Published the 3th January 2016 on http://libeafrica4.blogs.liberation.fr/
by Vincent Hiribarren
Brian J. Peterson is an associate professor of history at Union College (New York). He received his PhD in history from Yale University in 2005. He has written a book on processes of Islamization in southern Mali under French colonial rule, «Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960» (Yale University Press, 2011). He has also written articles on the colonial history of southern Mali for Journal of African History, and numerous news analyses on politics in Mali and Burkina Faso for African Arguments and Think Africa Press. Currently, he is completing a book on Thomas Sankara and the revolution in Burkina Faso, entitled «Sankara: A Revolutionary Life and Legacy in West Africa» (forthcoming with Indiana University Press).
Who was Thomas Sankara and why is he still such an important figure in Burkina Faso?
Captain Thomas Sankara was a visionary revolutionary leader in the late Cold War era in francophone Africa. After coming to power on August 4, 1983 through a popular insurrection and military coup d’état, the young military officer immediately set his sights on combatting social injustices, poverty, and corruption within the newly renamed Burkina Faso (“The Land of Honest Men”). He was a charismatic figure and gifted orator, who fought tirelessly to improve the lives of peasants, women, and the youth. He read extensively, particularly revolutionary classics and was deeply engaged with political debates among civilian groups. As he often said, “A Soldier without Political Education is a Potential Criminal.”
Despite the fact that Sankara was a soldier, he was widely embraced because many saw his revolution as a sign that things were finally going in the right direction in Africa. He was seeking a renewal of society and leading a revolution in the true sense of the word. Many Africans, both within Burkina Faso and in neighboring countries, felt that for the first time in years Africa had a leader with the genuine interest of the people at heart. His speeches and political actions held the kind of promise that Africans had not seen since the early years of independence; his words represented a kind of revolutionary humanism that fused socialist, Pan-Africanist, feminist, and environmentalist ideas with that of the Catholic principles in which he had been raised. For many youth during the so-called “Lost Decade” of the 1980s, Sankara emerged as a powerful symbol of resistance and hope across Africa.
Why did Thomas Sankara become such an iconic figure in West Africa?
As a committed Pan-Africanist and vocal anti-imperialist, Sankara fought to break the neocolonial control that France still exercised over its former colonies while forging a non-aligned path during the Cold War. He opposed the neoliberal reforms, and attendant structural adjustment programs, that were sweeping across Africa at the time. And he focused on concrete ways to make his country more self-reliant, envisioning it as a truly independent nation and equal partner in international trade and diplomacy, rather than a mere aid recipient and subservient political pawn. He was also hugely popular figure within Burkina Faso and across Africa because he was a new kind of leader, a true “man of integrity” who lived modestly and refused to fall into the trap of using state power for self-enrichment. In this way, Sankara represented a radical departure from existing systems of governance in Africa, which had been fraught with corruption, growing indebtedness, and authoritarian rule. Unfortunately just as Burkina Faso was becoming a model of sustainable development and more transparent governance, the revolution tragically ended on October 15, 1987 when Sankara, at 37 years old, was assassinated in a plot organized by his close friend, Blaise Compaoré. Certainly Sankara’s death was viewed as a kind of martyrdom, and it played an important role in assuring him a place in the pantheon of African political heroes, alongside Patrice Lumumba, Kwamé Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, and so forth.
I think that Sankara’s staying power has a lot to do with his visionary ideas and political practices. For example he was far ahead of his times on many pressing social, political, economic and environmental issues. Sankara took steps to liberate women long before other African heads of state considered such measures. He imposed austerity measures in a manageable way, by eliminating every last privilege of governing elites, while expanding education and health care. And during one of the worst droughts and famines in the West African Sahel, Sankara embraced policies aimed at enabling his country to live within its means while battling to stop the spread of the Sahara through massive reforestation campaigns. He worked to confront the perennial problem of debt in African countries, and proposed building a “united front” to force more favorable terms. But most of all, he led a “revolution of the mentalities,” inspiring his people to “transform their realities.” In doing so, Sankara experimented with new structures and ideas of radical or direct democracy, empowering villagers to form local cooperatives and elected political bodies in which they had a voice and were able to take initiatives in improving their lives.
What does your book bring to the existing scholarship on Sankara?
The book that I’m writing, which I’m tentatively calling Sankara: A Revolutionary Life and Legacy in West Africa (forthcoming with Indiana University Press) will be a complete biography and study of Sankara’s political thought and practice, and posthumous legacy. Based on a wide range of untapped written sources and extensive interviews with his friends, family, colleagues, foreign diplomats, journalists, and ordinary people, it tells the story of Sankara’s life from his modest origins during the colonial period through the revolution that he led in the 1980s. It situates Sankara’s biography within multiple contexts and intertwined histories – French colonial and post-colonial West African history, the Cold War, Pan-Africanism, the international left, Third World social movements, and the West African Sahel. More broadly, I’m writing this book as a contribution to the field of African political biography, which has long been in the doldrums. In contrast to other parts of the world, there has been surprisingly little written on African leaders, aside from commissioned hagiographies. And yet, as is often noted, because of the weak institutions and ubiquity of “big man” politics in Africa, leaders have often had an outsize influence in their countries. This has meant that African leaders, particularly those in the first generation after independence, remained in power for decades, leaving a deep imprint on the continent. While this book focuses mainly on the life of Thomas Sankara, it also seeks to use political biography in order to explore local, national and transnational political networks. As such, large portions of the book focus on Sankara’s ties to the civilian political parties and labor unions, as well as his intellectual influences.
Sankara was a polarizing figure, particularly as he threatened the established political order in Africa and beyond. For many African heads of state, the Sankarist revolution called into question their modes of governance; the young revolutionary took controversial stances at every turn, seeking to disrupt transnational networks of corruption and aid dependency. Furthermore, Sankara’s non-aligned political moves were seen as a threat to the French and U.S. governments. In the Western media, journalists often misunderstood and misrepresented Sankara, narrowly portraying him as a “communist” and “friend of Qaddafi.” And yet for those who lived through the revolutionary period, including his closest friends and allies, Sankara was also a man of contradictions who, by his own admission, made many mistakes along the way. Therefore, while telling the story of Sankara’s life, this book also seeks to explore the numerous tensions between the various images and representations of him in local, national, and transnational settings.
In the end, Sankara threatened to disrupt the status quo and simply did not fit into the established political rules of the game. The forces arrayed against him were too great. Indeed, many Western and African leaders took solace knowing that the contagion of Sankara’s revolution had not spread. But for ordinary Africans, they saw the assassination of Sankara as a betrayal, and a betrayal that affected all of Africa. In time, however, Sankara’s martyrdom ensured that his revolutionary ideas would live on. And within Burkina Faso, the youth embraced him as their revolutionary patron saint; they drew strength from his words, and eventually joined the political opposition. This led to a broad-based social movement and popular insurrection, which culminated in the overthrow of Blaise Compaoré after twenty-seven years in power. Now, as Burkina Faso enters a new democratic era filled with hope, Sankara’s ideas and legacy will be even more important. In 1985, when the journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp asked Sankara about the possibility of being “physically eliminated,” and what his legacy might be, Sankara replied, “I would simply hope that my contribution had served to convince the most disbelieving that there exists a force, called the people, and that we must fight for and with the people.”
Interview by Vincent Hiribarren