Why Burkina Faso’s revolutionary president still matters
Under the full moon glow in the warm Ouagadougou night, to the thud of ominous beats, the Congolese rapper strode onto the stage, declaring, “I may be from Congo Brazzaville but tonight, on the anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara we are all Burkinabe”. For the first time in the night the previously subdued crowd roared in appreciation, from then on he could do no wrong.
But why, twenty-nine years after he was machined gunned to death by soldiers of his former comrade, Blaise Compoare and after only four years in office, could Sankara’s name still generate such a reaction with a crowd mostly not even born at the time, who had only turned up for a free music festival? Until the dictator Compoare’s twenty-seven years in power came crashing down in the people led revolution of 2014 such scenes were unthinkable. At the very least, praising Sankara’s name in public could have got you a good kicking from the forces of law and order, but his memory never faded and even entered the African pantheon of revolutionary heroes, despite being a name that means little in the West. There are certainly plenty of establishment figures in the West who are only too happy for his legacy to remain obscure for he preached a powerful message of anti-imperialism, with freedom from the yoke of international banking institutions, even rejecting aid money if it came with any strings attached, despite being one of the poorest countries on earth. For many he is Africa’s Che Guevara but he was much more than a poster boy for a revolution as he actually got things done.
The reason why he achieved so much in such a short time was also the source of the legitimate criticism against him: he was a military officer who came to power in a coup. The ruthless efficiency implicit in his background meant that in his first week in power he had already organised a nationwide vaccination programme for 2,5 million children to eradicate polio, measles and meningitis. However it also meant that he wasn’t going to let anyone stand in his way, which meant that freedom of speech and even unions suffered under his rule. Despite these and other failings his energies were without doubt directed towards the improvement of life for the poor majority of Burkinabes. In the battle against corruption he ruled by example, cutting his own wages, replacing government limousines with Renault 5’s and denying his family government jobs. Local committees were formed to build roads and schools, lay railway track, provide irrigation for farmland and numerous other practical projects that the majority gladly supported as it was for the benefit of all.
His rejection of Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed by the IMF and the World Bank was backed up by a massive drive for self-sufficiency and through improved practices and fertilisation more than doubled wheat production efficiency, part of turning Burkina Faso from a food importer to an exporter, which was just one example of showing how it could be done. It took years before the West grudgingly accepted the brutal reality of the SAP’s but on so many other issues he was ahead of his time. Many of his policies wouldn’t look out of place amongst those of recent movements like Occupy. On the environment he instituted a massive tree planting programme to combat desertification, only recently reintroduced under the Great Green Wall project. He improved literacy and health care, nationalised extractive industries and redistributed land to commoners. It is perhaps on women’s rights that he was most revolutionary, demanding absolute equal rights for women: he immediately outlawed FGM, forced/underage marriage and polygamy; nominated women to senior government positions and introduced numerous projects to improve women’s welfare. “The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women”, was just one of his many emphatic statements on the issue.
It is said that he would go out on his bike dressed like a member of the public to talk with people in the street, who would have no idea who he was, and so learn what the masses really thought. Maybe it’s just a story created to boost his image but it demonstrates the faith that people have in him and the importance of having someone who isn’t totally detached from the concerns of the majority’s existence. The passage of time may have created a more idealised image of the man, having erased some of the collective memory of his failings but that shouldn’t detract from his importance.
By upsetting local vested interests and what the transnational powers like to be the natural order of things, maybe his death was inevitable sooner or later. The former colonial power France has a long and nasty history of manipulating events in the region and a court case to force them to reveal any paperwork on government involvement in his assassination is in process. Nobody is very surprised they have been reluctant to give up official documents, nor will they be if they are implicated. Certainly Compoare’s rule was a return to business as usual for foreign governments and companies.
The new government has returned freedom of speech, which has allowed the flowering of the cult of Sankara, they have even supported festivals and a memorial in his honour as well as indicting Compoare and others for the assassination. It’s good PR for the government to extol the name of Sankara, who even has his supporters amongst the ministers but it’s clear that anything resembling similar, radical reform is not on the cards. Not upsetting the regional and global order is more their style and from the couple of conversations I had with people it would seem that actual practical change has been minimal. Once the official praise of Sankara has exhausted itself and the people have seen little improvement in their lives brought by the return to democracy, what then? Another revolution, a return to authoritarianism? As many around the world are rejecting business as usual in politics, the likes of Sankara can serve as powerful inspirations for real change well beyond the borders of Burkina Faso, where he made people proud to be Burkinabe. But it is his influence for Africans and Burkinabes in particular, as a role model that should be celebrated, because he showed that things really can be changed, even in the short-term, despite the inherent difficulties of life in Africa, when the people are truly inspired by a leader in which they have faith that their concerns are shared. He made it plain that Africans are not complacent and lazy, that they can all pull together to create a better nation, even a world, when a leader puts the country ahead of self-interest, wealth and power.
To learn more about Thomas Sankara check out Thomassankara.net
Or even read his biography.