Published on Africa is a Country (http://africasacountry.com) the October 15th, 2014
By Elliot Ross*
It is the 27th anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara, and once again we mark the passing of one of the great leaders of the Twentieth Century. Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary in the last years of the Cold War, a Pan-Africanist when the Pan-African project was at its lowest ebb, a committed feminist long before so-called “global civil society” started to preach about “empowerment” of women, a leader who sought to organize the uplift of a whole society long before elites began to boast about “Africa Rising”.
Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading. Here’s what Fela Anikulapo Kuti (don’t let anyone colonize Fela btw) said after Sankara’s death:
“His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad (Long silence) but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders.”
You can look at Blaise Compaore’s record in power since Sankara’s murder, and decide for yourself if he’s a “bad leader”. Back in 2008, AIAC life-president Sean Jacobs remembered Sankara in the Guardian. Here’s a snippet (read the whole thing):
Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.
We remembered Sankara last year and called for a political biopic to be made that could fire the contemporary political imagination:
A revolutionary leader possessed of a towering intellect and extraordinary magnetism, Sankara had rejected the orthodoxies that still today ensure that African nations are structurally dependent on old colonial powers and their global financial institutions.
Like Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Steve Biko, Sankara’s appeal (to young people in particular) has endured precisely because his transgressive radical politics have proved impossible to subsume within a liberal narrative which is all about the heroism of moderation and non-violence and is in fact predicated on deep racist anxieties. Martin Luther King Jnr and Nelson Mandela were treated as dangerous pariahs by the Western establishment, but in time their histories have been absorbed in popular culture within a bland politics of respectability based on non-racialism and willingness to compromise.
A Thomas Sankara biopic would work partly because there is no white man in this story (except the various shadowy figures of Francafrique). In “Cry Freedom” (1987) Richard Attenborough managed to present Steve Biko’s life as a story in which the hero is white.
There’s the Shakespearian denouement of the trusted lieutenant (Blaise Compaoré) murdering his great friend, usurping his position and tearing up Sankara’s great social project.
But we don’t want to see a film about what might have been, however seductive that aspect of Burkina Faso’s history is. The point is that Sankara’s visionary politics of African sovereignty and unity — like Lumumba’s — remain as impossible today as they were within the context of international affairs towards the end of the Cold War.
We want to see a film showing Sankara’s commitment to feminism and women’s rights, his environmental projects against desertification in the Sahel, his reform of traditional leadership; a film about how his rejection of “support” from the World Bank and IMF enabled a project of galvanizing Burkinabe society that is unimaginable today where these structures of dependency and Western control have come to be the “common sense” basis for all politics in countries like Burkina Faso.
The best film about Sankara is a fantastic 2006 documentary, “The Upright Man” by Robin Shuffield. Watch the whole thing here:
It’s also well worth your time watching Sankara’s famous speech “Against Debt”:
Finally, here’s his unforgettable speech in Harlem, New York:
* Elliot Ross a doctoral student in English at Columbia University, is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry