The legacy of Thomas Sankara
It is important that we understand the rule of Sankara by critically examining what led to Compaore taking power – i.e. the short-comings of Sankara. If we fail to do so then we feed right-wing arguments that (1) experiments that Sankara and others like him will always end up in vain because those who lead such experiments in social betterment fail because power naturally leads to corruption and (2) ordinary people are not worth it because they can easily turn to right-wing leaders because of the illogical nature of humans. Further, if we don’t critically examine examples like Burkina Faso then attempts made by formations like the EFF and Numsa are doomed from the start.
After attaining national independence, a series of Presidents ruled either with open military force or army generals in civilian clothing. This was to contain labour and social unrest. In August 1983 Sankara himself led yet another military coup and overthrew the military government.
In the early 1980s, Sankara was a beacon of hope against the increased inequality and insecurity structural adjustment introduced across Africa. His strategy was a defiant alternative to neo-liberal development strategies. In contrast, it aimed to eliminate corruption, avert famine, make education and health real priorities. It launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted in Africa.
The strong commitment to women’s rights led to the outlawing of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and polygamy. Women were encouraged to work outside the home and girls were encouraged to stay at school even if they became pregnant. The Sankara government was also the first African government to publicly recognize the challenge of HIV/AIDS.
Whilst Sankara and his allies were committed to achieving their egalitarian ideals, these were imposed rather than being won through collective action of the workers and mass of the poor people. This was socialism from above, not the self-emancipation of the working class and popular masses – an approach that lead to the regime coming into conflict with sections of the working class and its organisations.
When the school teachers went on strike, just over six months after Sankara came to power, nearly 1,500 were dismissed and they were not to return to their jobs until after his death. Trade unions and independent organisations were considerably weakened as a result of repression. The actions of the unions were considered subversive and could be punished with “military sanctions”.
The Sankara Government banned trade unions and a free press as they were seen as coming in the way of their reforms. Corrupt officials, counterrevolutionaries and “lazy workers” were tried in peoples’ revolutionary tribunals. The public trials of former senior government officials was a positive development, but these trails were also to be used against genuine critics of the regime.
In the name of wanting to make a revolution for the mass of the poor people, Sankara did it without them or even against them. Sankara recognised this in his self-critical speech of 2nd of October 1987. But he and his allies did not have time to restore the links between the government and the mass independent working-class organisations.
A week before his death, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”. He remains an inspiration for many young people across the region and proof that another world is possible for Africa.