August 11, 2005
The Inspiration : This post is inspired by a comment made on the Cuban government by The Voice. “The wounds with Cuba are deep for America and the expatriates who were forced to leave Cuba after Fidel came to power. I have mixed feelings about it all because while Fidel’s government is something I do not completely agree with, I understand his idealistic belief in distributing the wealth. It is evident he had tremendous hatred for American business interests which he felt were literally taking advantage of Cuba’s beauty and treating her like a whore buying her, using her and ignoring her suffering.
Fidel’s reaction to America was but an omen of how other third world people would react toward to the US in time. Viet Nam, Iran, El Salvador and many other nations began to stand up against the US business interests and the results have proven to be a steady decline in world opinion. America is fast becoming the only nation that believes itself to be a defender of freedom.”
This side note reminded me of events long forgotten and inspired this long digression…
The Sankara Example
In 1987, I witnessed through the local media Fidel Castro’s visit to Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso.
Mathaba worded perfectly the relevance of the Sankara example : “The revolution Sankara led between 1983 and 1987 was one of the most creative and radical that Africa has produced in the decades since independence. He started to blaze a trail that other African countries might follow, a genuine alternative to Western-style modernization and, like other radical African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and Amilcar Cabral, was shot down as a result. Whereas his murderer, still in power eight years later, has pursued self-enrichment and politics as usual and has been celebrated by the West for his compliance.”
I lived in Burkina Faso from 1979 to 1983 and from 1987 to 1991. The events which I will describe and discuss below happened while I was in the capital, Ouagadougou, and were experienced first-hand by my family.
Who was Thomas Sankara, and what did he do that was so amazing ?
Sankara was a socialistic leader of military influence, like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He had taken the power by force in the wake of the strike movements of 1982 and landed the presidency in 1983. He was perceived by the locals (and, to a large extent in West Africa, still is) to be an unassuming, charismatic leader who had great plans for his people. His ideology was mostly about national emancipation and progress.
To illustrate this further, he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which in Morré means “land of the men of honor”.
The major political points of Sankara’s ideology were the following :
– To emancipate the country from France’s tutorship and promote a lifestyle that corresponded to the countresourcesurces. This correlated with complete refusal ofimperialististic influence in the country, and accordingly, soured the relationship with the United states.
– To fight against the political leader’s corruption with radio-transmitted trials. Though not abolished, capital punishment is never requested. As a leader, he reduces the his own standard of living.
– To prioritize on education and health. In 1983, the local average expectancytancy is of 40 years.
– To encourage the local economy wiprotectionistnnist policy.
Though not democratically elected, Sankara was considered by the general population to be a hero and still is an iconic figure in Western Africa. This had to do with the very concrete actions that he took during his short presidency and the hope they gave the people.
– Massive immunization campaigns considerably reduced the infantile death toll, the highest in Africa at the time.
– A considerable amount of schools and hospitals were being built.
– An important agricultural reform which included redistributing the land to the peasants, augmenting the local crop selling prices and the suppression of agricultural taxes.
– The institution of a court system.
– Important women’s liberation measures : banning and criminalization of excision practices, polygamy reglementation, encouragement to their participation in the political scene, etc. “I can hear the roar of women’s silence”, said Thomas Sankara.
– Housing support measures such as lowering rents and building social housing complexes.
Important partners to these reforms were Cuba and Canada. The US were present as well, but to a much lesser extent, and for obvious reasons. Remember that the cold war is still going on at this time.
The abrupt end of Sankara’s crusading dream
Anyway, on October 15th, 1987, Sankara was murdered, along with his aides, by Blaise Compaore, his second in command. He was 37 years old. Though originally declared dead of natural causes (as you can see on the death certificate), the truth of his assassination was of public knowledge. I know this because I, the teenager, found out about it within 30 minutes of it happening. Everyone being aware of what had really happened, Compaoré and his followers installed a climate of terror in the Capital.
Sankara’s inhumation itself caused a lot of anger, sadness and fear, as he was initially put to rest in a makeshift burial ground, along with his aides, like some animal put to sleep. The population went massively to pay homage to his memory on the grisly burial site as well as some local expatriates (my own father was one of them). Eventually, he was given a decent sepulture.
The following month was filled with woe and sorrow, as curfues were enforced with violence in the city. Children did not go to school, and adults went out of their homes only when necessary, and in broad daylight. It is said that the people who were caught in the street past the curfue were never seen again, their vehicules and shoes symbolicly left on the road to signify that they were not returning.
These events caused massive mourning and contributed greatly to Sankara becoming an icon of emancipation from the West.
The return of corruption to the presidential palace
Because Sankara’s reign did not last very long, nobody knows how Burkina would be today had he survived.
However, we do know what happened after his death :
– Nov 1987 : The Committees fordefensefence of the Revolution, the local bodies which had replaced traditional Elites, are abolished.
– 1988 : Salaries of civil servants, reduced under Sankara, are increased and the special tax that forced them to contribute to health and education projects is scrapped.
– Sept 1989 : Lingani and Zongo attempt to oust Compaoré in a coup and are executed.
– Dec 1989, 31st : Sankara supporters are detained without trial for over a year. Lecturer Guillaume Sessouma dies during torture.
– Dec 1990 : The draft constitution guarantees freedom of association and expression and property rights. It provides for an elected President and National Assembly.
– May 1991 : All political prisoners are released.
– Dec 1991 : Blaise Compaoré wins the presidential election. This is not surprising since he is the only candidate . 73 per cent of the electorate do not vote.
– March 1994 : Compaoré tightens his control, sacking the prime minister to install a loyalist.
In 1998, the constitution was amended to allow Compaoré to stay in power indefinitely. To this day, Compaoré still assumes presidency, and no democratic elections have taken place.
The silent accomplices
In the meantime, the West was checking out the ons and abouts of Compaoré’s new regimen :
– Dec 1988 : A World Bank report lauds the unusually high standards of financial management in Burkina Faso during the revolutionary years while noting the increasing incidence of corruption since Compaoré’s takeover.
– Early 1991 : A structural-adjustment package is agreed with the International Monetary Fund, involving privatization and liberalization of the market.
– 1993 : The IMF lends Burkina $67m for 1993-5 on condition that it continues implementing free-market policies.
– June 1993 : An official presidential visit to Paris establishes Compaoré as France’s favorite ally in West Africa.
– Jan 1994 : The CFA franc is halved in value in relation to the French franc at the insistence of Paris and the International Monetary Fund.
I’ll leave the conclusions draw themselves.
Though completely thinned out by Compaoré’s policies, Sankara’s legacy to the young African generation remains huge : he demonstratedevelopingeam of developping a third-world country without exterior domination can become very tangible. By many ways, his death allowed him to become the embodimentindependentals of independant, sustainable development which are still very alive in many :
“I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory… 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. 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. We must dare to invent the future.” Thomas Sankara, 1985
ON ON !