The commemoration of Sankara’s death seems to have elicited little interest in Africa, if one is to go by how it hardly received any mention in the African media. As they rather too often do, Africans seem to have ceded their voice to outsiders, on matters concerning them.
Captain Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was President of Burkina Faso for a short-lived four years when he was gunned down by his comrade on 15th October 1987. But even that he managed to lead his country for those few years was a miracle.
Considering that his country was embedded in what can reasonably be called the heartland of FrançAfrique (French former colonies still under its considerable influence), four years was a long time to court death. Resisting French influence is courting death even today.
When Sankara seized power in 1983, he aggressively set out to eliminate French dominance of his country as exercised on other former colonies. Only without that external interference could he succeed in pursuing his ambitious programmes for social and economic change. To symbolise this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country Burkina Faso (Land of Upright Men) from the French colonial Upper Volta.
His foreign policies were centred around: anti-imperialism; the rejection of a dependence on foreign aid; pushing for debt reduction and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank over his country; and consolidating all land and mineral earnings to remove them from foreign hands.
On the domestic front, he steered his country towards focusing on: agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform to end the monopoly of feudal landlords; prioritising education and nation-wide literacy; promoting public health; protecting the environment to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel; and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction programme.
His commitment to women’s rights saw his government abolish forced marriages and polygamy. A number of women were appointed to high positions and all were encouraged to work outside the home.
Ring a bell, Rwandans?
Sankara’s revolutionary programmes for African self-reliance made him an icon to Africa’s poor but antagonised the vested interests of an array of countries, notably France and its allies.
However, his most prominent undoing was probably his blunt, stinging criticism of the French rulers to their face and his sacrificial trust in the fact that his comrade shared his vision.
At a press conference in Paris, while he stood with French President François Mitterrand, when Sankara harangued the French government for keeping his country in bondage and spoke of seeking foreign relations with other countries beyond France, even journalists were visibly shifting in their chairs.
Meanwhile, Mitterrand stared stony-faced ahead, leaving nothing to imagination as to how he wished to deal with this FraçAfrique rebel.
However, if he considered that encounter a rude awakening from one of his dominions, at the next encounter Mitterrand must have sealed his plans to silence that dangerously rebellious voice. This was at a dinner in his honour upon visiting Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, after he had done a tour of ‘his’ FrançAfrique countries.
Sankara thanked Mitterrand for “stopping by” and praised France for awakening Burkinabés to the high code of honour and hospitality. After that, he delved into the abuses that Western countries continued to perpetrate on Palestine, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq and South Africa (SA was still under Apartheid).
“It is in that context, Mr. Francois Mitterrand,” continued Sankara, “that we could not understand how bandits like Jonas Savimbi and killers like Pieter Botha were able to enjoy the right to freely travel up and down in France. They have soiled your beautiful and clean country with their hands and feet covered in blood. And those who allowed them to perform such acts will pay for it here and in the hereafter, today and forever.”
In words roughly translated thus, he continued in that vein until the end when he invited his guest to toast to “a friendship and unity in the struggle against those who, [in Burkina Faso], in France and anywhere, exploit us and oppresses us. For the triumph of just causes, for greater freedoms, for grander honour.
Victory or death, we shall overcome! Thank you.” Save for the opportunistic wimps, which African leader wouldn’t toast to that?
For defending, and dying for, the dignity of Africans, Sankara should be celebrated by all who cherish the independence of this abused continent. Even if heroic African leaders may have died at the hands of their comrades, the fact alone that these comrades were string-puppets of Western powers is reason enough to commemorate each and every one of them.
Sankara is said to have been aware of his impending death but as he himself said: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” Sankara lives on, in his ideas. Where these ideas may not yet be in evidence, it’ll all be in good time, come what may.
The writer is a commentator on political and social issues based in Kigali