I watched a number of documentaries on Rwanda Television a couple of days ago and my heart is still laden with sorrow. For a change, RT was not treating us to its unchanging menu of lengthy and cascading ‘noodles’ of ‘Amatangazo’!
Two documentaries were about the short lives of two great Africans who would have made a difference for our continent had their lives not been snuffed out in their prime. Both men were killed by their comrades.
The first, Emery Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of newly independent Congo Kinshasa (D. R. Congo today), was humiliated beyond words, after which he was cut into pieces that were dissolved in acid.
Why Joseph Désiré Mobutu could not at least honour him with a swift death, search me. What I know is that if Lumumba had been allowed to live, we would all be a long way ahead of where we are today.
Africa wouldn’t have been saddled with a bloated-up marionette of the West who went on to bleed his country (Zaïre) dry and turn it into a breeding ground for Rwandan génocidaires.
The second was Captain Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, commonly called Thomas Sankara. The name may not ring a bell today, but I know that there isn’t a youth of the 1980s on the African continent who was not touched by the charisma of the revolutionary Sankara.
Sankara’s radical life was equally snuffed out in its prime, but I’ll not mention the name of his murderer lest I lose a chance to solicit a drink from him (‘simuvuga nzamuvumba’)! Even if this author of his sudden demise has never seen any reason to conceal or deny the heinous act!
The more I look back at the life of Sankara and his country, the more I see an uncanny resemblance to our situation here in Rwanda, and the more I grieve for a lost partner. Unrelated as it may seem, I am convinced that Sankara’s voice on the continent in 1994 would have averted the genocide of Batutsi in Rwanda!
And where is the resemblance? Before colonialism, the Upper Volta basin was home to strong, orderly kingdoms that gave strong resistance to colonial penetration efforts. Even when France got the right to claim the area as its protectorate, it only managed after bruising battles.
French Upper Volta, which was established by France in 1919, was part of this strong and organised society of the Volta basin that had been well managed by strong kingdoms.
It is this Burkinabe dignity that Sankara wanted to restore, after the humiliation of being colonised and the perpetuation of the shame by a litany of after-independence lackeys put in power by France.
Captain Thomas Sankara ascended to power on 4th August 1983 after a coup organised, interestingly, by Blaise Compaore. Both belonged to a secret organisation known as ‘Regroupement des officiers communistes’ (ROC) that also included fellow radicals like Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani.
With such a communist tag, there is no need to explain why the group was opposed to the leaderships of Col. Saye Zerbo (1980 – 82) and Maj. Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouédrago (1982 – 83), who were seen as string-puppets of France whose vision was to perpetuate a slave-master relationship.
In opposition to these tin-pot dictators, Sankara had once declared: “Maleur à ceux qui baillonnent le peuple!” (Misfortune to those who gag the people!) Once in power then, he set out to get his people out of bondage by, among others, prioritising education and health, improving women’s status, fighting corruption, averting famine and promoting reforestation.
Sankara’s government removed the right to tribute payment and obligatory labour for tribal chiefs and, for the first time in West Africa, included a large number of women in leadership. He sold the government fleet of Mercedes cars and adopted the cheaper Renault 5 as the official service car of government.
Indeed, French Upper Volta (as a country of slaves) was turned into Burkina Faso, which means ‘land of upright people’ (‘Igihugu cy’Inyangamugayo’), a dignified people who had no reason to kowtow to France.
And this was so classically symbolised by Sankara’s shabby treatment of the old and fading Mitterrand, as so powerfully captured on camera in the documentary. On a visit to France, Sankara taunted Mitterrand about France’s misdeeds in Africa, in a press conference.
When Mitterrand returned the visit, he must have hoped for better treatment as a guest. However, Sankara reviled the old geezer even more, especially for hosting the South African Apartheid killer president, Pieter Botha.
Mitterrand’s shame-faced confusion will for ever be a feast for the eyes! Yes, Sankara’s Burkina Faso was like Rwanda but, of course, without the Rwandan finesse.
For lack of that finesse and tact, Sankara was gunned down by his ROC comrade on 15th October 1987. And the comrade? Ask me another!