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Echoes of Revolution: Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara

Issue: 49 Section: International News Geography: Africa Burkina Faso Topics: democracy, social movements, debt

January 13, 2008

Echoes of Revolution: Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara

Part I: Interview with Aziz Fall

by Stefan Christoff

Assassinated 20 years ago, Thomas Sankara has become a symbol of self-determination and alternatives to development dictated by the West.

Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso, a political leader renowned across Africa as a revolutionary, died 20 years ago in an assassination that sent political shock waves across the continent, marking a critical moment for progressive social movements in Africa.

Burkina Faso, a small western African nation formally known as Upper Volta, was renamed Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upright people,” after the 1983 revolution that brought Thomas Sankara's government to power.

As president, Sankara actively appealed for pan-African self-determination, for the full cancellation of foreign national debts across the continent and for liberation from apartheid in South Africa.

"The question of debt is the question of Africa’s economic situation, as much as peace; this question is an important condition of our survival," Sankara said as president.

"The debt cannot be repaid. If we do not pay, our creditors will not die. We can be sure of that. On the other hand, if we pay, it is we who will die. Of that we can be equally sure."

In 2007, Thomas Sankara remains a powerful symbol within grassroots social movements in Africa, as the 1983 revolution of Burkina Faso catapulted an alternative vision of African development onto the world stage.

Revolution in Burkina Faso led to a national development model rooted in "self-reliance" and social solidarity.

Burkina Faso presented a radically different concept of development to the charity model common today, strongly promoted by international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or fashionably displayed through events such as Live Aid or campaigns such as "Make Poverty History."

Independently driven development policies and an anti-colonial political platform brought international attention to Burkina Faso, inspiring grassroots social movements across Africa, and won Thomas Sankara powerful political enemies in France, Europe and the US.

Ten years after the death of Thomas Sankara, the Montreal-based Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA) launched an international legal campaign into the circumstances surrounding Sankara’s death. In the courts of Burkina Faso, GRILA put forward a controversial legal challenge to the government of President Blaise Compaoré, a close ally of France who organized a coup d'état against Sankara and who has held power since. Compaoré is widely understood as having a direct role in Sankara's 1987 assassination.

After complete dismissal within the courts of Burkina Faso, GRILA presented Sankara’s case to the UN Human Rights Committee. In 2006, the UN Committee ruled in favour of the International Justice for Sankara Campaign on behalf of Thomas Sankara's widow, Mariam, and his children, Auguste and Philippe.

Aziz Fall is a member of the Group for Research and Initiatives for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA) and the international co-ordinator for the International Justice for Sankara Campaign. In this interview, Aziz Fall reflects on the case of Thomas Sankara 20 years after the assassination and outlines contemporary efforts to seek justice for the 1987 assassination.

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Stefan Christoff: October 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of Thomas Sankara’s assassination, to highlight this anniversary you recently participated in an international speaking tour organized by the Justice for Sankara Campaign, focused on the UN case surrounding Sankara’s killing. In this context, can you reflect on the political significance of Sankara’s case in relation to contemporary African history and also to international movements for social justice?

Aziz Fall: First it’s important to say that Sankara’s case remains relevant and critical to the understanding the current debate on ‘African development.’

This year is the 20th anniversary of Sankara’s death and for 20 years the circumstances surrounding Sankara’s death remain unknown. In this context, GRILA recently won a major victory at the United Nations, in establishing a legal precedent against impunity in Africa. Until today, the official death certificate in Burkina Faso claims that Thomas Sankara died of natural causes and this is certainly not true.

It is the first time within the UN system regarding African affairs that in the investigation of a case in the death of a former head-of-state, a UN body has ruled on the side of justice, outlining clearly [in its recent decision] that people have a right to know the circumstance surrounding Sankara’s death and that the family has the right to be compensated.

In the context of the recent UN decision, why is Sankara’s death significant in terms of struggles for social justice in Africa?

Sankara incarnated the last African revolution, the last radical African experience of the 20th century; today, we can collectively reference no other similar political experiences in Africa. In the Burkina Faso revolution, there was the establishment of self-reliant development. Concretely, this meant there was a serious attempt on a national level to ensure that the peasantry would have the correct amount of food crop to supply the national population with nutrition, prior to considering the possibility of exporting to the international market.

In Burkina Faso, on a national level, there was an effort to establish a model of self-reliant development in regards to food, education and healthcare; within four years, the national political mentality and national production model were shifted in a progressive direction that no other African nation has succeeded in achieving before.

This political process had an enormous impact on the imagination of the youth, while also had an impact in regards to the neo-colonial framework of development within Africa, mainly in regards to the ongoing French influence over African development.

France, in reality, hasn’t granted independence to the former colonies due to the neo-colonial economic development framework that it continues to impose on Africa. France utilizes mainstream development models to smuggle resources from Africa, to have easy access to valuable minerals, to have access and influence over the maintenance of a system of capitalist development in Africa. An economic development system that can only be maintained with the support of local puppets that are totally reluctant to listen to the grievances and demands of their own population.

Sankara’s project in Burkina Faso is certainly a project that is important to consider for Africa because it relates directly to pan-Africanism, the collective integration of the African nation-states, certainly an economic model that advocates something inherently different than NEPAD [the New Economic Partnership for African Development], which is actually a plan that is fostering relations between Africa and western nations. In reality, NEPAD can’t be viewed or understood as an African plan for development.

Today, Africa needs to outline an African plan for development and the development of a local or indigenous definition of development was fundamental to the economic program that Sankara was advocating. This is why Sankara died; this is why Sankara was assassinated.

What has been the echo-effect of Thomas Sankara--the way in which the legacy of Sankara’s alternative economic ideas impacted all of Africa, the political and economic ideas that are being discussed today in Africa within networks advocating for social and economic justice?

In terms of civil-society: I must first admit that I have mixed feelings concerning the role of civil-society today, as major parts of ‘civil-society’ on an international level have been co-opted by the international neo-liberal economic framework and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, there are still very authentic and participatory elements to networks today in Africa that are labelled 'civil-society.'

In this context, it’s important to note the contemporary recognition of Sankara’s economic and political ideas as models for exploring possibilities of self-reliant development models. It is interesting to note that the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, echoed the African Social Forum in recognizing Sankara’s policies as potential models for self-reliant development.

Today in Africa, there is a growing movement in support of Sankara, with political parties based on Sankara’s ideas in Burkina Faso and Mali; this movement didn’t exist while Sankara was alive, but is thriving today with an amazing number of associations, groups and organizations around Africa and abroad that are very active today.

In 2007, I met with many organizations in multiple countries who continue to work on Sankara’s case while also advocating for the political and economic ideas surrounding development that Sankara pushed while alive. Throughout our recent international caravan from Mexico to Europe, where we visited multiple countries, I was amazed by the crowds that welcomed us and the support and solidarity that we witnessed.

Sankara’s ideas are still extremely relevant today. Internationally, people are wearing t-shirts and buttons throughout the world, so Sankara is becoming an icon, which is not necessarily a good thing; however, it illustrates the support for Sankara’s ideas today in Africa. Sankara is the Che Guevara of Africa, who died at almost the same age, at 37, accomplishing great things in a short time while operating with political honesty, with a total dedication to the people of Burkina Faso and Africa.

African social movements continue to recognize Sankara’s legacy in terms of the demand for debt cancellation, an unconditional demand for cancellation of national debts, as part of an effort to change the balance of power between modern economic imperialism and Africa, towards the development idea of a true pan-African movement for liberation.

Can you explain for yourself why Sankara’s case is touching for you on a political level? How do Sankara’s ideas strike you? Why are they important to you as a social activist?

It’s simple to understand. GRILA was born the year of the revolution in Burkina Faso, based on the same values that Sankara advocated, as GRILA shared a similar world view, shared a similar dream of establishing a self-governed model for development in Africa, which explains the attachment, the connection.

Self-governed, or managed development, means that nations must rely on their internal forces first, before looking to external assistance. Development must be rooted in creating your own markets of consumption. A nation must feed its own population, which means that all citizens must have access to the national land, while the natural resources and mineral wealth should be owned by the people, not foreign companies.

Sankara advocated for a model of development as focused on first fulfilling the basic needs of the population, including providing access to clean water, to quality education, to housing and healthcare. Once these critical elements are fulfilled on a national level, then you can adapt to modern economic markets and modern technology based on the rhythm of your own society and culture.

Today, most African nations aren’t in a position to compete in the world capitalist market due to realities such as the subsidies within the agricultural market within European countries and the unfair nature of the international economic system. African nations must rely on their own forces first, while co-operating with other nations in the global south.

Sankara did not formulate ideas of economic development in Africa within the charity conception common within wealthy countries as a solution to the gross social inequities between the north and the south that are a pressing reality today throughout the world. Sankara didn’t ask for charity; Sankara demanded social justice, calling for self-determination rooted in a completely different social and economic vision to the charity model often promoted today…

It’s important to remind people that the reality today is that ‘international development’ is strategically assisting northern countries or developed countries. Fifty years after the establishment of the Bretton Woods system of international monetary management, with the creation of the World Bank and IMF, an economic system that still dictates large parts of the international economic system, poverty and inequity has only increased.

In this context, it’s important to note that the majority of development aid granted to southern nations is never truly received because all financing received is returned to the donor countries through debt payments. So the very tiny amounts of aid or charity that is given is returned, which is important to note, while direct aid only makes up only three per cent of the entire balance of international development, anyways. Charity from developed nations to the south, when reviewing the real statistics, has never actually existed.

Additionally, it’s important to mention that if the international economic system was truly fair, charity would not be needed at all. If international policies rooted in fair trade were applied, even in a capitalistic framework, charity would not be necessary as long as you maintain a balanced method to international trade.

Today, the entire understanding of northern charity and the humanitarian framework in which international development is presented is a complete falsity rooted in propaganda, a false message that has been repeated for years. Thomas Sankara never believed in this propaganda, trying to push an alternative to the present model of international development, trying to ensure that international development projects in Africa were undertaken on African terms.

Sankara created a consultation table between international donors to Burkina Faso, forcing Italy, France and England, for example, to sit at the same table and actually co-operate with the local ideas or concepts of development. For this reason, Sankara faced an international aid boycott, which forced Burkina Faso to rely and focus solely on national development, which saw the government begin the construction of national water dam projects, a national railway system using the local energy of their own population, not international donors or advisers.

International development aid pulled out of Burkina Faso because the western donor nations were reluctant to be dictated conditions, because in fact it is the current international development system that dictates the conditions for development. So, for the first time you had a country in Africa putting forward a strong position that international development aid must be delivered and implemented only through the leadership of the local population.

For this reason, Sankara’s government became unpopular with the governments of Europe and North America. As soon as Sankara died, the strong position on insisting that the people of Burkina Faso play the central role in defining national development or the implementation economic assistance was reversed. After Sankara’s death, all the international development agencies returned to Burkina Faso, achieving little in comparison to the major steps forward achieved throughout Sankara’s government.

Many international development organizations exist or thrive on the conditions of our poverty playing a large role in sustaining our poverty in Africa. Current models of international development thrive on creating dependency within the south, a development perspective in which you can’t rely on your own people, resources or skills--a model of development based on reliance, not self-reliance.

International development agencies mushroomed throughout the globalization era due to the downsizing of the state, due to the privatization of the social sector as pushed by institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which saw the creation of the NGO sector.

Today, the NGO sector is unsuccessfully attempting to fill the void of the state, to support the type of social development in southern nations that governments traditionally have taken responsibility for. Development must be viewed as a central responsibility of national governments, not of the private sector, as the private sector exists simply to accumulate economic profit, which is priority number one, not the interests of the people. This is the context in which Sankara’s economic policies for Burkina Faso were not supported by western governments or international development agencies.

Sankara did win the praise of the World Health Organization (WHO) after the government of Burkina Faso managed to vaccinate the entire population for multiple diseases within one week. Sankara, with the exception of the WHO, was boycotted by many international institutions for the alternative or self-reliant development models adopted in Burkina Faso. It is for the revolutionary development and national economic programs that shook the foundations of the traditional economic development models imposed on Africa--which economically benefit European countries--that eventually led to Sankara’s assassination.

[Read part II of this series, an interview with journalist Jooneed Khan about Sankara's contemporary impact]

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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