Ama Biney

Published in Pambazuka News 651 : SPECIAL ISSUE : Thomas Sankara and inventing Africa’s future : 26 years later 2013-10-24

Twenty-six years after the death of Sankara, it remains true that the essence of struggle is to mobilise people to believe in transforming their lives; that they have the capacity to dare to invent the future through collective struggle, rather than belief in an awaited messiah to lead them

Thomas Sankara remains one of Africa’s illustrious Pan-African sons, but his thoughts and actions during his short life need to be remembered by a new generation of Africans. More importantly, in our present time, they need to be implemented to transform the lives of African people

In an interview conducted in 1985, Thomas Sankara said: ‘You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. Besides, it took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen.’ [1]

Today we must ask: where are the ‘mad’ women and men of Africa to carry out that ‘fundamental change’ that Africa needs? Twenty six years since the assassination of Sankara, to what extent have Africans ‘turn[ed] their back on the old formulas’ and had the courage to invent the future that Sankara aspired to? Instead, Africa has become immersed in greater financial debt and commitment to neo-liberalism – the ‘old formulas’ that have failed to produce any trickle down growth for the vast majority of African people. African governments and leaders since the murder of Sankara have adhered to conformity – the Washington Consensus; they have lacked the courage of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz to seek new alternatives and to put in place policies that meet the needs of their people. Such governments have failed to break with international monopoly capitalism. For a younger generation across the African continent, there is a need to revisit the speeches, life and thought of Thomas Sankara for his actions and thinking have a relevance to Africans and Africa today.

Sankara came to power in Upper Volta, as was the country’s colonial name, in 1984. In the short span of his life, before he was murdered by neo-colonial forces, he changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso – meaning the ‘land of upright people.’ Sankara spoke truth to power in attacking the debt trap of African countries; he believed in economic self-reliance and food security for the Burkinabé people; he banned tribute payments and rural poll taxes to the traditional leaders and promoted gender equality in a very patriarchal society.


On 26 March 1983 Sankara spoke to thousands at a rally in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and asked: ‘Who are the enemies of the people?’ [2] He declared: ‘The enemies of the people here inside the country are all those who have illicitly taken advantage of their social position and their place in the bureaucracy to enrich themselves. By means of bribery, manoeuvres, and forged documents, they have become shareholders in different companies.’ Furthermore, ‘they are that group of bourgeois who enrich themselves dishonestly through fraud and bribery, through the corruption of state officials, so that they can bring all kinds of products into Upper Volta, increasing the price tenfold. They are the enemies of the people.’ [3]

In his famous address to the heads of government at the July 1987 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit Sankara’s spoke without notes in a passionate condemnation of debt, another enemy of the African people. To cite him at some length, he said: ‘We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even more. That means we have been led to compromise our people for 50 years and more. Under its current form, that is imperialism controlled, debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aimed at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus each one of us becomes the financial slaves, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honour of repaying or not…Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure.’ [4]

It is evident that post-1987 OAU summit Sankara’s call ‘to create an Addis Ababa united front against debt’ did not materialise despite the fact that his contemporaries at that summit heartedly applauded him. Furthermore, Sankara said: ‘That is the only way to assert that refusing to repay is not an aggressive move from our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth.’ [5] In reality, none of his contemporaries had the audacity of will to enact a refusal to repay and therefore Africa continues to be saddled with debt to this day.

Just as Sankara passionately condemned debt as engendering re-enslavement of African people, if he were alive today he is likely to have questioned the mushrooming of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and home-grown African NGOs that have supplanted the developmental role of the state. Such organisations have created dependence in the African people on outsiders and the sycophantic African elite, rather than the self-reliance and self-sufficiency he believed in.

The enemies of the African people today continue to be a corrupt neo-colonial leadership class in Africa who siphon the wealth of their countries to enrich themselves and their Western allies. It continues to be the fundamentalisms, whether of the market or in Christian, Islamic or homophobic manifestations. Market terrorism causes misery in the lives of the vast majority of African people who continue to live on a dollar a day and many cannot afford medicines to cure ailments that are taken for granted in the West by social security systems, or the ability to pay for medicine.

Yet if Sankara were alive today, it is likely he would identify new enemies of the African people in African governments who engage in land leases, or ‘land grabs’, with foreign investors to the long-term detriment of their people; climate change that has been caused largely by countries of the Northern Hemisphere and their addiction to fossil fuels and the adverse impact it is having in particular regions of Africa; the seductions of African governments to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by agribusiness; that the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed on many African countries during the 1980s and 1990s have been reconfigured into neoliberal policies that are anathema to the genuine interests of African people; that the buzzword of globalisation – which was not popularised during Sankara’s lifetime – has become a figleaf for the march of vulturistic capitalism around the world. Similarly during Sankara’s lifetime he supported a ‘New International Economic Order’ founded on ‘the right to independence, self-determination in government forms and structures, the right to development’ [6] – but since the death of Sankara, it is only Western liberal democracy and the reign of the free market that has the right to exist. Alternative paths of constructing society and achieving economic development other than the models exalted in the West are considered inconceivable. Instead the doctrine of humanitarian intervention and ‘regime change’ are the dressed-up forms of imperialism, and the market is considered the panacea to all problems. The engagement of African armies in joint military training programmes under the auspices of AFRICOM is also an enemy of the African people that Sankara is likely to have condemned if he were alive today, for in a speech to African Americans in Harlem in October 1984 he mentioned in passing that: ‘Many African countries prefer to organise their military manoeuvres jointly with foreign powers.’ [7]


In 1984 Sankara unapologetically sided with the oppressed people of South Africa, Namibia and ‘the Saharaoui people in their struggle to recover their national territory.’ [8] In the summer of 1984 Burkina Faso, under Sankara’s leadership, pulled out of the Olympic Games. Sankara said at the time: ‘Upper Volta decided not to go, and Burkina Faso has upheld that decision – not because there is not much hope of us bringing home medals, no! – but out of principle. These games, like all other platforms, should be used by us to denounce our enemies and the racism of South Africa. We cannot participate in these games side by side with those who support South Africa’s racist policies and those who reject the warnings and condemnations that Africans make aimed at weakening racist South Africa. We do not agree with these forces and have chosen not to participate in the games, even if it means never going to another Olympic Games.’ [9]

Today, whilst both South Africa and Namibia are formally independent and ruled by African majorities, the people of the Western Sahara continue to remain under occupation by Morocco. Today, which African leader publicly sides with the Palestinian and Saharaoui peoples and demands the withdrawal of Morocco and Israel from the land of the Saharaoui and Palestinian people?

Sankara’s internationalism extended to communist Cuba and in September 1984 he received the highest honour of the Cuban government, the José Marti Order , which, as the Cuban Minister of Culture, Armando Hart, declared, ‘is a token of well-deserved recognition for those who have rendered outstanding service to the cause of their people, to international relations between our countries; to dignity and honour; or to the struggle against imperialism, colonial and neo-colonial domination, and for genuine liberation.’ [10] On receiving the award, Sankara said of the great José Marti: ‘This man who died at Dos Rios fighting for the freedom of all the world’s peoples belongs to us all – to Cuba and to Burkina Faso.’ [11]

Similarly, Sankara’s internationalism extended to his visit to Grenada where he met the then Prime Minister Maurice Bishop before he was tragically assassinated by the forces of imperialism. In his address to the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem in October 1984, Sankara mentioned his meeting with Bishop and how they gave each other ‘some mutual advice.’ He also watched a ballet at the school and told the crowd: ‘As I watched your ballet, I really thought I was in Africa’ – to which he received an applause that was prolonged when he added: ‘That is why, as I have always said – and I’ll say it again – that our White House is in black Harlem.’ [12]

Sankara was clear that in constructing African unity it was not anti-other people in the world, for the African ethic of Ubuntu espouses a genuine love of all humanity in its diverse ethnicities and creeds. In his own words, Sankara told the crowd at the Harriet Tubman School: ‘Our struggle is a call for building. But our demand is not to build a world for blacks alone and against other men. As black people, we want to teach other people how to love each other.’ He urged the crowd: ‘ Don’t ever be ashamed of being African!’ [13]

Sankara supported the Non-Aligned Movement and considered his country part of the so-called ‘Third World’ – ‘a world invented at the time of formal independence in order to better perpetuate foreign control of our intellectual, cultural, economic, and political life.’ [14]

Sankara was in support of ending the hegemony of Western imperialism and in support of solidarity between people-led movements and governments in the South with people-led movements in the North. Hence, in our current world, if he were alive today surely he would have supported the demand for justice of those languishing for decades in Guantanamo Bay who have been presumed guilty before being tried; he would have questioned the right of America to seek to impose its will on the peoples and governments of the entire planet by spying on them. It is likely Sankara would have stood in solidarity with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil at the recent opening of the UN General Assembly when she characterised the American surveillance program as ‘a breach of international law’ and ‘a situation of grave violation of human rights and civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities; and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.’ Similarly, Sankara would have considered the July 2013 forcing down of the aircraft of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was denied air space by France, Portugal and Spain as officials from Austria demanded to ‘inspect’ his plan for the wanted Edward Snowden. As the journalist John Pilger characterises it, it was ‘an act of air piracy and state terrorism’. It ‘was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name.’ [15]


On 4 October 1984 Sankara gave an address to the Thirty-ninth Session of the UN General Assembly in which he made several salient points. First, he declared: ‘We must state categorically that there is no salvation for our people unless we turn our backs on all the models that charlatans of all types have tried to sell us for twenty years. There is no salvation outside of this rejection. There is no development separate from a rupture of this kind.’ [16] He proceeded to castigate ‘the educated African petty bourgeoisie of Africa – if not of the entire Third World – for failing ‘to give up its privileges, either because of intellectual laziness or simply because it has tasted the Western way of life.’ [17] He denounced them as: ‘Passive and pathetic consumers, they wallow in terminology fetishized by the West just as they wallow in Western whiskey and champagne in shady-looking lounges.’ [18]

Second, Sankara denounced ‘the policy of foreign aid and assistance’ for it has ‘produced nothing but disorganisation and continued enslavement. It robbed us of our sense of responsibility for our own economic, political, and cultural territory.’ [19] Third, he reiterated his stand with the peoples of Afghanistan, Ireland, Grenada, East Timor, Western Sahara, South Africa, and Ireland at a time when all these peoples confronted political and economic domination. He specifically condemned foreign aggression against the island of Grenada and all outside intervention. It is to be remembered that on 19 October 1983 the revolutionary government led by Maurice Bishop was overthrown in a coup organised by neo-colonial forces led by Bernard Coard, a member of Bishop’s government.

Lastly, Sankara dared to challenge the structures of the UN when he said towards the end of his speech these words: ‘We also propose that the structures of the UN be changed to put an end to the scandal surrounding the right to veto. It is true that the most diabolical effects of its abuse have been offset by the vigilance of certain of those who hold this right. Nothing, however, can justify such a right – neither the size of the country that has it nor the wealth that country might possess.’ [20] Furthermore, he valiantly declared: ‘Let there be an end to the arrogance of the big powers who miss no opportunity to put the rights of the people in question. Africa’s absence from the club of those who have the right to veto is unjust and should be ended.’ [21]

Surely after 50 years of the undemocratic exercise of the veto of the five permanent members of the Security Council (SC) of the UN that purports to support democracy, justice and equality for all nations needs to be overhauled and replaced with the democratic voice and majority of the UN General Assembly as its highest decision making body? Surely if the UN were a democratic forum, the fact that over many years the overwhelming majority of the GA – that comprises 193 nations of the world who have voted for the end of US sanctions against Cuba – would have been implemented a long time ago, if not for the vindictive arrogance of the veto of the SC and specifically the power of Uncle Sam?


In March1985 Sankara gave an interview with the news magazine, Intercontinental Press, in which he evaluated a year and half of revolution in Burkina Faso. He was totally candid in conceding that ‘material transformations in the lives of the people had not yet been completed. However, schools, clinics, dams, roads and housing for ordinary people had been achieved’. Sankara was open in saying the following: ‘The most important thing for us, however, is not what is lacking. Most important is the effort we have made to transform people’s attitudes.’ [22] He went on to define this as the ‘neo-colonial spirit that exists in this country;’ the machinations of imperialism to dominate the country from within and without’ and his appreciation that: ‘We still have many struggles ahead of us to combat imperialism.’ [23]

Twenty-six years since the death of Sankara, it remains that the essence of struggle is to mobilise people to believe in transforming their lives; that they have the capacity to dare to invent the future through collective struggle, rather than belief in an awaited messiah to lead them. Yet, bringing about socio-economic and cultural change that tackles the creation of new values, attitudes, images, that challenge the backward concepts of masculinity and patriarchy will not be easy for cultural conditioning, taboos and socialisation are not easily abandoned. Sankara recognised this when he gave his famous address to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 1987 in the Burkinabé capital. He spoke to thousands of women in a highly political speech in which he said that the Burkinabé revolution was ‘establishing new social relations’ between men and women which would be ‘upsetting the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. This task is formidable but necessary.’ [24]


Little credit or appreciation is given to Sankara’s foresight back in the early stages of the Burkinabé revolution in his understanding of climate change issues that have now gained greater global understanding and awareness. Sankara was clearly in the forefront of this understanding and action against encroaching desertification in Africa. As he made known at the First International Tree and Forest Conference in Paris in February 1986, his country was located in the heart of the Sahel and therefore his people had to learn to live in harmony with nature. In January 1985 a huge programme by the name of People’s Harvest of Forest Nurseries was begun in the country to supply 7,000 village nurseries. This was to address the fact that, as he said at this conference, ‘colonialism has pillaged our forests without the least thought of replenishing them for our tomorrows.’ [26] Back in 1986 he correctly denounced ‘fallacious Malthusian arguments’ that Africa was overpopulated and made a radical proposal that ‘at least 1 percent of the colossal sums of money sacrificed to the search for cohabitation with other planets be used by way of compensation to finance the fight to save our trees and life.’ To cite him at some length, Sankara eloquently declared:

While we have not abandoned hope that a dialogue with the Martians could result in the reconquest of Eden, we believe that in the meantime, as earthlings, we also have the right to reject an alternative limited to simply a choice between hell or purgatory.

‘Explained in this way, our struggle to defend the trees and the forest is first and foremost a democratic struggle that must be waged by the people. The sterile and expensive excitement of a handful of engineers and forestry experts will accomplish nothing! Nor can the tender consciences of a multitude of forums and institutions – sincere and praiseworthy though they may be – make the Sahel free again, when we lack the funds to drill wells for drinking water just a hundred meters deep, and money abounds to drill oil wells three thousand meters deep!’ [27]

Added to this, there is no doubt that if Sankara were alive today he may well have sided in solidarity with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador who in 2007 was forced on account of the mobilisation of Ecuadorean civil society environmental groups not to drill for the 850 million barrels a day of oil lying in the Yasuni national park. The decision was in order to prevent tonnes of dangerous CO2 emissions and to destroy the livelihoods of the indigenous groups who live in the region. [28] But this proposal was dependent on the international community taking a shared responsibility for safeguarding the global environment and making financial contributions to the radical conservation plan not to drill for oil. In 2007 the oil revenues were worth $3.6bn and the Ecuadorean government announced it would forgo half the revenues if it received the other half through international compensation based on donations placed in a UN administered trust. Sadly in August 2013 the Ecuadorean government had to abandon the Yasuni ITT initiative stating that the international community and particularly the developed nations of the world who have contributed the most to the destruction of the planet demonstrated a half-hearted attempt to not only contribute to the fund but also to tackle climate change. [29] Surely Sankara would not have remained silent on this particular international issue and that of climate change confronting Africa if he were alive today?


There is no doubt that the ideological and political thought of Thomas Sankara remains relevant for African people in our present time. The issues of neo-colonialism, imperialism, climate change, the cultural attitudes and inequalities that continue to hold back African women and men, the economic domination of African economies, disunity and corruption remain twenty six years since Sankara’s assassination by neo-colonial forces. These issues were dominant during the life of Sankara and continue to remain dominant in the lives of African people. I repeat: where are the ‘mad’ women and men of Africa to carry out that ‘fundamental change’ that Africa needs? Do they have the courage to dare to invent the future?

* Ama Biney (Dr) is the Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News and a scholar-activist


– [1] See ‘Thomas Sankara Speaks The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87, Pathfinder 1988, p. 144.
– [2] Ibid, pp.11-20.
– [3] Ibid, p.12.
4] See ‘ Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara ‘Against Debt’ Speech part 1’ [
– [5] Ibid.
– [6] See ‘Thomas Sankara Speaks,’ p. 93.
– [7] Ibid, p.82.
– [8] Ibid, p. 54.
– [9] Ibid, p. 71.
– [10] Ibid, p. 74.
– [11] Ibid,p. 77.
– [12] Ibid, p. 81.
– [13] Ibid, p. 83.
– [14] Ibid, p. 86.
15] See [ accessed 28 September 2013.
– [16] Ibid, p. 86.
– [17] Ibid, p. 87.
– [18] Ibid, p. 87.
[19] Ibid, p. 89.
[20] Ibid, p. 98.
[21] Ibid, p. 98.
[22] Ibid, p. 101.
[23] Ibid, p. 102.
[24] Ibid, p. 202.
[25] Ibid, p. 156.
[26] Ibid, p. 155.
[27] Ibid, pp.155-156.
28] See [ accessed 28 September 2013
29] See [ accessed 28 September 2013

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