By Bruno Jaffré
Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso, was assassinated 20 years ago. His original ideas for his country prefigured the alternative world movement and current approaches to change in Africa and South America
Former Burkina Faso’s president, Thomas Sankara, defined his aims shortly before he was assassinated in 1987: “Our revolution will be of value only if, looking back… and ahead, we are able to say that the Burkinabe people are a little happier because of it. Because they have clean drinking water, because they have plenty to eat, because they are in good health, because they have access to education, because they have decent housing, because they have better clothing, because they have the right to leisure, because they have greater freedom, more democracy and greater dignity… Revolution means happiness. Without happiness we cannot speak of success.”
Outside Africa, Sankara is not much known. Africans remember him as a man who told the truth, lived close to his people, fought corruption and gave fresh hope for the recovery of African dignity. He was more than that: a political strategist, an energetic, creative president whose unfailing commitment led to his murder, a loud and clear voice for the demands of the third world.
He was born on 21 December 1949 in what was then Upper Volta, a French colony that gained independence in 1960. At school with the children of French settlers, he discovered injustice. He served as an altar boy but refused, at the last minute, to train for the priesthood. At military secondary school in Kadiogo he became interested in politics under the influence of a Marxist teacher who was an activist in the African Independence Party (PAI). As a young officer at the international military academy in Anstirabé, Madagascar, Sankara studied sociology, political science, economics, French and agricultural science.
He witnessed the overthrow of Philibert Tsiranana’s neo-colonialist regime in Madagascar in 1972 and that led to his ideas about a “popular democratic revolution”. During the war with Mali in 1974, when he was a young captain, he won attention through a brave exploit, and founded a secret leftwing organisation with other officers. Sankara drew close to far left militants, read widely on many subjects, and acquired a taste for political debate.
After independence, Upper Volta alternated between military rule and parliamentary democracy and in 1978 became the only state in the region to elect a president, Sangoulé Lamizana. He ran the country paternalistically; the only leftwing party that took part in elections, and sometimes in government, was the Popular Front (FPV), led by the historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo. It had a base in trade unions.
Poorest of the poor
Upper Volta’s politicians, obsessed with parliamentary infighting, cut themselves off from the realities of the country and especially from the highly politicised urban middle class. The military leaders in power were discredited by financial scandals. Within the army, an ambitious younger generation, seeking modernisation, opposed the less educated senior officers. In November 1980, after strikes throughout the country, the legal opposition, including the FPV, supported a military coup. But, despite its initial popularity, the new regime became oppressive and forced trade union leaders into hiding; senior officers were involved in scandals. Sankara, who was secretary for information, resigned live on television with the words: “Woe to those who gag the people!”
Another army faction was discredited along with Ki-Zerbo’s party, and a second coup followed in November 1982. It marked the beginning of the divide between those who wanted institutional continuity and the group of revolutionary officers around Sankara. He was appointed prime minister and used his position to exacerbate the conflict at public meetings where he denounced imperialism and the enemies of the people.
He was arrested on 17 May 1983, just as Guy Penne, François Mitterrand’s adviser on African affairs, landed in the capital, Ouagadougou. The underground leftwing organisations, the PAI and the Reconstructed Union for Communist Struggle (ULC-R), demonstrated demanding his release. Sankara had won the respect of civilian organisations distrustful of the military, and was also supported by the military who saw him as one of their own. As soon as he was released, these forces prepared to take power. Troops from the Po garrison, commanded by Captain Blaise Compaoré, marched on Ouagadougou in August 1983. Telecom workers cut the phone lines. Civilians awaited the troops and guided them through the city, and Ouagadougou fell quickly.
When he became president, Sankara defined his main aims as: “Refusing a state of mere survival, relieving the pressure on society, freeing the countryside from mediaeval immobility and regression, establishing democracy, opening people’s minds to collective responsibility so that they dare invent the future. Breaking the stranglehold of the bureaucracy and rebuilding the administration by changing the image of the public official. Putting our army among the people through productive work and reminding it constantly that a soldier without patriotic training is no more than a potential criminal.” It was a huge task. Upper Volta was one of the world’s poorest countries, with an infant mortality rate of 180 per 1,000, life expectancy of only 40 years, 98% illiteracy, a school enrolment rate of 16% and a per capita GDP of about $100. (It is still ranked 174 out of 177 by the United Nations Development Programme.)
Land of the righteous
Sankara made no secret of his Marxist leanings, which were not shared by many of his associates. To surround himself with competent, motivated people, he built up a group of 150 carefully selected presidential aides who, with a few political ideologists, became the best-educated administrators.
Projects abounded, and the president often imposed impossible deadlines for feasibility studies. For Sankara, the revolution meant practical improvement of living conditions. It was a break with the past in all areas: transformation of the administration; redistribution of wealth; women’s liberation; abolition of the powers of the tribal chiefs, who were held responsible for rural backwardness; the attempt to turn the peasantry into a revolutionary social class; transformation of the army, which was placed at the service of the people and assigned production tasks; decentralisation and the introduction of direct democracy via local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). They all combined with the fight against corruption. On 4 August 1984 Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso, “land of the righteous”.
The National Council of the Revolution (CNR) – officers and PAI and ULC-R activists – launched a People’s Development Plan under which the provinces were to define their own objectives and find the means to achieve them. Sankara summed up: “The most important thing is to give the people confidence, to help them understand that they can at last define their own happiness, to enable them to decide on their own aims and understand the price to be paid.”
The CNR practised what it preached: operating costs were cut in favour of investment and production was rationalised. The investment drive was a 5% to 12% direct levy on wages, although rents were free for a year. A neglected industrial zone in Ouagadougou was restored.
The aim was to promote autonomous economic development that did not depend on outside aid. Sankara said: “Food aid… becomes embedded in our brains. Enough of reacting like beggars living on handouts. We have to produce, produce more, because he who feeds you will also impose his will on you.”
Under the slogan “Produce and Consume Burkinabe”, imports of fruit and vegetables were banned to encourage traders to look for produce in the southeast of the country. This was a region that was difficult to access and had been neglected in favour of the markets of Ivory Coast, which were linked to Burkina Faso by a metalled highway. A national retail chain was established. Through local committees, employees were able to buy national products at their workplace. Civil servants were encouraged to wear the traditional hand-woven cotton clothing, faso dan fani, which encouraged women to take up weaving at home and earn income.
Sankara was a forerunner of the environmental protection movement. Pointing to human responsibility for encroachment of the desert, he noted its practical consequences. In April 1985 the CNR launched the “three struggles” campaign against brush fires, abusive woodcutting and straying domestic animals. Peasants built storage dams, often with their bare hands, and the government restarted work on large-scale dam projects. Sankara denounced the insufficiency of aid from France, whose firms were the main beneficiaries of the large construction contracts.
As a spokesman for the third world, Sankara criticised the international order. His themes – the injustice inflicted by globalisation and the international financial system, the omnipresence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the vicious circle of third world debt – were similar to the modern alternative world movement. Sankara argued that third world debt was caused by the “alluring proposals of technical assassins” from financial institutions. Debt was the means for “the deliberately organised reconquest of Africa, a way of ensuring that its growth and development conform to stages and standards entirely alien to us.” Burkina Faso decided not to seek any loans from the IMF, which wanted to impose its own conditions.
Sankara gave considerable thought to the practical implementation of democracy, emancipating the working classes and women. “Democracy means using the full potential of the people. The ballot box and an electoral system do not prove the existence of democracy. There is no real democracy where those in power call elections from time to time and concern themselves with the people only in the run-up to an election… There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms – economic, military, political, social and cultural – is in the hands of the people.”
The CDRs, set up so rapidly, were responsible for exercising power in the name of the people. Their work went beyond public security: political education, sanitation, development of production and participation in budget control in the ministries. They discussed and rejected several national projects. But they were also responsible for many excesses and acts of repression. They spearheaded attacks on the unions, which they considered dangerous because unions were controlled by such organisations as the PAI, which went into opposition in August 1984, and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Volta. Sankara was the first to denounce the excesses and shortcomings of the CDRs, which were often due to in-fighting among organisations supporting the revolution.
By 1987 Sankara was an embarrassment whose popular campaign against neocolonialism was a threat to less radical West African presidents and to France’s position in Africa. The plot against him was orchestrated by his former deputy, Blaise Compaoré (now president), with the probable support of France, Ivory Coast and Libya. According to Jeune Afrique (2 June 1988), which published the writing of Jacques Foccart, “number two in a revolution in which he no longer believed… Blaise met his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, through the offices of the president of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, and Jacques Foccart, who introduced him to the general staff of the French right, especially Charles Pasqua.”
François Xavier Verschave claims: “Muammar Gadafy and Françafrique had more and more causes in common, cemented by anti-Americanism and enlightened self-interest. The elimination of Sankara was probably the founding rite in their alliance. In 1987 Foccart and the people round Gadafy agreed to replace the exasperatingly honest and independent leader by the infinitely more amenable Blaise Compaoré.”
Sankara was killed on 15 October 1987. Compaoré succeeded him and became a faithful executor of neo-liberal doctrine and Houphouët-Boigny’s successor as France’s closest ally in the region. His strategic role in the Françafrique system is shown by the recent establishment of the Franco-Burkinabe Friendship Society with Guy Penne as chairman. It includes Michel Roussin, formerly of the French secret service, a member of the Medef, the national organisation of French business enterprises. Roussin was minister for cooperation under Edouard Balladur in 1993 and his successors in that post are also part of the Society – Jacques Godfrain, a former close associate of Foccart; Pierre-André Wiltzer, a member of the Union for French Democracy; and the Socialist Charles Josselin.
Compaoré’s takeover as president had consequences beyond Burkina Faso’s borders. The emerging Françafrique alliance drew in politicians, military leaders and entrepreneurs from Ivory Coast, France, Libya and Burkina Faso. It supported Charles Taylor, now behindbars for war crimes in England, who was tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.
Everything has been done to erase Sankara, yet he is still present in recordings, oral tradition, films, documentaries and books, and the internet is enhancing his impact. The International Campaign for Justice for Thomas Sankara has demanded an official inquiry into his murder and is continuing to petition after the UN Commission on Human Rights recognised that demand in March 2006. The procedure has not yet been concluded and Ouagadougou is counting on the uncoercive nature of international law.