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On the shoulders of Thomas Sankara

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Picture: Jean-Claude Delmas / AFP / taken on October 3, 1983 President of Burkina Faso Captain Thomas Sankara, left, with France’s President Francois Mitterrand in Vittel during the 10th Franco African Summit. ‘We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on earth to rule all of humanity,’ Sankara said after taking power in a military coup. This put him in the crosshairs of the West, particularly his old coloniser, France, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Good Presidents are as scarce these days as the Juliet Rose, one of the world’s rarest flowers. An exceptional few, like Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara, were worth weeping over. When the life of Sankara was brutally erased, the nation cried.

Stories flow of how when President Thomas Sankara was laid to rest in a civil cemetery in 1987, his grave was adorned with fresh flowers and messages of love from ordinary citizens. “Long live the president of the poor” was one of the many handwritten notes. Another read “Mama Sankara, your son will be avenged. We are all Sankara.”

Of all African leaders, past and present, it is perhaps Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara who fought most bravely and boldly against the disabling and often deadly consequences of Western domination. As President of Burkina Faso, Sankara put in policies to permanently eradicate the deep-etched poverty and economic submission born out of colonial repression and post-colonial influence and interference.

Writer and activist Leo Zeilig wrote how “economic devastation and the largely unreformed relationships of African states with former colonial powers formed a pattern which Sankara promised to break”. “He refused to accept that poverty in West Africa was inevitable and offered a new kind of freedom.”

Thomas Sankara who came to power in 1984, on the back of a ‘popular coup’, was determined to place Burkina Faso on a trajectory of self-determination and socio-economic recovery. Sankara recognised imperialism as a system of exploitation that “occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory” but also “in more subtle forms, through loans, food aid and blackmail.” Sankara said “We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on earth to rule all of humanity”. And fight he did. Until his dying day.

In his four years as President of Burkina Faso, Sankara did more than most Presidents do in a lifetime. There were no wasted years for the young President. He replaced the country’s colonial name, Upper Volta, with the indigenously inspired Burkina Faso, meaning “land of upright men”. His twin strategy of breaking chains of economic dependency on the West and building the local economy from within saw ordinary citizens enjoy a better quality of life.

He introduced a bold land redistribution project, boosted by vigorous agricultural investment and development. He was determined to ensure that Burkina Faso was a nation that fed its own people. During his Presidency he doubled the country’s wheat production. He also put in measures and practices to eradicate government waste and corruption.

A hero among his own people, Sankara was a thorn in the side of the West, particularly France, the country’s former coloniser. France had continued to benefit from this West African nation well after Independence.

Anta Guissé, a lawyer for the Sankara family spoke of how many countries were unhappy with Sankara who they viewed “as a threat to their influence, to their grip on the region”. Guissé claims that Sankara’s probity was inspiring to many Africans and was one of the reasons that he was killed.

Sankara was once described by French President François Mitterrand “as disturbing” and as a man who “goes further than is necessary.” This in response to Sankara’s condemnation of France’s seeming tolerance of apartheid leaders. Sankara disrupted the easy feed of Imperialism and had to be stopped.

Zeilig wrote of Sankara’s vulnerability to a counter coup from those who had benefitted richly from an ongoing relationship with France and wanted to return to “business as usual with French imperialism”. “Sure enough” Zeilig wrote, “a counter coup came. It was ruthlessly planned and executed. Sankara was shot at the presidential residence by gunmen in military uniform”.

Sankara was assassinated by a band of his own comrades, including his Minister of State Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré was to rule the country for the next 27 years. Zeilig wrote how the new regime under Compaoré swiftly undertook the project of normalising and returning Burkina Faso to “its place on the outer margins of global political economy”. The gains made by Sankara were quickly eroded. The Burkina Faso of today is beset with dire food insecurity, insurgency and it is estimated that 40 percent of its population “live’ below the poverty line.

Sankara was just 37 years old when he was assassinated. Sankara once said “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”. The recent emergence of Ibrahim Traoré has some analysts and observers saying that the new President of Burkina Faso is Thomas Sankara reborn.

Traoré is being celebrated by many as the man destined to complete the undone business of freeing the nation from the wretch of economic and military influence and interference by the West on indigenous economies, social structures, and mindsets.

Picture: Lamine Traoré/VoA via Wikimedia/Taken on July 24, 2023 – The similarities between Thomas Sankara and Ibrahim Traoré are marked, extending beyond their appearance to their ‘shared vision for an economically healthy, strong, and resilient Burkina Faso’, the writer says.

The similarities between Traoré and Sankara are marked. They go well beyond the superficialities of their signature red berets, or their youthfulness, or even the historical fact that both Presidencies were heralded into power through military coups. What is unmistakable and more significant is their shared vision for an economically healthy, strong, and resilient Burkina Faso, free of what Sankara called the “germs of imperialism”.

When Traoré spoke at the Russia-Africa summit in July 2023, it was with the sentiments and spirit of Sankara. The new President of Burkina Faso said, “Africa’s time of slavery to Western regimes is over, and the battle for full independence has begun … homeland or death.”

His strong challenge of the system of imperialism is reminiscent of Sankara. Traoré has said “We are not enemies of the French people; it is the policy of those who run France which poses a problem in Africa.” Ebenezer Obadare of the US-based Council of Foreign Relation’s writes that “France continues to wield substantial political and economic influence in its former colonies”. In February, Burkina Faso cut military ties with France.

Just one year after Ibrahim Traoré took control over Burkina Faso through a military coup, came an attempted counter coup against him. For Burkina Faso, as in many West African countries, coups have fast become the way of doing politics in the era of Independence. The country has spent more years under military rule than civil rule since Independent. The coup is increasingly becoming the stitching of West Africa’s new-fashioned politics.

In the past three years alone, there have been six successful coups in West Africa and elected Presidents in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger have been removed from office. The Afrobarometer survey has shown that “the failures of governments and elected leaders to meet popular democratic aspirations have led to a decline in popular confidence in democratic governance and an increasing attraction to military rule and intervention”. The recent coups in Burkina Faso have also been triggered by the incumbent government’s inability to deal with the scourge of Islamist insurgency.

International relations specialist and author, Dr David Matsanga wrote “in the recent past, West Africa has become a hotbed of coups and counter coups. The constant jostling for power in mostly francophone West African countries has thrown the continent into a miasma of precariousness and eminent instability” The most recent regime change in Niger closely resembles those in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in 2021 and 2022 respectively where members of the military seized power on similar pretexts”.

Bamidele Olajide, a lecturer in political science at the University of Lagos in Lagos, Nigeria said in an ABC News interview that there is now growing concern of a “domino effect” as coups spread across West and Central Africa. He said “coups are generally contagious as a successful coup in a country emboldens would-be coup plotters in neighbouring countries, especially where the social, economic and political situations are similar … this has proven to be the case over history on the continent and the new spate of coups are not in any way different”.

For now, yet another coup in Burkina Faso has been averted. Responding to the recent coup attempt, Traoré reasserted his commitment to the liberation of Burkina Faso and expressed his determination to lead the transition to sovereignty despite adversity. He has a long walk ahead of him as he deals with a multitude of crises, including country and Continental instability.

What he has done is to ignite the possibility of a future without imperialism, a future that is self-driven in the spirit of the Sankara model. When the people stand up, imperialism trembles, Thomas Sankara once said. Traoré stands on the shoulders of Sankara. If he can implement the people-focussed, self-determined vision of Thomas Sankara, he will indeed be remembered as one of the giants of Africa.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.