Thomas Sankara: African Liberation Leadership in an Era of Neoliberalism

Comments on “Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man”

Thomas Sankara

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Libya 360°

Pan-African News Wire Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from comments made at the Liberation Film Series held monthly at the Dr. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. On March 9, 2013, Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, along with Dr. Rita Kiki (Nkiru) Edozie, Director of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University, spoke before and in the aftermath of the screening of the documentary film “Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man,” which examined the life and legacy of this revolutionary from the West African state of Burkina Faso who took power in 1983 and was assassinated in October 1987.

Azikiwe made comments on the historical and political context in which Sankara came to power. Dr. Edozie presented a series of questions for the audience on the contemporary situation in Africa and presented parallels on the plights of Africans on the continent and those in the United States, with specific reference to the city of Detroit.

Below are some of the comments made by Abayomi Azikiwe.

Most of the former French colonies in Africa immediately reverted back to neo-colonialism after national independence. Many of these states gained their independence in 1960 with the former Belgian Congo.

Nonetheless, there were some exceptions. In Algeria strong nationalist sentiments among the people during the 1940s and 1950s was met with harsh repression by Paris.

In 1954, a war of national liberation was launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN). This war was launched around the same time that French imperialism suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam.

Later in 1958, Charles De Gaulle proposed the development of nominal independence under Paris. Guinea-Conakry broke with this scheme and voted in the referendum held by France to declare independence on September 28. The country was founded on October 2 of that same year.

The Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG) under Ahmed Sekou Toure was rebuffed by the former colonialists who withdrew technicians and equipment. Guinea embarked upon an independent path of anti-imperialism, Pan-Africanism and socialism.

When France did grant independence to its colonies in sub-Saharan Africa in 1960 it was within the framework of economic, political and military subservience. In Cameroun, the People’s Union (UPC) had attempted to take an independent course but its leader, Felix Moumie, was assassinated in 1960 by the French secret service in Geneva.

France tightened its military grip around Algeria’s neighbors severely hampering assistance to the armed struggle of the FLN. However, Mali, under Modibo Keita, opened up a southern front which was indispensable to the victory of the FLN in 1961 leading to independence in Algiers in 1962.

Also prior to this the All-African People’s Conference held in Accra, Ghana under Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, pledged unconditional support to the Algerian struggle. This conference was attended by Dr. Frantz Fanon who was an editor and organizer for the FLN.

Ghana, Guinea and Mali had formed an anti-imperialist and Pan-African Union in 1960. They served as a bulwark against neo-colonialism in Africa.

Of course the Congo crisis of 1960-61 created a split within the ranks of the independent African states. The Casablanca Group took on a more anti-imperialist view and the Monrovia Group sought compromise with the West.

Overall Paris sought to maintain its dominance over its former colonies through Francophonie.

Principles of the Burkinabe Revolution

When Capt. Sankara came to power he and his comrades pursued a line towards genuine independence by emphasizing the need for the petty-bourgeoisie to commit “class suicide” in the Fanonian sense. They advocated self-reliance and the economic redistribution of wealth and foreign assistance.

Also they sought to ignite a cultural revolution through abolishing the notion inherent privilege. They believed that students and intellectuals should serve the people and the state to transform the society into a revolutionary one.

In addition, the liberation of women was advocated. This was designed to break down gender oppression and inequality.

The Sankara government also sought to address the problem of environmental degradation. They launched the planting of trees and the utilization of cotton and agricultural products from inside the country to develop goods for internal consumption.

Obstacles to the Burkinabe Revolution

Sankara eventually ran into difficulties with the intellectuals, students and civil servants. Some felt their privileges were under threat with French opposition to the social experiment.

France opposed Sankara and used the-then government in Ivory Coast to undermine the Revolution. Sankara’s deputy, Blaise Compaore, staged the coup and assassinated the leader.

With Burkina Faso being a largely agrarian state there was not a strong and developed working class. Therefore with the hostility of the petty-bourgeoisie the social base of the Revolution was eroded.

Sankara had to battle political isolation being largely surrounded by neo-colonial client states. Building a revolution inside Burkina Faso faced formidable obstacles absent of a broader Pan-African revolutionary movement within the region.

These developments in Burkina Faso should be studied to learn lessons for future movements in Africa as well as in the Diaspora.

In Detroit, the city is facing political isolation through racism and economic underdevelopment. Nonetheless, the imposition of emergency management will not solve the city’s problems but will only aggravate the difficulties.

Workers and youth must organize independently to focus on the role of the banks and corporations. Demands for a moratorium on debt-service can forced the financial institutions to back away from their onslaught against the city of Detroit.

In Burkina Faso under Sankara, the revolutionaries sought to mobilize Africa to declare a moratorium on debt payments. This was a direct threat to neo-colonialism in its modern form.

Abayomi Azikiwe
is the editor of Pan-African News Wire , an international electronic press service designed to foster intelligent discussion on the affairs of African people throughout the continent and the world. The press agency was founded in January of 1998 and has published thousands of articles and dispatches in newspapers, magazines, journals, research reports, blogs and websites throughout the world. The PANW represents the only daily international news source on pan-african and global affairs. To contact him, click on this link >> Email

Thomas Sankara :The Upright Man

“When you are bearing arms that can spit fire and death, and when you can receive orders standing to attention in front of a flag, without knowing who will benefit from this order or this arm, you become a potential criminal who’s just waiting to spread terror around you. How many soldiers are going around such and such a country, and bringing grief and desolation without understanding that they are fighting men and women who argue for the same ideals as their own. If they knew! Children of workers who see their parents going on strike against reactionary regimes accept to fight for the reactionary leaders since they joined the army. So a soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal.”

— Thomas Sankara

Also See:
Revolutionary Voices Against Imperialism