Sankara's revolutionary legacy delved into in new biography

May 15, 2015

Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary
By Ernest Harsch
Ohio University Press, 2014
163 pages, $18.56.

A popular uprising in 1983 in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), a small and poor land-locked country in western Africa, had led to an obscure, but charismatic army officer becoming head of state.

This was inspiring news for those looking for a new breakthrough against imperialism. It had come after the depressing news that Margaret Thatcher's Britain had defeated Argentina in the Malvinas and Ronald Reagan's United States had crushed Grenada's revolution.

But the US empire had been taken by surprise by the Cuban revolution 24 years earlier, and many of us were hopeful that we were witnessing such a possibility again, in Africa.

It looked like our hopes were being realised. In a few short dramatic years, the revolutionary government of what became known as Burkina Faso (“Land of the Upright People”) undertook a dramatic transformation.

Ernest Harsch's short biography of Thomas Sankara is the first in English. It looks at the man who become an icon of Africa's long struggle against neo-colonialism and helps us to understand Burkina Faso's revolution in the 1980s.

The revolution ended with Sankara's brutal assassination, along with six of his closest advisors and seven drivers and guards, in a counter-revolutionary coup from within the armed command and government.

Inspired by France's neo-colonialist social democratic President Francois Mitterand, the coup was headed up by Blaise Compaore, one of the leaders of the 1983 revolution who, until October last year, replaced Sankara as Burkina Faso's president.

Harsch's book could not have come at a better time. Last October, a country-wide uprising hit the nation of 11 million people. More than 1 million Burkinabes occupied parliament and set it ablaze — enraged that Compaore was trying to change the constitution to allow himself yet another term.

Compaore, once “Sankara's best friend” but commonly regarded as the chief architect of his murder, had all but cancelled the revolution's gains.

A research scholar at Columbia University, Harsch has for many years worked on African issues at the United Nations. He had the good fortune to visit Burkina Faso in the 1980s on behalf of US socialist journals The Militant and Intercontinental Press. He interviewed Sankara on at least six occasions, two of them at length and one shortly before his death.

This biography provides valuable information about Sankara's early life, growing up amid the tumultuous events and intellectual climate of his times as the country emerged from French colonialism.

Educated at a major state secondary school, he came from a small, but privileged strata that had helped administer the old colonial state. Upon graduation, he entered the military college set up by the army after its overthrow of the first post-colonial regime in 1966.

Periodic crises and political instability followed by military coups seem to have been permanent features of political life of the country after formal independence began in 1960.

Still under the influence of Paris, the first post-colonial regime had been unwilling or unable to deal with the country's huge social and economic problems, leading to mass unrest, labour and student strikes and a military coup.

As a result of the coup, Harsch writes, the army's popularity rose and it came to be seen by many young intellectuals as a possible instrument for social change.

At military college, Sankara came under the direct ideological influence of the college's director, the Marxist academic Adam Toure, a clandestine member of the pro-Moscow African Independence Party that was centred in Senegal with branches in other former French colonies.

It would turn out to be an important step in Sankara's political evolution.

In 1980, amid more unrest, the army again carried out a coup. Sankara, who had risen to a leadership position in the officer corps, opposed a strict military takeover.

Deepening his links with students and labour groups and encouraging the press to expose corruption, the young officer's popularity dramatically rose.

Taking his distance from the new regime as it became increasingly repressive, Sankara used his appointment as information minister in the new government to publicly declare his exit from the government, live on radio.

Issuing a strong plea for freedom of expression, he warned: “Woe to those who would gag their people.”

Sankara was immediately arrested by the army and sent to a distant military camp. But maintaining his contacts with other oppositionists throughout the country, by August 1983 he emerged at the head of a revolutionary alliance of young radicals, military officers and civilian activists to establish a new government called the National Council of the Revolution.

The new government was greeted with a mass welcoming demonstration in the capital, Ouagadougou, that lasted for several days and rapidly spread across the country.

In his first major speech on coming to power, Sankara called for sweeping measures to raise the economy's productive capacity to cut hunger and poverty.

Quickly, Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) sprung into existence in the poorest neighbourhoods and spread throughout the country.

The problems facing the tiny country were huge. Food production had not risen in 20 years. Hunger was common with life expectancy only 44 years.

Women suffered deep oppression. Sankara declared: “Our society … turns the woman into an object of exploitation for her labour power and of consumption for her biological reproductive capacity.”

Adult literacy was a miserable 11% and only 3% of school children made it to secondary school. Annual per-capita income in 1980 was US$210.

Less than one in 10 people lived in an urban area — the working class was tiny — and 90% of the population worked the land.

Bordering the Sahara, desertification threatened to further reduce the country's arable land: the need to extend the irrigation system was urgent. Cotton, introduced by colonialism, created a gross distortion of the economy.

Under Sankara's revolutionary government, the population was mobilised to tackle the country's problems within a framework of creating a national economy that was “independent, self-sufficient, planned at the service of a democratic and popular society,” as Sankara said.

Education spending rose. The CDRs enhanced tax collection and the colonial era “head tax” was abolished.

From the start, an emphasis was placed on helping agriculture in a “Struggle for a Green Burkina”. This made the country among the first to confront environmental issues.

The government's goals were “small tangible improvements,” such as building small rural irrigation systems to raise food production and planting trees.

New schools, health clinics and reservoirs were built. Campaigns were undertaken to cut illiteracy and a huge child vaccination program was rolled out.

Land and mineral wealth was nationalised, with the farmers’ right to till the land guaranteed by law.

Female circumcision was banned, along with forced marriages and polygamy. The government made a strong commitment to liberating women. A mass women's movement, headed by the Women's Union of Burkina, developed.

Measures were introduced to severely cut privileges in the state bureaucracy. Sankara got rid of the luxury presidential cars, instead using a budget-priced Renault. He was often seen riding his bicycle to his office.

Breaking with the old regime's policy of following French or US direction in foreign policy, the new government said it would establish relations with whomever it wanted. It declared its solidarity with all oppressed people and liberation movements.

During a visit by Mitterand, Sankara publicly took the French leader to task over France's relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa. He also criticised France's attitude towards African immigrants.

Sankara sought out revolutionary leaders such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and supported Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista government. He backed El Salvador's rebels battling a US-backed dictatorship.

Harsch's book is no hagiography of Sankara, nor is it a neutral account of the revolution. And although he admits admiring Sankara and clearly states his partisanship with the revolution, Harsch carefully notes some of its terrible mistakes, which may have eventually contributed to its defeat.

With Sankara's approval, the government was sometimes heavy-hand against opposition currents. Relations with the unions soured when 1300 teachers were dismissed and their leaders arrested.

“Despite the rhetoric of people's participation,” Harsch says, “there were insufficient channels through which popular ideas and grievances could be transmitted upwards.”

It was not long before the country came under direct imperialist pressure. France halted all budgetary support as did the World Bank. The new government rejected the International Monetary Fund's “conditionality” for loans.

US Ambassador Leonardo Neher made clear to the BBC's Joan Baxter: “We are not going to allow another Cuba in Africa.”

Decades after his death, Sankara's influence has not been destroyed, despite the strenuous efforts of Compaore's regime. Harsch writes that youth in Burkina Faso and across the continent continue to see him as an embodiment of their hopes and dreams.

As Alexandra Reza notes in a December London Review of Books article about last year's uprising: “One of the most interesting features of the insurrection was the re-emergence of Sankara. There were references to him everywhere, notably on street banners: ‘Sankara, look at your sons. We continue your fight.’”

Harsch's book helps us understand why his ideas are still very much alive.

[Abridged from The Bullet. Ernest Tate is a founding member of the Socialist Project.]

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