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Thomas Sankara: An Icon of Revolution

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15 October, 2020, was Thomas Sankara's 33rd death anniversary. On that day, he was murdered by imperialist forces at the tender age of 37. A Pan-Africanist, internationalist and Marxist, he was committed to the total liberation of the oppressed masses from the clutches of imperialism. Instead of bourgeoisie nationalism, Sankara believed in radical nationalism: a combination of anti-imperialist courage and unabashed humanism that pushes for revolution instead of neo-colonial settlement. Thus, he belonged to a pantheon of African revolutionaries like Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel and Patrice Lumumba who understood the necessity of adopting socialism for the fundamental transformation of their respective societies. Looking at the short life of Sankara, one can't help but be moved by the way in which he emerged through the anguish and aspirations of millions of Burkinabe civilians and commanded a radical project of socialist transformation.

Man of the Masses

On 25 November, 1980, a group of military officers led by Colonel Saye Zerbo staged a coup against Aboubakar Sangoule' Lamizana's largely dysfunctional government, citing, among other reasons for their action, an "erosion of state authority." Establishing the Military Committee for the Enhancement of National Progress (CMRPN), Zerbo detained the former president and many other officials, scrapped the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, outlawed parties, and prohibited all political activities. After taking power, Zerbo harshly implemented a comprehensive austerity package which reduced budgetary expenditure and weakened the fiscal capacity of the public sector. In addition to austerity, Zerbo's CMRPN repressed the labor movement, formally suspended the right to strike and arrested radical students.

As the concoction of austerity and authoritarianism was being prepared, corruption was simultaneously increasing. Reports revealed massive embezzlement at a publicly owned investment bank by its former head; exposed a Ministry of Finance service director for taking payments from several merchants in exchange for forged documents authorizing wheat imports; and raised questions about real estate speculation done by private merchants, state officials and army officers which was increasing housing rents for citizens. These corruption cases received a remarkable amount of coverage during Sankara's tenure as the secretary of information from November 1981 through April 1982. As the secretary of information, he put a halt to the intimidatory tactics of the state and encouraged reporters to provide citizens with the "most accurate information possible".

On 12 April, 1982, Sankara sent a formal letter of resignation to the president. In it, he criticized the CMRPN for its "class" character and for serving the "interests of a minority". He further announced his resignation publicly over a live radio and proclaimed: "Woe to those who would gag their people." In response, the CMRPN stripped Sankara of his rank as the captain, arrested him and deported him to a military camp in the Western town of Dedougou. By this time, the military was factionalized and one of the factions decided to overthrow Zerbo through a coup. Sankara was against a strictly military takeover and wanted a political program to be elaborated so that fundamental social changes could be produced. Though Sankara's supporters refrained from undertaking any military action, other military officers moved ahead with a coup. On 7 November, 1982, a military action, led principally by Commander Gabriel Some' Yorian - a politically conservative officer who had served as a minister in every government since 1971 - occupied key locations in Ouagadougou, overthrew the CMRPN and formed a military-led government called the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP).

The CSP was unstable and faction-ridden from the start. While the conservative bloc wanted to operate within the pre-existing framework of imperialist subjection and make minor changes, the revolutionary junior officials - who were drawn into coalitions that included leaders of organized left-wing parties, academics, student activists, trade unionists, and other civilians - were oriented towards the construction of an anti-imperialist front. Sankara - who was restored to his previous rank of captain - used the administration as a public platform to propagate revolutionary ideals and agitate for more changes. When he was sent to talk to a congress of the secondary and university teachers' union, Sankara said that the army was facing "the same contradictions as the Voltaic people" as a whole and affirmed that "struggles for liberty" were gaining support within the military.

On 10 January, 1983, Sankara was named prime minister by an assembly of the CSP. While taking the oath on 1 February, he emphasized that government members were there to serve the people, "not to serve themselves." The people wanted freedom, he said, but "this freedom should not be confused with the freedom of a few to exploit the rest through illicit profits, speculation, embezzlement, or theft." As prime minister, Sankara embarked on an extended international trip, which culminated in his attendance at the summit of the Non-Aligned Countries in New Delhi, India. His trip included visits to Libya and North Korea, considered as pariahs by the Western governments. From 7 to 13 March 1983, Sankara was at the summit of the Non-Aligned Countries in New Delhi, India, where he met various Third World revolutionary leaders, including Fidel Castro of Cuba, Samora Machel of Mozambique, and Maurice Bishop of Grenada.

In his speech to the summit, Sankara criticized US foreign policy. "The Israeli government, publically supported by the United States, despite the unanimous condemnation of the entire world, invaded Lebanon with its army, submitted the capital Beirut to ruthless destruction", he said. "Despite the ceasefire called for by the international community, the Israeli government has allowed the indescribable massacres of Sabra and Shatila, and whose leaders [in Israel] should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity." On top of US policies in the Middle East, Sankara condemned American imperialism in Nicaragua and El Salvador and expressed solidarity with the people of South Africa, Mozambique and Angola.

On his return from New Delhi, political divisions within the CSP deepened. On March 26, 1983, Sankara gave a fiery speech at a mass rally organized by the government where he clearly outlined his revolutionary plans. In his speech, Sankara criticized bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and traditional and religious leaders. Using a participatory call-and-response method, he said:

"Are you in favor of us keeping corrupt civil servants in our administration?

[Shouts of "No!"]

So we must get rid of them. We will get rid of them.

Are you in favor of us keeping corrupt soldiers in our army?

[Shouts of "No!"]

So we must get rid of them. We will get rid of them.

Perhaps this will cost us our life, but we are here to take risks. We are here to dare. And you are here to continue the struggle at all costs."

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Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and is interested in studying the existential conditions of subaltern classes.

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