The following speech was delivered before the Associação De Jornalistas E Homens De Letras Do Porto on February 15th, 2020
FOUNDED as recently as August 4th, 1984, Burkina Faso is a relatively young country which nonetheless bears a very ancient lineage. An area of 274,000 square kilometres, this ‘land of the upright men’ – as it is known in English – is a completely landlocked nation and only slightly larger than the British Isles. The capital, Ouagadougou, is located at the very heart of the country and has around 2,000,000 inhabitants. The people themselves, of which there are more than 17 million, are comprised of two main ethnic groups: the Voltaic Mossi and the Mande. The former make up around half of the country’s population and are descendants of the fierce immigrant warriors who arrived in the area from northern Ghana around the year 1100. It is they who went on to establish a West African empire that lasted no less than 800 years, although whilst the heart of the Mossi kingdom is still located in Ouagadougou this caste of warriors has since relinquished its traditional martial character in exchange for a less-confrontational lifestyle of farming.
Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as empires rose and fell and tribes migrated into one another’s territory, a figure called Pintieba Ouattara struck a treacherous deal with French commandant Paul Constant Caudrelier and the collaborationist die had been cast. More than half a century earlier, the rapid westward expansion of the cattle-herding Fulani people from East Africa to the Atlantic Sea in the name of Islamic jihad had seriously destabilised the traditional balance of tribal power, and now the French began to realise how this wavering tribal fratricide could swing in their favour and began slaughtering anyone who stood in their way. Commanding an area of 4,689,000 square kilometres and extending between the far west of the continent and the lower Sudan, the French Empire would eventually subjugate the West African territories to the extent that 25,000,000 people found themselves under the crushing heel of Gallic imperialism.
I don’t have time to discuss the history of early French colonialism in more detail, so we must now take a leap forward to June 14th, 1898, when the territory that would later evolve into Burkina Faso – the land of Thomas Sankara – became subject to the Franco-British Convention. This treaty saw to it that colonialists on both sides waged war on tribal communities for a period of five years. By 1904, their lust for West African resources had led to the ruthless suppression of the territories around the Volta basin and these were incorporated within the Upper Senegal and Niger colony of French West Africa, with the capital being established at Bamako in modern-day Mali. At this point, African children were schooled in French and with the imposition of a new political, economic and cultural regime the full force of foreign domination was felt for the first time.
In 1915, as the French even sent their Black subjects to fight in the bloody trenches of the First World War, there was a serious uprising against colonial rule that took shape as the Volta-Bani War. Between 1915 and 1917, an estimated 15,000–20,000 rebels from modern-day Mali and Burkina Faso took on the French Army. Despite early successes, the rebels were eventually defeated and their leaders either jailed or put to death. Nonetheless, the French had been forced to launch the largest and most expensive expeditionary force in its history and the spirit of the Volta-Bani War was to live long in the memory of the West African peoples. The rebellion is also significant for the fact that it gave birth to the colony of Upper Volta, Burkina Faso’s predecessor. This came about when anti-colonialist forces managed to gain control of seven districts in Upper Senegal and Niger, leading to them breaking away from the main body of the French Empire. In addition, the Tuareg people of the Dori region and northern Sahel felt confident enough to bring to an end their former truce with the French. On March 1st, 1919, this unexpected reorganisation of colonial interests led to the establishment of French Upper Volta. This meant that modern-day Burkina Faso had been separated from Upper Senegal and Niger as a means of safeguarding against future African insurrection. In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, further anti-colonialism appeared on the West African radar and France was once again forced to restructure her colonies. On September 4th, 1947, French Upper Volta was re-established as part of a French Union that brought the region into line with the heart of the Empire in Paris.
On December 21st, 1949, barely two years after the revival of French Upper Volta and directly coinciding with the Communist revolution under China’s Mao Zedong, Thomas Sankara was born in the small town of Yako. Nestled around 110 kilometres north-west of the capital, Ouagadougou, the town is known for its lucrative goldmines and famous Great Mosque. The plains of the local savanna, coated in a perennial red dust, is host to crocodiles, buffalo, antelope, lions, hippopotamuses, elephants and monkeys.
At the time of his birth, the future revolutionary leader was given the name Thomas Noël Isidore Ouédraogo and was Silmi-Mossi, meaning that he was in possession of both Fulani and Mossi heritage. It was the migrating Fulani tribes who first brought Islam to West Africa from the Eastern side of the continent, but although the members of Sankara’s own family were strict Catholics he had become familiar with the Qur’an at a young age. The Silmi-Mossi were mixed-race folk who first began appearing in the eighteenth century at a time when religious beliefs were such that sexual relations between the two tribes was heavily frowned upon. It was the young man’s father, Joseph Sankara, who had brought the Fulani blood into the family line and his mother, Marguerite Kinda, was of pure Mossi stock. Joseph, a local gendarme, had taken the name Ouédraogo at the request of his Mossi chief and then converted to Catholicism. When his father was transferred to the market town of Gaoua, in the deep south, Sankara found himself growing up in a comparatively prosperous and picturesque suburb and immediately became aware of the gap between rich and poor. When Thomas was eleven and Upper Volta was thought to have won independence, his precocious sense of injustice led him into conflict with children from nearby colonialist families and he and his friends would hold mock ceremonies in which they lowered the French flag.
Thomas was educated in the south-west, at Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in modern-day Burkina Faso and the heartland of the country’s textiles industry. At primary school Thomas soon became highly proficient in both French and Mathematics, although his regular attendance at church and pious attitude towards Catholicism in general led his family to encourage him to enter the priesthood. Members of the clergy also urged Thomas to attend a seminary after he had finished primary school, but whilst he had initially agreed he subsequently passed an entrance exam to a secular establishment and this led to him attending sixth grade at the secular lycée.
Following administrative uncertainty, French Upper Volta was transformed into the Republic of Upper Volta at a time when the colony was said to have achieved self-government and joined the so-called Franco-African Community. However, as we have since seen from the shameful history of both Africa and Asia in the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ‘independence’ is merely an illusion designed to pacify indigenous resistance movements and thus European powers inevitably leave in their wake a compliant puppet-government that will faithfully continue to serve their own narrow interests. A more fitting description, therefore, would be Neocolonialism: not an end to the colonialist process itself, but a mere sugar-coating of the political edifice that obscures the stark realities that lie at the very bedrock of the system. Power still rested in the hands of an essentially middle-class élite which had grown up in the colonial era.
Similarly, the 1958 Republic of Upper Volta was not the result of a revolutionary struggle for autonomy but a decision that had been made by the French parliament. Frenchman Max Berthet governed the area from December 1958 to February 1959, whilst his compatriot Paul Masson assumed control between February 1959 and August 1960. Of course, whilst the official history books tell us that the region went from being a self-governing republic to a position of full ‘independence’ by August 5th, 1960, the next twenty-four years would demonstrate that France had no real intention of simply relinquishing one of its lucrative overseas territories. Therein lies the myth of ‘Postcolonialism’.
Although I don’t have time to discuss Pan-Africanism in any great detail, my recent book on Sankara – Black Nemesis – examines some of its leaders in far more depth and concludes that individuals such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, Sierra Leone’s Siaka Stevens and the Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny were not what they seemed and many ‘Postcolonialist’ regimes were collaborating with the French, the IMF and the World Bank. Only a fool would believe that General de Gaulle would throw away such a valuable part of his country’s empire and the fact that the French would eventually portray the leaders of the more ‘audacious’ African states as communist subversives leads me to conclude that both ‘Postcolonialism’ and ‘Decolonisation’ were each crucial to the deceptive strategy that lay behind twentieth-century geopolitics. Be it the private capitalists of the West or the state capitalists of the Soviet Bloc, there is a good deal of evidence that what we know today as the Cold War was simply a method of dividing up the world and managing it in slightly different ways.
The fact that many African leaders continued to retain secret ties with their colonialist rulers is one thing, but within the halls of Western academia the obfuscation still continues today with the promotion of so-called ‘Postcolonial Theory’. This relates to the enormous impact that colonialist regimes have had on the countries they ‘once’ governed. It is true, for example, that great swathes of Africa and Asia have been civilised to the extent that they have either retained or institutionalised various aspects of European culture and politics. The leftist approach to such matters is that ‘postcolonial’ nations exhibit signs of social, psychological and cultural inferiority, something that is undoubtedly the case, but rather than seek to infuse or perhaps reacquaint the indigenous populations of such countries with their own respective identities, they are encouraged to deconstruct the prevailing trappings of colonialism within a decidedly Western framework. After having been invaded and populated by Europeans, therefore, these non-European victims of imperialism still face interference from political and academic outsiders who believe they know best when it comes to rooting out the final vestiges of colonialism itself.
Ultimately, as we have seen, Postcolonial Theory completely ignores the fact that the vast majority of those countries which, in previous centuries, were brought under the heel of the French, British, Dutch, Germans, Belgiums, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and various others, did not go on to achieve real independence or sovereignty at all and their contemporary puppet-governments continue to export their own people’s resources on behalf of the West. Despite the fact that European colonialists have physically departed, therefore, the process still continues by stealth. There can be no true ‘postcolonialism’ until the exploitative Western core has itself been dismantled.
Turning now to the region that became Burkina Faso, I will briefly summarise those individuals who were in power in Upper Volta at a time when Thomas Sankara was developing his own ideas. This, as French Upper Volta was transformed overnight into the Republic of Upper Volta and the convenient implication was that some kind of ‘independence’ had been achieved.
Born in 1921, Maurice Yaméogo had intended to enter the priesthood, but was unable to contain his drinking and womanising. He fell in love with a mixed-race woman, was scorned by his family for taking a non-African wife and eventually rejected his Mossi roots altogether by marrying the only female in West Africa to wear European clothes. This was no accident and Yaméogo’s Francophilia led to him being sent to the Ivory Coast to mix with other ‘evolved’ Africans in an attempt to cultivate what would eventually become a puppet-class of Neocolonialists who would rule on behalf of the increasingly unpopular French administration. In July 1948 Yaméogo was elected grand counsellor of French West Africa for Upper Volta and later used his special powers to set up a one-party system. Meanwhile, his extravagant lifestyle was becoming an embarrassment and when he declared martial law in an effort to control Joseph Ouédraogo’s union movement, the army seized power in a coup d’état. After six years, Yaméogo’s Neocolonialist regime had fallen and the country’s new puppet-ruler, Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana, dissolved the National Assembly and formed a new government from the country’s military hierarchy.
Now, although Thomas Sankara’s parents had wanted their son to enter the priesthood, his secular education at Bobo-Dioulasso had allowed him to cultivate his natural intellectuality and this contemplative aspect of his personality was perfectly balanced by the fact that the young man now had his heart set on a career in the military. Even at a young age, this rare and questioning creature was destined to become a warrior-philosopher. In 1966, at the very moment when Lamizana was launching his coup d’état, Sankara enrolled at the famous Kadiogo military academy in Ouagadougou. Despite the rigorous army training, the young officers were also schooled in the social sciences and one of the strongest influences on Sankara’s early political development was Adama Touré, a civilian who had been brought in from outside and regarded by members of the army staff as something of a ‘progressive’. Unbeknown to his employers, Touré was a branch member of Senegal’s underground Marxist organisation, the African Independence Party. Formed in 1963 and chiefly targetting workers and students, the organisation had gone on to establish an anti-imperialist front known as the Patriotic League for Development, or LIPAD, which combined Maoism and Stalinism with Pan-Africanism. Having witnessed Lamizana’s ousting of Yaméogo at first-hand, Sankara was in the midst of an awakening.
With Lamizana’s military junta at the helm from January 1966 onwards, a provisional government comprised of army officers set about drafting a new Constitution and by June the following year it had been brought into effect. However, although Yaméogo’s unpopular one-party system had since been replaced by democratic elections involving multi-party candidates, the old dictator’s Voltaic Democratic Union (UDV) nonetheless remained in power. By August 1969, Lamizana had visited Paris to confer with President Georges Pompidou and his French advisor on African policy, Jacques Foccart (1913-1997). In 1959 the latter had co-founded the Gaullist Service d’Action Civique (SAC), which specialized in covert operations in Africa as a whole. There is little doubt that it was a case of a regional manager taking instruction from a board of directors. Shortly afterwards, Lamizana unveiled his version of the Second Republic. In name, at least.
Elsewhere, in October 1969, Thomas Sankara’s ongoing military training took him to Antsirabé on the island of Madagascar. Host to a thriving French colony, compared to Upper Volta the island was a veritable paradise and Sankara was one of just two trainee officers who had been chosen to work alongside Madagascan farmers and learn how to successfully manage and cultivate crops with a view to improving the lives of people back home. The experience would stand him in good stead, as would the lectures on military strategy from the Antsirabé academy, but Sankara was also able to witness two popular uprisings against the government of Philibert Tsiranana, which had discarded its revolutionary pretensions and clamped down on left-wing subversion. Naturally, de Gaulle was at the forefront of this campaign to bring Africa into line with the rest of the French Empire and by 1967 Tsiranana was facing serious opposition from his own people and had ordered the arrest of 380 students with twenty-one more shot dead. Caught up in the unpredictable drama of these events, Sankara began reading the works of Marx and Lenin. In addition he was rubbing shoulders with well-known French academics and familiarised himself with the writings of René Dumont, figurehead of the Green Movement. Unlike many of his counterparts, most of whom had been groomed in the academic lecture theatres of Western capitalism, Sankara’s political education was of a far different nature.
Back home, Lamizana had transformed himself into a dictator but this did not prevent the regime from receiving the full blessing of President Nixon and this led him to embark upon a thinly-disguised begging mission. Needless to say, Western aid never comes without a price and America – like France – was able to enjoy its own slice of Voltaic pie.
In October 1973, once he had risen to the rank of Second Lieutenant, Sankara left Madagascar and returned to Upper Volta. Now twenty-four, the successful military graduate was now posted to the familiar environs of Bobo-Dioulasso and charged with the training and nurturing of other young recruits. In February 1974, Lamizana and his National Movement for Renewal divided the country into ten military districts and Sankara was transferred to Ouagadougou and assigned to the engineering corps. It was then that he was exposed to the stark realities of Lamizana’s corrupt regime. Due to his personal involvement in road-building projects, Sankara discovered that army officers and government officials were either favouring their own relatives when it came to employment in the construction industry or simply enriching themselves by stealing funds and materials. Despite attempting to expose these activities, Sankara was ignored.
In 1976 Lamizana chose Sankara to run the national commando centre at Pô. Located in the south of the country, Sankara spent four years overseeing the intense training of Upper Volta’s elite fighting units. Unlike his predecessors, the twenty-six year-old commanding officer was not in the business of terrorising his recruits and took a personal interest in their welfare. This included helping them manage their financial affairs and ensuring that they were provided with enough food and water. Sankara also went on special book-collecting expeditions to Ouagadougou, using his literary treasures to educate the men about political and historical affairs. A talented guitar-player, the experienced officer also formed a popular a musical troupe.
In the wake of the 1978 elections, Lamizana made himself head of both state and government, but as this stranglehold over the Voltaic people took effect Sankara’s career began to coincide with a man who was to figure prominently throughout the course of his life. Blaise Compaoré, who was born in Ouagadougou and raised in nearby Ziniaré, had first met Sankara during the Mali border war, but when the two found themselves working together on a training course in French-occupied Morocco and again at the military academy in Pô, they became inseparable. Sankara made Compaoré his deputy commander, but apart from their militaristic aspirations they also shared a firm interest in Marxist principles and together moved within a large underground network which included representatives of the African Independence Party, the Voltaic Communist Organization, the pro-China Communist Struggle Union, the pro-Albanian Voltaic Revolutionary Communist Party and various others. For the present, Sankara contented himself with the military. Not that his career ever prevented him from having a busy social life and in 1979 he met and married a local Catholic girl by the name of Mariam Sereme.
One figure who served in Lamizana’s military regime was Colonel Saye Zerbo, who had been schooled in the neighbouring French colonies of Mali and Senegal. Zerbo had even trained in France to become a crack paratrooper, later taking part in the shameful French roles in both the First Indochina War and the Algerian War of Independence. Once he had arrived back in West Africa, Zerbo served under Lamizana as Foreign Minister and Chief of Upper Volta’s military intelligence. In November 1980, with these formidable credentials under his belt, Zerbo engineered a coup d’état against Lamizana himself. However, whilst some might question why one French puppet would need to be replaced by another, on January 1st that year Lamizana had stunned the ruling elites when he announced during a New Years’ appearance on national radio that too many of his fellow countrymen were obsessed with money and power. Lamizana was also considered to be far too soft on troublesome union activists and it was they who objected most when Zerbo made himself President of Upper Volta. Predictably, Zerbo wasted little time in dealing with the main threats to the Neocolonialist system and immediately terminated civilian rule whilst promising to end corruption.
Sankara was suspicious of Zerbo’s motives and played no part in the coup against Lamizana, despite the fact that as a leading army officer he was expected to side with the new regime. Sankara was also reluctant to accept a post in the reshuffled military government, believing that the entire system needed to be overthrown, but in January 1981 Zerbo promoted him to the rank of Captain. Nonetheless, seeing the writing on the wall and anticipating Zerbo’s next step Sankara – now thirty-one – politely wrote to the new President and explained that he was not ready to accept a governmental position. Some time later, his friends urged him to accept an offer from Zerbo to become the new Minister of Information, but Sankara only agreed after receiving firm assurances that he remain in that role for a period of no more than two months and that his deputy, Blaise Compaoré, be made Commander of the military academy at Pô. Eventually, Sankara would serve as a member of Zerbo’s government for a total of seven months, but he delegated many of his tasks to an old school friend called Fidèle Toé.
With opposition parties banned and Upper Volta plunged into a state of national emergency, the country was once again in the hands of a conservative junta that was interested in little more than conducting business as usual without the interference of radical student groups and militant union leaders. Controversially, Zerbo ordered the arrest of a leading African Independence Party activist called Soumane Touré, who also happened to be a close friend of Sankara. Luckily, Touré managed to escape the clutches of the military establishment by fleeing the capital in a car driven by his friend’s cousin. Sankara himself also decided to end his own involvement in the government and on April 12th, 1982, sent a formal letter of resignation to the President and announced his departure on national radio. He then began setting up an extensive network of activist cells with other fellow officers, radical union members and disaffected students. As a result, Sankara was arrested and interned at a military prison camp based in the north-western province of Mouhoun. Two other officers, Blaise Compaoré and Captain Henri Zongo, would also be sent to remote military camps for daring to resign from their governmental posts. Both men would later emerge as bitter opponents of Sankara and then sworn enemies of one another.
Meanwhile, rumours of widespread corruption in the financial and agricultural sectors began appearing in the press and further protests broke out in Upper Volta during September 1982. More arrests followed and this time Zerbo made sure that his main opponents in the union movement were firmly behind bars. Whilst he had quickly decapitated the leadership of the country’s workers and students, however, he had failed to recognise the full extent of the left-wing opposition that now confronted him from the ranks of the military. On November 7th, 1982, in a move engineered by Chief of Staff Colonel Gabriel Yoryan Somé and a group of officers calling themselves the Council of Popular Salvation, Zerbo was arrested in Ouagadougou and removed from power. Two days later, Somé stepped aside and announced that an army doctor by the name of Jean-Baptiste Philippe Ouédraogo was to become Head of State.
Ouédraogo had Mossi origins and received his education at a seminary before moving to the capital to attend a more secular establishment and then working at a local hospital. When Zerbo was deposed, Ouédraogo formed the Council of the Safety of the People with other disaffected officers and reinstated both Sankara, Compaoré and Zongo to their former rank. Sankara happened to be in Ouagadougou at the same time, as he had been granted temporary leave from the military on account of the birth of his youngest son. Ouédraogo later claimed that Thomas Sankara was meant to lead the country in the wake of Somé’s insurrection but that he had changed his mind at the last moment. Ouédraogo therefore felt that he had no choice in the matter and, given that he was a conservative-minded individual who had very little time for the Marxists in his midst, this soon led to serious problems.
Curiously, the Voltaic media ignored the political differences between Ouédraogo and Sankara and presented them as part of a united front. In retrospect, this was clearly an attempt to conceal Ouédraogo’s decidedly pro-French sympathies. Whilst he had restored the freedom of the press and lifted restrictions on the country’s influential trades union movement, growing concern over Ouédraogo’s conservatism led the country’s Council of the Safety of the People to apppoint Sankara their new prime minister in January 1983. He was directly responsible for the running of all government ministries.
In March 1983, matters between Ouédraogo and Sankara came to a head during a rally when the latter received a far warmer welcome than his presidential counterpart. Sankara had also been busy making a tour of dissident countries in both Africa and elsewhere, forming close ties with Muammar al-Qathafi’s Jamahiriya or ‘state of the masses’. In 1977, the Libyan leader had published The Green Book in which he insisted that all power, wealth and arms should be placed in the hands of the people. Sankara’s visit to Libya led to accusations that he was Qathafi’s stooge, but Sankara insisted that Upper Volta would apply such methods in its own way. The same month, Sankara was present in New Delhi at the five-day 7th Summit Conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s most outspoken politicians.
Not to be outdone, Ouédraogo visited Togo, Ghana and Niger. Nonetheless, it now seemed certain that the increasingly uneasy alliance between the undisguised Neocolonialism of Ouédraogo and the more uncompromising Afro-Marxism of Sankara was on the rocks. On this occasion, Sankara would find himself in the right place at the right time. Two months later, at another major rally in Bobo-Dioulasso, Sankara spoke to the crowd for so long that by the time Ouédraogo was due to speak most people had left. It was little incidents such as these, interpreted as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the President, which further rankled the conservative faction within the government. Soon afterwards, and directly following a consultation with one of French President François Mitterrand’s top advisors, Guy Penne, Ouédraogo expelled all leftist and pro-Libyan elements from his ministries and had Sankara and several other radicals arrested. Penne, a Freemason and member of the notorious Grand Orient de France, had promised Ouédraogo that France was willing to offer generous financial aid in return for the immediate expulsion of all subversives.
Ironically, this played right into Sankara’s hands but although he and his officers had more noble intentions, the same cannot be said for the bulk of the Voltaic Left. The combined African Independence Party and Patriotic League for Development, for example, which followed the Marxist-Leninist model to the extent that they insisted that any socialist revolution must be led by the most fundamentally poor and downtrodden members of society, was now calling for a military coup d’état. Whilst Sankara himself was undoubtedly inspired by Marxist-Leninist principles, with a smattering of Libyan socialism thrown in for good measure, he was nonetheless part of a fractious military divide that at no time involved the ordinary Voltaic people. Meanwhile, as widespread demonstrations against Sankara’s latest incarceration broke out in Ouagadougou, Blaise Compaoré went to the military base at Pô where both men had undertaken their training some years earlier. Managing to whip up dissent among the officers, Compaoré ensured that a column of 200 men was now waiting in the wings and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
President Ouédraogo, on the other hand, had very little support and when his conservative allies deserted began to feel isolated. And then came the bombshell. Ouédraogo – almost certainly acting on French orders – decided to revive the political career of the disgraced Maurice Yaméogo. He also met with Jean-Christophe Mitterrand , son of the French Presiden, and secured the release of those who had served under Saye Zerbo from 1980 onwards. This led to an immense backlash from those politicians who had been persecuted under the Yaméogo administration and Ouédraogo, panicking, responded to the huge tide of outrage by ordering the re-arrest of Sankara. Despite this, the revolutionary figurehead was re-released almost immediately when Compaoré and his group of radical officers threatened to revolt.
By June 1983 the paranoid Ouédraogo was frantically expelling more and more Sankarist elements from his crumbling government. On August 4th, Compaoré made his move and arrived in Ouagadougou with a column of elite paratroopers. Forced to negotiate terms, the President met with Sankara and offered to resign in favour of a new transitional government. Sankara went to discuss this with Compaoré. but before he could return to the presidential offices the paratroopers began seizing control of strategic locations around the capital and this meant that what had originally been intended as a restructured government turned into a fully-fledged coup d’état. When Sankara finally returned, shortly after an exchange of gunfire between loyal supporters of Ouédraogo and those of a more radical persuasion, it was only to announce that a revolution had already taken place.
At 10.00 pm on August 4th, 1983, Thomas Sankara appeared on Upper Volta’s main radio station to declare that he and his supporters had just established a National Council of the Revolution (CNR) and that the people must now play their part in the creation of new popular committees that would strive to reflect their own best interests. In effect, the French rule that had been covertly retained at the beginning of the 1960s, under the spurious management of Yaméogo’s dictatorship and its equally dubious successors, was now well and truly over. After twenty-three years of deceit, authentic Postcolonialism had finally made a belated arrival and Sankara’s August Revolution – inspired by political firebrands like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, as well as Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings and Libya’s Colonel Qathafi – sent large shock-waves coursing through the Western world, particularly in the upper echelons of capitalist finance.
To mark the beginning of a new revolutionary era, free from the contaminating influence of both the French government and its privileged colonial settlers in Upper Volta itself, Sankara quickly changed the name of the small West African country to Burkina Faso. Translated into English as ‘the Land of the Upright Men,’ when Sankara was not sporting his famous military uniform he was often seen wearing a fine tunic that had been made from Burkinabè cotton and woven by traditional craftsmen.
The first clear indication of the political, social and economic direction in which Sankara wished to take the newly-formed Burkina Faso was expressed in Ouagadougou on October 2nd, 1983, just eight weeks into his administration, during the course of what later became known as the ‘Political Orientation Speech’. Those in the former Upper Volta had heard similar promises about independence before, so it was important to drive home the point that Sankara was not merely celebrating the recent removal of Ouédraogo, but that of the imposition of a powerful foreign government that had controlled the country – both covertly and overtly – since June 1898. In addressing Neocolonialism as something that is distinct from a more concealed and underhanded colonialism, Sankara rightly explained that it had a twenty-three-year pedigree and began at the very onset of Maurice Yaméogo’s tenure and had been shaped by the French defeat in Vietnam that very year. In order to mask its imperialist objectives and avoid further losses, it then became necessary for the West African country’s Parisian masters to make it appear as though the age of colonialism was at an end. In short, by rearranging the theatrical props and bringing in the right actors for the job the transition from colonial to ‘Postcolonial’ was made virtually seamless. This was no authentic transition, of course, because they are one and the same and it was simply a case of reopening the old business enterprise under new management and this led to the creation of a new European bourgeoisie that plundered the country on behalf of themselves, their families and their rulers back home.
Having studied the mechanics behind the Communist revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba, Sankara wished to highlight the unique character of Burkina Faso’s own insurrection and his speech revealed how the National Council of the Revolution – or CNR – intended to transform the old Neocolonial system into one that resembled the sovereignty of the people. Inspired by the writings of Qathafi’s Green Book, in which the Libyan leader had sought to oppose Westminster-style parliamentarianism by calling for popular participation to replace intermittent ‘representation’ by politicians who merely reflect the narrow interests of their own particular party, Sankara intended to create a broad alliance between classes that would lead to power emanating up from the grass roots and thus not confined to a political and economic elite. Qathafi, whose own 1969 September Revolution was now beginning to inspire a large number of Africans during this same period, had carefully outlined his ground-breaking ideas about the practical implementation of a ‘Third Universal Theory’ which rejected so-called ‘representative’ democracy in favour of direct democracy. This, rather than a typical Marxist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ was the blueprint that Sankara was attempting to emulate. Apart from the fact that Burkina Faso had come into being through a military coup, Sankara’s plans were clearly more decentralist than any Communist system on the planet.
Initially, this process could only succeed if there was a wholesale restructuring of Burkina Faso’s administrative, judicial and military sectors. Once the foundations had been laid, however, radical decentralisation would follow and bring government into line with the revolutionary aspirations of the people. Like the street and area committee’s of Qatfahi’s Libya, Sankara’s vision would lead to popular delegates channelling the interests of people from all levels of social life: villages, urban neighbourhoods and places of work. Overseeing this groundswell of popular participation would be the National Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, or CDRs, which would provide political education, relentless agitation and the channelling of the popular will from the country’s fields, factories, public services and army.
Sankara’s famous speech also examined three of the most important areas in Burkinabè life: the military, the status of women and the economic system. I shall now examine these as briefly as possible.
Sankara had proposed in his October 1983 speech that the army must evolve into a new military cadre that was not only capable of dealing with counter-revolutionary forces both within and without the country, but which must also involve itself in the affairs of the nation itself. Soldiers must raise sheep and cattle, he said, build roads and schools and even dig wells and transport the sick from one place to another. This had a positive effect in the sense that the army no longer remained aloof from ordinary people. He also insisted that the military must also train ordinary members of the citizenry to defend themselves, something that echoed the important third component of Qathafi’s own belief that power, wealth and arms must be placed in the hands of the people. It is known that Sankara was hugely impressed with the manner in which his Libyan counterpart had reorganised the military and had closely studied the structure of the North African country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operated as a paramilitary force of 3,000 hand-picked soldiers. This Revolutionary Guard had grown directly out of the Revolutionary Committees that began life in workplaces and the local community, and was a self-policing entity that possessed the ability to deal with any threat to the system. This included dissent from within the ranks of the regular army, something that Burkina Faso knew all about.
Within society as a whole, it was the People’s Revolutionary Tribunals, TPRs, which came to deal with cases of corruption. Once again, however, there was a direct link with ordinary people in the sense that the TPR’s did not merely set out to punish, but also to instruct the population about the pitfalls of moral decay. This ensured that people were constantly aware of the dangers in their midst and able to understand the importance of social justice.
The leader of the Burkina Faso revolution also used his famous October 1983 speech to insist that the average female would no longer be dismissed as a mere beast of burden but go on to achieve fulfilment through direct participation in popular decision-making and the active creation of a new society. This, he claimed, in an obvious swipe at the largely ineffectual and debased feminist movement in Europe, would be a far more accurate sign of gauging the effects of female emancipation than simply allowing women to emulate their male counterparts by drinking, smoking and wearing trousers. Explaining that the revolution had led to happiness and freedom among all men, Sankara announced that it would not be complete unless women achieved the same.
As far as the future of Burkina Faso’s new economy was concerned, Sankara’s strong belief in self-sufficiency and a principled rejection of the Western powers led him to insist that autonomy could be achieved through a series of dramatic reforms in the spheres of land, education, production and distribution. Agriculture, in particular, must involve a dramatic reorganisation of farmers leading to increased production, the use of modern farming equipment and regional specification to increase annual yield. This, Sankara had learnt during his adventures in Madagascar. More worryingly, however, Sankara promised to abolish all barriers that were centred around traditional socio-economic structures ‘that oppress the peasants,’ meaning that a clash with tribal society was inevitable. It was one thing to remove the oppressive structures of feudal society and help people gain access to fresh water, but systematically undermining the very underpinnings of tribal society quite another. This, for a new revolutionary government that considered itself the vanguard of the masses, was the most dangerous policy of all and with the chiefs fighting to save their traditional way of life the TPRs were brought in to quell the resistance.
Whereas the CNR had been criticised in the early days of Sankara’s takeover for allowing some of the country’s major investors in the private sector to become involved in the restructuring of the former Upper Volta, even accepting US$16 million in credit from the loan sharks of the International Monetary Fund, this was a temporary blip on an otherwise spotless balance sheet and Sankara eventually took a stand against receiving any further usurious ‘foreign aid’ from the likes of France, the World Bank and the IMF, meaning that all future economic initiatives must rely solely on the popular mobilisation being generated by the CDRs. As a result of going it alone, not to mention dealing with the country’s original debt to the IMF, the CNR was eventually forced to implement austerity measures and this involved reducing public spending by cutting wages and bonuses whilst increasing the number of redundancies.
The real problems lay within the government itself and, like all systems that rely on centralised decision-making and a strong militarised state, the revolution soon came under attack from those who felt that things had not gone far enough. As we have seen, the Patriotic League for Development, LIPAD, had played a major role in the political underground prior to the revolution but had complained from the very outset that Sankara’s military government did not constitute a truly authentic development in the Marxist-Leninist mould because it had not involved the proletariat in the seizure of power. LIPAD itself, on the other hand, had strong ties with ordinary workers in the trades union movement and it was they who were demanding a greater say in the country’s future. Sankara, frustrated with this increasing factionalism, eventually removed several LIPAD ministers from their governmental posts and this led to the CNR being seen as a law unto itself.
Meanwhile, friction between Thomas Sankara and the unions had existed throughout his administration and this led to the persecution of union leaders and the disruption of their meetings. Even Sankara’s old friend, Soumane Touré – previously jailed by the Zerbo government and now the head of the Confédération Syndicale Burkinabé – was arrested in January 1985 for establishing an anarcho-syndicalist organisation. Based on what we know about the events in Spain during the Civil War of 1936-38, Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists have never made good bedfellows at the best of times. Needless to say, Sankara’s attitude to the union movement itself had not made him popular in the eyes of the Left and CNR activists soon began abandoning their more traditional supporters and courting sections of the military in order to safeguard the government’s own precarious position.
When one considers that Sankara was a true Postcolonialist in the sense that, unlike Burkina Faso’s former administrations his revolutionary government was not a puppet-state of the Western powers, it is not difficult to see why he presented such a threat. Not merely in terms of the inspiration that other Africans derived from his example, but also as a result of the fact that he was depriving the corporate bloodhounds of both Europe and the United States of his country’s valuable resources. Sankara did not merely set out to secure the independence of his own country, therefore, but to regularly challenge the injustices that he saw taking place around the world. This, inevitably, meant criticising some very powerful people. Despite this uncompromising stance, long-serving French President François Mitterrand made a visit to Burkina Faso in February 1986 and there is an amusing story about a journalist who asked Mitterand what kind of aid France intended to provide. The Frenchman’s response was that “President Sankara didn’t ask me for anything!”
Although Sankara had ultimately resisted the likes of the World Bank and IMF, he did receive aid from three of the more dissident countries that were included on his diplomatic itinerary. From China, he accepted an interest-free loan of US$20 million towards agriculture and the construction of a sports stadium in Ouagadougou; from Soviet Russia the gift of agricultural equipment; and, due to his close friendship with Fidel Castro, two dozen specialised health workers from Cuba. Nonetheless, it was Sankara’s ability to draw inspiration from other countries without relinquishing Burkina Faso’s own independence that characterised his eclectic ‘third way’ stance. For the frustrated Western powers who stood on the sidelines, observing this activity with mounting concern, the elimination of Sankara and his government became an increasing priority.In mid-October 1987, Sankara – by now a veteran of the miltary coup d’etat – was himself subject to the indignities of forced regime change. Incredibly, the figure behind this overthrow was none other than Blaise Compaoré. Just four years after their memorable August 1983 coup, his old friend was conspiring against the very revolutionary government which they had helped to establish.
Sankara certainly had his enemies. Apart from the disgruntled collaborationists and powerful elites that he had removed from power, as well as the ever-present threat of Western imperialism itself, both Mali and Togo had moved closer to the French and the Ivory Coast’s Houphouët-Boigny was openly collaborating with France. The latter was a close friend of Compaoré and thus likely to have been one of the prime culprits in the removal of Sankara. On the other hand, the growing resentment in the left-wing union movement was enough to render Sankara’s position on the domestic front increasingly untenable. Despite the persecution that took place under his government, however, it is widely believed that Sankara had remained true to his original vision, but those around him had descended into corruption and towards the end of his time in power the Burkinabé leader made frequent references to those who were unable to live up to their revolutionary principles.
On the morning of October 15th, 1987, Thomas Sankara met with his associate Valère Somé. As a result of the long-running dispute with LIPAD, Somé and several of his colleagues had earned themselves a favoured place in Sankara’s government and on this occasion they had met to discuss the growing tension between Compaoré and Sankara himself. That afternoon, around 4.30 p.m., as the thirty-seven year-old Sankara consulted with thirteen of his military aides at the Conseil de l’entente building in Ouagadougou, the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard coming from the courtyard. As Ernest Harsch explains:
Sankara’s driver and two of his bodyguards were the first to be killed. Upon hearing the gunfire, everyone in the meeting room quickly took cover. Sankara then got up and told his aides to stay inside for their own safety. “It’s me they want.” He left the room, hands raised, to face the assailants. He was shot several times, and died without saying anything more.
Quickly stepping over the President’s lifeless body the uniformed assassins entered the meeting room and killed all but one of his aides. The lucky survivor, a man called Halouna Traoré who had pretended to be dead, later ensured that the gory details of this incident were recorded for posterity. What we know from this testimony is that Sankara’s body contained a total of 12 bullets and one of these had entered the armpit. In other words, when Sankara had been shot both hands had been raised. Whilst Compaoré later claimed that he had been ill in bed at the time of the attack, those responsible for the murders were directly answerable to Compaoré himself and had come from the military base at Pô.
One hour after the brutal executions had taken place, it was announced on Radio Ouagadougou that Sankara was dead. In place of his short-lived government, so-called ‘patriotic forces’ established a triumvirate comprised of three principal figures: Compaoré, Zongo and Lingani. The actual nature of the new regime soon became evident in the immediate re-establishment of close ties with Neocolonialist collaborators like Togo and the Ivory Coast. By way of reward, Compaoré also travelled to Paris to receive the prized Légion d’honneur. Despite a series of illegitimate presidential elections and several decades of awful repression, the man who had plunged a dagger into the back of his old friend and revolutionary comrade was to rule from October 1987 to October 2014, when mass protests forced him to flee Ouagadougou and seek exile in the Ivory Coast.
Thomas Sankara – whose death report stated, quite outrageously, that he had died of ‘natural causes’ – was hurriedly interred amid the red dust of the capital’s Dagnoën cemetery on the very outskirts of Ouagadougou. Although thousands marched to his graveyard in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Compaoré soon saw to it that any lingering supporters of Sankarism were silenced. It was only when his own government was challenged during the first protests of the early-1990s, that Burkina Faso saw the revival of Sankara’s ideas and since that time the country has been host to various parties claiming to represent his enduring legacy. In May 2015, thanks to renewed pressure from the Sankara family, the former President’s remains were exhumed in line with a fresh enquiry into the circumstances of his death.
Finally, my own view is that despite his great honesty and integrity Sankara made little improvement on former Marxist systems. Rather than channel power from the grass-roots, as was the case with Qathafi’s Libya or other decentralised systems like Anarchism, the Left tends to centralise power to the extent that the only way it can be administered is through the wholesale suppression of those who disagree with the policies of the centre. Furthermore, by following the exploitative blueprint of the nation-state Sankara was inadvertently helping to maintain the colonialist model. His system was undoubtedly Postcolonialist in nature, which is why it was so dangerous for his enemies, but what was really required was a rejection of modern civilisation and a return to West Africa’s authentic tribal society.
On the other hand, it remains debatable whether Sankara was even a Marxist at all, but even if he had been he was undoubtedly far better than most Marxist or semi-Marxist leaders, at least if we ignore the wider problems of statism as a whole, but this has more to do with his resistance to the IMF and World Bank, his support for Pan-Africanism and female empowerment, and the political inspiration he drew from Muammar al-Qathafi.
This immensely popular figure with the easy smile and humble demeanour should be remembered as a truly independent African leader who consistently refused to bow down to the jackals of international finance. For that he deserves our respect.