In Burkina Faso, at the start of his first official visit to Africa, French President Emmanuel Macron knew how to play to his audience. Delivering a keynote Africa policy speech before hundreds of students at the University of Ouagadougou on November 28, he began by trying to placate the sceptics in the audience with a famous quote from the country’s late revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara, urging young people to be audacious and “dare to invent the future.”
The students roundly applauded, perhaps not expecting such an explicit homage to their hero from the leader of Burkina Faso’s former colonial power — which many Burkinabè believe had a hand in the 1987 military coup that brought Sankara’s death. Macron then went on to score further points by pledging to declassify French intelligence files on Sankara’s assassination, a veil of secrecy that has hindered Burkinabè judicial investigators in delineating the external links to the dozen suspects charged in the crime, among them former president Blaise Compaoré (currently in exile in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire). Just a month before, on the anniversary of Sankara’s assassination, demonstrators had marched on the French embassy in Ouagadougou to demand just that.
In giving a nod to Sankara, Macron was simply following the lead of his Burkinabè hosts. Since Compaoré was forced to flee by a popular uprising in 2014, his successors have often routinely extolled Sankara. President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, elected at the end of 2015, has proclaimed that Sankara’s ideas “will last the ages.” Other government and ruling party officials readily throw out Sankara’s name when it seems suitable, such as the October 15 anniversary of his death or the August 4, 1983, start of his revolution, or on his December 21 birthday.
Many of those now in authority had been part of the Compaoré system and can hardly be considered followers of Sankara. Yet they face a problem: They were swept into office by an insurrectionary tide and confront a mobilized citizenry, many of whom are inspired by Sankara and remain skeptical of the current officeholders. So playing to the popular mood with a few vacuous words about the late revolutionary is useful — and costs very little.
Words and deeds
Sankara’s enduring popularity rests not only on his words, however much they resonate with today’s disenchanted and angry youth. It is also based on his deeds. Even though most Sankara admirers are very young or were not yet born when he was in power, they can often cite a long list of accomplishments from the revolutionary era. Several chapters in my new book, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution, and an earlier biography of Sankara explore these in some detail.
Although Sankara’s government lasted only a little over four years, many Burkinabè — whether they liked the revolution or not — agree that it brought more changes to the country than occurred throughout the previous quarter of a century of national independence. Not least was the change in the country’s name from Upper Volta, the old French colonial designation, to Burkina Faso: an assertion of African identity that draws on two indigenous languages to proudly signify “Land of the Upright People.”
In both foreign and domestic policy, Sankara’s National Council of the Revolution (CNR) marked a sharp rupture with the past. Although Burkina Faso continued to receive aid from the West, the CNR also established close relations with Cuba, China and the Soviet Union and angered France and the US by championing anti-imperialist movements from Palestine to Central America.
At home, the Sankara government challenged the old political and social elites by dragging hundreds before revolutionary tribunals to answer for their corrupt deeds. It adopted policies in education, health, agriculture and other spheres that heavily favoured poor, predominantly rural citizens, instead of the better-off city dwellers who previously were the main beneficiaries of state policies and resources. Most famously, Sankara took dramatic steps to promote women’s rights and environmental conservation, at a time when few other African leaders even talked about such issues.
The revolutionary process in Burkina Faso had notable flaws, however. The CNR succeeded in stimulating popular mobilization across the country, especially for community self-help projects. But when such initiative flagged or sectors of the population expressed misgivings, some of those in power responded with coercion. The most widespread abuses came from over-zealous activists of the local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
Sankara explicitly denounced and sought to rein in such excesses. Yet some of his comrades — most often Stalinist hard-liners — considered anyone who doubted or questioned CNR directives as a “counter-revolutionary.” Generally aligned behind Compaoré and in defiance of Sankara, they went so far as to arrest outspoken trade unionists, seriously tarnishing the revolution’s image.
From there to the murder of Sankara and a dozen of his comrades was but a short step. And while Compaoré’s new regime initially employed a veneer of communist jargon, that ideology was soon readily jettisoned to accommodate a renewed relationship with France and the wholesale adoption of neoliberal economic policies.
A hero resurrected
As president, Sankara bore ultimate responsibility for the CNR’s shortcomings. But since he himself fell victim to Compaoré’s takeover, most of his followers have been able to largely overlook those blemishes and instead highlight the revolution’s many achievements. Indeed, set against the brutality, corruption, profiteering and crass subservience to France that marked Compaoré’s rule, Sankara’s image grew only brighter over time.
Annual commemorations at Sankara’s gravesite in Ouagadougou at first drew only small crowds, given the political risks. But by the late 2000s many more assembled, sometimes many thousands. Alongside a plethora of “Sankarist” political parties, some of which elected a few deputies to the National Assembly, a variety of new youth groups hailing Sankara as their hero also emerged. One, Balai citoyen (Citizens’ Broom), led by the rapper Smockey and reggae artist Sams’K Le Jah, was especially influential.
In the months of demonstrations against Compaoré in 2013 and 2014, symbols of Sankara were virtually everywhere. Protesters carried his portrait and his recorded voice blared out over sound systems. Quotations from his speeches featured in popular chants. Even politically moderate opposition leaders often concluded with the emblematic slogan of Sankara’s revolutionary government: “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” (Homeland or death, we will win). On October 30, 2014, at the start of the insurrection, as demonstrators marched on the National Assembly building to burn it down, they chanted “When the people stand up, imperialism trembles,” among other Sankara slogans.
After Compaoré’s flight, there was an explosion of overt adoration for Sankara: the risks of repression had largely been lifted and for most politicians the benefits were evident. During the year-long political transition (2014-15), younger and older activists suddenly wielded unusual influence in the halls of power. Most notably, Chériff Sy, a journalist and well-known Sankarist, became head of the interim parliament and then, from hiding, backed the popular resistance to a brief coup attempt by Compaoré’s former presidential guards.
From the transition onward, key Sankara anniversaries regularly drew large crowds. Plays, films and songs drew on his image and words. Publishers released various titles, including books for young adults and reminiscences by some of Sankara’s former comrades. An international committee was established to gather ideas and funds to build a major memorial to Sankara. Led by civil society figures and with government support, it will include a mausoleum for Sankara, a conference hall, multimedia center and other sites.
While admirers of Sankara are buoyed by the fanfare, some are also aware of the paradox of the current situation. The overtly Sankarist political parties remain weak. They failed to capitalize on the momentum of the insurrection, could not field a common slate in the 2015 elections, and the largest of them won only five seats in the 127-seat National Assembly — just one more than it had in Compaoré’s last legislature. Their leaders play secondary roles, most in the coalition of parties backing the Kaboré government, a few in the opposition.
In the estimation of Ra-Sablga Seydou Ouédraogo, executive director of the Ouagadougou-based Institut Free Afrik, Sankara appears to be “everywhere, yet nowhere.” Sankara’s emphasis on building self-reliance is absent from official development policies, which continue to chase foreign aid and submit to donor dictates. Although Sankara was known for his integrity, corruption remains a “gangrene” in the executive, judiciary and legislature. Beyond its limited immediate practical influence, Ouédraogo argues, the popularity of Sankara’s ideas should above all be seen as an aspiration “to change the miserable reality, a rebellious conscience to rehabilitate humanity’s suffering, in Burkina Faso and in Africa.”
In that spirit, a number of key activists, most prominently the leaders of Balai citoyen, regard the future of the Sankarist current in broad terms, far beyond an electoral project. They do not tie themselves to the parliamentary parties, carefully guard their political independence and continue to champion popular action in the streets and workplaces.
During Macron’s visit, Gaston Olivier Somé was one of the University of Ouagadougou students able to post an online comment as part of an interactive dialogue with the French president. He put it this way: “The African youth, these thousands of Sankaras, are assuming their role. They’ve opened their eyes, to never close them again.”