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Decolonising socialist history with Thomas Sankara

26 Oct 2020

Decolonising socialist history with Thomas Sankara

Marxist-Leninist, Socialist, Pan-Africanist and Anti-imperialist. These are the main labels attached to the legacy of Thomas Sankara. Sankara was a leader with a sense of selflessness, justice and equality -  qualities seemingly fantastical in comparison to the imperialist powers he defied.

Following a revolution, imprisonment and a Coup in his name, Sankara rose to power as President of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) in 1983 and embarked on a radical legislative journey transforming the social, political and economic landscape of the country. Sankara utilised nationalisation policies to regain ownership of mines and natural resources from (mainly French) corporations - redistributing land from feudal lords to peasants (increasing wheat production by over 100% per hectare in 3 years, making the country food self-sufficient).

Sankara refused foreign investments, loans and aid – preaching: ‘He who feeds you controls you’. This was the motto behind Sankara’s defiance of the IMF and world bank. His actions encouraged other nations to follow suit in a Pan-African capacity as well as a general internationalist approach, witnessed in Sankara working closely with Castro for a united front against debt.

Regarding his social policy, over three weeks Sankara vaccinated 2.5 million children against various diseases. Moreover, over his term of 5 years, he lead a nationwide campaign which increased the literacy rate of Upper Volta from 13% to 73%.

As a feminist, Sankara outlawed Female Genital Mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages. He argued: ‘there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women’. Reinforcing his status as a futurist leader, Sankara planted over 10 million trees to prevent desertification. He also reinforced this transformation with cultural and symbolic changes such as updating the national anthem and changing the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso - land of the incorruptible.

These feats represent decades of progress and yet Sankara achieved this and more in the space of a few years, setting out a blueprint for national liberation and socialist progress. ‘The people’ couped on his behalf and in return, he became an extension of the masses.

When asked why he refused to have a portrait hung in public, Sankara stated: ‘There are 7 million Thomas Sankara’s’. This idea represented his modest lifestyle -  from reducing his salary to $450 a month, replacing all state cars with the cheapest cars in the country and humbly limiting his personal possessions to one car, four bikes, three guitars and a fridge.

Heartbreakingly, one of the most reliable measures for the success of a true anti-imperialist is asking how far the imperial powers will go to remove them. Were the imperial powers to orchestrate a right-wing coup like they did against Evo Morales in Bolivia, or were they to attempt over 600 extravagant assassination attempts like Castro faced?

For someone as demonstrably incorruptible as Sankara, they did both. With the alleged support of the French Government and Charles Taylor, Sankara’s close friend Blaise Compaore ordered his assassination. On October 15th 1987, Sankara was gunned down outside a cabinet meeting after surrendering in the misguided hope that his cabinet would be spared from execution.

After Sankara’s body was dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, Compaore became President. Compaore almost immediately re-joined the IMF and reversed Sankara’s revolutionary nationalisation. Furthering this, Compaore then remained a dictator for 27 years until a popular protest forced his resignation in 2014. Many of the protestors invoked the legacy of the late Sankara and his memory still serves as a rallying cry for many Burkinabe people fighting for liberation and justice.

Although Sankara’s downfall was tragic, one must not pretend that Burkina Faso was a Utopian paradise between 83-87. Sankara himself acknowledged that the repressive measures of the National Council of the Revolution went too far. Inter alia, the arrest and of union leaders and firing of teachers sympathetic to the previous regime. Nonetheless, Sankara eventually intervened, releasing the union leaders and reinstating the teachers. However, the Council’s actions had already caused a wide political rift within the government. Sankara's efforts to tackle corruption and his anti-suppression intervention angered many officials and he was aware that by stopping the CNR’s repression, he was at risk himself.

The story of  Burkina Faso of the 1980’s contradicts and disproves the neo-colonial, pro-intervention, pro-loans and pro-debt dogmas parroted in both the western education system and media.                Burkina Faso began to undergo true anti-imperialist liberation, not from a western charity appeal nor a Billionaires profit-driven ‘philanthropy’, but at the hands of the Burkinabe people.

‘Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory. Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on Earth to rule all of humanity’.

Sankara recognised the changing nature of neo-colonialism and the vital need for Pan-African unity in tackling the western imperialist threat. At the Organization of African Unity Conference in 1987, he willed other African leaders to repudiate their debts, half-joking that ‘if Burkina Faso stands alone refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference’. Unfortunately, Sankara stood alone and was assassinated that year.

We must dare to invent the future’ - Thomas Sankara (1949-1987).