The many claimants to the political legacy of Thomas Sankara

(Last in a series based on a visit to West Africa in December and January)
At various locations in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, there are monuments to the achievements of the Burkinabè revolution of 1983-87, led by Thomas Sankara, which mobilised the workers and peasants of that country to tackle the problems of economic backwardness and imperialist domination. The revolution was overthrown, and Sankara murdered, in a counter-revolutionary coup led by his deputy, Blaise Compaoré, who ruled Burkina from the time of the coup in 1987 until he was ousted by popular rebellion in October last year.

Popular mobilisations which toppled regime of Blaise Compaore October 2014. Photo: Al-Jazeera

Popular mobilisations which toppled regime of Blaise Compaore October 2014. Photo: Al-Jazeera

At the intersection of Avenue Yatenga and Avenue Kadiogo, there is a monument to Sankara’s Political Orientation Speech, which set out the goals and contending class forces of the revolution in October 1983. I saw a monument celebrating the participation of women in the revolution, and another marking the opening of the campaign to build a railway to the north.  A more modern and grandiose “Monument to the National Heroes,” commemorating Sankara along with three national heroes of the colonial period, sits in a large open space in the south of the city.

Monument des Héros Nationaux, Ougadougou. By Sputniktilt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monument des Héros Nationaux, Ougadougou.
By Sputniktilt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The existence of these monuments surprised me at first. Had not the revolution been overthrown, its foremost leader declared “mentally unstable?” Had not the achievements of the revolution been ground in the dust?  How is it that the counter-revolution left these monuments standing?

The answer to this question lies in the immense popularity of Sankara, the strong identification of Sankara with the revolution in the popular consciousness, and, in contrast, the political weakness of the leaders of the coup. Too weak to state openly that they were overthrowing the revolutionary government, the Compaoré forces were obliged to present their counter-revolution as a ‘rectification’ of some ‘errors’ made by the ‘unstable’ leader, a ‘removal’ of the ‘megalomaniac’ Sankara, necessary to put the revolution back on track. Like Bernard Coard, who overthrew the revolution in Grenada three years earlier, and Stalin before him, they had to present the counter-revolution as a continuation of the revolution.

Compaoré’s true course soon became clear, (if the assassination of Sankara and a dozen of his collaborators and the burial of their bodies in a secret location were not proof enough.) Before long the Compaoré government was dismantling the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, through which the popular masses had put their stamp on the revolution, and the reactionary traditional village leaders, corrupt civil service bureaucrats, and all those who chafed at and resented the revolutionary power were flexing their muscles once again.

But throughout his years of rule, popular pressure compelled Compaoré to maintain this posture of recognising Sankara’s stature – even if the pretence of leading a revolutionary government was quickly dropped. The ostentatious monument to the National Heroes was completed in 2010.

Such is the respect for Sankara that in the new situation which opened up with the ousting of Compaoré nearly every political current seems to declare itself Sankariste, including those complicit in his murder, as well as political currents who are genuinely trying to revive the political legacy of Sankara and apply it in the present. The suddenness of the coup in 1987, especially the fact that the political differences between Sankara and Compaoré and Sankara were known to no one before the coup happened, add to the confusion regarding the relationship between the two figures.

Compaoré’s false claim to the legacy of the revolution continues to muddy the waters. One person I spoke to described Compaoré as a comrade of Sankara, ignoring the political split between them that precipitated the coup, another objected to my using the term ‘murder’ to describe the assassination of Sankara. “He was removed, and he died,” my informant insisted. These were both people who had supported and participated in the mobilisations that forced Compaoré to resign.


Sankara’s grave in Dagnoen Cemetery, Ouagadougou, re-painted in 2014 by supporters on the 27th anniversary of his assassination. Graves of the others murdered with him are behind. Photo: James Robb

This state of affairs lends some political importance to questions such as confirming the burial site and exhuming and positively identifying the bodies of the murdered revolutionaries. This issue was often in the news, pressed by Sankara’s family. It is a necessary part of unravelling the exact sequence of events on the day of the murders, and shedding light on the nature of the political split that precipitated the coup in 1987. Historical investigations by journalists and others into the role of neighbouring governments in the coup, especially the Côte d’Ivoire government of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, are another aspect of this process.

Poster for conference of Sankariste unity, October 2014. Photo: James Robb

Poster for conference of Sankariste unity, October 2014. Photo: James Robb

There is also a lively discussion and debates between the many political currents claiming to represent the legacy of Thomas Sankara, and fusions and electoral alliances are forming among them. A conference of this kind had taken place on the anniversary of the 1897 coup, just weeks before the mass mobilisations that forced Compaoré to flee. Its theme was: “The necessity for unity of Sankaristes for bringing an alternative to Burkina Faso.”

In January I had an interview with some leaders of the Union pour la renaissance (Partie Sankariste), whose president is Benewende Stanislas Sankara (a cousin of Thomas Sankara, and a lawyer for the Sankara family in the ongoing matters relating to exhuming and positively identifying Sankara’s body). The party’s slogan is “Avec le peuple, victoire!”

Available from Pathfinder Press in French and English

Available from Pathfinder Press in French and English

I introduced myself as a writer on politics on the internet with an interest in Thomas Sankara and the Burkina Faso revolution, and showed them my copy of Thomas Sankara Speaks. The book, not surprisingly, is well-known if not so well-read in Burkina Faso. I had no trouble locating a T-shirt with a fine reproduction of the book cover on it, but did not see it or any other books on sale anywhere in Ouagadougou, other than religious texts in Arabic and a few titles in museum shops.

My French is not very good, and they had only a few words of English, but I am reasonably confident that in broad outline (if not in detail and nuance) the following is accurate, because after each question I repeated back to them what I had understood from their answers, and made corrections if there were misunderstandings.

I began by asking what are the ideas of Thomas Sankara that they thought were most relevant and important in the situation today.

Their response:  The things that were established by the Sankara government include the many institutions and policies which were discontinued or overthrown under the rule of Compaoré, which need to be reintroduced. They listed the following:

The form of democracy, which they called direct elections. The essence of this was that every village meets to choose its own representatives. This was undermined and lost during the rule of Compaoré, and has to be reintroduced.

The principle of justice for all, in which everyone had equal access to legal redress and equal protection against theft or other injustices, without having to pay a lawyer.

In the economy, Sankara worked towards self-sufficiency in food. Food self-sufficiency was lost under Compaoré, and now large quantities of rice have to be imported from China. This is unnecessary – it is quite possible for Burkina Faso to feed itself.

Education. the Sankara government took great strides towards making education accessible to all, including both males and females. Compaoré’s government adopted a law proclaiming equal access to education in 2005, but it is equal on paper only. In fact it is not. In order to have equal access for all, education must be free.

Health care must also be free. At present people have to pay for treatment even in government hospitals.

Sports: under Sankara, everyone participated in sports and it had great benefits for people’s health. Today, this policy has been lost, and also its health benefits. Today people spend their entire time in the market place.

Military: in the revolutionary years, soldiers were citizens like everyone else, and the citizens were soldiers. This was reversed under Compaoré; the military was elevated above the people.

Environment: In the Sankara years, every village planted hundreds of trees, every ceremony – marriages, births, etc, was celebrated with the planting of trees. This was discontinued under Compaoré, and the advance of the desert resumed.

Corruption: Sankara took a strong stance against corruption, overturning a long tradition of political figures lining their own pockets from government revenues. This too was reversed under Compaoré, and widespread corruption resumed: government officials siphoning off tax revenues to build opulent houses for themselves and pay for expensive vacations in Europe and the United States. The worst aspect of corruption, they thought, was the complete impunity of government officials when they committed crimes – a double standard, considering the ruthlessness with which they prosecuted little people who committed minor thefts etc.

Industry: Sankara’s government initiated state investment in industries, such as industries producing textiles and clothing using locally-produced materials and traditional designs, mainly for local consumption. These were privatised by Compaoré, and went into decline.

Women’s rights: Sankara’s government actively promoted the leadership of women in the government (women headed several ministries), and in society generally. This was reversed by Compaoré.

Women march in Ouagadougou, 2007. Photo: AFP

Women march in Ouagadougou, 2007.
Photo: AFP

Since they had not mentioned it, I asked about Sankara’s stance of solidarity with the international struggles of the oppressed and exploited, such as his solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the national struggle of the Palestinians, anti-colonial struggles elsewhere in Africa and the Cuban revolution. I postulated that one of the main things leading to the split between Sankara and Compaoré was their opposite responses toward the pressures coming down on the revolutionary government from France and the other imperialist powers.

They agreed with that, and said that while Sankara was anti-imperialist, Compaoré had taken over the role of imperialism’s most trusted representative in West Africa after the death of the Cote d’Ivoire president Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who had performed that role before Compaoré. Whenever there was a war or conflict in the region, Compaoré became the one who called the parties together and imposed a solution to the liking of imperialism.

Tuareg refugee at Goudebou Camp near Gorom Gorom, northern Mali January 2015. Photo: James Robb

Tuareg refugee at Goudebou Camp near Gorom Gorom, northern Burkina Faso, January 2015. Photo: James Robb

In the context of talking about using Burkina as the base of operations for the French intervention in Mali, they mentioned the Tuaregs and Islamists in northern Mali. There are thousands of Tuaregs in refugee camps in northern Burkina Faso, displaced by the conflict in Mali and to a lesser extent from Niger. There is a worry that a similar ethnic conflict might erupt in Burkina, and so this is an important political issue in Burkina today.  I said that in my opinion the Tuaregs and Islamists were really two different questions, but they were very emphatic that they were the same thing. The discussion was a little confused, and I didn’t pursue that question further.

I asked about the working class in Burkina Faso. I said that Ouagadougou was a more modern city than I was expecting to see, having known little beyond what I had read in Sankara’s speeches. I pointed to the many large modern buildings and roads in the centre of the town, and said this indicated to me that there had been considerable expansion of capitalist investment and growth in the years since the 1983-87 revolution, and that meant a bigger and stronger working class. I asked in particular about the growth of gold mining and the size of the mining workforce.

They tended to be somewhat dismissive of the working class, emphasising its smallness in comparison with the vast numbers who eke out a living as petty traders. They said that the construction in the city centre was a project of the revolution which Compaoré took the credit for because most of it came to fruition after Sankara’s death. They pointed to the huge problems of unemployment and underemployment which weakened the position of workers.

Workers in artesanal gold mine, Bani, Burkina Faso. Photo: James Robb

Workers in artesanal gold mine, Bani, Burkina Faso.
Photo: James Robb

Of the gold miners, they said there were very few – they estimated less than 5000 in the whole country – and said that it was only people with family connections to the government who got hired in the new industrial gold mines. Even then, they were insecure, and lived in fear of having their contracts terminated if they spoke up in support of the opposition. I asked if they had a union. The response was something like “yes, but its’ a sectoral union” and I didn’t get any clarification what exactly they meant by that. At any rate, it was clear that they did not regard the miners as an important point of support for their struggle.

There is an election scheduled for November 2015.  (It was Compaoré’s move to change the law so that he could be a candidate in this election – after 27 years in power already – that set off the revolt last October). It was clear that this election was the focus of attention of this party, for better or worse. They told me repeatedly that they are the third largest party in Burkina Faso. It may be little more than an electoral formation, but they are certainly serious about the ideas and legacy of Thomas Sankara and making an effort to build a political movement around it today.

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