Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso who was forced to resign by mass protests on October 31, was more than simply a dictator who had clung to power for 27 years. Compaoré was the leader of a counter-revolution, a traitor, who holds the responsibility for the murder of one of the finest thinkers and fighters of the twentieth century, Thomas Sankara. Compaoré’s coup brought an end to the magnificent Burkina Faso revolution of 1983-87.
Better than any other struggle of last century, the revolution in Burkina Faso proved that slavery was not the inescapable fate of any people, that the road of revolutionary struggle for independence and human dignity was open in even the poorest countries of the world.
For Upper Volta (as the country was known at the beginning of the revolution) was poor by any measure. In 1981, the third decade after its independence in 1960, infant mortality stood at 208 for every 1000 live births – the highest in the world. A staggering 92% of the population was illiterate – 98% in the countryside, where 90% of the population lived. Less than one child in five attended school. A compulsory head tax dating from the days of French colonial rule was still enforced, and in addition to that, peasants had semi-feudal obligations to perform labour for village chiefs. Average annual income was US$150; there was one doctor per 50,000 people.
The technology of agriculture was such that only 10% of farmers were using animals to pull the plough; the rest had to make do with basic hand tools. As the Sahara Desert advanced steadily southward – the consequence of imperialist-imposed patterns of agriculture and trade – drought and famine plagued the country. The disease onchocerciasis, or river blindness, caused many thousands to lose their eyesight in the regions close to rivers, accelerating depopulation of the best fertile lands. With very little access to electricity, or even kerosene or gas, wood was the main cooking fuel in both city and countryside, leading to rapid deforestation.
There was a tiny working class, made up of some 20,000 factory workers in small handicrafts and manufacturing, a further 10,000 workers in construction, public works, and transportation, and about 40,000 civil servants, teachers and the like. (The total population at that time was about 7 million – it has more than doubled in the period since then). The only modern factories were some cotton and textile mills and a handful of other light manufacturing plants.
This extreme poverty and backward class structure was inherited by the revolutionary government of Thomas Sankara which came to power on August 4, 1983. Sankara’s government set up Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which mobilised the population to begin solving these problems.
Sankara put forward a clear picture of the class forces supporting and opposed to the revolution in his Political Orientation Speech in October 1983, which served as the strategic perspective of the new government. In its detailed class analysis of Voltaic society, this speech often calls to mind the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels.
Speaking of the independence of Upper Volta from France in 1960, he said, “From the masses’ point of view, it was a democratic reform, while from that of imperialism it was a change of the forms of domination and exploitation of our people…Voltaic nationals were to take over as agents for foreign domination.”
Sankara describes the enemies of the popular revolution, for whom “our revolution will be the most authoritarian thing there is; it will be an act through which the people impose their will by all available means, including arms if necessary.
“Who are these enemies of the people? … They are 1. The Voltaic bourgeoisie, [including] the state bourgeoisie…that has used its political monopoly to enrich itself in an illicit and indecent manner… the commercial bourgeoisie, by its very activity linked to imperialism by numerous ties, and the middle bourgeoisie, [which] has grievances against imperialism but also fears the people…We must cultivate among the people a revolutionary mistrust of such elements. 2. The reactionary forces who base their power on the traditional, feudal-type structures of our society…who in their majority were able to put up staunch resistance to French colonial imperialism, but since our country gained national sovereignty they have joined forces with the reactionary bourgeoisie to oppress the Voltaic people. [They] most frequently rely on the decaying values of our traditional culture that still persist in rural areas [and] will oppose our revolution to the extent that it democratises social relations in the countryside.
“The people, in the current revolution, are composed of: 1. The Voltaic working class… a genuinely revolutionary class. In the current revolution, it is a class that has everything to gain and nothing to lose. It has no means of production to lose, it has no piece of property to defend within the framework of the old neo-colonial society. To the contrary, it is convinced that the revolution is its own, because it will emerge from the revolution more numerous and stronger.
“2. The petty bourgeoisie, which constitutes a vast social layer that is very unstable and that often vacillates between the cause of the popular masses and that of imperialism. In its great majority, it always ends up taking the side of the popular masses. It is composed of diverse elements, including small traders, petty-bourgeois intellectuals (government employees, students, private sector employees and so on), and artisans.
“3. The Voltaic peasantry. … Market relations have increasingly dissolved communal bonds and replaced them with private property in the means of production… The Voltaic peasant, tied to small-scale production, embodies bourgeois productive relations…It is the social layer that has had to pay the highest price for imperialist domination and exploitation. The economic and cultural backwardness that characterises our countryside has kept it isolated from the main currents of progress and modernisation, relegating it to the role of a reservoir for reactionary political parties. Nevertheless, the peasantry has a stake in the revolution and in terms of numbers is its principal force.
“4. The lumpenproletariat, a layer of declassed elements who, since they are without work, are inclined to hire themselves out to reactionary and counterrevolutionary forces to carry out the latter’s dirty work. To the extent that the revolution can win them over by giving them something useful to do, they can become its fervent defenders.”
Within this class framework, with the obstacles ahead clearly in sight, Sankara and the Burkinabè masses set to work to transform social relations in Burkina Faso with confidence and revolutionary optimism. A few of Sankara’s speeches were filmed and are available on YouTube, mostly in French, some with English subtitles or with live translators. They are well worth searching out: nothing conveys the sense of hope and optimism the Burkina Faso revolution represented better than these. Many more are available in the French and English versions of Thomas Sankara Speaks, a collection of his speeches and interviews from which this article was mostly drawn.
Tribute payments and obligatory labour by peasants to traditional chiefs were abolished, as was the head tax. An agrarian reform nationalised all land and mineral wealth and made the land available to small farmers. Irrigation projects were implemented. Stern measures against corruption were adopted, symbolised by the change of the name of the country to Burkina Faso – land of upright people – on the first anniversary of the revolution in August 1984.
With support from Cuban volunteers, a fifteen-day immunisation campaign in November 1984 succeeded in immunising 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. A conference of 3,000 delegates on the national budget decided to deduct one month’s pay from the salaries of top civil servants and military officers to help pay for social development projects. The entire fleet of extravagant official vehicles was sold off, and the Renault 5, the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at the time, was made the official vehicle for all civil servants and government personnel, including the president himself.
All residential rents were suspended in 1985, and a massive programme of construction of public housing was begun. A ‘Battle for the Railroad’ was launched in February 1985 to build a new railway to the northeastern region of Tambao, in order to develop a major manganese deposit.
A campaign to plant 10 million trees was launched, to slow down the advance of the Sahara, and buying or renting the new housing units was made conditional on the new owner or tenant planting and caring for a minimum number of trees. The CDRs of women and youth mobilised to build tens of thousands of improved stoves in order to reduce the consumption of firewood. Hundreds of wells were sunk to provide reliable drinking water to those who lacked it. An old, partly-abandoned tradition of each town and village cultivating its own grove of trees was revived. In the villages in the developed river valleys, each family was given the means and the obligation to plant one hundred trees per year. The cutting and selling of firewood was brought under strict control.
Sankara explained the revolution’s battle against the encroachment of the desert as “a battle to establish a balance between man, nature, and society…Our struggle to defend the trees and the forest is first and foremost a democratic struggle that must be waged by the people. The sterile and expensive excitement of a handful of engineers and forestry experts will accomplish nothing! Nor can the tender consciences of a multitude of forums and institutions – sincere and praiseworthy as they may be – make the Sahel green again, when we lack the funds to drill wells for drinking water just a hundred meters deep, and money abounds to drill oil wells three thousand meters deep!”
The revolutionary government tied its fate to progress towards the liberation of women. “The weight of the centuries-old traditions of our society has relegated women to the status of beasts of burden”, Sankara said. “By changing the social order that oppresses women, the revolution creates the conditions for their genuine emancipation.
“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.”
A national conference on women’s emancipation in Ouagadougou in March 1985 drew 3,000 participants. Female genital mutilation was banned. The second anniversary of the revolution in August 1985 featured an all-female parade, emphasising the steps towards female equality.
In 1986 a literacy campaign, conducted in nine indigenous languages, taught reading and writing to 35,000 people. River blindness was largely brought under control, with the aid of a United Nations programme. Basic health care services were made available to millions for the first time, and infant mortality fell to 145 per 1000 live births by 1985.
The revolutionary government adopted a stance of international solidarity with popular political struggles. Sankara took the occasion of the visit of French President Francois Mitterand to denounce France’s ties to the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He solidarised with revolutions in Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada, and with liberation struggles in Namibia and Western Sahara. In New York to give a speech at the United Nations, he addressed a Black audience in Harlem declaring, “our White House is in Black Harlem.”
The key to these conquests was drawing the working people into political activity in their own interests. The Burkinabè people, Sankara explained over and over, had to be the initiators of social and political change, not the resigned and passive objects of a government bureaucracy and military officer caste. “The democratic and popular revolution needs a convinced people, not a conquered people – a people that is truly convinced, not submissive and passively enduring its destiny,” he said.
These advances were not welcomed by all layers of Burkinabè society. Some in the civil service bureaucracy resented the encroachments on their privileges. Teachers launched a strike against the revolutionary government. A counter-revolutionary plot linked to a pro-imperialist exile was uncovered and suppressed in 1984.
Opponents of the revolution resented above all the active intervention of the organised Burkinabè masses. “You had the impression that the whole of Burkina Faso was a military barracks” one critic of Sankara recalled 25 years later. “There were not any unions or youth organisations, at least no independent ones. Committees for the Defence of the Revolution [CDRs] were imposed on everything. There was a CDR for the youth, a CDR for women, a CDR for farmers, CDR unions.”
To some layers of society the revolution felt, as Sankara had explained in the Political Orientation Speech, “the most authoritarian thing there is.”
Did Sankara anticipate the treachery of Compaoré, his former close friend and comrade, the man whose march on Ouagadougou to free Sankara from jail had opened the revolution in 1983? That he knew of the specific counter-revolutionary plot by Compaoré seems unlikely. However, Sankara was clearly aware of the dangers and risks inherent in the revolutionary process, and he warned of these dangers in his speech on the fourth anniversary of the revolution in August 1987, a few months before his assassination.
“Since August 4, 1983, revolutionary Burkina Faso has burst onto the African and international scene especially and above all due to the intellectual genius and moral and human virtue of its leaders and of its organised masses. We have overcome adversity and triumphed over determined and vile opponents who were armed to the teeth…
“What we need to do here above all is to note the diverse forms hostile forces can take and – since tomorrow’s battles will undoubtedly be harder and more complex – draw the lessons that will make us stronger. During the past four years of the revolution we have had to constantly confront reaction and imperialism. They have hatched the most sordid plots aimed at sabotaging our work – or worse, overthrowing our revolution. Imperialism and reaction are and will remain fiercely opposed to the transformations that are taking place every day in our country and that threaten their interests…
“We have also seen adversity within our beloved Burkina, within our own ranks, in the camp of the revolution. Erroneous practices and ideas harmful to the revolution have, in fact, developed within the masses and among revolutionaries. We have had to combat these problems despite the relative fragility in our own ranks…
“For having chosen this path rather than the easier road of demagogy, we have been subjected to ever more slanderous attacks from both our traditional enemies and from elements who have come out of the ranks of the revolution. These elements are either impatient and smitten with the unfortunate zeal of the novice, or else they are frantically and openly pursuing personal ambitions… Others dream of throwing in the towel but have qualms about how they should do it. They also theorise in advance their desertion from the revolutionary struggle. That is why so many theories and ideas, all thoroughly imbued with opportunism, have been and still are circulating…
“The deepening of our revolution and the future success of our political activity will depend on how well we solve these problems of organisation and political orientation in our country. The revolution cannot go forward and achieve its goals without a vanguard organisation able to guide the people in all its battles and on all fronts. Forging such an organisation will require a big commitment on our part from now on.”
Compaoré’s coup put an end to the revolution before such a vanguard organisation could be built; the revolution died with its central leader.
Blaise Compaoré, like the Stalinist faction of Bernard Coard that overthrew the revolutionary government in Grenada four years earlier, and indeed like Stalin himself some sixty years before that, chose to clothe his desertion from the revolutionary struggle in revolutionary language. The revolution would continue, he declared, but with some ‘rectification.’ Very soon, the old ties to imperialist governments and financial institutions were re-established, the old relationships of exploitation revived, and Compaoré had amassed a large personal fortune and a correspondingly large contempt for the people.
Not all of the gains of the revolution were overthrown – for example, the ban on female genital mutilation held up at least partly, as did increased enrolments at primary school. In the villages, improved access to water, sanitation, electricity, health clinics, and contraception continued to bring small improvements in the lives of subsistence farmers – a not unimportant reason why Compaoré’s government remained relatively stable for 27 years. The health clinics are not free, however – a condition of IMF and World Bank loans. Burkina Faso remains one of the poorest countries in the world. (In May 2006 the magazine New Internationalist ran some interesting articles based on two ten-yearly return visits to a Burkinabè village by a reporter who had first interviewed a woman leader of the CDR there in 1985 – the information in this paragraph is based largely on these).
One of the many thousands of Burkinabè people who rose up last week to overthrow Compaoré called the protests “Burkina Faso’s Black Spring, like the Arab Spring.” It is an apt description, combining identification with the uprisings that dislodged despotic rulers in the Arab world from December 2010 with African pride. In a fast-growing and youthful population – the median age in the country is only 17 years! – the vast majority of participants in these demonstrations have been born since Sankara’s murder. The world they inherit is a very different from the one Sankara confronted; the working class in Burkina did emerge from the revolution of 1983-87 “more numerous and stronger.” They will need to re-discover afresh the rich political legacy of Thomas Sankara and apply it in this changed situation, just as does the working class in the rest of the world.
One thing that has not changed, though, is the fact that, as Sankara told his Harlem audience, “when the people stand up, imperialism trembles.”