On May 25, 2015, on a warm Monday morning on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, a large crowd gathered outside the gates to Dagnoen Cemetery, located in an especially destitute neighborhood in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Police, wearing bullet-proof vests with the French word gendarme planted on the back, blocked the crowd’s access to the cemetery grounds. Yet still the mass of people pushed forward, hoping to get even a small glimpse of the shovels piercing the parched earth, robbed of moisture by the steady advance of the Sahara Desert through this landlocked West Africa nation.
Their view of the operation was blocked by the police, by the burnt orange rocks blazing in the sun, and by the few shrubs that ringed the outskirts of Ouagadougou’s most forsaken burying ground. Nonetheless, the crowd knew that its presence was imperative, reflecting both the solemnity of the occasion, as the shovels reached into the earth to pull up a vital piece of the nation’s revolutionary past, as well as the distrust that the masses felt for a government that had long sought to conceal the national legacy of struggle and resistance against corruption, imperialism, and neocolonialism.
The diggers whose spades punctured the ground at Dagnoen that day were looking for the remains of Thomas Sankara, the former head of state of Burkina Faso. His bullet-riddled body had been unceremoniously dumped into the ground, along with those of his closest associates, 28 years earlier, in the decisive act of a brutal counter-revolution that brought to an end one of the most remarkable periods of modern African history. Prior to his death at the age of 37, Sankara had guided the Burkinabé revolution from 1983 to 1987, a four-year period in which Burkina Faso sought to defy the international neo-liberal order that crippled countless Third World countries in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. For four years, Sankara’s government fought illiteracy, hunger, infant mortality, and desertification, all while insisting on a more equitable relationship with the nation’s former colonial master, France, and demanding an end to the austerity programs that had plagued countless African states due to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies.
Sankara’s revolution, rooted in a Marxism refracted through an anti-imperialist worldview inspired by figures such as Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, had threatened the established neo-colonial pecking order, prompting a swift counter-revolution carried out by one of Sankara’s closest associates, Blaise Compaoré, who reversed Sankara’s policies and established a reign of terror in the country that would last until Compaoré’s ouster in 2014. It was only thanks to Compaoré’s fall from power that the exhumation of Thomas Sankara’s body became possible. Prior to that, even mentioning the name of Sankara in the streets of Ouagadougou could invite harsh repression from the state.
Yet despite the official silencing of Sankara’s legacy, the crowd that gathered outside Dagnoen Cemetery in May 2015 demonstrated by their very presence that memories of Sankara and his revolutionary government continued to inspire Burkinabé people, long after the former leader’s death. In the mass demonstrations that led to Compaoré’s downfall in October 2014, Sankara’s name and image were prominently featured, suggesting that the former leader was a primary source of inspiration for the many thousands who took to the streets, declaring their uprising the “Black Spring,” in a nod to the recent Arab Spring revolts in North Africa.
As one protesting student told Al-Jazeera, “Young people who were not alive during Sankara’s administration are beginning to look back more to that period because something is wrong in the country today.” Indeed, by the year 2015, Burkina Faso remained one of the world’s poorest countries, its depleted economy dominated by subsistence agriculture, its average life expectancy just 59 years, its infant mortality rate 84 per 1,000 live births, its per capita GDP just $1,730. In all these vital indices, Burkina Faso joins many of its sub-Saharan African neighbors as uniquely impoverished and underdeveloped by the global capitalist order.
During his brief reign, Sankara had dreamed of—and in some ways begun to create—a different world, in which the Wretched of the Earth would claim their rightful place as full human beings, no longer condemned to suffer and die in nameless squalor. Alas, Sankara’s death, supported by the former colonial powers and enabled by their neo-colonial allies on the African continent, had reduced that vision to rubble. In Africa, the human cost of failed revolution is especially catastrophic.
A Usable History
Nonetheless, my primary aim here today is not to engage in another round of Afro-pessimism, nor is it simply to partake in any nostalgic longing for one of modern Africa’s most remarkable revolutionaries. Rather, I want to suggest that popular interest in Sankara’s legacy, 30 years after his assassination, suggests that the mass movements forming on the continent today can draw inspiration from Sankara’s revolution, while simultaneously studying its limitations so as to imagine more radical futures. In short, what I want to present today is a usable history, responsive to the needs of global socialist struggles that must insist on the centrality of African experiences in order to realize our shared internationalist ambitions.
In making this claim on Sankara’s legacy, one inevitably encounters significant ideological frictions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, socialists have often emphasized the centrality of working class struggle on the African continent, counterposed against the corrupt and outmoded elites whose methods of governance had betrayed socialist agendas while serving the interests of neo-liberalism. Most significantly, Leo Zeilig’s edited volume Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa argued that only the organization of the working class could successfully carry out the revolutionary mission of overthrowing capitalism on the African continent. As Zeilig writes in the conclusion to that volume, “politics must emphasize the ability of ordinary women, men, and youth, not great leaders, to act and change the world.”
There can be no doubt that Sankara represented the “great leader” model of radical change. The Burkinabé revolution of 1983-1987 did not come from the working class; it was not a revolution from below. It was, rather, a revolution from above, carried out by a young leader who had been deeply inspired by Marxist politics and the Third World revolutions of the second half of the twentieth century. As the product of a revolution from above, Sankara’s government, like similar governments in other regions of the world, carried with it repressive and exploitative features that one inevitably encounters in revolutions carried out within the confines of a single nation-state, which lacks the capacity to actually implement socialism, and instead must settle for a state capitalism that, in its ideal form, improves the lives of the poor, the peasants, and the working class, and thus gains the support of those groups. Sankara’s revolution, during its brief existence, won the support of the Burkinabe masses; in this respect, it was similar to contemporary nationalist revolutions in other Third World countries, most notably Cuba and Vietnam.
It should be no secret that nationalist, Third World revolutions have often bitterly divided the left over the last half century. Some see figures like Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, or, for that matter, Thomas Sankara, as great revolutionaries in the tradition of Vladimir Lenin; others view them as ruling class tyrants whose revolutions had nothing to do with socialism and for that reason, perhaps, were not revolutions at all.
Claiming, and Critiquing, the Burkinabé Revolution
As someone whose socialist politics developed out of three stints living in Africa, I find myself in between these two adversarial positions. On the one hand, as I will argue today, Burkina Faso during the 1980s was not capable of carrying out a revolution from below, due to the weak and divided nature of the country’s working class, and the lack of development in the rural areas. In that sense, Sankara’s revolution—and it was a revolution—offered a bold step forward, with vast improvements in health that saved countless children, and literacy campaigns that offered real, tangible improvements in the lives of many Burkinabe people previously condemned to a life of anonymous suffering.
At the same time, the revolution’s biggest weakness was its nationalist emphasis. The Stalinist model of socialism in one country proved particularly ill-suited for a continent whose very national boundaries were drawn by Europeans in order to expedite economic exploitation and resource extraction. As such, I wish to argue that, while drawing on Sankara’s notable achievements, future Burkinabé inspired by his example will need to orient their struggles in ways that transcend national boundaries, in the process forging an international movement capable of achieving sustained progress through a reimagining of African political identities.
Sankara’s struggle, I want to argue, is a vital piece of our revolutionary tradition, albeit one whose ultimate triumph can only be secured by a commitment to mass action against the international capitalist order and the gerrymandered African nation-states who serve its interests.
Confronting the Burdens of Colonization
Thomas Sankara was born on December 21, 1949, in the town of Yako, in what was then known as French Upper Volta. Throughout the colonial period, Upper Volta’s fate had been victim to the whims of French colonial rule, as at various points it was combined with territories from present-day Niger, Mali, and Côte D’Ivoire, before finally being broken off into its own colony for good in 1958, just two years before gaining its national independence along with most of the rest of France’s African empire.
That history, of colonial manipulation of national identities, left Upper Volta—as the country was known until Sankara changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984—with a weak civil society, thanks in large part to the fact that the country, despite being barely larger in size than the state of Colorado, contained 70 different linguistic communities, including 11 major languages plus the French colonial tongue.
In addition, the colonial economy remained shockingly underdeveloped, as the rapidly desertifying soil produced little other than subsistence crops, forcing many thousands of the territory’s population to engage in migrant labor in neighboring and more well-developed colonies, particularly Côte D’Ivoire. As a result of these dynamics, working class organization was limited and largely incapable of taking on the role of political leadership.
In this respect, French Upper Volta was not alone in its characteristic absence of a strong working class. Although Zeilig’s Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa documents a long tradition of working class resistance in places like South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria, these countries featured much more well-developed economies that were either already industrialized or in the process of undergoing an industrial revolution. Likewise, mineral-rich territories such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia could also become hotbeds for working class radicalism thanks to the value of the gold, diamonds, and copper that many thousands of African men mined in appalling and dangerous conditions. But for an overwhelmingly underdeveloped and predominantly rural territory like Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso), working class radicalism was constrained by economic conditions that served the interests of the European metropoles.
This undeniable fact, shared in common—to greater and lesser degrees—by many African countries, has inspired significant debate regarding the dynamics of revolutions on the African continent. In the second half of the twentieth century, revolutionary figures like Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon would seek to adjust Marxist theory to meet the challenges of creating and sustaining revolutions in territories where the working class was incapable of carrying out the historic role which Marx and Engels had assigned to it.
What each of these revolutionaries noted was that the working class was not only numerically insignificant, but that it was also frequently reactionary, as wage labor employment in urban areas conferred a certain sense of cosmopolitanism that encouraged the embrace of Western cultural and economic values, especially when compared with the vast rural hinterlands that were profoundly isolated from the benefits of urban life.
The solutions that Cabral and Fanon would offer to this dilemma varied: for Cabral, the weakness of the working class endowed the petty bourgeoisie with the decisive role in initiating a revolutionary overthrow of the colonial order; for Fanon, it would be the peasantry, those with “nothing to lose,” who would spearhead the revolution.
By the time Sankara seized power in 1983, 90 percent of the country’s workforce was employed in rural areas, most of them peasants struggling to grow crops in a hostile environment characterized by rapidly exhausted soils and predatory markets that condemned the vast majority of Burkinabé to abject poverty and famine. This set of conditions, persisting more than twenty years after independence, could be attributed not only to global capitalism but also to the national elites who served its interests.
Upper Volta, like so many other young African nations, became what Frederick Cooper [Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present] has described as a gatekeeper state, which is to say a state in which government officials, rather than attempting to develop the economy and infrastructure of the country, make it their business to perpetuate a neo-colonial relationship with the developed world, by enabling privileged access to the national wealth and using their control over the state to engage in petty corruption and the cultivation of profitable relationships with foreign investors and advisors. In Upper Volta in the 1960s and 1970s, this meant ensuring the availability of cheap labor to neighboring Côte D’Ivoire, where Burkinabé were forced into work on cocoa, cotton, and sugar plantations that served the needs of the global economic order.
The Challenge of Corruption in a Gatekeeper State
Sankara, the son of a relatively privileged family thanks to his father’s employment by the colonial state, was sensitive to the severe conditions of impoverishment that surrounded him, as well as the arrogance of the Europeans living in the country, ensconced in luxuries that sharply contrasted with the desperate suffering of the vast majority of Africans. In 1966, Sankara enrolled in the national military academy, a choice that likely reflected both the importance of discipline that had been instilled in him by his father, as well as his aspirations to combat the political corruption of the young nation’s ruling class.
As Cooper notes, one of the primary features of post-independence Gatekeeper States on the African continent has been their instability, with governments frequently falling prey to military coups. The reason for this is that post-independence government officials aspired to occupy the place of the old colonial order, but generally speaking they lacked the awesome strength of a modernized and disciplined army to back up their rule. Instead, African gatekeepers struggled to retain the loyalty of the armed forces, particularly the enlisted men and junior officers who had not benefited from the largesse of political corruption. As a result, in moments of political instability, the military frequently aligned themselves with protest movements, as they often shared their frustration with endemic political corruption.
This is precisely what happened in Upper Volta. In the same year that Sankara enrolled in the military academy, a military coup overthrew the country’s first elected president, Maurice Yaméogo, whose profligacy and authoritarianism sparked a popular uprising of workers, students, and the unemployed in Ouagadougou. When the army disobeyed Yaméogo’s orders to disperse the crowd, the president was forced to resign in disgrace.
Thereafter followed a series of military dictators, who fell into the same trap that had ensnared Yaméogo and countless other African rulers of the late twentieth century. Instead of focusing their governments on the well being of the population, they used their access to power in order to enrich themselves and their clients, all while accepting loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment provisions required the imposition of destructive austerity measures, including the devaluation of the national currency, massive cuts to social programs, particularly health and education, the elimination of subsidies that protected domestic producers, and the easing of labor and environmental regulations so as to encourage foreign investment.
These programs, hugely unpopular with the civilian population, provoked mass insurrection and further interventions from the armed forces. It would be the fourth such coup in the nation’s history in August 1983 that would bring to power the National Council of the Revolution, a group of radical young Army officers led by Thomas Sankara.
A Political Apprenticeship
When Sankara seized power, he was just 33 years old, but he had already gained the loyalty of many Burkinabé, especially the youth of Ouagadougou. Prior to taking power, his political apprenticeship had begun in Madagascar, where Sankara was stationed from 1969 to 1973. While in Madagascar, Sankara nurtured his own political education both by devouring classic Marxist texts, and also by witnessing the 1972 revolution in the country, in which popular rebellions against a corrupt government brought to power a military regime that initially devoted itself to combating corruption.
Thus, when Sankara returned to Upper Volta and was given command of a training center in the town of Pô, he used his new position to recruit other officers troubled by government corruption and committed to radical reform, while also developing relationships with leftist students and workers. Tragically, one of the Army officers he recruited during this period was Blaise Compaoré, the man who would eventually betray him in 1987.
As Ernest Harsch writes in his excellent biography of Sankara, the young lieutenant first entered the political arena in 1980. In that year, a military coup—the second in the nation’s history—brought to power an Army colonel named Saye Zerbo, who pledged to root out corruption in the government. Though he did not participate in the coup, after its completion Sankara was promoted to captain and asked to serve as the new government’s minister of information. Yet as the new regime lurched towards authoritarianism, Sankara publicly resigned his position in 1982.
Following a third military coup later that year, Sankara, in a sign of his growing popularity, was named prime minister in January of 1983. Using his new position as a platform for demanding radical change, he attacked the state bureaucracy, which he characterized as disconnected from the lives of suffering workers and peasants. Fearing his revolutionary rhetoric and growing popularity with the masses, Sankara was arrested in May 1983, but popular anger at this action forced the government to release him. With the support of a broad cross-section of the country, on August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power in the name of what was called the National Council of the Revolution.
Sankara: Class and Ideology
When you read through Sankara’s speeches and interviews collected in the Pathfinder Press volume Thomas Sankara Speaks, one of the features of Sankara’s politics that stands out is his reluctance to be pigeon-holed into any particular ideological framework. His rhetoric was unmistakably Marxist and, as we will see, strongly anti-imperialist, but regarding some of the central questions of class struggle in post-colonial African nations, Sankara became a bit more slippery.
He was fond of saying that Africans were “not ideological virgins,” meaning that they did not need to import any particular revolutionary theory uncritically, but rather ought to apply revolutionary principles of social justice and equality to local circumstances. Thus, regarding the class character of Upper Volta, Sankara found revolutionary potential in the working classes, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the lumpenproletariat, although he also believed that the underdevelopment of the national economy precluded a revolution from below, as none of these groups possessed the level of organization or class consciousness that would be required in order to seize political power.
Of the popular groups listed above, Sankara argued that the working class was best positioned to lead, but its numerical weakness limited its power. He viewed the petty bourgeoisie as the most unreliable of all groups, vacillating between siding with the masses or the imperialist order. Finally, Sankara argued that the peasantry had suffered the most under the old regime, and its strength in numbers imbued it with significant, but as yet untapped, revolutionary potential. One of the primary goals of Sankara’s government would be to develop the country’s vast rural hinterland, thus awakening the peasantry to a revolutionary agenda.
Out of this class analysis, Sankara’s revolutionary ideology encountered the significant problem of how to unite these disparate groups into a single people capable of waging war against national elites and the imperialist order. Sankara’s solution to this question was to advance a radical nationalism that would bind together the working classes, peasants, and petty bourgeoisie in a common struggle. On the level of symbolism, Sankara changed the country’s name from its colonial moniker, Upper Volta, to Burkina Faso, which translated to English means “The Land of Upright People.” (It can also be translated as “The Land of Incorruptible People.”)
Breaking with Debt Slavery
Preaching a language of self-respect and self-help, Sankara sought to free the country from dependency on foreign capital. He severed financial ties with the IMF and World Bank and the austerity measures they had imposed on the country. Of the debts that prior governments had accrued to these institutions and other developed nations, Sankara argued that Burkina Faso and other poor countries should not honor such obligations. As he once put it in a speech:
Debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before. Under its current form, debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay….But if we repay, we are going to die.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of Sankara’s words here, for we find in them one of the clearest and earliest denunciations of the neo-liberal order that had emerged around the globe beginning in the 1970s, and which was deploying institutions like the IMF and the World Bank to enforce a neo-colonial relationship on Third World countries like Burkina Faso. In Sankara, the left gained a powerful and compelling voice against this global regime of exploitation that had condemned much of Africa, Latin America, and Asia to the severest form of poverty.
Of course, we know that in the 1990s and thereafter, this neo-liberal order came under increasing criticism thanks in large part to the anti-globalization movement. Sankara’s assault on these forces of exploitation preceded the height of that struggle by more than a decade. It is, I would argue, his single most important legacy, and a position for which he and his country would pay dearly. Just a few months into his reign, as they confronted the fact that Sankara would not do their bidding, the agents of global capitalism began pulling their resources out of the country. France suspended all loans to the government by the end of 1983; the World Bank followed suit two years later.
Given the crippling poverty plaguing his country, it would not have been surprising if Sankara had relented on his hard-line stance against the policies of international financial institutions. But he was as good as his word, refusing to budge on the question of structural adjustment. As he once said in an interview, “Aid must go in the direction of strengthening our sovereignty, not undermining it. Aid should go in the direction of destroying aid. All aid that kills aid is welcome in Burkina Faso.”
As the foreign loans upon which previous government had relied were eliminated, as Burkina Faso faced growing international condemnation of its radical agenda, as it remained ideologically isolated on a continent in which tyrants like Joseph Mobutu, P.W. Botha, and countless other collaborators with Western imperialism reigned, and as the Soviet Union’s credibility and capacity for assistance was weakened by its quagmire in Afghanistan, Sankara knew that, for the revolution to succeed, it would have to turn inward, and embrace a vision of self-help that would require great sacrifices of the population.
This would be the revolution’s greatest test: confined to a land-locked and impoverished country being choked by the expansion of the Sahara Desert, how would Burkina Faso marshal the resources needed to tackle the country’s gravest problems, most notably an illiteracy rate that was 98 percent or higher in the rural areas, and an infant mortality rate that was one of the worst in the world, thanks to the scourge of diseases that were easily treated in more developed countries?
True to his own background and training, Sankara’s government met these challenges through military-style campaigns whose swiftness astonished international observers. An ambitious vaccination campaign to inoculate millions of children against measles, meningitis and yellow fever was completed in just two weeks, saving the lives of thousands. The government’s nationwide literacy campaign achieved a substantial increase in the country’s literacy rate between 1983 and 1987.
To halt the expansion of the desert, Sankara’s government planted some 10 million trees, accomplishing a greening of the environment that helped to preserve countless communities threatened by ecological catastrophe.
In these and countless other ways, Sankara sought to use the meager resources available to his government to improve the condition of the masses of peasants and working class people whose lives had been, in Sankara’s words, a “barely tolerable hell” prior to 1983. Increases in government spending yielded significantly larger investments in health and education: during Sankara’s reign, as Harsch reports in his biography of Sankara, spending on education improved by 26.5 percent per person, while spending on health increased by 42.3 percent. The outcome of these campaigns was to provide measurable and life-saving improvements in the lives of millions of Burkinabé citizens.
How did the Sankara government manage to afford funding such commitments? Notably, one of Sankara’s primary accomplishments was to limit the state bureaucracy that had emerged under earlier regimes. Reductions in pay and the elimination of perks for civil servants freed up the budget for other priorities. In this regard Sankara also sought to lead by example: enrolling his children in public school, he sold off the limousines and private jets that had been the markers of privilege for previous rulers. He also vigorously prosecuted governmental corruption, annually laid off government workers who he argued had become too secure in their positions, and in this way freed up funds for more vital projects.
Sankara’s reduction of government bureaucracy was certainly one of the most unique aspects of his regime. In many ways, Sankara’s system of government closely resembled the Stalinist model, as defined by Paul Le Blanc in his very helpful essay “Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism.” Of the five principle elements of Stalinism which Le Blanc identifies, Sankara’s Burkina Faso clearly meets four of the conditions: it was anti-democratic, it did pursue socialism in one country, it was unmistakably a revolution from above, both in terms of Sankara’s military background as well as his nationalization of land and resources, and it did engage in both internal repression and extensive state propaganda. But, unlike most Stalinist regimes, it checked, rather than expanded, the state bureaucracy.
In this way, by ensuring that state resources were directed away from bureaucratic elites and towards the peasantry and working poor, Sankara’s regime constituted revolutionary authoritarianism in a nearly ideal form. One would have to search extensively through the annals of revolutionary governments in the twentieth century to find a more enlightened example of revolution from above.
A Nationalist Vision: Its Perils and Limitations
Nonetheless, Sankara’s nationalist vision meant that his revolution suffered from many of the same weaknesses that plagued the socialism-in-one-country model throughout the twentieth century. Most notably, by succumbing to the inescapable trap of state capitalism, in which, absent the means to eradicate capitalism, the state functions as an exploiter of labor, revolutionary Burkina Faso demanded enormous sacrifices of the peasantry and working class.
Thus, Sankara’s bid to improve crop yields for critical food sources required the construction of dams to facilitate irrigation; the labor for those dams was unpaid, provided by volunteers pressured by a language of national service to toil without compensation. To better link the rural areas with commercial centers, Sankara also implemented what he termed “The Battle for the Railroad,” a nationwide effort in which peasants supplied their labor to lay railroad tracks that would stretch from north to south.
These and other campaigns sought to invoke national honor and duty in order to provide the kind of infrastructure development that normally would have been funded by international loans. But with the severing of links between Burkina Faso and the neo-liberal order, the burden fell on peasants to develop the nation and thus secure its economic competitiveness in the future. In true Stalinist fashion, in 1985 Sankara announced a Five-Year Plan, a national offensive whose culmination was to result in “an independent, self-sufficient and planned national economy at the service of a democratic and popular society.”
One should not minimize the accomplishments of this revolution from above. It increased food crop production, saved the lives of thousands of children, and awakened the population to an anti-imperialist message that took seriously the restoration of national honor in the aftermath of the more than two decades of disillusionment and neo-colonialism following independence in 1960. Sankara’s revolutionary vision won him many admirers both inside and outside the country, but in no sense can it be judged a democratic revolution. The National Council for the Revolution which Sankara headed did not have democratic structures that enabled collective decision making, and Sankara had banned opposition political parties and curtailed trade unions upon taking power.
Towards the end of his reign, Sankara spoke of the need for a vanguard party and democratic centralism, but this ambition remained unrealized at the time of his death. Instead, the revolution’s success largely depended on Sankara’s enlightened perspective and his willingness to reconsider unpopular decisions. For as long as he remained in power, this approach was relatively successful; but his elimination ensured the demise of his political project.
Sankara’s downfall can be traced to the young leader’s enemies both inside and outside the country. Outside the country, France and its West African clients, most notably Côte D’Ivoire, desired a return to the old economic system by which wealthier countries were free to exploit Burkinabé labor. In particular, Côte D’Ivoire, which had a large Burkinabé population inside its borders, feared that the revolution might spread beyond Burkina Faso. It desired a return to the old dependency that had previously guided the relationship between the two countries, just as France and the other neoliberal powers wished to see Burkina Faso reinserted into global systems of economic exploitation.
The Revolution Loses Steam
Sankara might have been able to ward off these threats had he developed better internal mechanisms for the defense of the revolution. Among the country’s elites, Sankara faced many enemies, among them a bureaucracy who had seen its power and wealth curtailed by Sankara’s program, and rural elites who resented the rescinding of their privileges. In particular, Sankara’s advocacy of women’s rights, including the banning of forced marriages and the expansion of education for girls, angered male elders accustomed to female subservience. Among the country’s peasantry and working class, Sankara had many allies; but by 1987, the revolution, which had demanded much sacrifice from these groups, was becoming increasingly exhausted.
After the success of government initiatives focused on health and education, large-scale development projects stalled due to limitations of labor and resources. By 1987, Sankara’s “Battle for the Railroad,” had managed to lay just a few kilometers of track. Additionally, there was growing popular resentment against government repression. Upon taking power in 1983, Sankara had created the CDRs, which stand for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, civilian groups who were responsible for spreading the revolution’s ideals throughout the country, in every village. Modeled after similar organizations formed in 1960 in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, many CDRs began to serve more as vigilante organizations, punishing civilians for often ill-defined reasons. Growing increasingly disconnected from Sankara’s influence, the CDRs were unable to actually defend the revolution once it faced its greatest challenge.
Although some aspects of the 1987 coup that killed Sankara and ended the revolution remain unknown, what is clear is that the president of Côte D’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, either with the implicit or explicit support of France, played a significant role in facilitating Sankara’s fall from power, as he developed close ties with Sankara’s assistant Blaise Compaoré, whose soldiers carried out the coup on October 15, 1987. Upon taking power, Compaoré pledged to, in his words, “rectify” Sankara’s revolution, but instead he presided over a full-scale counter-revolution that reversed the gains made under Sankara. By the early 1990s, IMF and World Bank assistance once again directed the nation’s economic life, with structural adjustment policies leading to deep cuts in health care and education, and the continued immiseration of the population, which by 2013 was ranked by the UN as the seventh poorest country in the world.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is tempting to conclude that all this was inevitable, that Burkina Faso’s revolution, like so many other Third World revolutions was destined to fail. If we take as a given that Sankara’s movement would confine itself to a national reawakening that would bring about the kind of socialism-in-one-country once espoused by Joseph Stalin, then the defeat of Sankara’s regime was indeed assured. The reason for this is not just that socialism-in-one-country is unfeasible, but more importantly that it is particularly toxic on the African continent, given that region’s history of colonial manipulation of national borders.
The Trap of African Nationalism
When Sankara reduced his revolutionary vision to the territorial space occupied by the nation-state known as Burkina Faso, he accepted the boundaries as they were imposed by the French colonial order, whose entire aim was to create artificial territorial states designed to fail. The reason Burkina Faso is a landlocked and impoverished nation is because the French made it that way, both by separating it from neighboring territories blessed with more favorable geography, and then by ensuring the continued underdevelopment of the country in the service of the needs of the international capitalist order. Burkina Faso as such is incapable of achieving the revolutionary transformation Sankara envisioned; its only hope for success is as part of a broader international movement.
At some level, Sankara recognized this, through the alliances he cultivated during his time in office with countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ghana. But these examples of solidarity were largely abstract and symbolic, and thus not capable of effecting the kind of global revolutionary transformation that the Wretched of the Earth—whether residing in Managua or Ouagadougou—require in order to finally liberate themselves from the shackles of global capitalism.
On the African continent such internationalist dreams are not confined to the tradition of revolutionary socialism. In the era of independence, the emergence of pan-Africanism seemed to point towards such a reconfiguration, although its ideological ambiguity ultimately made it unfeasible. In more recent years, radical Islamism has emerged as a force seeking to transcend the loyalties of the nation-state, through such organizations as Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, and Al-Shabaab. But their violent and reactionary tendencies, not to mention their reliance on Islamic doctrines that are not shared by millions of Africans, clearly limit their potential effectiveness in achieving authentic liberation.
Nonetheless, the existence of these organizations shows that there is a real momentum for a new kind of politics on the African continent, capable of transcending the old colonial order. As the neo-liberal consensus frays under the weight of populist rebellions around the world, the forces of revolutionary socialism must position themselves to gain a hearing. In that regard, Thomas Sankara, and the memory of his revolution, can be an asset to the left. Often referred to as Africa’s “Che Guevara,” Sankara lives today not just as a symbol of chic revolutionary nostalgia; the achievements of his government demonstrate conclusively that, as our banners often put it, “another world is possible.”
Despite its limitations, Sankara illustrated what can be accomplished when the resources of society are commandeered to improve the lives of the majority rather than to benefit the enrichment of the minority. That legacy, of anti-imperialism, anti-austerity, and anti-corruption, not to mention the positive developments that occurred during his regime in the fields of education, health, and environmental preservation, continue to inspire the masses, as the popular interest in Sankara’s 2015 exhumation demonstrates.
But to win on a larger and grander scale than was possible during the 1980s, it will be the vital task of the global left to build movements from below capable not only of resisting the forces that brought about Sankara’s downfall, but of actually seizing power in the name of the masses. In this regard, we remain confronted by significant ideological questions.
Without doubt, the capacities of the working class on the African continent are stronger today than they were in the 1980s, when levels of industrialization and wage labor employment were much lower. Nonetheless, the old legacies of colonialism continue to endure, shaping the boundaries of what is politically possible. In this regard, the stark division between urban and rural spaces remains a key dynamic of virtually all African countries in the 21st century, as does the prominent place of subsistence cultivators and participants in the informal economy.
Given these realities, the task in some way remains the question, first posed by Fanon, of how to stretch the Marxist frame of analysis to the African context. These are the debates I hope we can have now and in the future, while always of course keeping in mind that it will be Africans themselves who must write their own histories of struggle, and that on this revolutionary road they will need the engaged solidarity of the working classes in imperialist nations, to check the aggression of more powerful governments against mass struggles waged within the formerly colonized world.
Despite whatever limitations we may find in Sankara’s ideology, this question of international solidarity was central to his own political vision. During a trip to the United States in 1984, Sankara visited Harlem, where he spoke before large crowds assembled at the Third World Trade Center and the Harriet Tubman School. As he said there, “We feel that the fight we’re waging in Africa, principally in Burkina Faso, is the same fight you’re waging in Harlem. We feel that we in Africa must give our brothers in Harlem all the support they need so that their fight too becomes known….When the people stand up, imperialism trembles!”
If the history of Burkina Faso teaches us anything, it is that socialism will never be possible unless and until an international movement emerges that will take just as seriously the futures of African protesters and peasants as it does those of Standing Rock water protectors or the victims of police brutality. By his words, Thomas Sankara understood this fundamental aspect of anti-imperialism, even if his actions and ideology did not always follow through on his internationalist sentiments. Today, 30 years after his assassination, this is the call we must heed, the battle we must fight, the future world we must win.
David Crawford Jones teaches African history in the department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the liberation struggle in Namibia. The original title of this is “Exhuming Thomas Sankara: Anti-Imperialism in Burkina Faso, 1983-87.” An abridged version of the following text was presented on Sunday, July 9, 2017, to the Socialism 2017 conference in Chicago. See also response by John Riddell and comment by David Crawford Jones