Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, who would be 68 years old if he was alive today, was many things. He was an army captain, who believed that any soldier without political or ideological training was a potential criminal. He was a politician, who used his office not to enrich himself, but to help empower the people. He was a Marxist, an anti-imperialist and a Pan-Africanist, who recognized the ways in which imperialist powers and their puppets continued to prey on Africans, and the need for a self-reliant, assertive Africa unburdened by the chains of neocolonialism. He was a feminist, who declared that “there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women…I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.”
Above all else, perhaps, he was a revolutionary. As President of the West African nation of Burkina Faso from 1983 to his assassination in 1987, Thomas Sankara embarked on a radical project to transform Burkinabe society and liberate it from the rule of both the domestic and foreign bourgeoise. From the moment he came to power in a popularly backed coup, Sankara displayed his commitment to his people time and time again. Over the course of his brief presidency, Sankara left an indelible impression on not only Burkina Faso, but on the entire African continent, and indeed the world.
Sankara was a revolutionary nationalist and internationalist par excellence. A year after he came to power, the former French colony of Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Upright Men” in Mossi and Jula, while its people became Burkinabè, the Fula word for men or women. In one stroke, he drew upon three of his nation’s largest languages to reshape its future. He was unapologetically Black and African. He encouraged his countrymen and women not to look to the colonizer for civilization, but to their own culture. A voracious reader himself, he waged an aggressive literacy campaign based in Burkina Faso’s indigenous languages that raised the literacy rate from about 10% in 1983 to over 70% in 1987. While in New York to speak to the UN, he declared that Africa was for the Africans on the floor of the General Assembly, and told a black audience in Harlem that “our White House is in Black Harlem.” When Francois Mitterrand visited Burkina Faso, Sankara seized the opportunity to criticize France’s ties to South Africa’s apartheid regime, and its treatment of African immigrants. He did not shy away from confronting the enemy.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries and so-called leaders in the “Third World” today, he lacked the good sense and common decency to place the needs of global capitalism and imperialism over the needs of his own people. From New York City to Addis Ababa to Havana, he condemned the IMF, the World Bank, and other organs of exploitation and destruction. He rejected the premise that Africans needed to rely on Western aid or entrap themselves in the jaws of debt, and charted an independent foreign policy that championed people’s liberation movements across the world. At home, Burkinabes strove to free themselves from hunger, poverty, and isolation. Successful land redistribution, nationalization, and mass irrigation programs enabled Burkina Faso to drastically increase food production, achieving not only food self-sufficiency, but a food surplus. The construction of a nationwide system of roads and railways, created entirely by the Burkinabè people, heightened the country’s self-reliance.
In a society and a world still dominated by men, his administration actively promoted gender equality. Sankara passionately spoke about the centrality of women’s liberation to the success of social, political, and economic change, announcing that “the revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph.” This wasn’t just pretty rhetoric. He banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy, and appointed women to high-ranking government positions. He promoted women’s right to work outside the home, serve in the military, go to school, form their own cooperatives and market associations, and empower themselves on their own terms. In word and deed, he recognized that women hold up half the sky.
Unlike most politicians, Sankara not only fought against the corruption of the ruling class, but rejected the usual material privileges and trappings of power himself. He frequently traveled by bicycle, and banned ministers and senior civil servants from flying first-class or using chauffer-driven Mercedes. The government abolished tribute payments and obligatory labor from peasants to traditional chiefs. He heavily reduced the bloated salaries of high-ranking government officials, and only received a $450 stipend himself – the same salary he received as an army captain. At the time of his death, his vast riches numbered one car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. As his unrelenting revolutionary drive and personal incorruptibility did not win him many friends among the foreign imperialists, his pursuit of egalitarianism at home earned him the hatred of the Burkinabe elite, who helped end his life and reverse most of the radical reforms he championed.
On the health care front, mobile health teams aided by Cuban volunteers vaccinated 2.5 million children against yellow fever, meningitis, and measles in just two weeks, and the government helped dramatically bolster Burkina Faso’s medical infrastructure on the local and national level, providing millions of people access to basic services for the first time. Sankara was also one of the first world leaders to realize the dangers of HIV/AIDS. For Sankara, the health of Burkina Faso’s environment was as essential to its success as the health of its people. To combat desertification and deforestation, millions of trees were planted, and women and youth mobilized to reduce firewood consumption.
To be sure, Sankara and his administration were not flawless. At times, his leadership style was too inflexible and top-down, a reflection perhaps of his military background and the basis of his presidency. His decision to fire thousands of striking teachers rather than negotiate with them arguably damaged the government’s mass education efforts. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, vehicles of popular democratic power first developed in the poorest villages and working-class neighborhoods in the country, were hampered by their subordination to a military-led hierarchy, and tarnished by abuses against the people by some CDR activists. The Popular Revolutionary Tribunal system suffered from similar problems as well, as people exploited the courts to advance petty personal agendas. To his credit, Sankara publicly acknowledged these errors, accepted responsibility for them, and the government took steps to rectify the problems in its last years and months, but the mistakes alienated many Burkinabe, and limited the potential of the revolution by pushing the people away from decision-making processes.
But why do we study the great revolutions and revolutionaries of the past, in the end? Not to deify them. Nothing human is perfect, and turning people and their endeavors into gods, goddesses, and divine acts to be sanctified is nothing more than the political equivalent of idol worship, and not the fun kind, where everyone gets to eat, screw, and party in front of some impressive statue. Not to tear them down and toss them into the dumpster of history wholesale, nothing gained and nothing learned. It is all too easy to engage in withering armchair critiques of revolutionary struggles, especially in hindsight, but this does not do justice to the memories of those comrades who came before us, and teaches us little.
No, we study them because their history can be socially useful. Socially useful history is not a cold, lifeless record of the past, nor a crass ideological weapon that falls apart under serious scholarly scrutiny. It’s not legitimized by government approval or commercial popularity, nor by its adherence to some dogmatic ideological or party line. It’s useful because it illuminates darkened corners, helps charts new paths for material and intellectual liberation, and is accessible to as many people as possible. Its analysis is multidimensional, not superficial, engaging history along the diverse axes of human experience. It’s legitimized by its relationship to the masses; namely, whether it comes from them directly or indirectly, and whether it promotes their history and interests. Long treatises about 17th century French fiscal policy or the latest biography of this damn fool president or that vulture of a capitalist are all well and good, but they don’t advance the emancipation of working and oppressed people one inch.
The story of Thomas Sankara and Burkina Faso is socially useful history because it does. 30 years after his murder, his bravery, his leadership, his ideas and his integrity endure as shining examples for any and all revolutionaries, radicals, and freedom fighters. When the Burkinabè people, led by the youth, overthrew the 27-year old neoliberal regime of Blaise Compaoré, the man who betrayed and murdered Sankara with the support of the Ivory Coast and France, the words and images of Sankara were everywhere – the counterrevolutionary forces may have killed the man, but they could not kill his ideas. The white Western Left in particular, which is so disconnected from the history and struggles of Africans and their descendants across the Diaspora, could stand to learn a thing or a thousand from them, Sankara and other black revolutionaries. What he and other Burkinabes were able to achieve in four short years is nothing short of remarkable, and not just for an impoverished nation still partially colonized. Their accomplishments, even in the face of powerful foes and unfortunate mistakes, stand as a testament to what is possible: for the people of Burkina Faso, for the peoples of Africa, for anyone and everyone fighting for a better life and a better world.
“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 old formulas, the courage to invent the future. 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.”
-Thomas Sankara, December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987