Burkina Faso’s pure president
Burkina Faso’s pure president
By Bruno Jaffré
Translated by Barry Smerin
Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, was assassinated 20 years ago. His original ideas for his country prefigured the alternative world movement and current approaches to change in Africa and South America
He was born on 21 December 1949 in what was then
He witnessed the overthrow of Philibert Tsiranana’s neo-colonialist regime in
Poorest of the poor
Another army faction was discredited along with Ki-Zerbo’s party, and a second coup followed in November 1982. It marked the beginning of the divide between those who wanted institutional continuity and the group of revolutionary officers around Sankara. He was appointed prime minister and used his position to exacerbate the conflict at public meetings where he denounced imperialism and the enemies of the people.
He was arrested on 17 May 1983, just as Guy Penne, François Mitterrand’s adviser on African affairs, landed in the capital,
When he became president, Sankara defined his main aims as: “Refusing a state of mere survival, relieving the pressure on society, freeing the countryside from mediaeval immobility and regression, establishing democracy, opening people’s minds to collective responsibility so that they dare invent the future. Breaking the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and rebuilding the administration by changing the image of the public official. Putting our army among the people through productive work and reminding it constantly that a soldier without patriotic training is no more than a potential criminal.” It was a huge task.
Land of the righteous
Sankara made no secret of his Marxist leanings, which were not shared by many of his associates. To surround himself with competent, motivated people, he built up a group of 150 carefully selected presidential aides who, with a few political ideologists, became the best-educated administrators.
Projects abounded, and the president often imposed impossible deadlines for feasibility studies. For Sankara, the revolution meant practical improvement of living conditions. It was a break with the past in all areas: transformation of the administration; redistribution of wealth; women’s liberation; abolition of the powers of the tribal chiefs, who were held responsible for rural backwardness; the attempt to turn the peasantry into a revolutionary social class; transformation of the army, which was placed at the service of the people and assigned production tasks; decentralisation and the introduction of direct democracy via local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). They all combined with the fight against corruption. On 4 August 1984
The National Council of the Revolution (CNR) – officers and PAI and ULC-R activists – launched a People’s Development Plan under which the provinces were to define their own objectives and find the means to achieve them. Sankara summed up: “The most important thing is to give the people confidence, to help them understand that they can at last define their own happiness, to enable them to decide on their own aims and understand the price to be paid.”
The CNR practised what it preached: operating costs were cut in favour of investment and production was rationalised. The investment drive was a 5% to 12% direct levy on wages, although rents were free for a year. A neglected industrial zone in
The aim was to promote autonomous economic development that did not depend on outside aid. Sankara said: “Food aid… becomes embedded in our brains. Enough of reacting like beggars living on handouts. We have to produce, produce more, because he who feeds you will also impose his will on you.”
Under the slogan “Produce and Consume Burkinabe”, imports of fruit and vegetables were banned to encourage traders to look for produce in the southeast of the country. This was a region that was difficult to access and had been neglected in favour of the markets of
Sankara was a forerunner of the environmental protection movement. Pointing to human responsibility for encroachment of the desert, he noted its practical consequences. In April 1985 the CNR launched the “three struggles” campaign against brush fires, abusive woodcutting and straying domestic animals. Peasants built storage dams, often with their bare hands, and the government restarted work on large-scale dam projects. Sankara denounced the insufficiency of aid from
As a spokesman for the third world, Sankara criticised the international order. His themes – the injustice inflicted by globalisation and the international financial system, the omnipresence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the vicious circle of third world debt – were similar to the modern alternative world movement. Sankara argued that third world debt was caused by the “alluring proposals of technical assassins” from financial institutions. Debt was the means for “the deliberately organised reconquest of
Sankara gave considerable thought to the practical implementation of democracy, emancipating the working classes and women. “Democracy means using the full potential of the people. The ballot box and an electoral system do not prove the existence of democracy. There is no real democracy where those in power call elections from time to time and concern themselves with the people only in the run-up to an election… There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms – economic, military, political, social and cultural – is in the hands of the people.”
The CDRs, set up so rapidly, were responsible for exercising power in the name of the people. Their work went beyond public security: political education, sanitation, development of production and participation in budget control in the ministries. They discussed and rejected several national projects. But they were also responsible for many excesses and acts of repression. They spearheaded attacks on the unions, which they considered dangerous because unions were controlled by such organisations as the PAI, which went into opposition in August 1984, and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Volta. Sankara was the first to denounce the excesses and shortcomings of the CDRs, which were often due to in-fighting among organisations supporting the revolution.
By 1987 Sankara was an embarrassment whose popular campaign against neocolonialism was a threat to less radical West African presidents and to
François Xavier Verschave claims: “Muammar Gadafy and Françafrique (2) had more and more causes in common, cemented by anti-Americanism and enlightened self-interest. The elimination of Sankara was probably the founding rite in their alliance. In 1987 Foccart and the people round Gadafy agreed to replace the exasperatingly honest and independent leader by the infinitely more amenable Blaise Compaoré.” (3).
Sankara was killed on 15 October 1987. Compaoré succeeded him and became a faithful executor of neo-liberal doctrine and Houphouët-Boigny’s successor as
Compaoré’s takeover as president had consequences beyond
Everything has been done to erase Sankara, yet he is still present in recordings, oral tradition, films, documentaries and books, and the internet is enhancing his impact. The International Campaign for Justice for Thomas Sankara has demanded an official inquiry into his murder and is continuing to petition after the UN Commission on Human Rights recognised that demand in March 2006. The procedure has not yet been concluded and
Bruno Jaffré is co-editor of the website www.thomassankara.net and author of Biographie de Thomas Sankara: La patrie ou la mort, 1997, to be republished in a new expanded edition by L’Harmattan,
(1) Jacques Foccart (1913-1997) was a French presidential adviser on African affairs from 1960 to 1974; he became the symbol of the dark side of the French presence in
(2) Françafrique is the term applied to the French president’s special personal relationships with African leaders, respectable or not.
(3) François-Xavier Verschave, Noir Silence, Les Arènes, Paris, 2000.