As globalization becomes more entrenched, we see the massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the top 1%. The resurgence of nationalist sentiment becomes inevitable as governments abandon the people in favor of corporations. We’ve already witnessed the rise of far-right leaders and we’re yet to see the consequences of their extreme policies. The Left, then, cannot sit idly by and let the center or the Right take the global economy back to business as usual. On top of expropriating the wealth from the top 1% and stifling the advance of the far right, the Left must dismantle the foundations of the neocolonial and neoliberal global order that produced many of the problems we see today. As the Left strives to reclaim its political clout, it must learn from the revolution of Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso, who died today in 1987.
Thomas Sankara was one of the fiercest opponents of the Western-dominated global order. He represented the aspirations of a once prosperous continent torn apart by the white man. He was an incorruptible revolutionary, enemy of imperialist France and a friend of the poor and the working classes, whose radicalism changed the course of Burkinabe history. Today, he remains an icon of anti-imperialism in the Global South.
Sankara presided over one of the poorest regions in the world, then Upper Volta: a country with no access to the sea and bordered on the north by the Sahel desert. He rose to power in a popular coup as a staunch anti-imperialist, feminist, and environmentalist, whose major commitment was to overthrow the corrupt neo-colonial regime, run by the French-backed Burkinabe ruling class who have enriched themselves at the expense of the peasantry.
“The primary goal of this revolution is to transfer power from the hands of the Voltaic bourgeoisie allied with imperialism to the hands of the alliance of popular classes that constitute the people.”
In his short tenure as president of revolutionary Burkina Faso, he started major reforms and made great strides in healthcare, education, women’s rights, environmental protection, and economic self-sufficiency, liberating his country from foreign domination. Sankara’s revolution was a powerful rebuke of Thatcher’s “there is no alternative.” He gave hope to the Burkinabe and the peoples of the Global South who were enslaved in their own countries and robbed of their own resources to feed the white population.
Leading the Global Struggle against Western Domination
His role in the global struggle against neocolonialism has been overshadowed since his death by more popular names like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Yet at a time when the Left was facing a crisis overseas and full-blown neoliberalism became the economic orthodoxy, Sankara’s radicalism was as significant as leading a peasant revolution 780 kilometers south of capitalist United States. He dared to challenge Western imperialism in all its forms.
“When the people stand up, imperialism trembles. Homeland or death, we will win!”
He railed against the veto powers of the most powerful countries in the United Nations when no one else did.
“We also propose that the structures of the UN be changed to put an end to the scandal surrounding the right to veto. It is true that the most diabolical effects of its abuse have been offset by the vigilance of certain of those who hold this right.
Nothing, however, can justify such a right – neither the size of the country that has it nor the wealth that country might possess.
Let there be an end to the arrogance of the big powers who miss no opportunity to put the rights of the people in question. Africa’s absence from the club of those who have the right to veto is unjust and should be ended.”
Sankara was also the first African president to call for the cancellation of external debt by Western-controlled lenders like the IMF and the World Bank. He appealed to the leaders of the African nations to resist economic exploitation, and save their economies from an endless cycle of debt.
“…debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aimed at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus each one of us becomes the financial slaves, 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.”
He was a powerful voice for the common folk, for the nations of the Global South, and he wanted Burkina Faso to inspire a wave of movements that would liberate the oppressed proletariat from the yoke of the elite ruling class. Speaking forcefully at the UN General Assembly, his internationalism showed: “Our revolution in Burkina Faso is open to the suffering of all peoples. It also draws its inspiration from the experiences of peoples since the dawn of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all of the revolutions of the world, of all of the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.”
Towards Self-Sufficiency and a Democratic Workers’ State
But revolution, to Thomas Sankara, was not simply about deposing a French puppet government. It was about building a new identity, restoring a great culture, and redefining the socio-economic relations among the Burkinabe. He wanted to purge the countryside of all the social, economic, and cultural obstacles that kept them backwards.
The new Voltaic man, he says, has “exemplary morality and social consciousness” who sets a good example for the masses. The architects of the revolution must forge a new consciousness and abandon the influence of neo-colonial thought.
Above all, he wanted a country of, by, and for the working class. He believed that the task of rebuilding his country must be left not to the “technocrats, financial wizards, or politicians,” the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, but to those who have truly built the foundations of the predominantly agricultural Burkinabe economy.
He saw imperialism as a constant threat to workers’ liberation, condemning it every chance he had in mass rallies. It was an all-encompassing system, he said, present in all aspects of the African life. Thus, the working class had to actively resist all manifestations of reactionary thought–cultural, economic, and political.
In his fight for self-sufficiency, he initiated major reforms on the country’s foreign aid policy. He revealed it for what it truly was–a clever re-branding of colonialism which ‘produced nothing more than disorganization and enslavement.’ He saw early on that it was designed to control the economies of developing countries by trapping them in billions of dollars of external debt and making them dependent on external assistance in the long-run.
He wanted a country that was self-sufficient, that didn’t have to beg its former colonizers for food aid. He recognized that Burkina Faso produced enough food to survive on its own, thus he mobilized the masses to protect the local tomato industry and produce food locally.
“Our country produces enough to feed us all. We can even produce more than we need. Unfortunately, for lack of organization, we still beg for food aid. This type of assistance is counterproductive and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggars who need aid.”
In an unprecedented move, he crushed the power of the local elite, distributed land to the peasantry, and nationalized the country’s mineral wealth, ending the feudal economy that persisted in pre-revolutionary Burkina Faso. In a few years, the country came close to achieving food self-sufficiency. Major reforms in the agrarian sector ensured that the country’s produce were used to feed the local population.
A Champion of Women’s Rights
“The weight of the centuries-old traditions of our society has relegated women to the status of beasts of burden. By changing the social order that oppresses women, the revolution creates the conditions for their genuine emancipation.The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”
Thomas Sankara was a champion of women’s rights, treating them as equals and as important allies in the fight against imperialism. “The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women,” he often said.
“Forging a new mentality among Voltaic women that allows them to take responsibility for the country’s destiny alongside men is one of the essential tasks of the revolution.”
At the time, to call for equality for women was revolutionary. In every other African country, women were treated as second-class citizens, commodities traded by their families in exchange for dowry. But under the presidency of Sankara, he recognized the role of women in the economic and social spheres.
He appointed them to government positions and the military. Forced marriages and genital mutilation were outlawed and girls were encouraged to stay in school despite being pregnant. Stressing the importance of women’s rights in a speech, he said: “we cannot transform society while maintaining domination and discrimination against women who constitute over half of the population.”
He decried bourgeois forms of emancipation such as acquiring the habits recognized as male. To him genuine emancipation was about entrusting them with the shared responsibility of building the nation, and placing them on the front line in the people’s fight against imperialism.
A Champion of the Environment
To be in a country bounded by an expanding desert on the North was a major challenge to the people of Burkina Faso. Water was scarce and famine afflicted the country. He launched the masses to dig new wells and taught them water conservation techniques. Close to 10 million trees were planted to prevent the southward expansion of the Sahel desert using a systematic village tree nursery program. Each village was designed to have one forest and the culture of tree-planting became widespread.
Additionally, a campaign on environmental awareness was launched to educate the people about the evils of illicit logging and the ways to avoid forest fires. Innovations in cooking stove technology meant lesser pollution and it improved the health of women.
With these programs, combined with a radical land distribution drive, the working class of Burkina Faso started to see change. They could now produce food in their communities without travelling for kilometers every day.
Thomas Sankara was one of the few leaders in the world who cared about environmental preservation. His ideas were beyond his contemporaries, including those in the West, and he saw climate change as a threat even before the science was fully understood. He rightfully believed that the environment cannot be saved by dole-outs from the rich, but through the collective efforts of the working class. Today, his “Struggle for a Green Burkina” has become the basis for the African Green Wall and various green projects around the world.
Healthcare and Education for the Masses
Sankara started a literacy campaign in a country with over 90% illiteracy rate. He conducted it in nine indigenous languages and taught reading and writing to 35,000 people. He built hundreds of new schools and educated children below 12 with the ideals of the revolution.
At the same time, 3 million children were vaccinated against yellow fever, measles and meningitis in only 15 days at a time when people resisted vaccination because of religious beliefs. River blindness was controlled and other health care services were made available to millions for the first time because new health clinics across the country were being built and one doctor for every 50,000 people was hired by the government. From one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world at 280 deaths per 1000 live births, it fell to 145 deaths per 1000 live births in less than 2 years.
Sankara shunned the bourgeois lifestyle that many in the government enjoyed. He cut the salaries of government employees, including his own, and mandated that they use public transport. He sold all expensive Mercedes-Benz cars and replaced them with the Renault 5 and he also refused to use the air conditioning in his office because he thought it was a luxury not enjoyed by majority of Burkinabes .
Unlike many other socialist leaders, Sankara was a humble man who did not want a cult of personality around him. He had faith in the ability of the working class to discern the truth.
“One does not make a revolution simply to take the place of the despots who have been deposed. The image of the revolutionary…is that of an activist who is one with the masses, who has faith in them and who respects them. A revolutionary is someone who knows how to be modest. He fulfills [tasks] without boasting and expects no reward. ”
He despised the African intelligentsia and saw them as complicit in the suffering of the entire continent.
“My fear is justified even more by the fact that the educated petty bourgeoisie of Africa – if not the entire world — is not prepared to give up its privileges, either because of intellectual laziness or simply because it has tasted the Western way of life.
Because of these, the petty bourgeois forget that all genuine political struggle requires rigorous, theoretical debate, and they refuse to rise to the intellectual effort of conceiving new concepts equal to the murderous struggle that lies ahead of us.
Passive and pathetic consumers, they wallow in terminology fetishized by the West, just as they wallow in Western whiskey and champagne in shady-looking lounges.
But like many others who have fought for their country’s independence, Sankara was assassinated by the West to reclaim its colony. Blaise Compaoré, a soldier he once called “best friend”, with the support of the CIA and the French government, killed Sankara and 12 other allies. His body was dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave. Immediately, his programs were overturned and the World Bank and IMF rushed in to take advantage of the economic shock that transpired. Burkina Faso was once again ruled by a Western puppet government.
Thomas Sankara’s Legacy Lives On
As we examine the history of the countries in the Global South, we start to see a pattern–that the West is no friend of the working class and the fight of Thomas Sankara continues to this day.
We have been conditioned to think that the West is a bastion of freedom and democracy, whose people have invented an economic system capable of lifting millions out of poverty. They taught us that those in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia belong to indolent cultures in dire need of a “civilizing” intervention from the West and that the situation in the Middle East is simply a result of a violent religion that wants to kill all Christians.
What we are not told is that the freedom and democracy enjoyed by the West is built on slave labor and massive human rights abuses in the developing world. We are not told that many of the problems we face today are a result of Western greed and opportunism. Terrorism, modern warfare, nuclear proliferation, and climate change are not events that came out of nowhere. They are products of the policies of a region that continues to control the global economy.
We often hope that the developing world could soon enjoy wages as high as those in the West and houses as big as theirs. But this can never happen in the current system, and the CIA and their European allies understood this. They knew that left-wing thinkers and politicians who tried to build a welfare state similar to the West would cut their countries of important resources necessary to sustain their life, so they saw it critical to intervene, launch a coup, and install a puppet government. Sometimes, they do it more covertly, asserting their influence through military aid, foreign aid, and infrastructure loan programs. Thomas Sankara was one of many Leftists who saw through all the lies of the West. He dared to go against a global system dominated by Western greed knowing full well that his life was in danger.
Thirty years since his tragic death, his political thought remains true. Only when the people are mobilized can we radically transform our societies and break the chains of colonialism. For the new generation of activists, those who are fighting against the Western elite and their lackeys who belittle the strength of the working class, Thomas Sankara’s words should serve as an inspiration:
“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.”
The Pan-African Renaissance gives a heartfelt tribute to a great man, a visionary, and a friend of the oppressed working class who dared to challenge the West.
“For the 4 short years he ruled over his people, he defied imperialism and showed Africa what could be accomplished by effectively allocating the nation’s mineral wealth and resources to benefits its people, shattering the imperialist lie that Africa could not survive without foreign aid.
Thomas Sankara exemplified what it meant to be a selfless leader with no interest in material gain. He lived a simple and humble life even as he commanded an entire army and ruled over a nation.
In a world in which its ruling elite are worth millions (if not billions) of dollars whilst their people starve and struggle just to make a living, Sankara, when he was assassinated by the CIA and French Secret Service, only had a few hundred dollars, a guitar, a bicycle, and a broken down freezer to his name. Though he is no longer with us, his ideas live on in the hearts and minds of the African people!”