Twenty two years ago one of the greatest leaders Africa has seen was brutally assassinated. Thomas Sankara, a charismatic military leader in the West African country of Upper Volta, was put under house arrest in 1983, for his attacks on the corrupt practises of the government and French imperial domination of the country. This triggered a mass uprising which not only freed Sankara but swept away the government – and installed him as President.
One of his first actions as President was to lead a fight against the oppression of women, which was deeply ingrained in Upper Volta. The new revolutionary government outlawed female circumcision (a common practice at the time) as well as formally condemning polygamy, and promoting contraception.
Sankara, argued that improving women’s backward status was a key pillar of the revolution, saying,
“You are our mothers, life companions, our comrades in struggle and because of this fact you should by right affirm yourselves as equal partners in the joyful victory feasts of the revolution. We must restore to humanity your true image by…eliminating all kinds of hypocrisy that sustain the shameless exploitation of women.”
These were not just words; the new government included a large number of women and Sankara symbolically employed an all-women armed motorcade as his personal guard.
The government also denounced apartheid and occupation at home – in South Africa and Western Sahara – as well as abroad (Israel) and supported the revolutionary governments in Cuba and Nicaragua.
On the first anniversary of the revolution, the country’s colonial name was wiped off the map and replaced with a name combining the two major languages of the country: “ Burkina Faso” (Land of the Upright People). This was soon followed by nationalizations of the mineral wealth and land and the setting up of Committees for Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), which were mass organizations of armed peasants and workers to defend these gains.
With the help of Cuban volunteer doctors, ‘Vaccination Commando’ was organised; a massive programme which immunized over 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in just 15 days.
In 1985 a huge housing drive was established, and a massive reforestation campaign was launched, mobilising millions of Burkinabé toilers to plant 10 million trees to combat the growing spread of the Sahara desert. This was the first mass ecosocialist programme of any revolutionary government in Africa, and was massively popular.
These mass campaigns and social welfare programmes earned the hatred of the imperialists. At the Organisation of African Unity Conference in Addis Ababa in 1985, Sankara condemned the imperialist debt burden on African nations:
“The debt is another form of neo-colonialism … [it] cannot be repaid, first of all, because, if we don’t pay, the lenders won’t die. Of that you can be sure. On the other hand, if we do pay, we are the ones who will die. Of that you can be equally sure.
“Those who led us into debt were gambling, as if they were in a casino. As long as they were winning, there was no problem. Now that they’re losing their bets, they demand repayment. There is talk of a crisis. No, Mr. President. They gambled. They lost. Those are the rules of the game. Life goes on.”
There was also a growing bourgeois element within the country who were angered at their loss of privileges. Tragically this included Sankara’s long term comrade Blaise Compaoré, who organized and assassinated Sankara and dozens of revolutionaries in the government on the October 15 1987.
This counter-revolutionary government set about reversing the gains of the revolution, and to this day Compaoré is still leading a brutal and corrupt capitalist dictatorship, with full support from the IMF/World Bank
The revolution may have been reversed but there are still fights exploding to commemorate Sankara’s death officially. The struggle is not lost, as Sankara himself said, in Burkina Faso, “There are 15 million Thomas Sankaras.”