by Ameth LO October 15, 2005
Thomas Sankara was born on November 21st, 1949 in Yako, Burkina Faso, of a Peuhl father and a More mother, two ethnic groups in Burkina Faso. This small country in the Sahel region, located in a part of West African known for its extreme poverty has an infant mortality rate of 280 deaths per 1000 births and an annual per capita income of $150. The country is located in a region with numerous drought cycles that kill part of the rural population every year and has long lived in political turmoil as a result of elites fighting to control the State for personal gain. Persistent poverty forces a large part of the Burkinabè population to find refuge in neighbouring Ivory Cost as cheap labour in Cocoa plantations.
Thomas Sankara’s arrival to power in August 1983 – after an uprising of the Burkinabè people protesting Sankara’s arrest while he was a Cabinet Minister – came after a series of military coups that had plunged the country into chronic political instability. This coup among many, orchestrated by his long time friend Blaise Compaoré, ushered in a new revolutionary era that was to be national and democratic. The Sankarist regime announced its colours early on by declaring solidarity with the struggles of all oppressed masses of the world and asking the Burkinabè People to work at building the foundations of an internally motivated development, relying on their own forces.
Today’s Africa in The Face of Globalization
Close to 18 years after Sankara’s death, the alternative he put forward continues to serve as a model to Africa’s youth and to young people around the world who are looking for a better future based on values of humanism and solidarity in the struggle against imperialism which continues to impose itself through arms and economic blackmail, and in the fight against imperialism’s devastating neo-liberal schemes aimed at ensuring the control of national resources by big capital multinationals. Today, this control can be seen in the stubbornness of the United States as it takes hold of vast oil resources in Iraq and the Gulf region and works to stop the spread of the Bolivar revolution beyond Venezuela in South America. In Africa, France and the United States are fighting for control of the continent: France is trying to consolidate control of its « zone of influence » made up of its former colonies, while the US looks to Africa for an alternative to the increasingly unstable Gulf region in terms of access to sources of energy such as oil and coltan.
This explains the numerous US attempts to place in Africa new military bases aimed at controlling the region under the guise of antiterrorist struggle. Today, an increasing number of Africa’s youth are desperately and unsuccessfully trying to cross into the countries of the European Union. They take huge risks to reach Europe through Spain, going into Gibraltar via Morocco. Many young Africans continue to lose their lives in the Mediterranean during these crossings. On the other side of these desperate young people, who were once the engines of the liberation struggles for national sovereignty, one finds bulimic elites, hording the little national wealth that is still available to shamelessly enrich themselves, accumulating stolen capital in tax havens, sending their children to get university education in Western countries before they return to perpetuate the system that oppresses the people, in complete collaboration with the Western powers which continue to pillage the continent in complete impunity.
The Sankarist alternative remains, therefore, entirely relevant in addressing issues surrounding development and lasting sovereignty. It is a panafricanist socialist alternative, focused uniquely on meeting the needs of the African masses, impoverished by decades of structural adjustment programs that had no results other than to ensure continued payments to shameless creditors for the so-called debt that’s not only immoral since a third of the initial debt has been repaid, but also because the borrowed funds were never injected into the economic and social fabric of these
The Sankarist Alternative
Upon their arrival to power, Sankara and his comrades initiated multiple projects that reshaped the living conditions of the Burkinabè people in a meaningful way. With the help of Cuban volunteers, 2,5 million children were vaccinated against infectious diseases which had often killed a huge number of children. Access to education increased from 12% to 22% within 3 years.
At the same time, a serious campaign against desertification was undertaken and 10 million trees were planted to that end.
One initiative that left the most impact on people’s consciousness, contributing to changing people’s attitudes which until then were formed by a set of beliefs dating from feudal and archaic times, was Â« woman’s Wednesdays “. On that day each week, men took over all domestic work (cleaning, running errands in the market, cooking, etc.) in order to become familiar with the tough conditions under which women worked to ensure a decent survival for their family. Despite some reticence due to archaic conceptions about divisions of labour in the family, this experience helped to create better awareness in bringing about serious change to allow the African woman to find her way back to a prominent place in society. Unless such Cultural Revolutions takes place in all sectors of life, revolution cannot take hold for the people, since it would keep almost half the population in oppressive situations.
The revolutionary leaders and Burkinabè people’s work was accomplished through the CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution). It is important to recognize that opportunists using their positions within these organizations, took advantage of the people by infiltrating these CDRs.
These issues, on top of malicious manipulations orchestrated by Blaise Compaoré who started to put down Sankara for his mixed background and alleged abuse of power, created a tense atmosphere which culminated in the assassination of Sankara on October 15th, 1987 by Compaoré’s men, with the help of Liberian mercenaries close to former dictator Charles Taylor.
Two other comrades of Sankara’s, Zongo and Lingani, who formed the leadership of the revolution, were manipulated by Compaoré and did nothing after the assassination of Sankara. Compaoré in turn killed them a few years later.
This four-year experience of the Burkinabè revolution achieved what no dictatorship afterwards has managed to take away: To give back to the Burkinabè people the dignity they had lost through centuries of humiliation and exploitation by colonialism and the elites of the post-independence era.
The improvements in the living conditions of the people of Burkina Faso that today’s regime talks about, is the result of the four years of the Sankarist revolution, from the construction across the country of many water infrastructures to allow rural populations to cultivate many crops during
the year, increasing their sources of income, to the complete transformation of the capital Ouagadougou with the building of revolution neighbourhoods and the accomplishment of ambitious programs to clean up ghettos. On the cultural front, the creation of popular theatre and cinema is only one example of the relevance of the Sankarist project that Africa’s youth would
do well to learn from, even if just to realize that « another way is possible ».
The end of this experience, as painful as it is, must also help us deepen our understanding of the most appropriate organisational framework for radical transformation of African societies. As a friend said recently, «the will to change is not enough, you also have to have the means ». And the
main requirement for such an experience has remained the same: setting up an organization with a leadership that reflects the realities and the aspirations of the population and that is ready to sacrifice its class interests – as Amilcar Cabral said – to put the interests of the masses
first. In this, Thomas Sankara showed us the way. It’s up to the future generations to keep this experience alive and to enrich it with all the revolutionary experiences of the world.
October 15, 2005