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It was Thursday, 4th August 1983 in what was soon to be renamed Burkina Faso. On this day, a coup d’etat led by Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré set in motion a Pan-Africanist, Marxist, revolution which sought to liberate Franz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” from the clutches of imperialism and neo-colonialism. Sankara emphasised the universality of the Burkinabe revolution in his address to the UN General Assembly a year after becoming President of the National Council of the Revolution.
“Our revolution in Burkina Faso embraces the misfortunes of all peoples. It draws its inspiration from all of man’s experiences since his first breath. We wish to be heirs of all the revolutions and all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.”
Sankara’s revolutionary vision was based on ‘self-reliance’ and solidarity and included an ambitious programme of development – health, education, agriculture, infrastructure and an end to the excesses so familiar in African governance today- hyper corruption and consumerism. He embarked on an agrarian revolution which including the planting of millions of trees and land reform. He called for the full cancellation of the continent’s debt, rejected foreign aid and asserted that only a complete rejection of the norms of global capitalism and imperialist domination would liberate Africans.
But it was Sankara’s focus on women’s emancipation and its meaning for all of humanity, that distinguished his revolutionary vision. Sankara argued that the key to social transformation was in improving the status of women and he demanded that they be a central part of the revolutionary project. Sankara did not just make pronouncements, he was meticulous in explaining class relations and the everyday ways in which African masculinities work in collaboration with capital in exploiting women’s labour and abuse of their dignity. His analysis of gendered and sexualised social relations would be considered progressive even today:
“It was the transformation from one form of society to another that served to institutionalize women’s inequality. This inequality was produced by our own minds and intelligence in order to develop a concrete form of domination and exploitation. The social function and roles to which women have been relegated ever since are a living reflection of this fact.”
Describing the home as the premier sight of capitalist reproductive exploitation and sexualised oppression, Sankara’s government campaigned against forced marriages, polygamy, and female genital mutilation and tribal markings. Women were for the first time able to initiate divorce without the consent of their husbands. Sankara insisted that men take an active part in the domestic sphere by experiencing those activities traditionally left to women such as preparing meals, going to the market and caring for children. At the same time he encouraged women to take on jobs that had previously been the domain of men including joining the military. He also began a programme of dismantling traditional sites of patriarchy by reducing the powers of village chiefs and nationalising all land. Other areas where his government prioritised women’s equality were in providing improved access to education and public health through a nation-wide adult literacy and grassroots health programmes. Significantly he was the first African leader to appoint a large number of women to government positions including the cabinet.
One of the primary instruments in the transition of women towards full citizenship was the Women’s Union of Burkina Faso [UFB]. Sankara described the UFB as “the organisation of militant and serious women”. These were the women of the revolution drawn from the urban workers and rural ‘peasants’ classes. Sankara repeatedly urged the UFB women to break away from the “kind of practices and behaviour traditionally thought of as female”.
On International Women’s Day March 8th, 1987 Sankara addressed thousands of women in Ougadougou calling for the emancipation of women in Burkina Faso and throughout the continent. In the speech he explained in great detail, the material base for women’s oppression rejecting simplistic theories such as biological differences
“At this moment, we have little choice but to recognise that masculine behaviour comprises vanity, irresponsibility, arrogance, and violence of all kinds towards women. This kind of behaviour can hardly lead to coordinated action against women’s oppression. Such attitudes are in reality nothing but a safety valve for the oppressed male, who, through brutalising his wife, hopes to regain some of the human dignity denied him by the system of exploitation. This masculine foolishness is called sexism or machismo. It often gives politically conscious women no choice but to consider it their duty to wage a war on two fronts.”
On Thursday 15th October 1987, the Burkinabe revolution ended when Sankara along with 12 comrades were assassinated in a counter-revolutionary coup led by Blaise Compaoré. In his betrayal like Mobutu’s betrayal of Patrice Lumumba, Compaoré donned the “white mask” and returned the Burkinabe people and Burkina Faso to a neo-colonialist state.
Sankara lived the Burkinabe revolution by example and insisted his ministers and government officials do the same. Thomas Sankara’s was committed to removing the injustices of imperialism not just in Burkina Faso but in the whole continent. In remembering Sankara we are also reminded of the enormity of the struggle we face if we are to achieve the kind of social transformation he envisaged.