On the Burkinabe Revolution
by Ahmed Khan
“It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.” –
-Thomas Sankara, 1985
In august 2008 when ex-Liberian warlord Prince Johnson (now a `respectable’ senator in Liberia’s U.S-modeled congress) testified in front of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation commission investigating the horrors of its 14-year long civil war, that former ally Charles Taylor, under trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity was complicit in the overthrow of the Sankara regime in Burkina Faso, it scarcely caught the attention of anybody outside the African continent. This led me to read up on the brief period (1983-87) that was the Burkinabe Revolution, what confronted me was a glorious period in the history of a truly great people, tragically cut short thanks to imperialist intrigue and the complicity of neo-colonial regimes, in a fashion all too familiar on the African continent.
As a representative of a party that follows Marxism-Leninism, that is heir to all the revolutionary struggles of mankind, I believe this episode carries poignant lessons for our society, and I daresay, coming revolution as well.
Upper Volta (as Burkina Faso was then known) was a French colony in West Africa and to the credit of the Burkinabe people was only colonized after a protracted and bloody struggle. Colonialism was maintained for the purpose of looting Gold, Manganese, Marble, phosphate and Zinc from this country. Formal independence was granted in 1960. What remained in the country was a shambles. Nothing had changed for the oppressed masses of Upper Volta (then numbering roughly seven million). Illiteracy was at a shocking 98%, healthcare was totally absent, no real infrastructure in the country and a mode of production that was an admixture of Feudal landownership enforced along patterns of authority of traditional African tribalism. What little industry existed was concentrated around the foreign-owned mines, the majority of the population engaged in subsistence farming, or seeking seasonal work in their hundreds of thousands in plantations in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.
On the 5th of August 1960, Maurice Yamogo head of the Voltaic Democratic Union (UDV) became the first president. Soon after independence, Yamogo banned all other political parties but soon crumbled in 1966 under pressure by mass demonstrations and strikes by students, Labor Unions and civil servants. At this point the military intervened. This was merely the first episode in the military’s long history of political interference. The coup inaugurated a military dictatorship led by Lieutenant-Colonel Aboukar Sangoulé Lamizana. His administration consisted of senior military officers (something that we are woefully familiar with) Lamizana argued that his rule was the transition towards complete civilian democracy. Throughout the 70s he retained power in military or mixed civilian-military governments. In 1978 he was elected as civilian president under dubious elections. Wracked by Union-led demonstrations Lamizana’s regime was replaced by another military government, that of Saye Zerbo, through a bloodless coup in November 25, 1980. This brought forward another political formation; the Military committee of recovery of National Progress (CMRPN) The Labor Unions managed to bring Zerbo’s government to the point of collapse, once again in this game of martial musical chairs, another coup took place on November 7 1982 led by Major Dr. Jean-Baptiste Oudraogo and his later creation: The Council of Popular Salvation (CSP).
Disillusionment with the military and the neo-colonial bourgeoisie ran deep in Upper Volta. At this time, within the military, a group of Leftist officers had formed the Regroupement des officiers communists (Communist Officers Group-ROC) led by the Marxist-Leninist Thomas Sankara, who after witnessing the 1972 mass movement in Madagascar that toppled the neo-colonialist government of Philibert Tsiranana, had formulated the policy of `National and Popular Revolution’. Early adherents of this group included Blaise Campaore, Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Lingani. Sankara was offered government posts under Zerbo’s rule, but quickly resigned on grounds of the anti-popular character of the government, announcing his resignation in a surprising announcement on live television. In 1983 CSP of Oudraogo selected Sankara to be prime minister, but the latter’s grassroots popularity, anti-imperialism and radicalism led opposition from the more reactionary military brass. Following his second resignation, he was placed under arrest. The circumstances surrounding his arrest gave cause for suspicion. His arrest coincided with the visit of Guy Penne, advisor on African affairs of French president François Mitterrand (whose son Jean-Christophe served as gun runner for UNITA and earned fame by hobnobbing with the most reactionary governments in Africa). Once more the people took to the streets organized primarily by the Parti Africain de l’Indépendance (African Independence Party-PAI), a communist organization founded in Senegal with sections throughout French West-Africa, and the Reconstructed Union for Communist Struggle (ULC-R) on 4th August 1983, 200 Troops from the Po garrison, commanded by ROC member, Campaore marched on the capital Ouagadougou. Telecom workers cut the principal phone lines in the city and civilians awaited the arrival of the column, guiding them through the city. This heralded what is known as the Burkinabe Revolution.
A Conseil National de la Révolution (National Council of the Revolution -CNR), was formed with Thomas Sankara as president and the political expression of the revolution was the Rassemblement Démocratique et Populaire (Democratic and Popular Rally -RDP) The RDP had at its core Marxist-Leninists and Sankara envisaged its gradual transformation into a full-fledged Marxist-Leninist party.
The tasks that confronted the Revolution were not insignificant. With only one doctor per 48,000 inhabitants, Upper Volta had one of the highest mortality rates in the world and the world’s highest infant mortality rate (280 deaths per 1,000) in 1983. No Basic social services, an average yearly income of just $150 per person and one of most underdeveloped economies in the world.
The policies undertaken by the brief 4-year peroid of the revolutionary government, declaring its aim to be the construction of socialism, offers a modest, but highly instructive example of the potential and transformative capacity of a society run along cooperativist and socialist lines, where the economy and society is run for the benefit of the masses and not for a handful of exploiters, Where the state and economy do not seem to be imposing structures, incomprehensible and hostile to the people, but true expressions of their power and hegemony.
The revolutionary government established the Comités de Défense de la Révolution (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution -CDR) in rural and urban areas, arming the peasantry to prepare them for the class struggle ahead. The CDRs became the organs of direct democratic control over local administration. Members of the CDRs were elected by the urban neighbourhood or village.
Upper Volta was deemed to be a colonial moniker, the name of the country was changed to Burkina Faso (land of the upright people) on the first anniversary of the revolution.
Declaring the old cumbersome legal codes and structures to be a tool of the former exploiters, the Tribuneaux Populaires de la Revolution (People’s Revolutionary Courts -TPR) were founded in 1984, with judges appointed directly from the working people.
In the same year, obligatory tribute payments and obligatory labor for tribal chieftains and landlords was declared illegal. The countryside became the scene of fierce class battles against traditional patriarchal tribalism and landlordism. All land and mineral wealth was nationalized. Land was redistributed and agriculture along cooperative lines was encouraged. A National Union of Peasants was established. Lack of Irrigation which was the perennial bugbear of Burkina Faso’s agricultural development was countered in a highly creative (for its simplicity and logic) manner. Instead of investing in large-scale prestige projects which the country could not afford, extensive low-tech and low-capital intensive substitutes were seen as short term alternatives to raise the conditions of the poor peasantry. In this case, Volunteers and cooperatives built their own simple earth dams, with reservoirs for the dry season. This led to an increase in agricultural output. For the first time in its history, Burkina Faso embarked on a policy of public housing, just two-room bungalows made of mud-brick, managed by the local CDRs, something that never crossed the minds of previous regimes but which significantly improved the lives of the rural poor, in addition all rents were abolished for the year 1985.
In the health field, mass campaigns were launched. Burkina Faso was one of the first governments in Africa to recognize the scourge of AIDS in Africa. In 1985, with the aid of Cuban medical volunteers, 2.5 million children were vaccinated against measles, meningitis and Yellow fever within a span of just two weeks by volunteers. This campaign benefited not just Burkinabe (as the people now called themselves) children but also thousands of foreigners from neighbouring countries who crossed the border to get their children vaccinated also. In a span of just two years, infant mortality had dropped from 208 to 145 for every 1,000 live births. By 1987, river blindness had been completely eliminated from the country.
Within a period of two years, 35,000 people had been trained as literacy instructors in nine indigenous languages and in a mass campaign to eliminate illiteracy had managed to bring the literacy level up from 8% in 1983 to 22% in 1985, almost a three-fold increase.
One of the most prominent contributions of the Revolution was in the promotion of gender equality. At the time, 50% of the population was Muslim, 40% indigenous animists and cults and 10% were Roman Catholic. The backwardness of social production was translated into one of the most patriarchal societies in Africa. Under the Revolution, oppressive customs such as Forced marriages, Polygamy and female genital mutilation were forbidden. Family planning was emphasized. For the first time in history, women came to the forefront, serving in the CDRs, as provincial governors and ministers. At the first anniversary of the Revolution, all-woman military parade was held to symbolize the changed status of women in the revolutionary state. On the 22nd of September 1984, a day of solidarity was proclaimed, where men would be made to go to the markets, prepare meals and carry out domestic duties to familiarize themselves with the conditions faced by women. Such policies were virtually unheard of on the African continent.
Perhaps inspired by the Chinese example, the army was not treated as an institution standing outside society and as a constant parasitical strain on resources in peacetime, but was placed at the service of people and assigned production tasks.
Bureaucrats and government functionaries were made to reflect the new character of the revolution. Top civil and military functionaries were made to donate one month’s salary and lower order civil servants half a month’s pay to contribute to social development projects. Ministers were banned from travelling in Mercedes cars and first class plane flights. The ministerial service vehicle now was the Renault 5 (the cheapest car in Burkina Faso) The ministers received the same wages as schoolteachers and were made to live in the countryside for periods of time to familiarize themselves with the conditions of the peasantry.
One of the first governments to recognize the threat of climate change and desertification, mass campaigns were launched to plant trees and reforestation. For instance, in 1985 a mass campaign led to planting 10 million trees to slow the advance of the Sahara.
Sankara banned the display of his portraits in public places, or those of any other government figure. He refused air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such a luxury was not available to the people. A tribunal, as part of a major anti-corruption drive in 1987 found that Sankara’s salary amounted to only $450 a month and his most valuable possessions to be a car, four motorcycles, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. No doubt, he was a candidate for the world’s poorest president. These examples of self-abnegation and revolutionary discipline led to comparisons with Che Guevara, leading many to term Sankara as the `Che of Africa’
In Foreign Policy, Revolutionary Burkina Faso was closest to Cuba, Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Mozambique; Samora Machel was idolized by Sankara and was a personal friend. Sankara was a firm supporter of the Palestinian National Liberation movement, a bitter critic of apartheid and was also friendly towards the government of Gerry Rawlings in Ghana. A strategic alliance with Libya led to support for Libya in its confrontation with France in Chad. Thus, the perception in Paris for the strategic need to overthrow Sankara.
A firm opponent of neo-colonialism, Sankara openly opposed U.S-European dominance in Africa, particularly of France which did, and still does, have colonial pretensions over Franco-phone Africa. He called for the cancellation of debts owed to the former colonial countries, imperialists and international banks.
When a French politician told Sankara that West Africans should be grateful for all the help they received from France, the Burkinabe leader replied that the French should be grateful for all the Africans who spent their lives sweeping the streets of Paris and cleaning the Metro!
The increasing anti-Imperialist and radical character of the Burkinabe revolution alarmed not just the imperialist powers but also the surrounding neo-colonialist African regimes, which feared the export of the Burkinabe example.The mounting hostility of these regimes was revealed at a meeting in Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire. Mali attempted to destabilize the regime by fighting a brief border war with Burkina Faso on Christmas day 1985. The Reason? while carrying out a census, Burkinabe officials had accidently crossed the border while gathering information. This was viewed as a claim of sovereignty by Mali. However flimsy the pretext might have been, it was symptomatic of the growing hostility of the neighboring conservative regimes.
This gave conservatives and reactionaries within Burkina Faso a pretext to overthrow Sankara and the radicals. The primary participants in the counter-revolution were Blaise Campaore, Lingani and Zongo (Sankara’s former allies) acting in concert with Houphouet-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, Libya (whose leader is now feted and wined and dined in Paris), France and blessings of the U.S (due to Sankara’s links with Cuba, Nicaragua and the Soviet Union)
According to Jeune Afrique (2 June 1988), which published the writing of Jacques Foccart , “number two in a revolution in which he no longer believed… Blaise met his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, through the offices of the president of Ivory Coast, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, and Jacques Foccart, who introduced him to the general staff of the French right, especially Charles Pasqua.”
François Xavier Verschave claims: “Muammar Gadafy and Françafrique had more and more causes in common, cemented by anti-Americanism and enlightened self-interest. The elimination of Sankara was probably the founding rite in their alliance. In 1987 Foccart and the people round Gadafy agreed to replace the exasperatingly honest and independent leader by the infinitely more amenable Blaise Compaoré.”
This alliance also included Liberian warlords Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson. According to Johnson’s testimony, Sankara has refused to help the Liberian exiles to overthrow the Doe regime in Liberia. Despite Sankara’s refusal to aid them, Taylor and Johnson were sent by Campaore to Libya for guerrilla training on condition that they help overthrow the Sankara government. According to Johnson: “When we got there [Burkina Faso] we were told that we were going to be arrested if we did not comply to remove Thomas Sankara from office because he was not in favor of our plan. We were asked to join a special group of Burkinabe soldiers to overthrow Sankara. That was how Thomas Sankara was removed,”
The counter-revolution took place on the 15th of October 1987 took the form of a bloody coup. Kalashnikov fire lasted all night. Some eye-witnesses reported seeing French Soldiers involved in the fighting. Sankara was killed along with 12 of his Comrades. Campaore seized power, dissolved the CDRs and the CNR. A new political formation, the Popular Front (PF) was formed. Sankara’s supporters attempted a last-ditch effort to resist, but were eventually defeated. At the time of his death, Sankara was just 39 years old. In a spectacle reminescient of events in the Congo, Sankara’s body was chopped up and dumped unceremoniously in a make-shift grave. For days, this site became a veritable pilgrimage site, as thousands travelled there to pay their respects to the dead revolutionary. Due to popular pressure, the counter-revolutionary regime was forced to transfer Sankara’s remains into a proper grave, with Campaore even forced to come up with a hypocritical eulogy to Sankara; as a `revolutionary who made mistakes’ (Chinese emulation once again?)
Campaore has been in power ever since.
Frantz Fanon wrote in the Wretched of the Earth:
“The national bourgeoisie of under-developed countries must not be opposed because it threatens to slow down the total, harmonious development of the Nation. It must simply be stoutly opposed because, literally, it is good for nothing…In fact; the bourgeois phase in the history of underdeveloped countries is a completely useless phase. When this caste has vanished, devoured by its own contradictions, it will be seen that nothing new has happened since independence was proclaimed, and that everything must be started from scratch.”
The Neo-Colonialist regime of Blaise Campaore has provided an example of the validity of these words. This regime has resolved to reverse all of the progress of the brief revolutionary era.
This regime was backed by former ROC memers Zongo and Lingani. In 1988, the salaries of civil servants was increased and the stipulation that part of their earnings be utilized for development were scrapped. According to a World Bank report (an institution that can hardly be accused of being sympathetic to Sankara) in December 1988, the high standards of financial management that characterized the revolutionary years had now given way to increasing corruption since campaore’s takeover.
In 1989, Zongo and Lingani attempt to stake their own claim to power by trying to overthrow Campaore in yet another coup, but fail and are subsequently executed. Thirty one Sankara supporters are held without trial for over a year and prominent Sankaraist Guillaume Sessouma dies during torture. Property rights are reinstated in 1990. In Early 1991, Campaore agrees to a structural-adjustment package with the IMF involving privatization and liberalisation of the market. Since 1998, the privatization of state-owned enterprises and mines developed primarily during the revolutionary years carries on in a gradual but effective manner. Burkina Faso agreed to open its market to GMO food companies, a step that was refused even by Zambia (the last country that can be accused of being anti-imperialist)
Making a mockery of the people’s aspirations, Campaore wins the presidential election in in December 1991. How was this possible? He was the only candidate, and 73% of the people refused to vote.
All pretensions of anti-imperialism are abandoned when in 1993, Burkina Faso is proclaimed France’s favourite ally in West Africa. The infamous Françafrique alliance between Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Libya and France continues to be a bulwark preserving French Neo-colonial domination in Africa. Like any reactionary mercenary government the Campaore government has been implicated in the civil wars of Liberia, Ivory coast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in support of the worst reactionaries Africa has had the misfortune to produce.
As conditions exist today, all of the gains of the Sankara period have been lost and reversed. Life expectancy in Burkina Faso now stands at 47.9 years, adult literacy at 21.8 % (some gains take time to reverse!) and the `distinction’ of being the third poorest country in the world with 80% of its population living on less than two dollars a day.
The Neo-Colonialist regime has seen a return to the pre-revolutionary practice of people having to migrate to neighbouring countries to search for seasonal agricultural work. Frantz Fanon’s words in living reality.
Despite all of its gains, the cause of the downfall of the Burkinabe revolution was a fundamental underestimation of the strength of the counter-revolutionary Bourgeosie and tribalist landlords in the rural areas, in particular the dominance of the forces of counter-revolution within the army. Thus, another chilling reminder of the lessons of the murder of Salvador Allende in Chile. Socialism cannot be attained without smashing completely the bourgeois state and institutions and replacing it with the dictatorship of the Proletariat.
We uphold the revolutionary legacy of Sankara just as we uphold the legacy of, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Chris Hani, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Chris Hani, Mhodlane, Dedan Kimathi, Lumumba and Maurice Bishop and all those martyred revolutionaries, slaughtered only because they stood against Imperialism, Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism and Capitalism for the freedom and self-determination of their people, for a future without the exploitation of man by man, for a Socialist future.
The Battle has just begun!
Death to Neo-Colonialism!
Socialism is our Future!
Long Live the Revolution!
Ahmed Khan is a member of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party of Pakistan and is currently based in Mauritius. Another article by the author about Afric and particularly about Democratic Republic of Congo is present at: https://reddiarypk.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/drc/