Sankara and his Legacy: Part 2

Eloïse Bertrand – The Conversation
Dr Eloïse Bertrand

Following on from Part I,  this article contains the details of my interview with Dr Eloïse Bertrand. Dr Eloïse Bertrand is a research fellow at Portsmouth University who specialises in Burkinabe history and has co-authored “A Dictionary of African Politics”.

Dr Bertrand sheds light on more recent transmutations within Burkinabe current affairs, partly revolving around the most recent 2014 Uprising in Burkina Faso, as well as the current state of women’s rights. What does this insurrection mean for Burkina Faso? Does a promising future lay ahead, spurred on by Sankara’s ideals? Our interactions below provide an insight as to what may lay ahead for Burkinabe development.

How have women’s rights progressed in Burkina Faso, and how does this compare to Sankara’s transformation of women’s rights?

A: In the last decades there’s been some progress for women’s rights, but women continue to have an inferior status in Burkinabe society generally. Problems like female genital mutilation are quite a big problem, even though this has decreased over recent years and there has been a lot of state efforts against that, but this is a problem. Things like inheritance rights for women are much lower, so a widow will not have the right to inherit the land from her husband. So I think there are still a lot of things to do in that regard, and Sankara’s ideals on that front were important and are picked up by some activists and people today, but this hasn’t been achieved.

Has development grown at all since 2014 within Burkina Faso?

The insurrection of October 2014 was a particular moment that raised a lot of hope. Part of the reason why the insurrection happened was a growing dissatisfaction at socio-economic grievances, e.g young people not being able to get jobs and the rise of inequality between the ruling class and the majority of citizens. So this raised a lot of hope. It depends on how you would define development and what criteria you would look at –  you would need to look at specific indicators. But overall the average Burkinabe citizen is not better off now than he or she was in 2014. In addition to that, as you will probably know, since early 2016 there has been a security crisis in Burkina where the situation’s context has deteriorated rapidly since 2016. This has led to over a million people being displaced and over a thousand people being killed. So obviously in that regard, that has created a serious humanitarian crisis. So, we can’t say that there has been much development in Burkina in that regard, on the contrary for many people the situation has become worse in terms of food security and access to land and jobs.

Do you think any of Sankara’s sentiments have continued to prevail within Burkina Faso?

Yes, and I think this is very interesting. So when you look at after Sankara was killed in ’87, there was a whole period where his name – you couldn’t talk about it  – it was quite taboo. This is what people from Sankara’s party told me during my research. For example, people who were claiming Sankara’s legacy to form political parties in the early 90’s, they used “socialist” instead of “Sankarist” in their party’s name, because they could not really use Sankara’s name. At the time people would continue to spread the message and the ideals of Sankara through record tapes of his speeches, so for example all of the speech in Addis Ababa and all the important speeches … there is a collection of the speeches that you can find online. There is a book of his speeches. All of those important speeches were recorded on tape and people would organise in villages, like listen to the tapes around tea as a way to keep it going, and make – especially young people – aware of his values and his messages. And progressively this has become more possible to do more openly. So, from the 2000’s there was a bit of liberalisation in Burkina Faso and even though Blaise Compaoré was still in power, the repression became lower. So, parties could be called “Sankaristparties” and his legacy was a bit reclaimed. You can see for example that other activists really used Sankara’s messages and values, so you have the symbols where they were raising their fists and they had Thomas Sankara’s pictures on their t-shirts. They were using a motto which came from Sankara’s revolution. All of this played an important part in 2014, and it was embraced by young people who hadn’t known the revolution and hadn’t known the negative side of the revolution – because  the revolution was not perfect. There were a lot of problems during the revolution and the young people don’t know that and really don’t look at that, but just look at the ideals and the values – this has been very prevalent. But what is interesting is that some of that has made its way into the establishment. For example, after 2014 you can see the politicians including the president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and a lot of public figures are now all wearing traditional cotton clothes rather than western suits and this wasn’t the case before 2014. So, things such as the consuming of Burkinabe products – you find that more and more.  You have associations that promote local produce, and there are some initiatives down there that clearly refer to some of the principles of Thomas Sankara, like [the use of] Burkinabe produce for Burkinabe consumers – and this has been appropriated by some of the establishment which I think is quite interesting.

Are there any other nations in Sub-Saharan Africa that have embarked upon similar development techniques?

I am not sure. In terms of what happened during the revolution in the 1980s, I don’t think so. Obviously, you can draw parallels with Ghana next door, even though it developed in a very  different way since Jerry Rawlings was not assassinated and led the country to elections, which was a very different outcome. The Sankara experience was very particular, but also it was only four years, so it is very interesting to understand. But it is hard to draw comparisons or to really understand what could be done over a longer-term period, because it was limited to only four years.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Dr Eloïse Bertrand for her participation in this interview.

Dr Amber Murrey and Dr Eloïse Bertrand have provided a wealth of information, which points to the enormity of Thomas Sankara’s accomplishments, as well as the idea that his long-lasting impact has not waned. Whilst the pace of progression in development has slowed since Sankara’s tenure, the fervour for Sankara has not, and continues to grow in size. It is pleasing to see elements of Sankara’s philosophies being circulated within not just Burkinabé society, but in the wider world as well.

By Shereece Linton-Ramsay