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Written on the ninth anniversary of Sankara’s assassination, insight into the personality and political motivations of Sankara reveal not only a workaholic but a sensitive individual who sided with the poor in Burkinabé society

Any revolution is a complex process, the conjunction of a given historical period, of societal contradictions that have reached maturity and must be addressed, of events that accelerate the process, and of course of the human factor, without which nothing is possible. The Burkinabé revolution is no exception to this process. And yet, it seems that the importance of its leader and his particular role were of special significance.

Is this because [the revolution"> is close to us in time and space? Or is it not perhaps because its leader, Captain Thomas Sankara, seemed close – so strongly did his personality, words and actions resonate with us?

No one today will dispute that his assassination on 15 October 1987 by the men of his former friend Blaise Compaoré, put an end to the revolution whose aspirations they had shared. Compaoré did hesitate for a time before breaking definitively with the ideals of his youth, but the soul of the revolution was gone.

Whether Thomas Sankara wanted the position of leader is irrelevant, and in spite of all the accusations that have been levelled against him, it appears that for the most part he sought to unite rather than to eliminate, to deepen his understanding, working unstintingly and seeking to convince rather than imposing his will by force. These assertions appear provocative in light of what has been said about him, even by sympathisers who acknowledge the positive aspects of his action but agree on his authoritarian tendencies. Where is the truth?

Certainly, before and after 4 August 1983 adjustments had to be made within the army and certain officers dismissed, but the survival of the process was at stake. As for the quarrels dividing parties that were often struggling for supremacy, we cannot hold him personally responsible without distorting the truth. Without delving deeply into events prior to 15 October or rekindling an old debate, it seems that it was his attempts to bring all the revolutionary organisations together within one party that isolated him. No doubt fed up with their squabbling, he had finally demanded their dissolution and put in place an organizing committee for the new party, attacking them more and more pointedly in his later speeches. If he was against hegemony it was mainly because he sincerely believed in the need for diversity. ‘We should be careful not to transform unity into a ¬¬¬ paralyzing and numbing univocality. On the contrary, let us prefer the pluralistic, diversified and enriching expression of multiple and diverse ideas,’ he declared on 4 August 1987. Adding later, on 2 October 1987, ‘Each time we get locked into the idea that there is only one valid group… that is when we cut ourselves off… It is not our goal to divide the revolutionaries.’

Well before he took power, Sankara worked to build unity, to create a bridge between the political parties that mistrusted the military with good reason, and the military, whose culture was far removed from the rhetoric of the left-wing parties. As of 1974, Sankara, together with Compaoré, sought contact with the left-wing parties, mainly the PAI [Parti Africain de l’Indépendance, African Independence Party"> which arranged political training for them, and later the ULCR [Union des Luttes Communistes Reconstruite, Union of Communist Struggles - Reconstructed">. Relationships were patiently built up that enabled the political takeover in a relatively confident climate. Unfortunately, after 4 August 1983, and although the more right-wing elements of the army had been dismissed, it was necessary to reach a compromise with the army as a whole, going against the wishes of the political parties, which found themselves outnumbered by the military in the CNR [Conseil National de la Révolution, the National Revolutionary Council">. This was the difficult challenge that he had set himself – a race against time: the in-depth transformation of the armed forces so that they would no longer be putsch-prone, while tempering civilian aspirations for a non-political army. Subsequent events showed that he was very isolated in this line of thinking.

Although concerned about the complex political situation, he above all wanted to avoid losing contact with his people, something that other leaders have at times neglected. He particularly enjoyed traveling incognito or visiting CDR offices to talk directly with the militants. He could not understand why cadres often refused to be appointed to the bush, away from the capital, as he felt that many of them needed to go back to the grassroots to avoid losing themselves in revolutionary rhetoric – all the more so since, in his opinion, it was also for those isolated, often destitute populations that the revolutionaries should be working. It is true that such appointments often meant political banishment. Moreover, he imposed quite unrealistic goals on his ministers and colleagues. The revolution had to bring about a better quality of life, and fast. This attitude was a source of contention between himself and the PAI, which often accused him of improvisation and populism, and also the beginning of his difficulties with a good many people who considered themselves militants of the revolution but were unable to keep up with the pace.

Friendship was of prime importance to him and he trusted his friends blindly. In some cases his indulgence went against broader political interests, creating enmities without any benefit in return. Above all, during the bitter political confrontation that opposed him to his friend Blaise Compaoré, he chose to let things take their course without guarding against the dangers, although many in his circle begged him to protect himself.

Thomas Sankara was a workaholic. Although not the best in class, he was nevertheless a good student throughout his school years, mainly in French, but also in mathematics. In Madagascar, where he received his officer’s training, he became interested in economics and learned the basics of journalism as editor of the military academy’s newspaper. Above all, he became passionately interested in sociology, which he put into practical application during his civil service among the farmers of Madagascar. In every area, military or other, he sought perfection, setting himself ambitious goals and a strict disciplinary regime. He wanted to set an example, taking the lead among his companions through hard work, rigour, learning and knowledge. He has been accused of being headstrong, of not listening to his entourage, but is it not true that there were few around him able to withstand his force of persuasion?

Besides this force of character, shaped by perseverance, learning, effort and the high standard he set for himself, Thomas Sankara was a very sensitive man. It is in this aspect of his personality, in the sincere and unusual interest he took in the beggars, prostitutes and handicapped, those whom we refer to today as society’s outcasts, that he set himself apart from his contemporaries.

Not to mention the efforts he made to gain a better understanding of the farmers, who formed the great majority in Burkina, most of whom lived in extreme poverty. Although in the minds of many militants the revolution should benefit a ‘working class’ that barely existed and a handful of wage earners, for the most part government employees, for Sankara it was out of the question to leave the farmers behind. He therefore tried to create a national market, and outlets for local production by forcing the few salaried employees to buy it through the intermediary of the National Revolutionary Councils. Such measures, very unpopular among the urban population, led him to be viewed as a dreamer and contributed to his political isolation. But for Sankara it was essential to remain true to his convictions. To his mind, a revolutionary must above all be willing to sacrifice himself, live modestly and fight the ‘petit bourgeois tendencies’ that would have him favour, for instance, imported clothing over locally made Faso Dan-Fani.

Basically, Thomas Sankara’s only motivation was a formidable desire to make his country progress, to put it back on the map, improve the living conditions of the poor and give his people back their dignity. He and his comrades endeavoured to put in place original policies, within the political context of the time, which would enable them to attain their objectives. What were they?

- First of all, to stop relying solely on foreign aid, even if it still remained necessary, find out what could be achieved immediately, and explore the country’s potential to the fullest.

- To take advantage of international inconsistencies in order to obtain aid at the best price, no matter the source, and see to it that aid itself would finally contribute to eliminating aid, as the Burkinabe revolutionaries liked to say.

- To affirm independence, siding firmly with the anti-imperialist camp and, within the framework of international bodies, help poor countries to organize, to unite and to adopt a stance in order to effectively defend their interests against the rich countries.

- To mobilise the people by matching words with deeds, by offering an inspiring project, fighting corruption, and developing education and training.

- To foster a spirit of enterprise among the farmers, the country’s main producers of wealth, by giving them their rightful place in the political life of the country and by trying to give them a fair price for their labour.

- To try to promote a planned national economy by developing local production and processing.

- To rely on the public sector, without nationalising it, while establishing standards and rules for private sector activity in order better to control the country’s economy and have the means to apply independent policies; and to rely on the workers to better control their management.

- To develop productive forces, firmly opposing anything that would stand in the way, backwards mentalities in particular, without upsetting the social organisation of the villages.

- To invent new forms of democracy that would better correspond to the circumstances of the population and be more progressive than representative democracy.

He partly succeeded, and that is what history will record. As the ninth anniversary of his death draws near, it is time to set the record straight and reaffirm certain truths.

*Bruno Jaffré

*This article was published in 1996 in the now-defunct Malian newspaper ‘Yelema.’ Translated from French for Pambazuka News by Julia Monod.



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