Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was one of the most dynamic, progressive, and missed African leaders of the present day.
Born on December 21, 1949, Sankara took power on August 4, 1983 through a coup that was aimed at eliminating residual corruption left over from French colonisation of the country then known as Haute Volta. In the 4 years under his leadership before another coup led in large part by his good friend, Blaise Campaoré (the still standing “democratically elected” president), Sankara guided his country through a series of reforms which continue to resonate through the best intentioned aid efforts to this day.
Here, in honor of his memory (on the day of his assasination), I will briefly highlight a few elements of Sankara’s legacy.
Perhaps first and fore-most, Sankara believed in self-sufficience. One of his first acts was to try to untangle his country, renamed Burkina Faso (combining Moore and Jula and essentially meaning “Land of the Upright People“) in 1984, from the international forces that corrupted its politics and poisoned the well of its own development. On April 4, 1986, Sankara gave a moving speech explaining some of this rationale.
Notre pays produit suffisamment de quoi nous nourrir. Nous pouvons même dépasser notre production. Malheureusement, par manque d’organisation, nous sommes obligés de tendre la main pour demander des aides alimentaires. Ces aides alimentaires qui nous bloquent, qui nous inspirent, qui installent dans nos esprits, cette habitude, ces réflexes de mendiants, d’assistés. Nous devons mettre de côté ces aides par notre grand production. Il faut réussir à produire plus, produire plus, produire plus parce que…il est normale. Que celui qui vous donne à manger, vous dicte également. C’est volonté. Nous consommons ce que nous contrôlons.
— (ENGLISH) —
We produce enough to feed ourselves. In fact, we could even increase and improve on this production. Unfortunately, due to a lack of organisation, we are obligated to hold out our hand and ask for food aid. This food aid that hold us back. That inspires in us the reflexes of beggars. We can succeed in turning away this aid by the strength of our own production. We must produce more, more, because…it’s only natural. The one who gives you food also holds control over you. And we allow this. We must eat(/use) only that which we control(/produce).
This went on to become part of a larger point about the silent remnants of Imperialism that lurk in the state of dependance one adopts when imported (subsidised) rice and grains are cheaper than those grown in your own field. To a subsistance farmer in a country of agricultural producers, this effect of subsidies in the global market is crippling.
Sankara’s solution was to send the foreign powers (including NGOs) packing. Burkina needed to develop of its own strength so that it could know and be proud of the origins of its bounty. The beggar mentality promoted (then, and to an extent still today) by foreign aid work was never going to allow Burkina to stand up for itself, proud, and declare its autonomy.
While he desired alimentary self-sufficience, Sankara also recognised the importance of infrastructure when it came to trade, exportation, and growing markets. With this in mind, plans for road networks were made with J. J. Rawlings, Ghana’s then head-of-state, and work was begun to connect the countries (these plans were blocked following Sankara’s assasination).
Additionally, Sankara realised that Burkina was systematically being taken advantage of by those that claimed to be helping and buying the surplus raw materials Burkina had to offer. Sure, these materials existed and needed to be used in order to be sold as end products, but Sankara was able to follow the value-chain one step further and see the potential for much more profit from raw goods using one of Burkina’s most valuable resources. Its people. Under Sankara, the transformation of goods from a raw state to a value-added one became a national imperative. Perhaps the most prominent examples of this were Sankara’s promotion of Burkinabé made woven goods (primarily through the domestic Sofi-Tex plant) as well as his efforts in a country that produced a raw millet (or sorghum) beer for local consumption to begin bottling said beer both for conservation and exportation.
Sankara even fought for gender equality. It was on March 8, 1987 that Sankara gave this zinger at a meeting in Ouagadougou. It is due largely to the precedent set by Sankara that on March 8 every year (International Women’s Day), Burkinabé men are expected to do the shopping in the market, make the food, sweep, etc. While this tradition has degraded over the years, Sankara’s original gender reversing premises lie at the heart of many efforts in the field of Gender in Development today.
Sankara did many other great things. He actively fought corruption where-ever it existed* and lived a modest life (even when he was President). He fought against Imperialism. He fought to make clear the unjust impositions placed on developing nations by forces like the World Bank. In a famous speech to the Organisation de l’Unité Africaine, Sankara asked,
Qui ici ne souhaite pas que la dette soit purement et simplement effacé ? Celui qui ne souhaite pas, il peut sortir, prend son avion, et aller tout de suit à la Banque Mondiale, payer. Tous-nous souhaitons.
— ENGLISH —
Who here doesn’t wish that the debt were simply and totally erased? Whoever doesn’t wish it should leave, take his plane, go directly to the World Bank, and pay. We all wish it!
Sankara’s death was a great loss to the Burkinabé people and unfortunately a sigh of relief to France and other post-colonial interests. While many books could be (and several books actually have been) written detailing the works and speeches of this dynamic leader, I will leave with one final quote.
Je veux simplement dire, que nous devons accepter de vivre africain. C’est la seule façon de vivre libre et de vivre digne. Je vous remercier monsieur la président. La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!
— ENGLISH —
I wish to simply say, that we must be ready to live as Africans. It’s the only way to live free and with dignity. I thank you, Mr. President.
Our country or death, we will succeed!
*Unfortunately at its extremeties, Sankara’s fight against corruption occasionally deteriorated into a witch or communist hunt lending personal vendettas an undeserved official credence and shaming many undeserving of public humiliation.