Thomas Sankara can serve as an example of several important topics in decolonization and the general struggle for emancipation. During his four years as President of Burkina Faso, he accomplished remarkable tasks (with only relatively minor problematic aspects). His far wider-reaching ambitions can still open up fruitful discussions, and his eventual defeat may illustrate obstacles, which remain. One may argue that Sankara strode in the great path of third world revolutionaries, who took up the task of enlightenment with much more enthusiasm than their colonial overlords, who nonetheless often imagine themselves as having a monopoly on enlightenment. In contrast, movements from the Haitian Revolution in 1792 to Sankara’s revolution in 1983 and beyond have to struggle for enlightenment and emancipation precisely against them. These revolutionaries try to actualize enlightenment instead of decrying it as colonial is one of the richest sources of hope in the world.
Sankara’s humble origins already disprove Frances legitimizing myth that its colonial rule would develop its minions. But still, an intelligent child, striving for education, had only two options: join the priesthood or the military. Against the wishes of his devout parents, Sankara chose the military. In French colonial military academies, he would soon meet like-minded young African officers that clandestinely introduced him to anti-colonialism and Marxism. In the early 1980s, Sankara began to gain political appointments in his home country (still called by its colonial name of Upper Volta) because he was one of the few educated elites the abysmal education system had produced. So, even though he often stirred trouble (like encouraging investigative journalism as Minister of Information) and was subsequently sacked, there was no choice but to bring him back eventually. When he was appointed Prime Minister in 1983, he was quickly dismissed and, with heavy french involvement, imprisoned. However, a quick and popular coup, lead by his comrade Blaise Compaoré, made him President in that same year.
Everything for the People/Between Eras
Right when the soviet block was collapsing in on itself, Sankara’s presidency would prove to be one of the last genuinely excellent and successful Leninist experiments. (The next disruption of what would come to be perceived as the neo-liberal ‚end of history ‘would come from the more anarchist-inspired Zapatistas in southern Mexico.) Not only would Sankara reject the soviet-style cult of personality with the words: “There are seven million Thomas Sankara’s “, referring to the country’s population. He would also reject the enrichment by party officials, common in Africa and the soviet block, by drastically reducing the salaries of himself and other officials, selling the state luxury car fleet and replacing it with bicycles and the cheapest cars available. Living standards would also significantly improve, along with public infrastructure.
The illiteracy rate of 90% was drastically reduced, as nearly every village got a school. Public clinics also opened on an enormous scale, and primarily through mass vaccinations programmes, public health was drastically improved. (Right as, as one could add, new-age bullshit like the rejection of vaccinations took off in the western world.) Infant mortality, for example, fell from around 20% to about 14%. To also give the people decent housing and demolish the widespread slums, a domestic brick industry arose.
To raise the populations’ wealth, massive infrastructure projects built water reservoirs, roads, and nearly 700 km of rail. These rails should export mining products to increase revenue. Simultaneously, food security also significantly improved, as agricultural reforms boosted cereal production by 75%. To protect the farmlands from desertification, Sankara’s government instituted ecological initiatives long before many developed nations in the form of massive reforestation.
All these accomplishments seem even more impressive when you consider that they were achieved with little to no foreign aid. While Sankara accepted foreign assistance, he sought to diversify its sources and reduce reliance on them, as “He who feeds you, controls you. “Especially ‚aid ‘by the International Monetary Fund was rejected, right as its ‚Structural Adjustment Programs ‘set off to ravage many developing countries utterly.
Alongside the struggles for bread and against (post-)colonial domination, an equally intense battle against tradition was fought. Not only were old tribal allegiances to be subdued to the (inter-)national project, making the ancient tribal chieftains into some of Sankara’s fiercest enemies. Especially the traditional subjugation of women was attacked. Female genital mutilation forced marriages, and polygamy was banned outright. Moreover, women were encouraged to pursue education and work and, for the first time, widely accepted into public jobs, the government itself, and the armed forces. Meanwhile, contraception was promoted, and husbands were encouraged to experience the household chores, which they used to burden their wives.
Beyond the Nation
One of Sankara’s most urgent tasks was establishing sovereignty against the former colonial powers (foremost France) and uniting the country into a nation to fasten said sovereignty. One year into his presidency, the colonial name of Upper Volta was replaced by Burkina Faso (“Land of Incorruptible People”).
But while Sankara imported the social technique of the just 200-year old invention of the nation, he avoided the mistake of naturalizing it, like many of its European inventors and many other importers. While he strove to create a unified nation out of many tribes, his ambitions went much further. As a Pan-Africanist, he sought to unite all of Africa into one state. Burkina Faso and neighbouring Ghana, led by Sankara’s comrade Jerry Rawlings, were on the road to unite until Sankara was overthrown and assassinated in 1987.
Problems & The End
Willits detractors often exaggerate internal problems in Sankara’s presidency; there were some serious ones indeed. Despite Sankara’s earlier commitments to freedoms like a free press, and while being miles above soviet-style tyranny, some serious suppression of ‚counter revolutionary activity ‘took place during his presidency. While one could maybe excuse the outlawing of opposition parties, many of whom were in league with old elites and colonial powers, one can not ignore the same for labour unions. For example, Sankara’s hostility towards striking teachers even compromised his admirable education programmes, as they were suspended en masse. It is said that in revolutionary interim periods, some repression measures and violence are hard to avoid. The accompanying paranoia leads many revolutionaries to extreme measures and did not spare Sankara either. No atrocities like in the Soviet Union, Maoism or neoliberal Chile took place, however.
Sankara’s downfall came from another phenomenon instead. As discussed above, the military was often one of the few avenues for education and a career in colonial societies. As such, (post-)colonial armies often harboured above-average progressive members. But both the armed forces and often related revolutionary (and more often than not Leninist) cadre-parties also attracted careerists, for whom Sankara’s modesty of the government was very unappealing. Sankara was brought into power by a coup of his comrade Blaise Compaoré. He was also deposed and executed by a coup of the same Blaise Compaoré, who openly admitted that he did it because Sankara jeopardized relations with Burkina Faso’s former colonial power of France.