Thomas Sankara (1949-1987)
On the 33rd anniversary of his assassination in a French-backed coup, we celebrate the life and career of the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.
On the 33rd anniversary of Thomas Sankara’s death, his legacy is more pertinent than ever. Sankara was the first president of Burkina Faso, and the leader of the Democratic and Popular Revolution party. His 4 years in power was a period of radical change in the West African country, and saw an extensive program of policy reform which prioritised redistribution, liberation and self-sufficiency. He stressed the importance of radical education and recognised how through active mobilisation, a conscious collective working class could transform society. Throughout his leadership, before his assassination in a French-backed coup organised by a former friend and rival, Blaise Compaore, he maintained a strident, militant and unapologetic approach to revolutionising Burkina Faso and empowering the country’s peasantry.
Today, Sankara is honoured for his struggle against globalism capitalism, a system that reproduces the relations of dependency between the Global South and the Global North. He rebuked the neocolonial relations between Europe and Africa, characterised by financial exploitation in the form of loans and aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. What he saw here was a new form for the same old dynamic between former colonial powers and formerly colonised countries. Newly independent nations were labelled ‘underdeveloped’, their resources controlled and their agency seized by Western financial institutions, acting behind the framework of Structural Adjustment Plans. Speaking in forums such as the Organisation of African Unity, he called for solidarity amongst his fellow leaders in the African continent, and across the Global South. As he said,“The imperialism we’re fighting is not an isolated thing. It’s a system. [it] has to be fought with an entire system that we will forge together.”
This established him as a genuine threat to the economic compliance that the colonial powers relied upon. He was uncompromising in his approach, intimidating former colonial powers, as his anti-debt action was drawing attention in the global stage. He advocated for self-sufficiency, recognising this as a key step toward the resisting of capitalist exploitation in order to become a truly independent nation, not just in theory but also in practice.
The nationalisation of all mineral and land wealth in Burkina Faso was symbolic of his dedication to protecting the interests of his people and his commitment to resisting an exploitative economic system. He argued, “It is our blood that fed the rapid development of capitalism, that made possible our current state of dependency, and that consolidated our underdevelopment.” On financial aid from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, he highlighted “Aid must go in the direction of strengthening our sovereignty, not undermining it. Aid should go in the direction of destroying aid.” Daring to challenge capitalist hegemony was not an easy task, but Sankara was not to be silenced by foreign powers in speaking out against the exploitative nature of capitalism and debt in the 20th century.
Sankara’s work was also informed by a profound internationalism, advocating for causes globally including Palestine, South African Apartheid and Ireland. As he said at a rally in Harlem in 1984, “When I address the UN, I will speak about the ghettos. I will speak about Nelson Mandela who must be freed. I will speak about injustice. I will speak about racism and the hypocrisy of the leaders around the world.” His fearless nature in speaking on matters of injustice, racism and xenophobia established him as an international figure renowned for his work on social justice.
He also stressed the importance of women’s liberation and gender equality as a priority for the transformation of Burkina Faso. When speaking at a talk in 1983, he said, “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.” He recognised women not simply as pawns to be used to advance other causes, but as active agents over their own lives and unconditionally deserving of liberation. He recognised patriarchy as a “male-imposed system of exploitation” and acted to dismantle gender inequality by banning FGM, polygamy and forced marriage.
Domestically, his presidency pushed for reforestation and land reform programmes. He recognised the land as something to be restored and taken care of, against the extractive nature of capitalist exploitation of our planet and its resources. Between 1983 and 1987, he organised the planting of several million trees and implemented irrigation and fertilisation schemes that supported domestic food self-sufficiency. We can therefore see his work, based on local knowledge and practices as well as the internationalism of a global socialist movement, as prefiguring the contemporary emphasis on environmental issues as a key part of any socialist transformation.
For truly transformative change which would challenge and overthrow capitalist hegemony, Sankara knew that education was imperative. Only with the support of the conscious masses could a fairer and more just world be realised. “Our revolution is an integral part of the world movement for peace and democracy, against imperialism and all forms of hegemonism.”
But what can Sankara’s influence teach us today? In a time of social unrest and with antiracist activism and resistance at the forefront of recent months, we ought to draw inspiration from Sankara's work. As an anti-imperialist who envisioned a society where the values of humanity, equality and collectivism are prioritised, we can look to his work for guidance on how to mobilise our own movement. His radical and intersectional approach to anti-capitalism established him as a revolutionary leader who united the masses in a collective struggle for emancipation.
Movements for social justice do not arise in a vacuum. History often repeats itself, as the old structures adapt to suit the contemporary context. Michelle Alexander recognised this phenomenon as a process of rebounding, where systems of violence and oppression reinvent themselves over time. While periodic victories arise in the steps toward a better world, without active resistance and the dismantling of capitalist modes of distribution and exchange, we will continue to struggle to manifest transformative change.
Thomas Sankara succeeded in where so many have failed - the ability to mobilise a diverse united front of people all with a shared vision. Sankara’s assassination came at a pivotal time in his leadership, just as his work was gaining traction across the African continent and fellow leaders across the Global South were challenging Western powers and resisting capitalist exploitation and domination. Sankara had built himself a loyal following out of the Burkinabe people, but without him as the face of the movement, there was no serious mobilisation against the coup, and any further development of the movement was suppressed by the new government.
Direct action that unites a collective in a shared struggle has proved essential in shaping a movement that goes beyond borders. “Comrades, the people must apply justice themselves, their justice.” The wave of action that has unfolded since the murder of George Floyd then, can be seen as the people demanding and applying our justice in a system which attempts to undermine, criminalise and weaken collective action.
But perhaps Sankara’s greatest strength was in looking beyond simply the ideas of charismatic leaders. His commitment to prioritising the interests of the collective majority and amplifying the voices of those marginalised in society rendered him an invaluable asset for inclusive social change. As he said in the week before his assassination, “Whilst revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” The revolution lives on in every one of us who strives to challenge the constraints of capitalism and envision a more just world.
Adele Walton in an International Development student at the University of Sussex and writer. Her blog, A Note of Despair, discusses issues surrounding racial capitalism, socioeconomic inequality and human rights.