Demba Moussa Dembélé

Published in Pambazuka News 651 : SPECIAL ISSUE : Thomas Sankara and inventing Africa’s future : 26 years later 2013-10-25

It has been thirty years since Thomas Sankara took power, before he was assassinated in 1987. The Sankarist Revolution was one of the greatest attempts at popular democratic emancipation in post-Independence Africa and is considered a novel experience of broad economic, social, cultural and political transformation

The concept of endogenous or self-centred development refers to the process of economic, social, cultural, scientific and political transformation, based on the mobilisation of internal social forces and resources and using the accumulated knowledge and experiences of the people of a country. It also allows citizens to be active agents in the transformation of their society instead of remaining spectators outside of a political system inspired by foreign models.

Endogenous development aims to mainly rely on its own strength, but it does not necessarily constitute autarky. One of the pre-eminent theoreticians of endogenous development, Professor Joseph Ki-Zerbo, states, ‘If we develop ourselves, it is by drawing from the elements of our own development.’ To put it in another manner, ‘We do not develop. We develop ourselves.’

The conception that the Professor illustrates is without a doubt inspired by his young and charismatic compatriot. In fact, the Sankarist Revolution was one of the greatest attempts at popular and democratic emancipation in post-Independence Africa. That is why it is considered a novel experience of deep economic, social, cultural and political transformation as evidenced by mass mobilisations to get people to take responsibility for their own needs, with the construction of infrastructure, (dams, reservoirs, wells, roads and schools) through the use of the principle ‘relying on one’s own strength.’

For Sankara, true endogenous development was based upon a number of principles, among them:
– The necessity of relying on one’s own strength
– Mass participation in politics with the goal of changing one’s condition in life
– The emancipation of women and their inclusion in the processes of development
– The use of the State as an instrument for economic and social transformation

These principles formed the foundation of the policies implemented by Sankara and his comrades between 1983 and 1987.


For Thomas Sankara, relying on one’s own strength meant asking the Burkinabe people to think about their own development: ‘Most important, I think, is to give people confidence in themselves, to understand that ultimately he can sit down and write about his development, he can sit down and write about his happiness, he can say what he wants and, at the same time, understand what price must be paid for this happiness.’

The first Popular Development Plan (PPD), from October 1984 to December 1985 was adopted after a participatory and democratic process including the most remote villages. The financing of the plan was 100 percent Burkinabe. It must be noted that from 1985 to 1988, during Sankara’s presidency, Burkina Faso did not receive any foreign ‘aid’ from the West, including France, nor the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He had relied entirely on his own strength and the solidarity of friendly countries sharing the same vision and ideals. Popular mobilisation, mainly through the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and the spirit of relying on one’s own forces saw 85 percent of the PPD’s objectives realised. In one year, 250 reservoirs were built and 3000 wells drilled. This does not even take into account the other achievements in the fields of health, housing, education, agricultural production, etc.


The concepts of endogenous development and relying on one’s own strength were incompatible with accepting foreign funds. ‘We categorically and definitively reject all sorts of decrees coming from foreigners.’ He also denounced ‘charlatans of all sorts who try to sell development models which have all failed.’

Sankara well understood that of which he spoke. Since independence, African states had experienced a dozen ‘development models,’ all of which had come from foreigners and were characterised by dismal failure, with exorbitant costs for the entire continent. In this regard, the 2011 Report by the Economic Commission for Africa states (p. 91): ‘The basic design and mode of implementation for all these paradigms came from outside Africa, even if each paradigm had real African disciples. It is difficult to think of other major world regions, where outside influence over the basic strategies of development is so common in recent times.’

The failure of these models confirms the old Bambaran proverb, echoed by Professor Ki-Zerbo in a book edited and published by CODESRIA, under the title, ‘Another’s Mat.’ According to the proverb, ‘Sleeping on another’s mat is like sleeping on the ground.’ This proverb explains a historic truth, a profound truth, a knowledge that a development model imposed from outside can never develop a country, much less a continent.

Relying on one’s own strength also means accepting to live within one’s means and make the best use of available resources. This guarantees dignity and freedom. President Sékou Touré of Guinea had the audacity and temerity to state this in front of General de Gaulle in 1958 in his famous phrase: ‘We prefer freedom in poverty to slavery in opulence.’

Thomas Sankara endorsed the creed of the great Guinean orator and rephrased President Touré’s words to a simpler and more straightforward: ‘Accept living as Africans. That is the only way to live with freedom and dignity.’
But ‘to live with freedom and dignity,’ one must be able to feed themselves and not rely on begging throughout the international community. For a country which cannot feed itself inevitably risks losing its independence and dignity. Sankara famously questioned: ‘Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. The imported rice, maize and millet; that is imperialism.’ To avoid this, Sankara insisted: ‘Let us try to eat what we control ourselves.’

It was to achieve this goal that he mobilised the Burkinabe farmers to attain food self-sufficiency which in turn strengthened the confidence and dignity of the Burkinabe people. Former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, said that this result was achieved by a massive redistribution of land to rural inhabitants combined with supplying fertilizers and irrigation.

Today, Sankara’s spirit animates African farmers who are struggling to achieve food sovereignty by transforming their local resources and guarding their food from GMOs that Western multinationals wish to dump in our markets.

But ‘living free’ also involves re-evaluating local resources to meet the needs of the population. This is why Sankara particularly emphasised the need to transform the cotton produced in Burkina Faso into clothing for the people. The famous ‘Faso dan Fani’, the local garment, was an example of this transformation of the cotton for the domestic market. Sankara made an impassioned plea for wearing the ‘Faso dan Fani’ at the OAU Summit; advocacy which was greeted with applause from African Heads of State.

Living free also means to avoid the pitfalls and humiliations of the supposed ‘development aid’ which has contributed to the under-development of Africa and its dependency. As Sankara states: ‘Of course, we encourage everyone to help us eliminate aid. But in general, aid policies leave us disorganised, by undermining our sense of responsibility for our own economic, political and cultural affairs. We have taken the risk of borrowing new ways to realise our own well-being.’


Another stroke of genius by Sankara was to have understood that real development would be impossible without the liberation of all oppressed groups, starting with women. In this regard, he said: ‘We cannot transform society while maintaining domination and discrimination against women, who comprise more than half our society…Our revolution has worked for three and a half years to progressively eliminate demeaning practices towards women…Also they must be engaged as Burkinabe producers and consumers…Together we must always ensure access of women to work. This emancipatory and liberating work will ensure women’s economic independence, a greater social role and a more just and complete knowledge of the world.’

In effect, development, like economic, social, political and cultural processes, cannot become a reality without the total emancipation of women, the end of all forms of discrimination against them and their active participation in the process of transformation. Once again Sankara was ahead of his African peers and even some Western leaders and international institutions.

Today, at the United Nations, the most conservative states are loudly celebrated for their ‘liberation’ of women, a liberation which is often more illusory than real. The struggle for the liberation of women has become a common one, with the creation of UN Women, parity laws and other measures aimed at women’s economic, social and political emancipation or empowerment. Once again, history demonstrates the prescience and strategic vision of Sankara, who was far ahead of his time.


For Sankara, being a revolutionary meant giving priority to the basic needs of the urban and rural masses. He attempted to reach their level in order to fully understand and marry their cause, which was a source of conflict with the fringes of the urban petty bourgeoisie who would not renounce their ‘privileges.’ For him, ‘we do not participate in a revolution to simply replace the old potentates with others. We do not participate in the revolution because of a vindictive motivation.’ ‘Get out of there so I can install myself.’ This kind of movement is alien to the revolutionary ideal of August and those who display it demonstrate their flaws as petty bourgeois opportunists and dangerous counter-revolutionaries.

It was in opposition to these urban petty bourgeois that Thomas Sankara, in line with Amilcar Cabral called on intellectuals to ‘commit suicide’ to be reincarnated as ‘revolutionary workers’ in the service of the people. Cabral said: ‘the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be able to commit suicide as a class to be reincarnated as revolutionary workers identifying completely with the deep aspirations of the people to which they belong.’

It is true that Sankara tried to instill a different mentality in the petty intellectual bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, they were quicker to repeat revolutionary slogans than to change their behaviour and lifestyle. In fact, this is one of the major challenges to any economic and socially transformative movement in African countries. Indeed, a number of intellectual ‘revolutionaries,’ once in power, tend to turn their backs on people and almost everywhere, they engage in the pursuit of money and privilege at the expense of the struggle for the decolonisation of the mind and the transformation of economic and social structures inherited from colonialism.

Decolonisation is understood in the sense of Fanon, who stated: ‘Decolonisation, as we know, is a historical process. Decolonisation never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. In decolonisation, there is therefore the need of a complete calling into question of the colonial situation.’

This is the fundamental objective of Thomas Sankara. But he encountered the forces of inertia, such as the Westernised petty bourgeoisie, which constitutes an obstacle to any political rupture aimed at changing society, and the structures inherited from colonialism. It is this inertial force which explains in part the failure of the leftist parties in Africa, notably in ‘francophone’ countries. It is this obstacle which finally undermined the revolution in Burkina Faso and helped to create the conditions which led to the assassination of Thomas Sankara on 15 October, 1987.


Sankara was a communist and had a great admiration for socialist regimes, including Cuba, which filled him with respect and pride. He recognised that the state was central to successful transformations in these countries. He also knew that a state just emerging from the long and terrible colonial darkness could not rebuild without active and committed leadership. So, for him, the state must be central in the process of economic, social and cultural transformation. It was under the leadership of the state and its institutions that the masses were mobilised to participate in the first PPD.

But, after his assassination, when Burkina Faso knelt before the World Bank and the IMF, the state was vilified and stripped of its basic functions for the benefit of foreign capital, with consequences which we well know. The decline of the state led to the deterioration of living standards, as is common in other African countries.

The failures of structural adjustment programs (SAP) and the collapse of market fundamentalism requires the re-emergence of the state. It is in this context that Cea (2011) and UNCTAD (2007) urged African countries to build developmental states in order to become active agents in development, like the Asian ‘Tigers’ or ‘Dragons’ and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).


On the eve of the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which later became the African Union (AU) in 2001, Kwame Nkrumah, first President of Ghana, visionary leader and figurehead of the Pan-African revolution, said: ‘Africa must unite or perish’!

Indeed, faced with powerful and well organised enemies who wish to continue their domination of Africa in order to plunder its riches, only solidarity and unity can help Africa preserve its independence. A fervent Pan-Africanist and admirer of the great Ghanaian leader, Thomas Sankara endorsed this statement of truth by President Nkrumah. That is why Sankara, participating in his last summit in Addis Ababa in July 1987, had shouted at African leaders asking them to form a united front to demand the cancellation of illegitimate African debt. Because, he said, ‘debt in its current form is a cleverly organised re-conquest of Africa, that its’ growth and development conform to standards and levels which are totally foreign. It ensures that each of us becomes a financial slave, meaning a slave for those who had the opportunity, cunning, and deceit to invest their funds in us with the obligation that we repay. The debt can never be repaid since if we refuse to pay it our lenders will not die. Of that we can be certain. Yet if we do pay it is us who will die. Of that we can be equally certain.’

Burkina Faso is part of a group of more than thirty African states called ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs). According to UNCTAD (2010) in the LDCs, 6 out of 10 people live on the equivalent of $1.25 a day and nearly 9 in 10, 88 percent live on the equivalent of $2 a day! This means that these countries need to retain all their resources to put in the service of development. Every penny that comes out of these countries in the form of debt service or the repatriation of profits would be detrimental to the well-being of their people. This is why Sankara was right to say that ‘if we do pay it we will die.’

Always connected to the external debt of the continent, Thomas Sankara was one of the few African leaders, if not the only, to have criticised and rejected the adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF, which have increased the debt burden and impoverished African countries. His government refused any form of collaboration with these institutions and rejected their ‘help.’ He developed and implemented his own self-adjustment program, which had been supported by the people who understood the merits of his policies and the sacrifices required of all, both citizens and leaders.


A visionary, Sankara understood before many others, including the so-called developed world, the importance of the environment as an essential fact to the survival of Humanity. Millions of trees were planted in order to stop desertification. Every event, baptism, marriage, was an opportunity to plant trees. This led to a massive mobilisation of people who understood the meaning and scope of such a decision: to build a country with their own hands! This is the key idea behind the vision of Thomas Sankara.

He had understood very early to economic and social costs his country might incur as a result of environmental degradation. That is why one of the main pillars of his development policy was mobilising people to protect their environment.

Sankara understood the link between the mode of capitalist production and consumption to environmental degradation: ‘The struggle for the trees and the forest is the anti-imperialist struggle. Imperialism is the arsonist of our forests and our savannahs.’

The current damage caused by climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, resulting from capitalist countries production and consumption, have confirmed Sankara’s predictions. However his country and the rest of Africa, which contribute less to the global degradation by emitting low amounts of greenhouse gases, may yet pay a high price.


– Undoubtedly, Thomas Sankara was a visionary, a charismatic leader and a true revolutionary. This is why he left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of the African people and his actions have also had a profound resonance beyond Africa.
– He was ahead of his time. Currently, all the issues at the heart of his struggle are central to national and international debates: the liberation of women, debt, food sovereignty, solidarity between African states, South-South solidarity, protection of the environment, etc.
– The African Union and other continental institutions seeking to build a new development paradigm designed and implemented by Africans themselves. This was the central axis of Sankara’s, and some of his illustrious predecessors, struggles.
– Of course, like any human endeavours, Sankara’s were imperfect. It is questionable in many aspects.
– But what is certain is that it has shown the path to a possible Alternative Development, based upon popular mobilisation and self-confidence in the face of imported ideas and models. Undoubtedly, it is a difficult road, but the only way to “live free and dignified”.
– Sankara embraced the ideas and struggles of his illustrious predecessors, while others are in the process of adopting his ideas and struggles, which are more relevant than ever, since, ‘you cannot kill ideas,’ as he said in a speech in memory of Che Guevara, a week before his assassination.
– Thomas Sankara is physically gone, but his ideas and example will continue to inspire other Africans to continue the struggle and ideas for which he gave his life.
– In this sense, Sankara is not dead! He lives in each and every one of us!


Joseph Ki-Zerbo: Burkinabe historian, theorist of endogenous development. He was the lead author of the general History of Africa, published by UNESCO when Amadou Makhtar Mbow was the CEO. He died in December 2006.
Kwame Nkrumah: first president of Ghana, one of the main leaders of Pan-Africanism and an eminent revolutionary. He was one of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. He was the victim of a military coup fomented by Anglo-American imperialism and died in exile. But Ghana and Africa recognise him as the undisputed leader of the struggle for liberation and African unity. His mausoleum stands proudly in Accra and his statue at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.
Amilcar Cabral: originally from Guinea Bissau, leader of the Movement for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde against Portuguese colonialism. He was assassinated on 20 January, 1973 by agents of the fascist Portuguese state. Cabral is one of the most original revolutionary theorists in Africa and the Third World.
Sékou Touré: first president of the Republic of Guinea, one of the founding fathers of the OAU. Died in 1984.
Frantz Fanon: revolutionary originally from Martinique, student of Aimé Césaire. He enlisted alongside the Algerian people in the liberation struggle against French colonialism. He is author of the famous work ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, one of the most penetrating criticisms of the colonial system. He died very young, at the age of 39, of leukaemia.

*Demba Moussa Dembélé, economist and researcher is president of Arcade Texte. He presented at the 30th anniversary of the revolution of August 4, marking Thomas Sankara’s rise to power. Presentation made 4 August, 2013, at the monthly meeting of Arcade, in collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Dakar.

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