The recent row over the racist comments by Nobel Prize Winner, James Watson, have concerned his allegation that Africa is underdeveloped because Africans are more stupid. He is of course exploiting his celebrity to give credence to ideas that run counter to the overwhelming scientific consensus, although the question is not even within his own area of professional competence.
Yet, his offensive views do create a popular resonance, because Africa and Africans are nearly always reported as victims, and African affairs are typically factually reported or fictionally portrayed only as they impact on white people.
It is therefore important to look at the role that Africans themselves play in their own liberation, and the role of the “liberal” Western imperialisms in thwarting them.
Twenty years ago this month, the French government engineered a coup d’état that overthrew Burkino Faso’s socialist government. led by Captain Thomas Sankara: one of the most progressive governments that Africa has ever seen.
Captain Sankara had been a popular and left-wing army officer. In a small country his progressive politics and charismatic life style, playing as a guitarist in a Jazz band, and driving a motorbike, had made him a nationally prominent figure.
In the developing world the army officer corps can sometimes be progressive, as their patriotism can be linked to a desire to overcome the exploitation of the nation, and to overcome the scandal of poverty, and the army provides a structure for intelligent sons of working people to gain an education and influence. The best known progressive former soldier is of course Colonel Hugo Chavez!
So in 1981, the military government invited Sankara to become Secretary of State for Information, but he quickly resigned after he devloped concerns that the government was not ruling in the interests of working people. A further coup in 1982 gave Sankara the position of Prime Minister, and at this stage the French deliberately intervened.
The neo-colonialist enforcer of the former French Empire, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, the son of the French President flew is alleged to have flown to the Burkino Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in May 1983. Mitterrand had a reputation for unprincipled relationships with African politicians. Sankara and two other ministers were arrested and placed under house arrest, all of them members of the “Communist Officers’ Group” (Regroupement des officiers communistes – ROC)
Fearing the worst there was a popular uprising in Sankara’s support, and in August a coup led by ROC member, Blaise Compaoré, made Sankara President.
The next four years saw a remarkable record of progress in the country, which Sankara renamed Burkino Faso, instead of the name given to their land by the colonialists, Upper Volta. Government policy prioritized fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, education and health and women’s rights.
It is important to recognise that the emphasis on reforestation makes Burkino Faso’s socialist government one of the world’s pioneers in promoting sustainability and defending the environment.
Sankana acted against the privileges of the tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labour. And Comités de Défense de la Révolution were formed as armed, popular organisations of the poor and labouring classes.
The greatest gains were in the area of women’s rights, and his socialist government included a large number of women. Improving women’s status was one of Sankara’s explicit goals, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female circumcision, condemned polygamy, and promoted contraception. The RDP [Rassemblement Démocratique et Populaire] government was also the first African government to publicly recognize that AIDS is a major threat to Africa.
Sankara also acted against corruption, and government privilege. He sold most of the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
But his determination to prevent government ministers enriching themselves at the expense of the poor contributed to his undoing. Sankana had also made a strategic alliance with Libya, and France was at war with Libya in Chad, that borders Burkino Faso, so the French saw an increasing strategic need to overthrow Sankara . An unprincipled and dirty alliance was born between corrupt Burkinabé officials and the neo-colonialist French.
On October 15, 1987 Sankara was killed along with twelve other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. At the time of his death Thomas Sankara was just 39 years old.
The weaknesses were not all external. It had been known that there was a serious crisis in the national revolutionary council. Its principal leaders, formerly united, no longer agreed about orientation and strategy for action. And increasingly, the four historic leaders, Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaoré, Boukary Lingani and Henri Zongo, appeared to be ‘too many’ to lead the revolutionary movement. But the serious crisis that was engulfing the RDP leaders remained almost competelly concealed from the grass-roots militants, so the leadership had cut themselves off from the creative imagination and experience of their supporters, and so members of the Comités were unprepared for and surprised by the magnitude and the brutality of the October events.
Captain Sankara was in fact the first to realise the need to democratise, which he professed in his speech of August 1987 in Bobo Dioulasso: ‘Burkina Faso needs a people of conviction, not a vanquished people subjugated to their fate.’ He then began the genuine liberalisation of the RDP releasing several political and common law prisoners.
It seems to have been Sankara’s turn to deepening the popular base of the revolution that caused the other leaders of the government to turn against him. Things accelerated after a speech by Sankara in August 87 in Bobo Dioulasso, when he said: ‘in recent years, we have sometimes made errors. They must not re-occur in the scared land of Burkina Faso…we must prefer to take one step together with the people rather than ten steps without the people’. After this speech, his opponents started plotting to take power, had they allowed Thomas Sankara time to democratise the RDP it would have deprived them of a pretext for the coup.
Some eye witnesees reported French ground troops being involved in the coup. Although Sankara was dead and their cause hopeless, several of the Comités rose up and fought the army in defence of the revolution and for the vision of a better life that Sankara had offered.
A week prior to his death Sankara had made a speech that said: “while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” We should remember this great fighter for socialism.