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 régime, 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 putsches.4 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 régime, 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 régime’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.

References   [ + ]

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.