• Publisher : Indiana University Press (March 2, 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 350 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0253053765
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0253053763


Description  (éditeur)

Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa offers the first complete biography in English of the dynamic revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. Coming to power in 1983, Sankara set his sights on combating social injustice, poverty, and corruption in his country, fighting for women’s rights, direct forms of democracy, economic sovereignty, and environmental justice.

Drawing on government archival sources and over a hundred interviews with Sankara’s family members, friends, and closest revolutionary colleagues, Brian J. Peterson details Sankara’s political career and rise to power, as well as his assassination at age 37 in 1987, in a plot led by his close friend Blaise Compaoré.

Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa offers a unique, critical appraisal of Sankara and explores why he generated such enthusiasm and hope in Burkina Faso and beyond, why he was such a polarizing figure, how his rivals seized power from him, and why T-shirts sporting his image still appear on the streets today.


Brian Peterson

Présentation de Biran J. Peterson

Brian J. Peterson is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Africana Studies Program at Union College. He is author of Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880–1960.

Our review

Books on Thomas Sankara and the Burkinabé revolution are numerous today, but are still rare in English. There is the volume edited by Amber Murrey, A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics, and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, published in 2018, and the small synthetic booklet of Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary, published in 2014; and there is the widely distributed collection of speeches, Thomas Sankara Speaks, from Pathfinder Press, whose first edition is quite old, and has not been updated much, except for its presentation. This new publication is, therefore, to be welcomed.

In French, many works continue to be published, including in Burkina Faso, and in particular memoirs. The period has been characterized, rather, by the reconstruction of a major political experience which the regime of Blaise Compaoré had tried to silence or obscure. The books released before the 2014 uprising were often driven by the goal of restoring a truth that the regime had tried to distort.

But many speeches recently found have since been made public and published in the collection La Liberté contre le destin published in 2017. Other speeches or interviews have been regularly unearthed, and continue to be published on the thomassankara.net site in the sections devoted to the speeches and interviews of Thomas Sankara, already well supplied.

The essential contribution of the American archives

The archives have long remained inaccessible. This period is now over, with the opening of those in Burkina Faso–those that have not been destroyed–in France, and in the United States. To our knowledge, we do not know of any author to date who has mentioned archives from any other countries. The essential contribution of Brian J. Peterson’s work is in the use of archives of the United States, his own country. He was able to obtain many documents from it. Moreover, this is the first book written by a historian, to our knowledge, devoted to Thomas Sankara and the Burkinabè Revolution; it’s a serious and richly documented work with numerous references. It is, indeed, high time that historians delved into this subject, especially as the range of sources widens. Author Brian J. Peterson conducted over 100 interviews in preparation for this book, with many of Sankara’s family members, friends, and a few close associates while he was president, as he went to research 3 times for over a month in Burkina. It’s considerable work that should be highlighted, as too many authors are content to write and comment on the Revolution based on other writings. In his introduction, he states his ambition to approach Sankara from a critical point of view and rightly regrets that Thomas Sankara has been handled in a haphazard way. Sankara’s quotes (from his speeches), he writes, are regularly repeated without any contextualization.

Contributions on the youth of Thomas Sankara

The first two chapters explore the itineraries of his family, mostly recapitulating anecdotes already known about the childhood of Thomas Sankara. But the author goes beyond the simple story by developing two particularly relevant reflections. On the one hand, Sankara’s rather ecumenical relationship to religions of which he has a diverse knowledge. His mother was Catholic, but his father, born into a Muslim family, was converted to the Catholic religion as an adult. Young Thomas is thus widely initiated into the Muslim religion by the fact that the rest of the family is Muslim. On the other hand, the author emphasizes his rather distant connection to his ethnic identity. His father had a Mossi name before taking over when his son was in high school, the name Sankara of the Silmi Mossi ethnic group. An ethnic group that results from an encounter between the Fulani and the Mossi. His father having become a nurse gendarme, the family travels a lot across the country depending on the different assignments. The family therefore mixes with those of different ethnicities.

This is how Sankara finds little regard for religious or ethnic affiliation, and hence his aversion to ethnic or religious affiliations. The author adds little-known details about his secondary studies, the choice of his orientation, his level of education, and his stay at the military academy of Kadiogo (PMK). The author quickly passes over his stay in Madagascar, covered extensively in a previous biography (Bruno Jaffré), but noting what was essential: The Malagasy military’s participation in a revolution, that Sankara was witnessing, and mentoring farmers. Sankara extended his stay in Madagascar to experience the involvement of the “Green Berets” of the Malagasy army as a military brigade to raise awareness of development in the countryside.

The contribution of interviews conducted by the author

In addition to the American archives, the works already published, the author uses numerous testimonies which supplement the sources available so far. We note those of Jean-Pascal Ouedraogo, Fidèle Toé, and Paul Yaméogo, who were childhood friends or met during their studies; those of Serge Théophile Balima, and Alfred Sawadogo, both advisers to the presidency. They provide interesting, fairly critical reflections on the part of the former on a number of decisions taken by Thomas Sankara, such as the abolition of rents for a year.

As for the interviews with Touré Soumane, union leader and Philippe Ouedraogo, both members of the PAI (African Independence Party), they supplement the criticisms of the presidential collaborators, with other more political ones, since this party, which was very important at the time, worked for a year with the state before entering the opposition and undergoing repression.

Valère Somé, defining himself as an ideologue, close to the President during the last period, is called upon a lot on the political thought of the leader of the Revolution. It opens the debate on a possible influence of Franz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral on the political thought of Thomas Sankara. The debate remains open because Thomas Sankara never mentioned these two thinkers. There’s also Abdoul Salam Kaboré, who was alongside Thomas Sankara quite early on, notably during the creation of the ROC, and Etienne Zongo aide-de-camp, often cited in particular in the account of events in the preparation of the plot. We will not look at the author’s discussion of (internal) political problems, conflicts between organizations, the management of power, as they have already been more or less known. All the same, let us point out the interest of the book in providing further details, while using numerous references to everything that has already been written on the subject. Moreover, it is not really the strength of Western embassies to make sense of internal political struggles. But the archives, on the other hand, do prove to be well informed, as the hostility towards Burkina becomes clearer. From this point of view, the author will provide many elements and clarifications later in the book.

The interest of the American archives

The American archives, cited throughout the book, reveal events or analyses that cannot be found in the French archives. But also and above all the opinions and sometimes the actions of Americans and French alike. They are essentially “cables”, the equivalent of French diplomatic telegrams. CIA documents are rarely cited. According to the author, the CIA was keeping a low profile at the time after a few high-profile scandals that hit the American press. And on the other hand, the CIA only had one office in Niamey. However, one can think that some of its members were nevertheless in Ouagadougou, among the staff of the embassy. The title of the book refers to the era of the Cold War. Indeed, the French and American embassies were scrutinizing Burkina Faso’s rapprochements with the USSR or Cuba. The USSR will disappoint Thomas Sankara, who judges its help disappointing. While the leaders of Cuba did indeed sign an ambitious program of cooperation, but which they could hardly honor due to its own economic difficulties, and the important military engagement on the front line against South Africa. We thus learn that the Marxist statements of the Burkinabé leaders hardly worried the Western embassies as long as Burkina Faso did not align itself more than that with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, in this period of latent conflict between Western countries and Libya, the relationship between Thomas Sankara and Colonel Gaddafi was scrutinized with the greatest attention. In this regard, the author provides numerous elements demonstrating Thomas Sankara’s non-alignment with Libyan politics. The book pays particular attention to negotiations with the IMF. Thomas Sankara seems rather to be favorable at first glance. At the time, François Mitterrand’s France had also decided not to engage in bilateral aid until countries signed an agreement with the IMF. Regardless, Thomas Sankara’s opposition to signing an agreement is growing stronger, as the book reveals that disagreements arose at the time within the CNR. And that even some of its members are said to have taken steps, on their own initiative, for negotiations to resume. And we see Thomas Sankara adjusting, a constant, whether it is vis-à-vis the Americans or the French, as soon as he is faced with political pressure that conditions the release of aid on a change in policy. This is what was decided by the Americans who were approached to train foresters and who withdrew this project in the absence of agreement with the IMF.

The war in Mali: a real effort at destabilization

But what caught our attention the most is what the US archives provide on the so-called Christmas war between Burkina Faso and Mali. In December 1985, these two countries clash militarily, for a strip of land claimed by the two countries. Sankara had received a warm welcome from Malian youth in October 1984. It was during this stay that there was the arrest of Moussa Diawara, administrator of the CEAO, to try him for embezzlement in Ouagadougou. Moussa N’Gom and Moussa Diakité, both administrators, were also arrested to stand trial. The author dates from this trip the hostility of Mali against Burkina Faso and Sankara in particular. A long and interesting section, particularly provided with references to American cables, shows that the Mali – Burkina war was the result of joint actions by France, the Ivory Coast and Mali. At the time, relations with France began to deteriorate due to the multiple declarations against French imperialism, and Basile Guissou, the Burkinabè foreign minister, had refused to receive the president of the central cooperation fund. The book reveals that some diplomats then bet on a coup to overthrow Sankara. At the same time, in Ivory Coast Jean Claude Kamboulé and Michel Kafando, the same who assumed the presidency of the Transition in 2014, were working to destabilize Burkina. We learn via an American cable of the participation of Michel Kafando at a meeting of an international anti-communist WACL (World anti-communist League). And in June, a cable from the American ambassador reports on a discussion with the Algerian ambassador in which he explains that something sinister is brewing between the French and Mali. A hellish scenario is unfolding that will go as far as war, without Sankara’s many efforts at good faith being listened to, while Mali accuses him of having sent its troops to enter Mali. (US Ambassador) Neher writes: “It is difficult to think that the Malian authorities do not know that the rumors circulating are not true.” And a CIA cable explains that “the war arose out of Bamako’s hope that the conflict would trigger a coup d’état in Burkina.”

A succession of events that will isolate Burkina

Interspersed with chapters in which the author discusses the fight for the defense of the environment and for the liberation of women, the book evokes the various tensions against Burkina Faso and its President. A succession of events that will gradually isolate Burkina from its privileged allies, and indirectly create the conditions for a change of direction of the country to appear inevitable without causing too many protests. The French right won the elections in March 1986, which resulted in the return of Jacques Foccart to business alongside Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. The author takes the opportunity to quote Thomas Sankara’s advisers considered to be close to the Foccart networks, and the Burkinabè whom he describes as “pro-business figures.”The United States bombed Libya on April 15 prompting protests from Thomas Sankara, who affirmed his disapproval and said he was considering expelling the Peace Corps.An attempted putsch in Togo, from Ghana, of which Blaise Compaoré would be the organizer, failed in September 1986. An American cable, coming from Paris, affirms that the widespread opinion reports Burkina implicated in this coup. which according to the author makes Burkina Faso appear as a destabilizing agent. Two months later, Mitterrand came to visit Burkina on his return from the French-African summit in Lomé, still boycotted by Burkina Faso, while Thomas Sankara preferred to go to Cuba and Nicaragua. Mitterrand is welcomed in Ouagadougou by anti-imperialist demonstrations and hostile to Pik Botha, the South African leader welcomed shortly before in France. It was during this stay that the famous verbal jousting between the two presidents takes place during which Sankara accuses Mitterrand of having stained France with the blood of Africans. A verbal attack criticized in interviews with the author by two close advisers to Thomas Sankara. December 1986, Burkina is committed to the independence of New Caledonia. We learn that Kanaks had trained in Libya. France could accept revolutionary rhetoric, but not that Burkina Faso votes for the independence of New Caledonia at the UN. This is followed by an analysis of the situation in Liberia and the preparations for war that Charles Taylor wishes to wage to drive out Samuel Doe, who had assassinated the previous president William Tolbert, a friend of Houphouët-Boigny who pursues the same objective. Based on the archives, he affirms the presence of Charles Taylor in Ouagadougou in January 1987. An American cable confirms Blaise Compaoré’s alliance with Charles Taylor and Kadhafi. Thomas Sankara’s speech at the OAU in July 1987 where he called on his peers to refuse to pay the debt with him ended this long succession of events which contributed to isolating Burkina on the international scene while the rupture seemed to have been consummated by September between Thomas Sankara and Colonel Gaddafi.

The execution of the plot

The author of course does not fail to enumerate the various internal political conflicts, the return of union demands, and the various reasons for dissatisfaction due to various obligations or measures deemed unpopular or a work rate deemed too fast, which has fueled internal opposition. The situation is ripe for organizing a coup. The various events which will follow one another have already been recounted in other works, but this account here is supplemented by the American archives. We thus discover that the American diplomats were able to make a detailed inventory of the pro- and anti-Sankara groups within the army. And that Americans counted on their officers who have participated in the International Military Education and Training program. For the author, the Americans and the French are not directly involved in the plot except through intelligence. But various elements have largely contributed to giving Sankara a negative image among Americans. Still, Herman Cohen, Under-Secretary of State for African Affairs, visited Houphouët-Boigny and then Blaise Compaoré in April 1987 and gave an ambiguous account of these meetings. We learn that members of the CNR and officers came before the assassination to notify the US embassy with information that Compaoré was more pragmatic in economics and in general politically more moderate. And he adds that Sankara had made himself unreachable by the diplomatic corps, which the Americans saw as a fatal mistake. The book ends with the story of the coup, the reactions in Ouagadougou and around the world. We regret that the book’s conclusion did not revert to what the title of the book announces, namely the difficulty of leading a revolution in the context of the Cold War. We therefore salute here this new, dense, robust, well-documented work, the fruit of extensive research work on Thomas Sankara and the Revolution. He clarifies what has been written in previous biographical essays thanks to many new interviews. But the impossibility so far of having access to Thomas Sankara’s letters and personal notebooks makes the exercise still difficult.

However, this work, a first written by a true historian by training and profession, constitutes an important enrichment of what we knew until now about Thomas Sankara and the Revolution, thanks to the access he was able to have to the American archives.

Brian J. Peterson shows his willingness to step out of the dilemma in which most of the writers on the subject have found themselves so far. Either defend the Revolution and its president after a period when attempts were made to destroy memory and accomplished work, or on the contrary to put it on trial. This time he offers us a book that is a little more balanced, thanks to the rigor of the historian’s work.

Bruno Jaffré


List of Abbreviations
1. Coming of Age in the Shadow of Colonialism, 1949-1966
2. Education of a Revolutionary, 1966-1973
3. A Rising Star: Soldiers and the Political Left, 1973-1982
4. From Political Prisoner to Populist Prime Minister, 1982-1983
5. The “Revolution of August 4” and the People’s President
6. “This Man Who Unsettles”: Confronting the Neocolonial Order, 1983-1984
7. The Struggle for Unity, 1983-1984
8. “Daring to Invent the Future”: Nation-Building and the Promise of Revolutionary Change, 1984-85
9. Politics is War and War is Politics: Sankara in the International Arena, 1984-1985
10. Revolutionary Duties and Perils, 1986-1987
11. No Turning Back: The Road to October 15, 1987
Selected Bibliography


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