Bruno Jaffre translated from French for Pambazuka News by Lorraine Thompson.

Published in Pambazuka News 651 : SPECIAL ISSUE : Thomas Sankara and inventing Africa’s future : 26 years later 2013-10-25

Thomas Sankara was a visionary. He was very ambitious and wanted the Burkinabe revolution to bear immediate fruits for his people, and he paid no attention to the political intrigues of the time, which culminated in his assassination. His single-minded determination to serve his people is a lesson for all who aspire to public office

The consternation of a man always ahead of his entourage, betrayal by a friend, destruction of a family losing a beloved one, the life of Thomas Sankara ended in tragedy. The height at which he always refused, despite strong pressure from his entourage, to eliminate his opponent who was also his best friend, is enough to place him among the rank of great men of modern history. One rests in peace with himself, while the other has to live with his conscience.

Young people need heroes. It is better that their heroes be human beings made of flesh and blood rather than these money-making machines who are stars of show business, manufactured by multinationals. It is better that their imagination be captured by human qualities and by struggles against exploitation and injustice and for greater solidarity than by the phenomenal money that stars make and fall into the hands of the those who are in the shadows manipulating them like puppets.

Originally the word hero meant demi-goods, that is to say those beings who were half-humans half-gods. The ‘heroes’ created by marketing companies have lost all forms of humanity even though the profits made by their promoters are all too real. The doubts, the questions, the hesitations even the mistakes of Thomas Sankara remind us that he was profoundly human. What’s more, he was a very practical, down-to-earth person.

His popularity derived from the qualities that he used while in power: in his energy, his intelligence, his creativity, his resolution, the scope of work that he was able to accomplish, his ability to lead his entourage and his people, but also in his integrity and his moral rectitude. These qualities are all very human and very real. But they are very rarely found in the same man and to the same degree. His heroism lies in the value of the example that he represents, which increased tenfold his capacity to engender dreams, to lead his entourage as well as his people, all while staying very close to his people, both physically as well as through his use of language that all would understand.

Men of power have to go through so many stages, use so much spite, engage in so much dishonourable behaviour or compromise, get rid of so many rivals that once they have arrived at the top they often forgot the original purpose of their initial struggle. In the beginning they were not power-hungry, primarily motivated by thoughts of their own future.

Thomas Sankara was completely different. He came into power at a very young age. He tried to use his power without ever losing contact with his people. Just the opposite since he lost sleep to do so. He would go out among the people incognito and make impromptu visits to a village or to a community meeting place without any kind of protocol.

He tried to demystify power with humour. He succeeded in evading the ostentation and the failings in which so many avowed revolutionaries got lost. Instead, he assumed with dignity the poverty of his country not as a shame but as the result of the historical process and of the natural conditions due to its geographical position. As we have seen he refused several times to seize power with his comrades who pushed him to do so. In fact, it was not power that interested him but what could be done with it for his people. He felt that it was not yet time.

Thomas Sankara brought us back to reality time and again. Rather than dream of what tomorrow could bring, he focused his energy on building a real world right away. What were the objectives of the revolution? He believed it necessary to reiterate them forcefully at the height of the crisis in declaring shortly before his death:

‘Our revolution is and must be permanent. It is the collective action of revolutionaries to transform the reality and improve the lives of the people of our country. Our revolution will only have value if in looking behind us, in looking at our sides, and in looking ahead of us we can say that the Burkinabes are, thanks to the revolution, a little happier because they have potable water to drink, because they have plenty of food to eat, because they are in good health, because they have education, because they have decent housing, because they are better dressed, because they have the right to leisure time; because they enjoy more freedom, more democracy, more dignity. Our revolution should only exist if it addresses these issues concretely and positively.’

Is it only a dream to want to build a society in which this minimum can be realized? Certainly even the richest countries such as France or the United States have not managed to meet these needs for everyone. It is not because they lack the means but rather with globalization, now the motor of society is based on the search for profitability rather than the satisfaction of basic human needs. The word revolution is henceforth absent from political debate, as it has been so totally perverted. How can we make the satisfaction of basic human needs of primary importance again?

In the Burkina Faso of Thomas Sankara there was the revolution. The economy should be driven by needs and we were given the means to fight against those who opposed it. One did not simply dream of realizing these objectives, one worked hard at doing so. It was not a dream. The part that was a dream consisted perhaps in the speed at which the dream was to be achieved.

Many of Thomas Sankara’s elders had set the same goals, which when confronted with reality and the necessary actions to take and the need for carefully crafted plans, were lost with the passage of time. They ended with excuses and compromises resulting in personal gain amid a dictatorship while the people sank ever deeper into poverty.

It is in light of these betrayed revolutions in the Guinea of Sekou Toure, in the Benin of Mathieu Kerekou, in Madagascar of Didier Rasiraka, in the Congo of Sassou Guesso that we can better judge the work of Thomas Sankara.

The dream was not so much that these objectives were unrealistic but rather that he wanted them to be achieved right away. He was also so demanding because he did not want to be responsible for the umpteenth failure. The only real criticisms that could be leveled against him is that he took power when he was too young; that he wanted to move very quickly in a very difficult situation with respect to the objectives of the revolution and the available means to achieve them. In the end, Sankara can be reproached for having been too human, too sensitive. It is his humanity that forced him to push his entourage to tackle a task that many thought inhumane because it was too ambitious.

Here we come to the limits of the action of a man facing the objective realities in a specific historical context. Productive forces were hardly developed in Upper Volta. The revolution did not consist of seizing the property of the middle-class owners of the means of production which were quasi non-existent, to put them in the hands of the people, but rather to create a national industry. This cannot be done in four years. The peasantry was the main concern, but it was not yet politicized. A large part remained under the control of the chiefdom, and in many places farming methods were the same as those used before the time of colonization. Only cotton had received special attention. The revolution extended here by the development of productive forces, the modernization and the rationalization of agriculture, the development of industries, the implantation of a marketing system which freed farmers from the control of unscrupulous businessmen as well as the training of farmers, literacy programs and fight against the chiefdoms. The enemies of the people were limited to a few politicians who shared the power up until now and their few allies. But the arrested leaders were hardly heard from them during the process. Their parties ceased to exist showing how little they were grounded in reality.

The revolution was focused above all on developing a truly national economy, on trying to break free from political and economic external pressures and on resisting efforts at destabilization. We showed (on this subject) all the obstacles from the donors that Burkina Faso faced. Finally, Upper Volta has very little mineral resources; a large part of its territory suffers from drought. It is in this context that the revolution broke out. Upon what forces could it rely in the absence of a working class or a politically aware peasantry? On the urban petit bourgeoisie made up essentially of salaried civil servants or intellectuals, on a part of the army whose commitment is necessarily limited, on young academics and on the numerous unemployed. As for organized political forces, capable of leading the process, they were weak and the best structured were dismissed in the first year. Others were lost to internal fighting. It is in this context that the army gained so much weight in seizing power then in the leadership of the revolution and finally in the tragic outcome of the crisis.

It is an understatement to say that the objective conditions for the success of the revolution were hardly met. It is not for wanting to move too quickly that the revolution failed, in the sense that it was interrupted, but rather the fact that the context was too unfavorable. Seen in this context the picture is more than positive it is even remarkable.

Thomas Sankara should have gotten rid of his enemies. He had the means and many in his entourage begged him to do so. The revolution is more important than your moral rectitude, they told him without a doubt. Should he have protected himself better? Certainly he could not have imagined that his friend would be responsible for his assassination. In any case, he did not want to fall into the endless cycle of clarifications about a series of assassinations carried out under the guise of a higher purpose which too often was simply a mask covering the fight for power. Instead he sought to enlarge the base of the revolution and opposed those who were in favour of exclusivity. He was beaten politically. Still his opponents preferred to physically eliminate him, which we can only interpret as an admission of weakness. Thomas Sankara knew that if he used these methods he would cease to be the man whom they loved, the man in whom they had confidence, the man who reassured them with his integrity and moral rectitude during their moments of doubt. Many others did not have this attitude and were quickly led astray.

The journey of Thomas Sankara from childhood to the presidency of the republic did not make him a hero. Although he had a good disposition and lived, despite the difficulties that he knew, a privileged childhood compared to most of his fellow countrymen of his generation. But for the rest, the key to his rising were, work, observation, study, perseverance, resolution, listening, curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, loyalty.

In reviewing the different stages of his life it appears as though he was constantly on the alert and that he knew how to maximize each one of his experiences to get the best out of them. From his childhood he remembers how unacceptable injustice was; from his religious education he retains the lessons of humility from Jesus and a certain humanism; from his adolescence he recalls his classical training and assuredly lessons about the French revolution; from his encounters with Marxism the rigor of the analysis of social relations and the prospects of change; from his stay in Madagascar, valuable lessons about the economy but also a real-life experience of a revolution; and from the war with Mali, a horror of blood spilt needlessly. Is it necessary to continue?

At the end of his life, he was getting ready to put to use the experience he had acquired since taking power to give new impetus to the revolution. He understood that he had to slow things down. He wanted to distance himself from the power in order to better devote himself to that which he considered to be a critical task fundamental to any further progress: to unite the different factions that supported the revolution and rally new ones to the cause. He had not developed a particular taste for the construction of political machinery. Rather it appeared as though he wanted to build a new type of organization, which while being very effective in the direction of the revolution retained the diversity necessary for creative thinking. But at that point in the revolution he felt that it was no longer possible for its cadres who were wasting their energies fighting amongst themselves to come together and unite in one structure entirely devoted to the collective thinking needed to move forward and fight against their real adversaries. He was a leader who had just taken a new step forward when he was assassinated.

Yes, Thomas Sankara can be seen as an example of a man of his time. It is good if the African youth see him as a glimmer of hope, as a pioneer who leads the way, as an example of the possible and of the integrity that is thrown in the face of all the other presidents of the continent who are always looking to make excuses for their inability to lead their people and to improve their lives. Admittedly, the leeway to manoeuver for a country that claims to be independent seems even smaller today than in 1983. But history never repeats itself and is often full of surprises. And it is better if the African youth make Thomas Sankara one of their heroes. His example deserves to be followed. We can only hope that he will inspire others.

Bruno Jaffré

* Translated from French for Pambazuka News by Lorraine Thompson.

This text is the conclusion of the book “Biographie de Thomas Sankara, la patrie ou la mort” published in 2007 in France (see

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