Thomas Sankara: Africa’s finest, gunned down too soon

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Tayo Oke

That there is a huge discrepancy between the potential wealth and the reality of poverty in African states is uncontested. The continent is endowed with abundant human and natural resources from the North: petroleum and gas; to the East: gold, gas, uranium, copper, etc. To the West: iron-ore, phosphate, titanium, gold, timber, diamonds, and petroleum. To the Equator: timber, petroleum. To the Centre: diamonds, cobalt, uranium and petroleum. To the South: aluminium, gas, platinum, gold, etc. To crown it all, the continent has the largest youth population in the world; a ready pool of technically-adept workforce. Despite the oft-mentioned widespread economic hardship, Africa is the fastest-growing region for Foreign Direct Investment in the world. Furthermore, Africa has the largest arable land mass in the world, one-third of the earth’s remaining resources are located in Africa. Yet these vast natural and human resources do not translate into economic value for the citizens. Much of the resources (70%) are extracted for shipment to Europe, America, and the rest of the world who then turn them into finished products for export and consumption back to Africa. The continent is still riven by internecine war in places. With little manufacturing capacity, it is dependent on outsiders for virtually all its technical needs. The division between ‘Francophone’ and ‘Anglophone’ Africa is entrenched and deepening. With the exception of Haiti, Tajikistan, Yemen and Afghanistan, the poorest nations on earth are in Africa, starting with bottom-placed Burundi with a paltry Gross Domestic Product of $263; South Sudan, $303; Malawi, $399; Mozambique, $455; Democratic Republic of Congo, $456.

Compare the above figures to those of the top three richest nations on earth, starting with Luxembourg with a GDP of $118,359; Singapore, $98,526; Ireland, 93,612. Neither of these countries boasts of natural resources. Of the ten top most technologically advanced countries in the world: Japan, South Korea, China, US, Germany, Russia, UK, Singapore, Israel, and Switzerland, only three Russia, China, and the US have natural resources. The others have to make do with imports from Africa and the rest of the world, which they then convert into technology and economic advantage. Why Africa remains forever stagnant, famished, and impoverished amidst plenty has been the unanswered and unanswerable question of our time. Some blame the very abundance of resources as a curse, others blame it on poor leadership. Others, still, see a combination of poor leadership and imperialism as the source of the continent’s malaise. Those who take this last stance never make it to the seat of power; the handful who did have not lasted. They were assassinated. Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana are two names flashing through the mind. And so it was that Thomas (Isidore Noel) Sankara (1949-1987) came to power in a military coup in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in 1983, aged 33, with a clear mind and focus on what needed to be done; pursue a people-oriented, self-sufficient economic programme, which defies the logic of dependency.’

Military coups are, or were, common in Africa in Sankara’s time. Such coups are often rabble-rousing and opportunistic. There have been a few that could be described as ideological, or ‘revolutionary,’ if you prefer. The military regime of Sankara was a quintessentially ‘root and branch’ fundamental change type. The only other parallel in Africa was Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, which overthrew the country’s monarchy. If ever there was any such thing as a good military intervention and takeover of government anywhere, look no further than these two prime examples. Purists would argue from dawn to dusk that military coups are inherently bad and must be condemned. In principle, they are right. Nonetheless, on very rare occasions, the end ought to justify the means. When Sankara came to power, the literacy rate in the country was 13%. It went up to 73% at his death. He embarked upon a programme of mass vaccination against meningitis, yellow fever and measles, protecting over two million children and reducing the infant mortality rate from 20.8% to 14.5%; redistributed land to the poor, who then planted crops which transformed the country from dependent to self-sufficient in food overnight; planted 10 million trees; championed the cause of women, opening up the military ranks to them; invested in the textile industry thereby cutting off the reliance on foreign clothes; no portrait of the head of state on office walls; banned the fleet of official luxury cars in favour of the modest (and cheap) Renault 5; cut his own salary in half and that of top government functionaries in solidarity with the have-nots. The list goes on.

Having firmly established his domestic agenda, and realising that his country could not truly succeed entirely on its own, Sankara sought a bigger, Africa-wide platform to articulate his vision and persuade fellow Africans to join hands in the fight against imperialism and neocolonialism, which he believed would never allow his country to reach its full potential despite the considerable progress achieved thus far. Unbeknown to him, though, the vultures were already circling. His unapologetic brand of national self-pride and cultural awakening had caused upset in the circles of the rich and conservative reactionaries not happy with losing their economic preponderance. Sankara was unusually articulate and eloquent for a military man. Extremely well informed and unabashed in his quest for the total liberation of the African continent. He was not only advanced for his age, but he was also well ahead of time on some of his pronouncements. He could hold his own in any intellectual discourse with the think tanks, brain boxes and sundry, any day. A level-headed, visionary African leader with the military at his beck and call is the neocolonialist’s worst nightmare. This enfant terrible must be dealt with. The big platform duly presented itself at the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July 1987. Sankara went into the Summit, stepped onto the podium, and delivered a most compelling, riveting argument against the payment of debilitating and crippling external debts supposedly owed by chronically poor African states.

Sankara had titled his speech, “A United Front Against Debt,” and urged fellow delegates to respond to the burning issue of the day as a united bloc. ‘Debt is neocolonialism, in which colonisers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants”. We should say “technical assassins”. Debt cannot be repaid. Those who led us into indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. Now that they have suffered losses, they demand repayment.’ The African debts were mainly owed to Western financial houses, including the International Monetary Fund.

Delegates at the conference looked and listened in awe of Sankara’s bravery and mesmerising oratory. As if in a premonition, he said in conclusion: “If Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference.” He was gunned down as he led a training workshop in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, in October 1987, barely three months after the Summit. The ‘rebel soldiers’ who carried out the assassination were led by his best friend and close confidant, Blaise Compaore, who, subsequently, took over and remained in power for 27 years. He did all he could to undo and besmirch Sankara’s work and legacy. He had envisaged being in power for life but was finally forced out in a mass revolt in 2014. He fled into exile in Ivory Coast. He is now being tried in absentia at home, along with 13 others for the brutal and cowardly murder of Sankara 34 years after the event. The irony of it all is that the debts were indeed cancelled for African states, partially and in whole, following a sustained, worldwide campaign from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Oh, Africa!

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