Thomas Sankara and the Revolutionary Birth of Burkina Faso

Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara by Joy Hanoun. Cour­tesy of Unit­ed Souls.

In 1983, 23 years after its inde­pen­dence and the suc­ces­sion of sev­er­al neo-colo­nial regimes, the Upper Vol­ta was one of the most mate­ri­al­ly des­ti­tute coun­tries in the world. 98 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion was illit­er­ate and its GDP per capi­ta was just over 100 dol­lars of the time. Out of the sev­en mil­lion inhab­i­tants of the coun­try, six mil­lion belonged to the peas­antry. This peas­antry had to sub­sist on dif­fi­cult soils, faced ram­pant deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, and the degra­da­tion of the terms of the cot­ton trade, the young nation’s main source of cur­ren­cy. Since its con­sti­tu­tion as a colony with­in French West Africa in 1919, the Upper Vol­ta was a dis­en­fran­chised ter­ri­to­ry, con­sid­ered by the colo­nial appa­ra­tus to be a reserve of forced labor and agri­cul­tur­al work­ers for the great cof­fee and cocoa plan­ta­tions of neigh­bor­ing Côte d’Ivoire. Health and edu­ca­tion equip­ment, even for the very low stan­dards of the region, remained par­tic­u­lar­ly scarce and inad­e­quate to sat­is­fy the needs of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Sankara, the Shaping of a Political Subject

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, the son of a sol­dier of the colo­nial army turned civ­il ser­vant, grew up, in the course of his father’s assign­ments in the coun­try­side, in con­tact with the peo­ple but shield­ed from its mis­ery. There was, though, a moment in his child­hood that shows the young Sankara’s incli­na­tion to rebel­lion and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to social jus­tice.1 But most­ly, he was a con­sci­en­tious boy who, accord­ing to his biog­ra­phers, demon­strat­ed a pre­co­cious seri­ous­ness in his stud­ies.2 In 1966, the year that saw Mau­rice Yaméo­go, Upper Volta’s first pres­i­dent, oust­ed by a coup and replaced by a mil­i­tary regime, the young Thomas was admit­ted to the mil­i­tary acad­e­my of Kadio­go in the sub­urbs of the cap­i­tal Oua­gadougou. It is there that he met Adama Abdoulaye Touré, the establishment’s direc­tor of stud­ies and mem­ber of the Par­ti Africain de l’Indépendance3 who gath­ered some of his stu­dents for infor­mal polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions, after school hours. It was prob­a­bly there that the young Thomas Sankara start­ed his ide­o­log­i­cal train­ing and first heard of impe­ri­al­ism.

After grad­u­at­ing from high school in 1969, Sankara was one of the three stu­dents of the acad­e­my to be offered a schol­ar­ship and the pos­si­bil­i­ty to con­tin­ue his stud­ies in Mada­gas­car. He would go on to stay four years on the island where he would be deeply affect­ed by the 1972 Mala­gasy Rev­o­lu­tion, con­sid­ered by some to be its “sec­ond inde­pen­dence.” In Mada­gas­car, Sankara paid spe­cial atten­tion to the role of the army in the socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment of the coun­try. When he returned to Upper Vol­ta with the rank of offi­cer, he was giv­en the com­mand of a train­ing camp and became known for both his rig­or and unortho­dox ideas, one of which being his belief in the impor­tance of civic and intel­lec­tu­al train­ing of the recruits.

When Revolution Is the Reasonable Course of Action

Thomas Sankara’s Rev­o­lu­tion is often dis­missed with the argu­ment that it was the result of a mil­i­tary coup rather than the out­come of a pop­u­lar move­ment. The argu­ment sug­gests that because it was born out of the will of just a few rad­i­cal putschists, it had no real sub­stance and roots in Voltaïque soci­ety and his­to­ry. Such a pre­sen­ta­tion of the Rev­o­lu­tion, which only focus­es on the mil­i­tary manoeu­vres of August 4, 1983, is super­fi­cial and fails to take into account two essen­tial con­di­tions: (1) the inter­na­tion­al and nation­al con­text from which the Rev­o­lu­tion arose; and (2) the legit­i­ma­cy that Thomas Sankara acquired in the years before the Rev­o­lu­tion.

(1) Thomas Sankara and his allies did not take state pow­er in a con­text of insti­tu­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty, but rather in a cli­mate of chron­ic insta­bil­i­ty and end­less suc­ces­sion of regimes them­selves estab­lished by putsches4 Each of these ephemer­al regimes – which was born out of the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of its pre­de­ces­sor – proved inca­pable of solv­ing its social cri­sis, remov­ing Upper Vol­ta from the orbit of France, and free­ing its econ­o­my from depen­dence on aid and fluc­tu­a­tions in world cot­ton prices. The inter­na­tion­al con­text of the ear­ly 1980s imposed on oil-import­ing coun­tries in Africa such as Upper Vol­ta sev­er­al exter­nal shocks: ris­ing oil prices; ris­ing inter­est rates of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­al Reserve Bank, on which debt was indexed; con­tin­u­ous­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ing terms of trade; and, the slow­ing of inter­na­tion­al trade due to the glob­al reces­sion. The Sankarist Rev­o­lu­tion was in that con­text the peak of a series of revolts, the break­down of an inept cycle, and the begin­ning of a his­tor­i­cal sequence that would see Upper Vol­ta become Burk­i­na Faso and, to deal with its crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, “dare to invent the future.”5 

(2) To present the Sankarist Rev­o­lu­tion as just anoth­er coup, one of the many that took place in post­colo­nial Africa and often with back­ing from impe­ri­al­ist states, is also to ignore the thread of events that con­sti­tut­ed Thomas Sankara’s life as an offi­cer in the Upper Vol­ta army pri­or to the night of August 4, 1983 and con­ferred on him both pop­u­lar­i­ty and polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy. Three years before the Rev­o­lu­tion, on Novem­ber 25, 1980, a group of senior army offi­cers led by Colonel Saye Zer­bo insti­gat­ed a coup and seized pow­er on the pre­text of an “ero­sion of state author­i­ty.“6 Although not part of the plot, Thomas Sankara who was well known by the pub­lic because of his pro­gres­sive ideas and a feat of arms dur­ing the bor­der con­flict of 1974 with Mali, was offered a posi­tion in the new gov­ern­ment. He polite­ly declined at first, but because of the president’s insis­tence, he was com­pelled to accept with the con­di­tion that he would stay in office for no more than two months.

He was appoint­ed to his first polit­i­cal charge in Sep­tem­ber 1981 as Min­is­ter of Infor­ma­tion and it took time for the inhab­i­tants of Oua­gadougou to get used to see­ing a mem­ber of gov­ern­ment going to work on his bicy­cle. The infor­ma­tion Min­istry, which until then was rather that of pro­pa­gan­da, changed rad­i­cal­ly in its rela­tions with the media when Sankara took its lead. He encour­aged jour­nal­ists who were not accus­tomed to free­dom, to write pieces on cor­rup­tion cas­es. Arti­cles were soon pub­lished that doc­u­ment­ed cas­es of embez­zle­ment in a pub­lic bank and which sug­gest­ed the com­plic­i­ty of civ­il ser­vants from the Min­istry of Trade. The police sum­moned the direc­tor of the Nation­al News Agency and accused him of feed­ing that infor­ma­tion to the press. Sankara, as Min­is­ter of infor­ma­tion, defend­ed the press, reaf­firmed its mis­sion and free­dom to inform the pub­lic, protest­ing to the Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or.

As gov­ern­ment pop­u­lar­i­ty was falling apart, the trade union move­ments were being repressed, and their lead­ers impris­oned, Thomas Sankara resigned resound­ing­ly: he sent an open let­ter to Pres­i­dent Zer­bo denounc­ing the regime, which he decried as bour­geois and serv­ing the inter­ests of the minor­i­ty. He was imme­di­ate­ly stripped of his rank of cap­tain and deport­ed to a remote mil­i­tary camp. Anoth­er coup occurred on Novem­ber 7, 1982, with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Sankara and his left-wing com­rades of the army who believed that a move­ment led only by the army would not allow for the deep polit­i­cal changes to which they aspired.

Acknowl­edg­ing his pop­u­lar­i­ty, an extra­or­di­nary assem­bly of the CSP (Coun­cil for the Sal­va­tion of the Peo­ple) presided by Cap­tain Jean Bap­tiste Oue­drao­go, appoint­ed Cap­tain Sankara Prime Min­is­ter of Upper Vol­ta on Jan­u­ary 10, 1983. From then on, when Sankara began diplo­mat­ic func­tions with an offi­cial vis­it to Tripoli and an atten­dance of the Non-Aligned Sum­mit in New Del­hi where he met with Fidel Cas­tro, neigh­bor­ing Côte d’Ivoire with back­ing from France, start­ed to wor­ry about the polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion of Upper Vol­ta. Between March and May 1983, Sankara gave resound­ing speech­es to mass ral­lies with mes­sages and tones that made no mys­tery of his polit­i­cal lean­ings.

Two days after Sankara’s speech in Bobo-Dioulas­so on May 14, 1983, Guy Penne, Mitterand’s advis­er for Africa, arrived in Upper Vol­ta for an offi­cial vis­it. Ear­ly in the morn­ing that fol­lowed on May 17, armored vehi­cles encir­cled the res­i­dence of Thomas Sankara, effec­tive­ly plac­ing him under house arrest. In the days that fol­lowed, great demon­stra­tions flared up in Oua­gadougou, where the slo­gan “Free Sankara!” rang out. Pop­u­lar demon­stra­tions, as well as a fac­tion of the army loy­al to Sankara, com­pelled the author­i­ties to release him. For two months, the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion remained unre­solved, each of the camps para­noid and con­sol­i­dat­ing its posi­tions. Sankara and the left wing of the army strength­ened their ties with civil­ian pop­u­la­tions and trade union orga­ni­za­tions, and set up a polit­i­cal plat­form.

Cap­tain Blaise Com­paoré, a friend and long-time com­rade of Thomas Sankara, then took the rumor of an attempt to assas­si­nate the lat­ter as a pre­text to move with troops on Oua­gadougou in the after­noon of August 4, 1983. Civil­ian groups sup­port­ed the oper­a­tion by cut­ting elec­tric­i­ty in the cap­i­tal. By 9:30 p.m., Compaoré’s troops con­trolled the cap­i­tal. At 10:00 p.m. Thomas Sankara announced via radio the fall of the gov­ern­ment of Oue­drao­go and the begin­ning of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary process, the for­ma­tion of the Nation­al Coun­cil of the Rev­o­lu­tion, and called for the cre­ation of rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mit­tees in all the local­i­ties of the coun­try. He announced that night on the radio that the pur­pose of the gov­ern­ment would hence­forth be to help the peo­ple achieve their “deep aspi­ra­tion for free­dom, true inde­pen­dence, eco­nom­ic and social progress.7 Upper Vol­ta, the colo­nial inven­tion, then made way to Burk­i­na Faso, the land of the Upright Man.

Whose Revolution?

“No altar, no belief, no holy book, nei­ther the Qur’an nor the Bible nor the oth­ers, have ever been able to rec­on­cile the rich and and the poor, the exploiter and the exploit­ed. And if Jesus him­self had to take the whip to chase them from his tem­ple, it is indeed because that is the only lan­guage they hear.“8

Marx­ism has occu­pied a promi­nent place in the the­o­ret­i­cal arse­nal of intel­lec­tu­als and polit­i­cal fig­ures who have led strug­gles for African inde­pen­dence. Few, how­ev­er, are those among the intel­lec­tu­als and African heads of states who have not felt the need to expunge from Marx­ism a dimen­sion that is essen­tial to it: class strug­gle.9 Two fac­tors at least seem to explain this rejec­tion of class strug­gle as the engine of his­to­ry.

One is the class posi­tion of the lead­ers of decol­o­niza­tion, recruit­ed from either the chief­tain­cy – which was either estab­lished or fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­formed dur­ing colo­nial­ism by the pow­er­ful tech­nol­o­gy of indi­rect rule – or, and more often, among the pet­ty-bour­geois intel­lec­tu­als. Although these two groups are sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent when it comes to cul­ture, they are nat­ur­al and com­ple­men­tary allies in the field of class pol­i­tics as they both are prod­ucts of and essen­tial cogs in the machine of impe­ri­al­ist dom­i­na­tion over their society’s pro­duc­tive forces. While pet­ty-bour­geois intel­lec­tu­als use their acquired skillsets to man­age the post­colo­nial state and nego­ti­ate the terms of its extra­ver­sion, cus­tom­ary chiefs and reli­gious author­i­ties orga­nize the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the mass­es.10 Decol­o­niza­tion, for these two groups, does not mean a rup­ture with the colo­nial­ist state and its cap­i­tal­ists, but greater and more prof­itable nego­ti­a­tion poten­tial. 

A sec­ond set of rea­sons for the rejec­tion of class strug­gle, and thus of Marx­ist thought, results from a desire for cul­tur­al and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal inde­pen­dence. African-descend­ed intel­lec­tu­als have long addressed them­selves to the psy­chic effects of post-Enlight­en­ment thought’s nega­tion of Black rea­son. Marxism’s his­tori­co-cul­tur­al speci­fici­ty of 19th-cen­tu­ry Europe has alien­at­ed many African thinkers who long for an authen­ti­cal­ly African soci­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal thought, which would owe every­thing to African minds and noth­ing to Euro­pean ones.11 This, I think, has to do with a wound­ed pride and a ten­den­cy to ide­al­ize African soci­eties before and dur­ing the Atlantic slave trade. In a lec­ture giv­en in 1975 in New York, Wal­ter Rod­ney takes Kwame Nkrumah as the par­a­dig­mat­ic fig­ure of this ten­den­cy to avoid the real­i­ty of class strug­gle, qual­i­fy­ing that Ghana’s first pres­i­dent was not sim­ply a bour­geois ide­o­logue. From the 1950s to the end of his life, Nkrumah – a sin­cere and devot­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary, states­man, and thinker – sought to devel­op an eman­ci­pa­to­ry con­scious­ness while deny­ing the impor­tance of class con­tra­dic­tions in African soci­eties. Chased from pow­er by the CIA-allied Ghana­ian pet­ty bour­geoisie, whose non-exis­tence as a class he had been busy the­o­riz­ing, he final­ly pro­duced a the­o­ret­i­cal reflec­tion which was at the same time an exer­cise in self-crit­i­cism while exiled in the Guinea of fel­low anti-impe­ri­al­ist Sék­ou Touré.12

With Thomas Sankara, who is of a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion from that of Nkrumah and Sen­g­hor, there is no such ambi­gu­i­ty or escapism when it comes to deal­ing with class: the ene­mies of anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle are the bour­geoisie and its allies, from the north and the south; its allies and prime ben­e­fi­cia­ries, the work­ing mass­es and, in a coun­try like Burk­i­na Faso, the peas­antry most specif­i­cal­ly.

When asked about the sub­stance of his eco­nom­ic pro­gram, Sankara replied that it was for the Rev­o­lu­tion to use the brains and arms of the Burk­in­abe, or peo­ple of Burk­i­na Faso, to guar­an­tee two meals a day and ten liters of water to all. One sus­pects that this goal, at once sub­lime and mod­est, did not excite the bour­geoisie. But the Burk­in­abè Rev­o­lu­tion would achieve this aim over the course of four years, all the while being weaned off the bud­getary assis­tance of France, the World Bank (which ceased imme­di­ate­ly after the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1983), and sev­er­al oth­er sources of financ­ing promised to pri­or lib­er­al regimes. Sankara’s sober class analy­sis is, in my opin­ion, one of the most valu­able and unique aspects of his lega­cy for the African present. It is on the basis of this analy­sis that he was able to for­mu­late and imple­ment poli­cies of redis­tri­b­u­tion.

Debt as a Hindrance to Sovereignty

When Sankara took pow­er four years before his speech at the meet­ing of the Orga­ni­za­tion of African Uni­ty, debt stran­gled not only the coun­tries of Africa, but also those of Latin Amer­i­ca. In 1985 out of a bud­get of 58 bil­lion francs FCFA, Burk­i­na Faso had to devote 12 bil­lion to debt repay­ments. The speech of Thomas Sankara, as well as his call for a unit­ed front against debt, is in direct con­nec­tion with the cam­paign launched by Fidel Cas­tro in Havana in 1985. This cam­paign and his speech, which empha­sized the odi­ous nature of the debt, its colo­nial ori­gins, its dis­as­trous effects on pub­lic and social poli­cies in par­tic­u­lar, and the insol­ven­cy of debtors, does not, how­ev­er, exhaust all the griev­ances Thomas Sankara har­bored against the insti­tu­tion of debt.

Thomas Sankara was crit­i­cal of both debt and aid, which was part­ly com­posed of loans. On the lat­ter, he said: “We cer­tain­ly encour­age help that helps us to do with­out aid. But in gen­er­al, the pol­i­cy of assis­tance and aid has only dis­or­ga­nized us, enslav­ing us, dis­em­pow­er­ing us in our eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al space.” This cri­tique of aid is not sim­ply made at the lev­el of dis­course; it is embed­ded in prac­ti­cal deci­sions. In 1987, he told one of his biog­ra­phers, Ernest Harsch, that he sug­gest­ed the Unit­ed States replace the Peace Corps pro­gram in Burk­i­na Faso with bud­getary sup­port. When the Unit­ed States refused, Sankara prompt­ly sus­pend­ed the pro­gram. Sankara, although at the head of a very poor coun­try and iso­lat­ed by his ide­o­log­i­cal options, showed a rare strength of char­ac­ter and remark­able intran­si­gence on the ques­tion of the sov­er­eign­ty of his coun­try. His speech at the UN in 1984 includ­ed this strong pro­fes­sion: “We swear, we pro­claim, that from now on in Burk­i­na Faso, noth­ing will hap­pen with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Burk­in­abè. Noth­ing that wasn’t pre­vi­ous­ly decid­ed by us, elab­o­rat­ed by us. There will no longer be an attack on our decen­cy and our dig­ni­ty.”

This con­cern for auton­o­my, the preser­va­tion of the Revolution’s free­dom of thought and action, had, as we have seen, the con­se­quence of cut­ting Burk­i­na Faso from sev­er­al sources of financ­ing. But Sankara was eager to act, to solve the hard­ships of his peo­ple, and to do so quick­ly. He there­fore decid­ed, with­out the need for IMF injunc­tions, severe aus­ter­i­ty. He dras­ti­cal­ly cut the run­ning costs of the admin­is­tra­tion, abol­ished the bonus­es of civ­il ser­vants, and reduced to a min­i­mum the lifestyle of his gov­ern­ment. What was saved from those bud­getary cuts, was invest­ed in edu­ca­tion, health and agri­cul­ture pro­grams in rur­al areas. To get an idea of the lengths to which this aus­ter­i­ty went, let us remem­ber that dur­ing his trip to New York at the UN, his del­e­ga­tion, which includ­ed min­is­ters, was lodged on mat­tress­es lying on the floor of Burk­i­na Faso’s embassy. Offi­cial jour­neys and mis­sions of State offi­cials were only made in econ­o­my class.

Institutional and Cultural Failures of the Revolution

This aus­ter­i­ty, a sort of ascetic pol­i­cy, as well as the scale of the efforts required of the Burk­in­abè, but also a cer­tain author­i­tar­i­an­ism, had the con­se­quence of dis­pleas­ing or fatigu­ing even cer­tain sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion who were rather favor­able to the Rev­o­lu­tion. Despite unde­ni­able results from the point of view of health, food, and edu­ca­tion, the Rev­o­lu­tion in its last years alien­at­ed many Burk­in­abè, espe­cial­ly the most priv­i­leged ones. One should also note that although he was crit­i­cal of par­lia­men­tarism and what he termed bour­geois democ­ra­cy, Sankara failed to cre­ate a viable insti­tu­tion­al alter­na­tive to it.

He also over­es­ti­mat­ed his fel­low countrymen’s capac­i­ty for self­less­ness and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ardor. The Rev­o­lu­tion cre­at­ed a series of insti­tu­tions that were imple­ment­ed in all regions of the coun­try in order to replace feu­dal chief­tain­cies and chan­nel people’s par­tic­i­pa­tion into the socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment of the coun­try but also to the judi­cia­ry sys­tem. Those were the elec­toral­ly con­sti­tut­ed CDR (Com­mit­tees for the Defense of the Rev­o­lu­tion) and the TPR (Pop­u­lar Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Courts). Thought of as two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels between the peo­ple and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship and as insti­tu­tions of direct democ­ra­cy, the CDR quick­ly became a vehi­cle for oppor­tunis­tic elites. Because of the cen­tral authority’s lack of effec­tive sur­veil­lance and coer­cive means, the CDR was found guilty of numer­ous pow­er abus­es and reac­tionary ten­den­cies.13 One should also note that the speech­es, radio and tele­vi­sion shows, news­pa­pers, and most of the vehi­cles of the regime’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion relied on French, a lan­guage that the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of the peo­ple, those whose inter­ests the Rev­o­lu­tion was serv­ing, did not under­stand. Vast seg­ments of the peas­antry, because of those cul­tur­al and insti­tu­tion­al fail­ures, were obliv­i­ous to the Revolution’s val­ues, argu­ments for change and long term objec­tives.

A Lingering Thorn in Imperialism’s Side

On Octo­ber 15, 1987, while Thomas Sankara was lead­ing a work meet­ing in the Con­seil de l’entente, shots rang out in the court­yard. Accord­ing to the sole sur­vivor of that meet­ing, Alouna Touré, Sankara asked those present to stay in the room and told them: “It is me that they are look­ing for.” He head­ed towards the door, lift­ing his hands as he exit­ed the room. Armed men, com­mand­ed by Cap­tain Gilbert Diendéré, a rel­a­tive of Blaise Com­paoré, fired on him with­out warn­ing. The rev­o­lu­tion­ary process was trag­i­cal­ly cut short. Com­paoré, once a friend and ally, seized pow­er and pro­ceed­ed to a rein­ser­tion of Burk­i­na Faso in the domain of France. The coun­try was once again on good terms with the World Bank and the IMF, as Blaise Com­paoré slow­ly trans­formed it into a pil­lar of Françafrique.14

When, in 2014, the Burk­in­abe youth, claim­ing the mem­o­ry of Sankara, forced Com­paoré to leave pow­er, he was offered the direc­tion of an inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion by Pres­i­dent Hol­lande and even­tu­al­ly went into exile in Abid­jan, Côte d’Ivoire. The court sys­tem and the peo­ple of Burk­i­na Faso are today ask­ing for his extra­di­tion so that he can be ques­tioned in the inves­ti­ga­tion of the death of Thomas Sankara, the cir­cum­stances of which have not yet been ful­ly inves­ti­gat­ed.

Thomas Sankara was 37 years old when he was assas­si­nat­ed, and his com­rades, the group of peo­ple that led the rev­o­lu­tion, were all in their 30s. 30 years have passed, and pro­gres­sives on the con­ti­nent and abroad still cel­e­brate his mem­o­ry every Octo­ber 15th. He is one of the com­pass­es that gives direc­tion, one of the giants, on whose shoul­ders mil­i­tants can climb to see far­ther and reach high­er. When I think of the harsh con­di­tions humankind is made to suf­fer in a coun­try such as Upper Vol­ta in the 1980s, I can’t help but to think of the flour­ish­ing of Thomas Sankara, the nur­tur­ing by his peo­ple of such a mag­nif­i­cent spir­it, as an extreme­ly elo­quent tes­ti­mo­ny of uni­ver­sal human poten­tial and resilience.

  1. When attend­ing the Gaoua ele­men­tary school, Sankara and his friends used to sali­vate over the bicy­cle of the french director’s child. He con­fessed in an inter­view he gave in 1985 to Swiss jour­nal­ist Jean Philipe-Rapp that they used to be help­ful to the director’s child so that he would lend them his bicy­cle just for a small ride but that he nev­er con­sent­ed. Sankara then decid­ed to take the bicy­cle with­out its owner’s approval, which result­ed in his father being thrown in jail. 

  2. Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (Athens, OH: Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014). 

  3. A social­ist and Pan-African­ist par­ty found­ed in 1963. 

  4. Those were both young mem­bers of the army and of the orga­ni­za­tions of the left. 

  5. “I would like to leave behind me the con­vic­tion that, hav­ing tak­en a few pre­cau­tions and hav­ing orga­nized our­selves to some extent, we will see vic­to­ry. […] You can­not car­ry out fun­da­men­tal change with­out a cer­tain amount of mad­ness. In this case, it comes from non­con­for­mi­ty, the courage to turn your back on the old for­mu­las, the courage to invent the future. Besides, it took the mad­men of yes­ter­day for us to be able to act with extreme clar­i­ty today. I want to be one of those mad­men. […] We must dare to invent the future.” “Dare to invent the future: Inter­view with Jean-Philippe Rapp (1985)” in Thomas Sankara, Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burk­i­na Faso Rev­o­lu­tion 1983–1987, 2nd ed., ed. Michael Prairie (New York: Pathfind­er Press, 2007), 189–232, 228, 232. 

  6. Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: An African Rev­o­lu­tion­ary (Athens, OH: Ohio Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014). 

  7. Thomas Sankara, “Déc­la­ra­tion du 4 aout 1983.” In Eng­lish see “A radi­ant future for our coun­try: Procla­ma­tion of August 4, 1983,” in Thomas Sankara Speaks, 65–68. 

  8. Thomas Sankara, “Against those who exploit and oppress us – here and in France, At offi­cial recep­tion for François Mit­terand (Novem­ber 17, 1986)” in Thomas Sankara Speaks, 325–34, 331–32. 

  9. A rejec­tion that rests most­ly on cul­tur­al­ist and essen­tial­ist argu­ments and a ten­den­cy to paint a pic­ture of ante-colo­nial African soci­eties as devoid of inequal­i­ties and rela­tions of exploita­tion. On this point, a cru­cial ref­er­ence remains Frantz Fanon, “The Tri­als and Tribu­la­tions of Nation­al Con­scious­ness,” in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 97–144. 

  10. Jean François Bayart, “L’Afrique dans le Monde: une his­toire d’extraversion,” Cri­tique Inter­na­tionale 5, no. 1 (1999): 97–120. 

  11. For the apex of African intel­lec­tu­al efforts to ignore class, one can turn to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s writ­ings in which he pre­tends to work on a re-read­ing of Marx from pseu­do “Negro-African Val­ues.” See Léopold Sédar Sen­g­hor, Pour une relec­ture africaine de Marx et Engels (Abid­jan: Nou­velles édi­tions Africaines, 1990). 

  12. Kwame Nkrumah, Class Strug­gle in Africa (Lon­don: Panaf Books, 1970). 

  13. Benoit Beuch­er, La Nais­sance de la com­mu­nauté nationale Burk­in­abé, où com­ment le Voltaique devint un ‘homme intè­gre,’” Poli­tique Africaine, no. 118 (2010), 165–86. 

  14. A term coined by Côte d’Ivoire’s first pres­i­dent Houphou­et Boigny, who used it to sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly describe France’s spe­cial rela­tion­ship with African coun­tries, the word’s cur­rent pejo­ra­tive and dom­i­nant mean­ing is owed to François Xavier Ver­schave, an econ­o­mist who defined it as: “a neb­u­la of eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary actors, in France and Africa, orga­nized in net­works and lob­bies, and polar­ized on the seizure of two rents: raw mate­ri­als and pub­lic devel­op­ment aid…”. See François-Xavier Ver­schave, La Françafrique, le plus long scan­dale de la République, (Paris: Stock, 1998). 

Author of the article

is based in Dakar and the founder of the online cultural and literary magazine RECIDIVE, as well as a contributing editor for Chimurenga. He is also co-author with Binyavanga Wainaina of the memoir What a Friend Told Me.