Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara, as a close reading of Frantz Fanon’s decolonization theories suggests, was an inevitable revolutionary. Sankara evidenced and ultimately turned the contradictions of the colonial system against itself.
The twentieth-century political upheaval that formally liberated Africa from European colonialism often evokes images of exponential mass struggle—droves of citizens spilling onto the streets, weapons in hand, eradicating colonial infrastructure locale by locale. Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, dubbed the ‘Che Guevara of Africa’, is one of the most significant African leaders that championed the call for self-determination. Revered for his charismatic and captivating speeches, his legacy of amicableness coupled with his fierce anti-imperialism rhetoric has given rise to ‘Sankarism’ in contemporary Burkina Faso.
Sankara sought to forge a national identity that transcended ethnic, class and gender differences which had been exacerbated by the exploitation of indigenous Burkinabè society. He hoped that by transforming national consciousness, the Burkinabè would be able to become materially self-reliant. Sankara’s rhetoric and pedagogy effectively placed the small, landlocked country on the international stage and ultimately unsettled France (and the United States). Ironically, the educational and cultural experiences that would inform Sankara’s approach to decolonization were afforded to Sankara as the son of a colonial guard and a descendant of the dominant ethnic group, a direct result of the colonization of Burkina Faso—it was the colonial machine that equipped Sankara with the tools to be employed in service of the Burkinabè revolution.
The works of Martinican philosopher, Frantz Fanon, offer opportunities to take more critical look at Sankara’s upbringing. From a ‘Fanonian’ perspective, considering how Sankara’s upbringing impacted his ideological tools in forging national consciousness reveals the contradictory nature of the colonial system. It exposes the inevitability of a humanist uprising, not unlike Sankara’s in the 1980s, against a system which exists on the perpetual and evolving subjugation of a people.
GROWING UP IN UPPER VOLTA
Sankara was born on 21 December 1949 in Yako, Burkina Faso. The first son of WWII veteran and gendarme, his father’s place in the colonial administration created opportunities for Sankara to receive extensive military training and rank. According to Michael Prairie, the military was, ‘one of the few avenues for young people of his generation in sub-Saharan Africa to receive a higher education.’ In his biography of Sankara, Brian J. Peterson notes that Sankara’s father was on the ‘conservative side of politics’, and ‘supported maintaining close ties to France and was wary of young leftists.’ Moreover, Peterson writes that during the emerging African liberation movements, ‘the French army and its African soldiers played important roles in controlling political processes. As veterans took up positions as colonial guards and gendarmes, they served as “political agents,” tasked with monitoring leftists.’
This use of the colonized against the colonized also accentuates Sankara’s cultural lineage. Sankara’s family was chiefly of Mossi descent. Long-time historian of Burkina Faso, Ernest Harsch, documents how ‘the process of governing through chiefs was easiest in the former Mossi empire,’ and that, ‘although the colony’s residents came from many different ethnic groups, those close ties between the colonial authorities and the Mossi chiefs gave a pronounced Mossi cast to the administration, stirring some resentment among non-Mossi elites.’ Thus, Sankara was able to achieve a level of social mobility that may not have been afforded to him if he had a different background.
Nevertheless, Sankara’s Mossi heritage and his father being employed in the colonial machine are inextricably intertwined and begs the question of how Sankara developed his leftist leanings. Illustrating the perspective of Fanon who revealed the irrationality of colonization, the very nature of the colonial machine, which rewarded loyal Burkinabé administrators with some level of social mobility, had turned on itself. Sankara was then able to learn about, question and network through the burgeoning liberation ideologies and organizations populating the continent. The widespread cooperation of the Mossi people and the complicity of indigenous military officials had finally cracked as Sankara surfaced and became emblematic of the contradictory nature of the colonial machine.
However, Sankara’s Mossi heritage was also extremely complex and further examination illuminates how Sankara was able to weaponize the tools of the colonial machine. Peterson writes that Sankara’s last name was initially Ouédraogo and that he changed it to Sankara during his teenage years. Although Peterson asserts that ‘divergent accounts of the issue have arisen,’ it reflects the deep ambivalence Sankara may have felt about the stigma of not being ‘pure Mossi’, the name Ouédraogo reflecting the Peul lineage that Sankara also held. This indicates how the discrimination Sankara experienced both in childhood and during his presidency contributed to his push for a national consciousness that transcended ethnicity. Because Sankara’s father was a gendarme, his family often travelled around the country. Peterson quotes Germaine Pitroipa, a childhood acquaintance of Sankara:
We were the children of civil servants and teachers, so we didn’t stay where we were born like most people. We grew up in different places and then we attended school in Ouaga or Bobo. And this constant movement shaped our minds. We were really the first generation in which all of these people came together and learned to get along without ethnic or regional differences.
According to Peterson, the Sankara children grew up in the ‘unique subculture’ and ‘tiny melting pot’ of the Gaoua military camp. There, they became multi-lingual in Dioula, Mooré and French, among other local languages. Peterson writes that this multicultural identity ‘would later be reinforced during Sankara’s years in school and with the military, when he lived, studied and worked in various communities characterized by considerable social, religious and ethnic intermixing.’ Thus, as Peterson also argues, the ‘absence of deep rural roots’ to one specific ethnicity and the absence of ‘ties to elders’ due to his family’s partially nomadic lifestyle ‘arguably made it much easier for Sankara to pursue radical, and even iconoclastic, ruptures,’ with colonial hegemony and structure. The status associated with Mossi lineage, the diverse lifestyle associated with being a part of the military system, and the educational opportunities afforded by these intertwining elements are a direct result of French colonialism, which ironically became a gateway for Sankara’s revolutionary approach.
THE POLITICAL CONTEXT
Captain Thomas Sankara climbed the military ranks of Upper Volta (renamed Burkina Faso by Sankara in 1984), completing his military training in Madagascar in 1972 and then France in 1978. Sankara was appointed president in August 1983 and established his Conseil National de la Révolution (CNR) after mass support from lay citizens and a military coup d’état overthrew the preceding Conseil du Salut de Peuple (CSP), which was headed by Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. Sankara was prime minister of the CSP before being imprisoned by Ouédraogo in May 1983, as tensions rose while the latter, Harsch notes, tried to ‘subtly distance himself of the tenor of Sankara’s remarks.’ Informed by his sojourn through revolutionary networks, Sankara sought to forge a national and political consciousness that could combat the homicidal hegemony that led to the cultural and material destruction of the Burkinabé. He focused most of his energy on engaging with ‘the people’ through speeches and educational and cultural initiatives. Naturally, the ideological direction with which Sankara would guide the Burkinabè revolution was heavily influenced by his upbringing.
This brings up one of the major contentions in scholarship on Sankara. In a way, he is victim to the nature of twentieth-century Africa, which was populated by Marxist leadership. Sankara actively combatted any framing of him or the Burkinabè revolution as Marxist or Communist, asserting during his prime ministry in the CSP, for example,
that we have done nothing communist here, we have simply talked about improving living conditions, about social justice, liberty and democracy…they call us communists to frighten the people…we have no intentions of telling you that communism is good, nor of telling you the opposite. We intend only to tell you that we will take actions with you and for you. The label that will be pinned on these actions matters little.
In fact, Sankara asserted that while the Burkinabè were the ‘heirs of all the world’s revolutions’, revolution could not be ‘exported’ and that ‘an ideological choice cannot be imposed on any people.’ Moreover, Sankara understood the limitations of Marxism in Africa and Burkina Faso in particular. As Peterson suggests and Sankara indirectly comes to, the Burkinabè revolution was a ‘petty bourgeois revolt against French imperialism’, whereas Sankara and his political allies were well-educated citizens who were attempting to fight their own bourgeoisie inclinations for the betterment of the nation. This, Peterson notes, partly explains Sankara’s belief that,
From imperialism’s point of view, it’s more important to dominate us culturally than militarily. Cultural domination is more flexible, more effective, less costly. This is why we say that to overturn the Burkinabé regime you don’t need to bring in heavily armed mercenaries. You just need to forbid the import of champagne, lipstick, and nail polish.
In essence, Sankara’s efforts to forge a national consciousness, which would combat the cultural dependence on Western hegemony, was a result of his upbringing which was petty bourgeoisie in nature. But identifying Sankara as part of the petty bourgeoisie is not necessarily a criticism. In fact, Sankara exemplified the subduing of petty bourgeoisie inclinations, personifying Fanon’s assertion that though ‘the people are [not] hostile to analysis, they like having things explained to them, they are glad to understand a line of argument and they like to see where they are going.’ It is also the case that ‘the people…take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: how can we obtain the land, and bread to eat?’ As Sankara drew on the Cuban example of Marxism by chiefly mobilizing the peasant class in lieu of a non-existent proletarian class, he was successful at explaining in simple, enthusiasm-generating terms how ideological directions could benefit these broad and inclusive positions.
SANKARA’S IDEOLOGICAL INFLUENCES
It is a disservice to solely characterize Sankara or the Burkinabè revolution as Marxist. The ideological flexibility that he displayed over the course of his political career is ultimately a testament to his upbringing, which was submerged in cultural and ideological diversity. Sankara, while admittedly influenced by Marxism and private about his readings, also incorporated ideological currents that ranged from liberation theology to the humanist perspective of Frantz Fanon.
Born into a nuclear family that were the only Christians in an extended family of Muslims, Sankara was able to include and incorporate messages from both the Bible and the Qur’an, attempting to further his reach among the people. When asked by the Parisian pan-African magazine, Jeune Afrique, about what books he would bring on a deserted island, Sankara responded with Lenin’s State and Revolution, the Bible, and the Qur’an. Following up, Sankara commented that it was ‘undeniable that Muhammad was a revolutionary who turned a society upside down,’ and that ‘the word of Christ was a message capable of saving us from the real misery we lived in, as a philosophy of qualitative transformation of the world.’
The intermixing of Christianity and Islam was at one point uncomplicated in Burkina Faso. Christian missionaries won converts by taking a ‘lax attitude’ toward the endemic customs of the Burkinabè, like wearing masks during spiritual rituals, and imploring them to substitute local deities with the Judeo-Christian God during these rituals. The subtle way colonialism established its cultural hegemony nevertheless led Sankara to engage in what Emmanuel Martey has described as ‘liberation theology’ instead of ‘inculturation theology’. The former was the reinterpretation of Judeo-Christian ideologies for the purposes of political and economic liberation, and the latter was the rejection of these ideologies in favour of re-establishing traditional African customs. Here, we see another example of Sankara personifying the way the colonial machine has turned in on itself.
In his use of liberation theology, Sankara also invokes Fanon’s humanist theory of the colonized’s use of violence in his assertion that,
no altar, no belief, no holy book, neither Koran nor the Bible nor the others, have ever been able to reconcile rich and poor, exploiter and exploited. And if Jesus himself had to take the whip to chase them from his temple it is indeed because that is the only language they hear.
This paralleled Fanon’s assertion from The Wretched of the Earth, that,
He of whom they have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force. In fact, as always, the settler has shown him the way he should take if he is to become free. The argument the native chooses has been furnished by the settler, and by an ironic turning of the tables it is the native who now affirms that the colonialist understands nothing but force.
Sankara was openly influenced by Fanon, quoting him on many occasions, including in his famous ‘Political Orientation Speech’, which Sankara gave shortly after coming to power. Deeply committed to the inclusion of the people in the struggle, Sankara took Fanon’s theories around human participation in the construction of a nation quite literally, as he implored and literally worked alongside the people in infrastructure projects like building railroads, schools, and planting trees to stave off the desertification of the region.
Sankara also fortified physical nation-building with ideological education. By making cultural programmes such as film screenings part of government policy—a tactic, Peterson notes, Sankara adopted from ‘French colonial practices’—Sankara was able to increase political awareness by showing documentaries about Lumumba, Nkrumah, Guevara, and the inspiring liberation struggles of countries such as Mozambique.
Thus, his speeches indicate, Sankara urged the ‘mentality of the Burkinabè [to] cease being a reproduction of the culturally alienated and politically servile individual created to perpetuate imperialist domination.’ This harkens back to Fanon’s assertion that the building of national consciousness and culture is not the call back to pre-colonial customs, which Fanon calls the ‘deterioration of culture’. Nor the adoption of a sickly Western hegemony but of what Fanon described as ‘[working] and [fighting] with the same rhythm as the people to construct the future and to prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already springing up.’
Sankara was demonstrably influenced by Fanon’s emphasis on mass participation in nation-building and the unequivocal nature of their objectives (i.e., bread and land). After all, as Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘hunger with dignity is preferable to bread eaten in slavery’. Throughout his presidency, Sankara asserted that Burkina Faso would only accept foreign aid ‘when the aid offered respects our independence and our dignity,’ and is not a ‘trap’ that is ‘laid to compel us to prostitute ourselves in order to achieve a semblance of independence. Though Sankara’s ideological formation was ultimately expansive, including ideologies surrounding feminism, environmentalism and pan-Africanism.
Sankara studied these ideological blueprints with what Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, called in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ‘heroic fury’—a method of building an ideology which requires not ‘mere external curiosity, but reasons of deep interests.’ In this method, the study of ideologies
takes possession of his whole personality, only to be limited by the study of the next theory, until such a time as a critical equilibrium is created and one learns to study deeply but without succumbing to the fascination of the system and the author under study.
these observations are all the more valid the more the thinker in question is endowed with…a personality in whom theoretical and practical activity are indissolubly intertwined and with an intellect in a process of continual creation and perpetual movement, with a strong and mercilessly vigorous sense of self-criticism.
SANKARA’S HEROIC FURY
If we understand Sankara under Gramsci’s qualifications while acknowledging how the colonial machine had unwittingly prepared Sankara for his revolutionary approach, we can observe the depth and diversity of consciousness, which constituted both a break and a reproach of Western hegemony. This manifested itself rhetorically and programmatically.
For example, in his understanding of the army’s role in national revolution, Sankara asserted that the military, which was once declared a ‘neutral and apolitical’ institution, was ‘in fact serving as the bastion of reaction and the guardian of imperialist interests.’ During his prime ministry in the CSP, Sankara gave a speech at a rally in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, where he stated that ‘the army has always had the possibility of taking power, but it never wanted democracy. For the first time, we see an army that wants power, that wants democracy, and that genuinely wants to link up with the people.’ But always emphasizing the significance of political consciousness in the national revolution, he often repeated that ‘without patriotic political education, a soldier is only a potential criminal.’
As Sankara evolved in his political ideology, he increasingly called for the military to be ‘component of the Voltaic people’. When asked about his plan to transfer power to ‘civilian political forces’ during his first interview as president of Burkina Faso, he responded that ‘it is not a question of the military taking power one day and giving it up the next. It is about the military living with the Voltaic people, suffering with them, and fighting by their side at all times.’ In practice, Sankara often insisted that the military was not just an armed wing of the Burkinabé people, but that anyone who joined the military would have to regularly perform civilian duties:
The days of the free-spending army are over. From now on, besides handling arms, the army will work in the fields and raise cattle, sheep and poultry. It will build schools and health clinics and ensure their functioning. It will maintain roads and will transport mail, the sick and agricultural products between regions by air.
Thus, in a traceable line, we find that Sankara criticizes and attempts to reprogramme the reactionary standards of the military in a method of self-criticism and reflection on his youth as a son of a gendarme and a military student. In this example, among the foregoing others, we find the subtle contradictions found in the colonial system suddenly exposed and broadcast by Sankara’s presence in the twentieth century. In his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre writes to the European imperialists:
their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies. Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound, and perished with cold. Turn and turnabout; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.
This quote suggests it was the colonial system in Africa who, by rewarding the psychological alienation of colonial soldiers and ethnic groups, had unwittingly equipped the next generation to rise against that alienation. Thomas Sankara exemplified this phenomenon as the son of a gendarme with a diverse and inherently political cultural background; the opportunity and education that was afforded him was the foundation to his inevitable revolutionary ideology⎈
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