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Thomas Sankara, “Che Guevara of Burkina Faso”

by Clelia De Stefano

“For imperialism it is more important to dominate us culturally than militarily. Cultural domination is the most flexible, the most effective, least expensive. Our duty is to decolonize our mentality”

We often think of Africa as a continent in need, without resources and without leaders; perhaps because we do not l know that in that continent were born men of courage, charisma and intelligence. One of the greatest leaders and revolutionaries of Africa was certainly Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, better known as the Che Guevara of Burkina Faso. Born in Upper Volta 21 December 1949, from a very poor family (as indeed were all, as Upper Volta was at that time the poorest country in the world) and very Catholic.

As a child he shows great skills in school intelligence, discipline and a strong personality. At the age of 10 an uprising because of an injustice committed at the school that sends his father to prison, given that in Africa it stays in the family to pay for the crimes that other members cannot serve.  At age 19, got the diploma, his parents try to convince him to become a priest, but Thomas decides to pursue a military career in Madagascar (which is the highest aspiration for a family) and makes acquaintance with Marxism and Leninism which will accompany him for life. He reads the books on the guerrilla of Che Guevara that will later put into practice. At age 23 back in Upper Volta, he is in the middle of a guerrilla war in which he immediately understands that the war is not only unjust, but also useless saying: “A soldier without political training and preparation is a criminal”. Simultaneously with the military life he delights himself with playing guitar in a group called “Tout-à-Coup Jazz”. His ascend in the military world is rapid, after only four years he becomes commander of the training center of the army to Po, before becoming Secretary of State in 1981; he will hand in his resignation after only one year because in disagree with the regime. In the following year a coup organized by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo bringe him to power and Sankara holds the function of prime minister, but an ambiguous encounter with Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (son of François) leads Sankara to the removal from the office and placed under house arrest, causing a real popular uprising. In 1983, his best friend Blaise Compaore leads a coup bringing Sankara to the Presidency at the young age of 35; it is here that the real change begins in this country, so far the poorest in the world.

Thomas Sankara decides to change the name of Upper Volta (from the river Volta) in Burkina Faso (which means “land of upright men”) to mark the end of the colonialism and the beginning of a sovereign and independent nation, which has an African name with a word describing his men. He also changes the flag (which at the time led to the three colors of the Volta River: white, red and black, thus making the flag identical to that of Germany), the Emblem and the National Anthem.

Sankara is not happy with changing just the flag, emblem and anthem; what he fundamentally wants to change, it´s the mentality of the Africans. Convince Africans that “the woman is the other half of the sky” bringing her in political, social and military life, encouraging a healthy feminism. He finds so unfair that a girl should be expelled from school if she becomes pregnant. This deep love for the woman probably comes from the love he has for his mother; he has an invalid sister and sees the great effort that the mother makes in daily work; everything makes him see in the figure of the woman an important pillar for the society. He starts and completes the construction of the Sahel railway connecting Burkina Faso with the Niger, turning it into the main artery of communication of the country (then expanded later); “Two meals and five liters of water a day” became his motto and his way to operate, thus improving the lives of the Burkinabe citizens.; he tells how Africa was literally divided at the Congress of Berlin. We are in the period in which Burkina Faso has a population of seven million people and two out of ten children die before their fifth birthday, but according to Sankara “the slave who does not organize his own rebellion deserves no compassion for his fate.”

He is not an autarchic and does not close the doors to relations with other countries, but he understands that the nature of trade is unfair and makes the world unequal “Produce what we need and buy what we produce. We must accept to live the African way”. The neoliberal recipes proposed by the financial circles and by the organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, with the liberalization of agricultural markets, lead many countries to ruin. A dirty scam of some organizations under the guise of helping makes them get into debt (for generations) and force them to live with the received food aid.

In a few years they multiply the food production, they produce their own fabrics, they pack their own uniforms and clothes, giving work to local tailors and leaning on large cotton production, thus recovering part of national sovereignty. He challenges the IMF and the great powers like the United States and France, he refuses to pay the debt calling it immoral; starts the fight against desertification. He suggests the establishment of a new African economic front that is opposed to the European and US markets. During a speech at the UN he requires the suspension of Israel and the expulsion of South Africa (which holds in prison Nelson Mandela) from the United Nations; he aims at reforming the veto power of some countries such as France, which still had economical and political rights on the former colonies; he establishes excellent relations with Cuba and Russia, thus being labeled as a communist. He invites Mitterrand to Burkina Faso and receives him with a very hard speech on the Neo-colonialism and the fact that some organizations had ruthlessly privatized water in desert places like Burkina Faso; this was immoral. The new finance was a new superpower that made them slaves. “Debt is a new form of colonialism. The old colonizers have become technicians of the humanitarian aid, but it would be better to call technical assassins”.

Meanwhile in the United States evades incredibly from a federal prison a Liberian named Charles Taylor, who had been accused and sent away from the country by the President Doe for corruption and theft of money. Taylor along with a small army reaches the border of Liberia and unleashes a war that will last until the killing of Samuel Doe. During an interview, with cameras apparently switches off, he states the truth: he was paid by the CIA to spy on all the liberation movements of Africa such as the one of Sankara. We also have the testimony of Price Johnson, former Lord of the War and currently Senator in the United States, who confessed to have been involved in the issue of Sankara. The nationalization of the country’s resources, the reduction of salaries and the costs of the politics, the laws that impose prison for the corrupts, the cutting off of his own salary and living a poor but dignified life, the abolition of the ministerial Mercedes cars (replaced with economic Renault 5), campaigns vaccines for meningitis, polio and rubella made the entire world of politics uncomfortable.

He is killed on October 15th 1987 along with twelve officers (Noufou Sawadogo, Amadé Sawadogo, Abdoulaye Guem, Der Somda, Wallilaye Ouédraogo, Emmanuel Bationo, Paténema Sore, Frédéric Kiemdé, Bonaventure Compaoré, Paulin Bamouni, Christophe Saba, Sibiri Zagre), two months after the speech at the UN, by his best friend who then becomes President Blaise Compaore (until 2014). Compaoré, through the help of the French and American embassies and Liberian soldiers, organizes a coup to remove the government of Sankara. Of course he denies it all, claiming that he was ill and elsewhere the night of the killing, but there are the testimonies of Taylor and Johnson; both describe the same scene: they are all in one room, Compaoré is sitting in front of Sankara, who asks him why he wants to “kill a brother” and Compaoré annoyed pulls the trigger twice, hitting Sankara in the chest and killing him.

Burkina Faso has returned to being poor, one of the poorest countries in the world, where those who speak of Thomas Sankara get killed or imprisoned. Even his tomb was destroyed and the government tries to completely erase the memory of this hero. During the 20th anniversary of his assassination, his people wanted to remember him, but Compaore to distract people, organized the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the new democracy brought by him, promising gifts and prizes for everyone. People, after celebrating with the President and taking the promised gifts, went at night to visit the grave (destroyed) of Thomas Sankara; the Che Guevara of Burkina Faso still lives in the hearts and memories of the Burkinabe. Africa does not need the “help” of the West, it just needs to be left in peace, because it is able to manage itself (perhaps better than we do), because it is able to transform and improve a country in a few years only and Thomas Sankara has proved it with his actions. Removed the clutches of organizations like the IMF or the World Bank, Africa would be among the first world powers. By supporting these (anti) humanitarian organizations we only support the African misery.

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