They are seven millions Sankaras
By Koni Benson 15 October 2007
October 15th marks 20 years since the assassination of President Thomas Sankara. Similar to asking what Biko would say of South Africa today, or Lumumba of the DRC, or Nkrumah of Ghana, or Machel of Mozambique, or Kimathi of Kenya, it is important to reflect on what the revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara would make of Burkina Faso. Those seeking justice for his death and ways to continue the struggles he spearheaded, are being threatened with murder and ‘elimination’ of their families today. Clearly, Sankara’s vision is not dead, and neither are the violent responses to contemporary proponents of such visions.
Aziz Fall, the co-ordinator of the International Justice Campaign for Sankara (ICJS) and Burkinabé journalist, Sam Kah, have both been receiving ongoing anonymous death threats for over a year since they were invited to participate in the Commemoration Conference for Sankara that is taking place in Ouagadougou this week. Kah is featured in a film documenting Sankara’s legacy, and Fall has been co-ordinating 22 lawyers from France, to Senegal, Canada, Togo and beyond, dedicated to using legal means to find the truth behind Sankara’s assassination.
After the 1983 popular uprising in what was still called the Upper Volta, Thomas Sankara, a pilot in the air force, was appointed President of the new revolutionary government, by his close friend, Blaise Compaoré. Upon the triumph of the revolution, Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso- meaning “land of upright people,” and embarked on a revolution inspired by Ghana and Cuba. He fought to liberate Africa from ongoing colonialism in the form of international financial institutions, deepening poverty, war and the pillage of our resources.
As President of Burkina Faso from 1983 until he was killed in 1987, he led one of the most creative and radical post-colonial revolutions. He is known for his strong stand against the World Bank and IMF, rejection of inherited colonial
and neo-colonial debts, a vision of Panafrican self sufficiency, environmental reforestation initiatives to slow the dessertification of the Sahara and to solve famine, for land reform, for vast improvements in health and education, and for women’s liberation.
Sankara was clear about the need to emancipate women from sexism and patriarchy. Justice cannot exist when half the population lives in fear at home and in public. Sankara argued that when regressive aspects of our cultures, like sexism or female circumcision interfered with the cause for freedom, they had to be eradicated because they serve our continued oppression.
As President, Sankara was committed to fighting corruption, serving as a modest example, refusing to live a life of luxury and reigning in any tendencies by those within his government toward ostentatious consumption. He rejected air conditioning and luxury cars, rode his bike to work, sent men to the markets, and tourists to plant trees. When asked why he did not want his portrait hung in public places, as is the norm for other African leaders, Sankara
said: "There are seven million Thomas Sankaras."
While there were contradictions due to the weakness of his alliances, in practice, Sankara’s policies and programs indisputably focused on alternatives to improve the lives of the majority. He was shot with about 12 of his colleagues in 1987. His successor, like in the case of other assassinated revolutionary presidents on the continent, is an emblem of retrogressive politics– . Blaise Compaoré for the last twenty years has publicly applauded Sankara, while actively betraying what he stood for.
Under Compaoré, a handful have become richer and the majority poorer. The 1980s saw salaries of civil servants, reduced under Sankara, increased and the special tax that forced them to contribute to health and education projects scrapped. In the 1990s, a Structural Adjustment Package was signed with the IMF which included privatisation and market liberalization. Compaoré’s regime was involved in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean crises and wars, generating tremendous wealth for those in power, whilst millions of ordinary people’s lives were lost and damaged. Today, life expectancy is 47.9 years, adult literacy, 21.8 percent and Burkina Faso is ranked the 3rd poorest country in
the world with 80 percent of its 13 million people living on less than two dollars a day. Frantz Fanon called this kind of leadership “simply good for nothing”.
Ten years ago, explains Aziz Fall, the Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA) launched the International Justice for Sankara Campaign (IJSC) to strategically use political activism and the law to challenge the way Sankara’s revolution was suppressed. Fall coordinates a team of 22 lawyers, which put together a case for a full investigation into the murders of President Sankara and his comrades. The Campaign initiated legal roceedings in Burkina Faso in 1997 to bring his assassins to justice. After exhausting all legal recourses in Burkina Faso, the Campaign brought the case before the UN Human Rights Committee in 2002.
In a major development in 2004, General Tarnue, testifying before the Special International Court for Sierra Leone, alluded to a plot by Blaise Compaoré, the current president of Burkina Faso, and the former rebel leader and Liberian head of state, Charles Taylor, to assassinate Sankara.
In 2005 Compaoré was re-elected as President, after his regime modified the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term, making this his 20th year in power. He has attempted to silence those who recall Sankara and challenge the direction in which he is taking the Burkinabé people- first by abolishing the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, and then by detaining Sankara supporters without trial for as long as 14 months, like in
the case of Lecturer Guillaume Sessouma, who died during torture in 1989. He has been implicated in the death of reporters and intimidation of the media, according to Reporters Without Borders. In Burkina Faso, impunity and
repression have become the very foundation of the political system.
In March 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Sankara’s family has “the right to know the circumstances of his death.” The Committee also argued that failure to correct the natural death entry on Sankara’s death certificate, refusal to investigate his death, and “the lack of official recognition of his place of burial” pointed to “inhumane treatment of Ms. Sankara and her sons” contrary to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Since 2006, Aziz Fall has been receiving anonymous death threats. Unsigned letters in bubble envelopes with statements such as “stop or be stopped,” and “commit suicide or face execution.” Someone attempted to break into his house in Montreal. Fall has received a phone call informing him that neither the police nor his lawyers would be able to protect him, and that his family would be targeted first, and then him. On September 28th 2007, Sam Kah found his car in flames in Ouagadougou. But neither seem to be considering calling off the memorial conference which looks at Sankara’s legacy and relevance to struggles today against globalisation.
Fall argues “that progressive forces on the continent draw on Sankara’s legacy to continue to advocate for democracy and progressive strategies that focus on self-reliant and popular development.” Self reliance he says, is a form of development which entails subordinating external demands to internal needs. Such “a consciousness,” he admits, “is increasingly homogenized by the dominant values of today’s globalized world system.” Sankara is key to such critiques, and Fall concludes that any progressive political force in Africa, needs to build on the Burkinabé revolution "to re-politicize the discussion around development, and foster a new political consciousness.”
Thomas Sankara inspires thinking and action that challenges the institutionalization of the status quo. Remembering his perspective and actions is a serious threat to the Burkinabé state, not only because they are responsible for his murder, but because he undermines the arguments of leaders who say "Africa’s hands are tied," and poverty is "inevitable." For South Africa, this is particularly significant for those arguing for a needs-based development policy where people come before profits, as well as for official tate stances towards such struggles. Sankara’s was the first government on the continent to acknowledge the crisis of AIDS. His land reform and food production policies for example, resonate with the recently launched Living Wage Campaign in the Western Cape where farm workers are asking how it is that “farm workers feed the nation, yet their own children starve.” Today shackdwellers are criminalized for resisting forced relocations and evictions and would appreciate how in Sankara’s government suspended all rents for the year of 1985 and launched a massive public housing construction program. Where did the money come from? He nationalized natural resources and redistributed wealth by taking one month of pay of top civil servants towards social development. He died owning one car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a roken freezer.
In a public address one week prior to his death Sankara said that "while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas." The fact that those continuing to fight for Sankara’s vision- those who, in Sankara’s words, “dare to invent the future,” find their car’s aflame and their children’s lives in danger, draws attention to the fact that Sankara is not just a dead idealist, but rather, he represents an ongoing struggle against putting people before profits, a struggle which demands justice and an the end to impunity for those who continue to sell Africa to the highest bidder.
Koni Benson is a researcher at the International Labour Research and Information Group in Cape Town.