During his four years in power, Thomas Sankara’s political and socialist policies in Burkina Faso dramatically expanded women’s freedom, improved education, and uplifted the poor.
Hi again, it’s Davide Mastracci here, the managing editor at Passage. Welcome back to our course highlighting the successes of socialist states throughout history.
In our last email, you heard from Luna Nguyen about the seemingly insurmountable odds Vietnam has overcome to still be around pursuing socialism, and recently putting the rich capitalist countries in the world to shame.
This time, you’re going to hear from Mary Fawzy, a writer in South Africa, about the incredible success Burkina Faso had under Thomas Sankara in the four years he was in power. What they managed to accomplish is truly incredible, and it’s no surprise that Sankara still inspires communists around the world today.
Here is Mary, to tell you more.
Hi there, I’m Mary Fawzy, a freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. I’ve spent the last 10 years in Cape Town, one of the most unequal cities in the world, studying, writing and working in social justice organizations. I’m a Masters graduate in Transitional Justice, which, simply explained, is the study of how a new regime/country addresses the wrongs of the past — very crucial in post-Apartheid South Africa.
During my graduate degree, I was an active participant in the #feesmustfall student movement, one of the biggest in South Africa since democracy in 1994. A nation-wide shutdown of universities was carried out, demanding free education for all, university workers’ rights and a decolonized curriculum, among other things.
Throughout this period, I was learning about Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara in my Masters, while at the same time watching his iconic speeches and emancipatory politics became a crucial part of the student movement. This is fitting, as Sankara is a revered African leader who mobilized the youth while actually living out his ambitious Marxist-revolutionary ideals.
I’m writing to you to talk about Burkina Faso, and its numerous successes during its socialist period. I’m going to be focusing on a particular individual more than the other writers in this course, and that’s because you can’t separate Burkina Faso’s socialist history from Sankara. It was his government that implemented all of the socialist policies, and they went with him when he was murdered, just four years after becoming president.
In the years before Sankara took power, Burkina Faso — or Upper Volta, as it was known then as a result of French colonialism — was one of the poorest countries in the world. French colonizers treated it mostly as a source of migrant labor for neighbouring countries.
Many African leaders embraced Karl Marx’s ideological approach to economy and egalitarianism. Sankara was one of them, and could clearly see how class inequality in the country was propped up by the French government, as the ruling class worked for French interests to get kickbacks in return. Although colonialism officially ended in 1960, the French were still dictating power and extracting wealth in the country through multinationals and compliant government officials.
This galvanized Sankara, who was influenced by the anti-colonial and revolutionary movements of the 1960s in Algeria and Cuba, and then later in Madagascar where he was studying at the time of its student and worker-led revolution in 1972. The Malagasy revolution became known as Madagascar’s “second independence,” and a similar situation was to come in Burkina Faso.
There were a number of coups and union strikes in Burkina Faso throughout the 1980s, including one in 1982 that brought Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo into power as president. As an ex-soldier and charismatic politician, Sankara was appointed to numerous government positions in this period, and was even nominated for prime minister by Ouédraogo.
But this ruling party had strong conservative elements, and Sankara’s anti-imperialism and popular support with workers’ movements caused tension between him and the government. Sankara was arrested for these politics in 1983 at the behest of the French, which triggered mass protests that prompted another coup. Sankara took power that year through this popularly supported coup.
Upon assuming leadership, Sankara changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso, which means “The Land of Upright Man,” or as some translate it, “Land of Incorruptible People.”
In his short reign as leader, Sankara promoted equality in all forms. He took away the privileges of government officials, reducing their salaries, including his own. They’d no longer have fancy cars, and had to drive the cheapest one available at the time. Each government official was to donate one month’s salary to the national fund, and everyone was mandated to take part in weekly street cleaning and agrarian work. At the time of his death, Sankara had amassed no wealth. He died as humbly as he lived.
Sankara has since become an anti-imperial and socialist icon all over Africa and the Global South for his radical programs to address the needs of the poor and to promote self sufficiency and true independence. Here are some of Burkina Faso’s greatest accomplishments under Sankara.
Before Sankara assumed leadership, Burkina Faso was a deeply patriarchal society, and women were almost completely absent in positions of power. At the time, 99 per cent of women were illiterate, and less than 12 per cent of girls attended school.
Sankara placed womens’ freedom at the centre of the revolution, becoming one of the first heads of state in the world to emphatically promote women’s rights and reserve cabinet positions for women. He placed women in all positions of government and military, created government jobs for poor and rural women, and formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard. He promoted education for girls, making sure they had access to school and challenging ideas that prevented them from continuing education while pregnant. He also outlawed forced marriages and female genital mutilation, a common practice at the time.
Sankara used socialist policies to create more economic freedom for women all over the country. For example, he started trade cooperatives in the city and production cooperatives in the villages, which many women used to support their families and still lament the absence of to this day.
Sankara also saw the subjugation of women as symbolic of the subjugation of the Global South. In a speech given outside a women’s rally in the capital city of Ouagadougou in 1987, Sankara said, “Socially, [women] are relegated to third place, after the man and the child — just like the Third World, arbitrarily held back, the better to be dominated and exploited.”
Sankara also saw women’s position in society at the time as the result of colonialism and the unequal power relations promoted under capitalism. In 1987, at one of his iconic speeches on Women’s Day, he said, “Posing the question of women in Burkinabé society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system functions, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation.”
Anti-Imperialism And Self-Sufficiency
“Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa. It is a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave […] If we don’t repay, lenders will not die. But if we repay, we are going to die.” – Sankara during an Organization of African Unity summit in 1987
“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” – Sankara during a speech
Sankara believed that political independence was meaningless if a country was still economically dependent on Western powers. As such, one of the most important aspects of his legacy was his refusal to borrow a cent from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or receive food aid.
He recognized IMF loans were central to neo-colonialism in Africa, and worked on community development so that the Burkinabé people could become self-sufficient and feed themselves. He implored other African countries to do the same, encouraging the difficult but necessary work of investing in local community projects and economy.
Other methods Sankara used to break dependence on the west included the reorganization of the government as well as country wide economic projects. Land was no longer owned by wealthy feudal landlords, who often left it unused. Instead, it was redistributed to rural people and farmers who were eager to cultivate.
Even though Burkina Faso was initially heavily reliant on food importation, Sankara banned the practice in order to further encourage self-development and increase knowledge about what grew naturally in the country. For example, people were used to eating fruits imported from Europe even though Burkina Faso had a variety of tropical ones naturally growing. So, education about local fruits and vegetables was disseminated to the population, including preservation techniques to prevent food waste.
Everyone was also made to participate in working the land and growing food, and it was a success. In three years, wheat cultivation jumped from 1,700 kg to 3,800 kg per hectare. Rates of hunger and malnutrition decreased drastically. In 1986, the United Nations recognized that Burkina Faso managed to achieve food self-sufficiency in less than four years.
The administration also began extensive irrigation, servicing land that would become used in cotton production. Banning the importation of clothing and textiles, Sankara promoted local textile and clothes makers, and forced civil servants to wear these garments to increase demand. These measures helped create thousands of jobs as well as a new national identity.
Social And Economic Successes
Sankara was ahead of his time in many of his campaigns, including environmentalism, healthcare and education.
He encouraged people to start and maintain village forest nurseries, an effort that led to more than 7,000 of them being supplied. He also ran a successful campaign to plant more than 10 million trees to stop desertification, pushing back at the encroachment of the Sahel desert.
In 1984, Sankara organized the vaccination of about 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, in just a matter of weeks. He was also the first African leader to acknowledge and recognize the AIDS pandemic for what it was, and take steps to fight back.
Sankara was extremely passionate about education, and fought for free education for all. When he came to power, the literacy rate was at just 13 per cent. Sankara launched education programmes, and initiated a nationwide literacy campaign. Thousands of teachers were trained, and villages were encouraged and assisted by the government to build their own schools, which led to attendance doubling in just two years.
A mere four years after Sankara took power, the literacy rate had improved to a remarkable 73 per cent.
“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” – Sankara during a speech a week before he was killed.
The positive impacts of Sankara’s policies were visible throughout the entire country, which created a sense of pride and confidence among the people, especially at the sense of true independence from European control. This pride extended to many other nations in the Global South.
At the UN General Assembly in 1984, Sankara spoke on behalf of oppressed nations across the world, arguing for a New International Economic Order to improve the conditions for poor countries. In 1987, he gave a speech at the Organisation of African Unity summit calling for African countries to collectively refuse to pay debts to their former colonizers, saying, “The origins of debt go back to colonialism’s origins […] We cannot repay the debt because we are not responsible for this debt. On the contrary, others owe us something that no money can pay for. That is to say, the debt of blood.” This would send ripples throughout the Global South, invigorating transnational solidarity.
Ultimately, this push for complete self-determination would be the cause of Sanakra’s downfall, and an end to the Third World movement. Writer Vijar Prashad refers to Sankara as the last “Third World” politician.
At the end of his life, Sankara had also frequently and openly criticized European powers. He focused on the French in particular, due to their oppressive policies in Africa, treatment of African immigrants and decisison to allow South Africa’s apartheid prime minister to visit the country. The French president at the time, François Mitterrand, was outraged by Sankara’s “disrespect,” as he was used to the submission of African leaders.
Many believed that Sankara’s days were numbered, and even he would sometimes muse about his death. Indeed, Sankara’s time in power came to an end on Oct. 15, 1987, when he was assassinated in a coup that was instigated by his best friend and second in charge, Blaise Compaoré, and backed by the French government. Compaoré took power and cited the deteriorating relationship with France as one of the reasons that the coup was necessary.
The news of Sankara’s death sent shock waves throughout the country and continent, as many recall people gathering in the streets to weep. But ultimately, there were no successful attempts to resist the counter-coup. As Review of African Political Economy coordinator Leo Zeilig writes, “Undoubtedly, thousands of Burkinabès were deeply distressed by Sankara’s murder and the sudden end to a project that contained many popular desires, but still their reaction, without organizational expression, was severely constrained.”
Many of the successes of Sankara’s political and socialist policies were reversed by Compaoré over the next 27 years, as he reinstated foreign multinationals and recreated the old gap between wealthy elites and the poor.
However, when Compaoré tried to change the constitution in 2014 to extend his reign, the people had finally had enough. This time, not even the French could save him, and he was ousted by an uprising carried out by a generation of students that had grown up with stories of Sankara, who had come to represent the self-sufficiency and integrity that they dreamed of for the future of their country.
Thousands of people ascended on the capital and stormed parliament, with Sankara’s name on their banners, graffitied on walls and printed on pamphlets. His legacy lives on today in Burkina Faso and workers’ movements all around the continent.
Thank you for reading and sharing in the knowledge of histories that are often deliberately untold. To learn more about Burkina Faso under Sankara, I recommend watching the popular documentary Thomas Sankara, The Upright Man, which does a great job of contextualizing this period and portraying his electric personality. To follow more of my work, you can visit my website or find me on Twitter.