By Amber Murrey
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949-1987) was assassinated 30 years ago, on 15 October 1987. He was one of the most confident and outspoken anti-imperialist leaders of the late 20th century. Sankara’s life and political praxis continue to be significant in shaping and inspiring anti-imperial and Pan-African youth activism and resistance across the African continent and beyond.
In terms of revolutionary movements in Africa, Sankara’s stands out not only because it occurred well after independence but also because of the ambition of its vision. Sankara was a militant economic revolutionary who aimed to achieve social justice at home through a prioritisation of food justice while recalibrating Burkina Faso’s place in the international system. Unlike most of the African leaders of his generation and those preceding him, Sankara did not author books that captured or guided his political philosophy in any systematic way. Indeed, Sankara refused to give an ideological name to the revolution. Our task, then, is to trace Sankara’s words and actions to synthesise his radical and comprehensive approach to social transformation, self-sufficiency, decolonisation, and freedom.
During an interview with Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985, Sankara said: “I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organisation we deserve victory [….] You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. […] We must dare to invent the future.”
Although Sankara attributed some of his political philosophies and praxis to an awareness that fundamental change would be perceived as madness, much of this apparent madness was due to Sankara’s commitment to the people in Burkina within an imperial global political economy.
Sankara understood the immensities and dangers of the revolutionary project before him. He knew that he would be perceived as a “madman” for fighting against a powerful global and regional economic elite. After just four years and two months as president, Sankara was assassinated by Liberian mercenaries who had been trained in Libya, with ideological support from Cote D’Ivoire, France and the US, under the leadership of his closest friend, Blaise Compaoré.
When his autopsy was finally released to the public in October 2015, it revealed that his body had been riddled with bullet holes, including one just under his armpit. He was killed with his hands in the air. The autopsy confirmed what Harouna Traoré, the only living survivor of the assassination, had long maintained: Sankara went peacefully and knowingly to his death.
During his life, Sankara spoke often of radical black leaders who were being assassinated all around him, Maurice Bishop among them. Although he was only 33 years old when he became president, he referred to his wife as ‘la veuve’ (the widow). This was a darkly humorous title—one that revealed his awareness of the probability of his premature death as well as his absence of fear in regards to it.
Sovereignty, not “development aid”
For Sankara, politics was praxis. He prioritised the politicisation of non-elites and non-specialists in a determination to do, make, and effect social change. As he reminded the audience during one speech, “What is left for us to do is [to] make the revolution!” Revolution, for Sankara, was more than a “passing revolt” or a “simple brushfire.” Rather, the political economy of Burkina needed to be “replaced forever with the revolution, the permanent struggle against all forms of domination” (‘Freedom Must be Conquered’, 1984).
His praxis was deeply populist. Sankara’s political philosophy shows an undaunted attention to the grassroots, saying that “singers, dancers, and musicians” can equally stand with formal representatives of the revolutionary party to “explain… what the revolution should be” (Our White House in Black Harlem, 1984). Sankara understood his role as that of critical space-maker: he sought to create the socio-economic and political conditions for wellbeing, integrity, and empowerment with the understanding that these were not material goods to be given or passed around. His revolutionary orientation was founded upon an insistence that all Burkinabè be free and empowered but that genuine self-empowerment was something to be cultivated through hard-work and seized through struggle rather than allotted by the government or given through international aid.
He rejected the premise of “aid” for victimising the people of Burkina Faso as well as for stripping them of agency. This stripping of agency occurred on multiple levels: it was both intellectual, through the insinuation that local solutions were unlikely (this was a form of mental colonisation), as well as tangible, through the suppression of an environment in which people’s own creativity could lead to innovative responses to local dilemmas.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 4 October 1984, Sankara identified ignorance, hunger, and thirst as equally important for the aspirations of the revolution. His role, as he articulated it, was to set in place the economic, political, and social structures that would allow all Burkinabè to pursue their own dignity, knowledge, and wellbeing: “Our economic aspiration is to create a situation where every Burkinabè can at least use his brain and hands to invent and create enough to ensure him two meals a day and drinking water” (‘Freedom Must be Conquered’, 1984).
In this project of dignity and liberation, he recognised his limitations and challenges. Again, this approach reflected his humble but urgent approach to politics. On the topic of women’s liberation, he said, “we are ready to welcome suggestions from anywhere in the world that enable us to achieve the total fulfilment of Burkinabè women… Freedom can only be won through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to go on the offensive to conquer their rights”.
While working to foster growth in national pride, creativity and self-sufficiency, Sankara confronted the material conditions of poverty in what was one of the world’s most impoverished countries. In order to embark upon a series of ambitious countrywide health, sanitation and environmental initiatives, the government required funds. To raise these funds, Sankara insisted that people make material sacrifices, particularly government officials and members of the urban petite bourgeoisie.
A radical activist as president
Sankara was ambitious, driven and often uncompromising. His presidency offers a glimpse into what it looks like when a militant activist becomes the leader of a country. His speeches and activities often more resembled those of radical social justice activists than heads of state. Sankara maintained his captain’s salary of $450 during his four years and two months as president. He wore cloth spun from Burkinabè cloth, the faso dan fani, and encouraged (or demanded) that other members of the government to do the same.
As president, he would share rations with his troops, as his chauffeur, Alassane Sidibé recalled in an interview in 2017. Some displays of this sort of radically humble and down-to-earth living were not well received by all government officials. After one particular meeting, Sankara announced to his ministers that they would go and eat lunch together at a nearby restaurant. The group applauded in apparent pleasure, until he named the restaurant: Yidigri, a restaurant serving mostly low-income clientele near the Yalgado Hospital. After lunch, Sankara announced that each minister would pay their own bills—along with the bills of their chauffeurs. The event was intended to be a lesson in collectivism, unpretentiousness and generosity—all pillars of Sankara’s political praxis—but not everyone welcomed or appreciated these public effacements of social privilege.
Some journalists and academics have suggested that at least some of his radically humble lifestyle was a ruse. Others have characterised him as “manipulative” in working to appeal to a popular base. What none of these examinations provide, however, is any indication of what ulterior motive would have prompted Sankara to orchestrate such a persona. This is particularly so considering that he actively worked against his own self-enrichment both in and out of the public eye.
Arguments that Sankara’s humble lifestyle was adopted merely for public audiences do not hold up to more thorough considerations of his politics—all aspects of which reflect a radical way of living. His wife, Miriam Sankara, recalls that Sankara would sleep on the terrace during warm nights because he did not want to run the air conditioning when others were sleeping without it. At the time of his death, Sankara owned little and was quite possibly one of the poorest heads of state in the world. Among his possessions at the time of his death: four bicycles, a car, three guitars, and a refrigerator. Take, on the other hand, Blaise who, according to one account, has an estimated net worth of $275 million.
Using the presidency as a platform for pan-African humanist activism
Sankara understood that part of his role would be a rejection of silence in the face of widespread hunger, thirst and neo-colonialism. He used his international platform to address the historical foundations of poverty and to reject to contribute, even through silence, to the perpetuation of such a system. He said: “I protest here on behalf of all those who vainly seek a forum [at the United Nations General Assembly] in this world where they can make their voice heard and have it genuinely taken into consideration. Many have preceded me at this podium and others will follow. But only few will make the decisions… I am acting as a spokesperson for all those who vainly seek a forum in this world where they can make themselves heard. So yes, I wish to speak on behalf of all “those left behind,” for “I am human, [and] nothing that is human is alien to me.”
Although deeply populist, Sankara did not promote an ideology of isolationism or exclusion. Rather, the oppressed would have an important role to play in guiding oppressors to fuller articulations of humanity and liberation. He declared: “As blacks, we want to teach others how to love each other. Despite their meanness toward us, we will be capable of resisting and then teaching them the meaning of solidarity.”
Sankara’s political leadership is a powerful example of how governments might re-orient to support the people as the people work to achieve their own fulfilment and wellbeing. His legacy shows that another politics is possible. Yet, this brazen pro-people political orientation remains so dangerous a challenge to the established economic order that it continues to be dismissed as “a certain amount of madness.”
Amber Murrey is a postdoctoral fellow at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She tweets @AmberMurrey. Portions of this text are excerpted from the introductory chapter in “A Certain Amount of Madness” The Life, Politics and Legacy of Thomas Sankara, edited by Amber Murrey (forthcoming 2018, London: Pluto Press).