a huge mobilisation of Burkina Faso’s people, who began to build their country with their own hands, something Sankara saw as essential.

There have been few revolutionary leaders who have placed such emphasis on women’s liberation as Sankara. He saw the emancipation of women as vital to breaking the hold of the feudal system on the country. This included recruiting women into all professions, including the military and the government. It entailed ending the pressure on women to marry. And it meant involving women centrally in the grassroots revolutionary mobilisation. “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph.” He saw the struggle of Burkina Faso’s women as “part of the worldwide struggle of all women”.

Sankara was more than a visionary national leader – perhaps of most interest to us today is the way he used international conferences as platforms to demand leaders stand up against the deep structural injustices faced by countries like Burkina Faso. In the mid 1980s, that meant speaking out on the question of debt.

Sankara used a conference of the Organisation of African Unity in 1987 to persuade fellow African leaders to repudiate their debts. He told delegates: “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. It is a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave.” Seeing these same leaders go off one-by-one to Western governments to get a slight restructuring of their debt, he urged common, public action that would free all of Africa from domination. “If Burkina Faso alone were to refuse to pay the debt, I wouldn’t be at the next conference.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t to be.

Of course not everything Sankara tried worked. Most controversially was his response to a teachers strike, when he sacked thousands of teachers, replacing them with an army of citizens teachers who were often completely unqualified. Sankara’s system of revolutionary courts were abused by those with personal grievances. He banned trade unions as well as political parties.

Some of these measures, combined with break-neck social transformation, provided space for his enemies. Sankara was assassinated in a coup carried out by Blaise Compaoré. It seems clear there was outside support, including of French stooge President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire. Sankara’s revolution was rolled back by his one time associate, and Burkina Faso became another African country whose economy becomes synonymous with poverty and helplessness.

Today Sankara is not well known outside Africa – his character and ideas simply don’t fit with the notion of Africa which has been constructed in the West over the last 30 years. It would be difficult to find a less corrupt, self-serving leader than Thomas Sankara anywhere in the world. But neither does he fit the image charities like to portray of the ‘deserving poor’ in Africa. Sankara was clear on the role of Western aid, just as he was clear on the role of debt in controlling Africa:

“The root of the disease was political. The treatment could only be political. Of course, we encourage aid that aids us in doing away with aid. But in general, welfare and aid policies have only ended up disorganizing us, subjugating us, and robbing us of a sense of responsibility for our own economic, political, and cultural affairs. We chose to risk new paths to achieve greater well-being.”

The improvement in the lives of Burkina Faso’s people was astounding as a result of Sankara’s policies, yet he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these policies have been systematically undermined by Western governments and agencies claiming to want exactly these improvements themselves.

Perhaps today, Sankara’s words are most relevant to our own crisis in Europe. They are echoed by those in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland who have heard little of him:

“Those who led us into debt were gambling, as if they were in a casino.. there is talk of a crisis. No. They gambled. They lost… We cannot repay the debt because we have nothing to pay it with. We cannot repay the debt because it is not our responsibility.”

Thomas Sankara had great belief in people – not just the people of Burkina Faso or Africa, but people across the world. He believed change must be creative, nonconformist – indeed containing “a certain amount of madness”. He believed radical change would only come when people were convinced and active, not passive and conquered. And he believed the solution is political – not one of charity. Surely Sankara has never been more relevant to our quest for justice in Europe and the world.

Jubilee Debt Campaign are asking people to join them in remembering Thomas Sankara. Tweet about Sankara using #thomassankara.

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Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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