Sankara and His Legacy: Part 1

Dr Amber Murrey

Burkinabé, the demonym for the people of Burkina Faso, may perhaps seem to be an unfamiliar word – rarely heard. The policies of Thomas Sankara, the first Burkinabé President, have also often been shrouded in obscurity, yet they epitomised rapid-paced development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst it is important to not romanticise a revolution, his impact is astoundingly clear – at dizzying speeds, Sankara made significant efforts to address development issues ranging from gender equality to climate change, all within the space of his four-year tenure. When looking to the future of development within the region, it is necessary to examine his legacy, as well as the aftermath of his death.  What insight can we gain from his incumbency, and what is the current state of affairs in relation to Burkinabe development? Is there an overlap between the Burkina Faso of the mid 1980s, and the Burkina Faso of today?

In order to assess Sankara’s impact and what followed after, I interviewed Dr Amber Murrey and Dr Eloïse Bertrand. As Sankara’s legacy was so far-reaching, this article will be published in two parts – the first with Dr Amber Murrey, and the second with Dr Eloïse Bertrand.

Dr Amber Murrey is an associate professor in Human Geography at Oxford University and is the editor of “The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara”.  She has also written numerous articles and book chapters on African politics. Below are the details of our interview.

Q1: How has development progressed since 1987 within Burkina Faso?

Following the assassination of Thomas Sankara on October 15th 1987, Blaise Compaoré, who was his successor of course launched what he called the “Rectification of the revolution”. This was the historical period of the late Cold War, and the early rise of neoliberal development models and Blaise Compaoré was quick to turn towards structural adjustment policies in particular. Thomas Sankara, because of his interest in autonomy and sovereignty and self-sufficiency, was against those kinds of neo-imperial and neo-liberal financial reforms.

But turning towards structural adjustment of course had huge implications for the entire Burkinabe economy and state structure – it meant the macro-economic policies that had been imposed elsewhere in the name of servicing debt, civil servants had their salaries cut – particularly civil servants at the lower rungs of state work, spending on education and healthcare was severely impacted. Several of the chapters in ‘A Certain Amount of Madness’: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara look at what this Rectification period meant for wellbeing at large in Burkina Faso.

Takiyah Harper-Shipman has spent a lot of time thinking about healthcare in Burkina. She has looked at the rise for example in user fees for services, during this period, which prior to this point people going to the hospital would not have been expected to contribute financially.  The rectification period had decades-long impact on development in Burkina Faso. This was a turn away from Sankara’s emphasis on bottom-up approaches. Development was something which was articulated through the grassroots, and it needed to be focused on the most excluded and most marginalised peoples in the community. This turn to very top-down economic models of economic development was a kind of wholesale transition from the revolutionary idea of development for holistic social wellbeing to neo-liberalism. Blaise Compaoré was known as “Beau Blaise” internationally and nationally—a moniker which also identified the ways in which he worked to attract international and neo-imperial partnerships in and beyond the region.

Q2: What merits would you say that the Burkinabe system currently has in relation to development?

Looking at the series of youth movements in the country, culminating in 2014 with the ousting of Compaoré, shows that there’s a hugely intellectually rigorous and politically conscious youth in Burkina Faso, and so I would say that would be one of the first merits. Another would be that we might look at burkindlum, which the Ivorian political theorist Gnaka Lagoke has done work on in relation to South Africa’s ubuntu, and which the Burkinabé sociologist Zakaria Soré has written about. Burkindlum is a Mossi ontology which also inspired Thomas Sankara to rename the country to Burkina Faso, where a kind of different orientation to community making is advocated. Things like honesty and integrity are seen as core facets of an individual, but also a community’s wellbeing. It sometimes has been translated as a moral uprighteousness, but Sankara was pulling on that much longer tradition in Burkina Faso. This came out in how he understood development as being something that was oriented to the collective grassroots, but really it was about pride as well, and self-love, and a hard work ethic as well. He felt that internationally-led development initiatives, even if helpful – in a practical sense, if they were detrimental to a Burkinabe self-worth and self-value, then they were detrimental to Burkinabe development. So there are these traditions– I spoke about this in reference to youth movements – that are strong and historically grounded… that help to create the intellectual space for debate, exchange and critical ideas – these pre-dated Sankara, but which he contributed to.

Q3: What concept/concepts do you think typified Sankara’s approach to development?

I’ve already spoken a bit about autonomy, pride and self-sufficiency. These kinds of principles really fed through all of the policies that Thomas Sankara was interested in exploring and implementing in the period of the early 1980s in Burkina Faso, that consume Burkinabe if and whenever possible. And if we consider the historical period of the early 1980s, with the rise of cheaply manufactured products and goods which were being imported in Burkina Faso and elsewhere at the time, which were undermining frequently indigenous and national manufacturing. Thomas Sankara was well known for promoting and wearing the Faso Dan Fani and for asking other civil servants to wear the traditional tissue of Burkina Faso, rather than wearing t-shirts or western styled suits. This was an ethos that  he embodied.

The way that I read his life and politics is really as someone who was a militant activist in his everyday actions. Mariam Sankara, his wife, would talk about how he refused to install an air conditioner in his house, and would prefer on warm nights to sleep outside on the veranda, and he had a very rigorous attitude about health and personal fitness and frequently would partake in sporting activities. He would maintain the same expectations for his peers and his colleagues. This kind of militant activism is another concept that we can say typified Sankara’s approach to development – a holistic activism which isn’t something that was turned on and off, but was really fundamentally about how you live your life.

I’ve spoken about autonomy, and for Sankara, this was really intimately tied with food and agroecology. He had received some training in agroecology, which challenged the turn to industrial agriculture and monocropping. Thomas Sankara had a value for local forms of production, and wanted to bolster those whenever possible. For him, development was ensuring that everyone in Burkina Faso had access to two meals a day, and clean drinking water. He was able to achieve this by supporting small scale producers and thinking about fundamental daily questions, like how can farmers irrigate even during droughts. He approached these problems by sending out teams of researchers and also his colleagues to rural areas to talk to people, to talk to farmers. To ask them, what is it that you need? and also to share knowledge with them, to learn together with the people. These actions reflect his real respect for existing knowledges. He also advocated for a return to some practices that had been sabotaged during the colonial period, for example his interest in celebrating (and asking that Burkinabe partake in) the practice of planting trees to mark important events such as a wedding or the birth of a child. Again, this was not a practice that he invented, it had been subverted through decades of French colonialism.

So we have self-sufficiency, militant activism and the idea of holistic development at the centre of his approaches to wellbeing.

Finally, I would return to something I said in respect to the first question, which is about the importance of the grassroots. This is something that has been debated by scholars, e.g. whether or not it was one of the ‘successful’ aspects of the revolution that Thomas Sankara believed and really seemed to desire that people contribute to forums of local empowerment and local economic emancipation on their own terms. Some scholars have said he was either ahead of his time, or ‘too romantic’ in thinking this possible, or that he wanted it ‘too quickly’ and was therefore ‘naïve’. But, these were limitations that Sankara navigated knowingly.  Sankara embodied an ethos and a conviction that ‘development’ – or, perhaps more appropriately social change – was something that emerges from the energies, efforts and imaginaries of the people themselves.

Q4: Despite the scheme of “rectification” that was put in place by Sankara’s successor, do you believe that Sankara’s legacy lives on?

Yes, of course. This question is interesting. When I started researching the political legacies of Thomas Sankara over a decade ago, Sankara’s impact in Pan-African political thought was almost acutely under-considered in Anglophone scholarship. It has been fascinating and emboldening to witness the shift and the increasing popularity of Sankara in that decade or so.

We have seen such a reinvigorated interest – a real global interest – in Sankara, his life, his assassination, his political vision and what happened in this period in Burkina Faso. Social media has helped, particularly through the proliferation of his videos and speeches – many are available now on YouTube – with translations into multiple languages.

We’ve seen a real explosion in publications – scholarly publications, but also just news and media publications of Sankara – and an interest in reclaiming aspects of his legacy. There’s a reinvigorated global interest in the story of Burkina Faso and what happened, and the complexities of how his assassination occurred, and then how his legacy had been so thoroughly washed from schools and public spaces. Some activists, scholars and intellectuals are compelled by the Sankara story as an early example of a president who was committed to women’s rights and gender equality, and who embodied these ideals. There is so much to be done to look at this complex history. There was a thorough and insightful biography published recently and I recommend highly—this is Brian Petersons’ Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa.

As an educator, when I teach Sankara in my courses on political geography or development geographies, students are really compelled by this story because they had no idea, because it has been so effectively under-taught within imperial and neoliberal academies. Compounded with this was the length of Blaise Compaoré’s tenure and the ways that he and his entourage systematically outlawed even mentioning Sankara in public. In this time, many of his colleagues and collaborators lived in exile, that their children lived in exile. Public monuments and mentions of the revolutionary party or of Thomas Sankara were removed from Burkinabe public space and public life. Despite the attempts to silence and erase his legacy, musicians and artists have been singing about Sankara and are printing pamphlets of his speeches and selling them on the streets of Ouagadougou for years.

The systematic lies from the Compaoré entourage about what had happened that night, and the refusal of the French to open their archives… Even his burial with thirteen others was in the middle of the night, he was buried without a headstone, by prison inmates. It was Mariam Sankara who pulled together money that was given by family and friends to even purchase the headstone. Throughout all of this, the International Campaign for Justice for Sankara has, for multiple decades been mobilising on behalf of the Sankara family. Blaise was recently charged by a military tribunal in absentia, because he’s now living in Cote d’ Ivoire. He had resigned in 2014 in the wake of mass street protests. That he has been charged, even in absentia, is a symbolic step forward in the long struggle for justice for Sankara and the Sankara family. The campaign is also calling on the French President, Emmanuel Macron, to fulfil his 2017 promise to declassify the French archives.

I would like to thank Dr Amber Murrey immensely for her valuable contributions. The second article, featuring Dr Eloïse Bertrand, will be published next week.

By Shereece Linton-Ramsay