Thomas Sankara remains a revered figure in Burkina Faso and Africa long after his death.
The Greek financial crisis last year highlighted the extent to which we have bought into the idea that there is no alternative to the increasing subordination of society to capital. The democratic moment that excited so many people around the world soon passed.
Even Yanis Varoufakis, the lone Greek hero taking on the medusa-like power of the European Union, has capitulated.
These experiences are all too familiar in Africa where sovereignty has often been ground away in the cycle of loans, debt and structural adjustment. As Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso for four years in the 1980s, famously argued:
Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonisers transformed themselves into “technical assistance”. We should say “technical assassins”.
In a 1986 speech at the Organisation for African Unity in Addis Ababa, Sankara asked his fellow African leaders to challenge the use of debt to enable neo-colonialism saying:
The Paris Club is there; let’s create the Addis Ababa Club for cancelling our foreign debt. Our Club should say: our debt will not be paid.
Sankara’s advice was not heeded and throughout the 1980s indebted African countries had to surrender their autonomy to Structural Adjustment Programmes. Since then it has largely been accepted that there is no alternative to the domination of imperial overlords and the financial interests that they serve.
Today, many African countries continue to creep along a predetermined path that takes them away from any real possibility to defend their sovereignty and meet the needs of their people.
But, especially among the young, the memory of those who were brave enough to forge or think about alternative paths have become icons of a new politics of hope. This includes people like Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Steve Bantu Biko in South Africa.
With eyes of the world focused on the unfolding crisis in Greece, Sankara has taken on a new relevance. And as endemic corruption deepens in many African countries, Sankara – who, like the French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, was universally acknowledged to be incorruptible – has also become a symbol for the possibility of a virtuous politics.
Sankara was not one for the empty revolutionary rhetoric and posturing without effective commitment to action. He was committed to taking real action in the real world. Immediately after assuming power he took decisive steps to set about building an alternative society outside of the long arms of the global financial organisations.
With years of military discipline behind him, along with substantial leadership experience, the young and charismatic Sankara was able to hit the ground running as soon as he took up his presidency. Within a week of taking office he set up a massive vaccination program to deal with polio, meningitis and measles.
Sankara also set up feeding schemes and massive housing and infrastructure projects. In addition to this, he created more than 7000 village nursery projects to deal with deforestation. He also built over 700 kilometres of rail to foster industry.
Sankara was also a militant feminist who not only opposed traditional patriarchal practices prevalent in Bukinabé society, but also took on the sexism of his supposedly revolutionary comrades. In a speech in 1987, he insisted that the overthrow of patriarchy would not be complete as long as:
… the new kind of woman must live with the old kind of man.
Once again, this was not just empty posturing. Sankara put in place a variety of measures to transform the condition of women, including literacy programmes, the establishment of village clinics, co-ops and market associations.
A family code was also established so that divorce by mutual consent became possible; widows were no longer required to remarry their deceased husband’s brothers; widows could also inherit; and the practice of bride-wealth was suppressed. Sankara’s feminism took the form of practical action intimately tied to broader questions of social justice.
Burkino Faso under Sankara was certainly not perfect. He was often criticised for suppressing press freedom and some unions, and for his swift punishment of corrupt officials.
Sankara was murdered in October 1987 by a group of armed men on the orders of Blaise Compaoré during a coup d'état. In the years following his assassination many of the changes Sankara initiated were revoked. By 2014, Burkino Faso was considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world.
Despite the authoritarian aspects of Sankara’s radicalism he has remained very popular in Burkino Faso, especially among young people. The Burkinabé uprising of 2014, which resulted in the ousting of Compaoré, was in part spurred by the memory of Sankara.
Around the world young people often find themselves coming of age in a moment when politics seems to be more about grubby personal interests than any attempt to reorganise society in the interests of justice. Strong figures who are incorruptible and driven by a resolute commitment to justice are often attractive.
It’s no surprise that in South Africa, as in much of the continent, Sankara is rapidly taking his place in the pantheon of heroes.
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