Thomas Sankara’s Revolution: A Framework for Africa’s Empowerment and Independence by Akufuna Sitali Ngonda

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Thomas Sankara’s Revolution: A Framework for Africa’s Empowerment and Independence by Akufuna Sitali Ngonda


This text is from a presentation by Akufuna Sitali Ngonda, Human Rights Activist, and Member of Answer Coalition during the Second Edition of the Thomas Sankara Annual Conference held in Washington, DC on October 12, 2013.

Thomas Sankara’s Revolution: A Framework for Africa’s Empowerment and Independence

by Akufuna Sitali Ngonda

In what manner do we, in discourse, frame the very meaning of a revolutionary? Our forming rationale must qualitatively ascertain the socio-economic, cultural and political conditions that sharpen the necessity for a revolution.
The revolving basis of our Pan African purview must place into consideration the totality of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara. He was not a singularity nor was the impetus to progressively forge a collective mobilization drawn outside or independently from the struggle of the people of Burkina Faso. Before we deepen our conversation let us, together, hear from Thomas Sankara when he stated the following:
“We hope and believe that the best way of limiting the usurpation of power by individuals, military or otherwise, is to put the people in charge. Between fractions, between clans, plots and coups d’etats can be perpetrated. Against the people, a durable coup d’état cannot be perpetrated. Therefore, the best way of preventing the army from confiscating power for itself and for itself alone is to make this power shared by the voltaic people from the outset. That’s what we are aiming for.”

August 21, 1983 press conference

Thomas Sankara, in the exemplary manner of his person, his work, and that of which that constituted him, were measured acutely by an unequivocal commitment to articulate through practice the peoples’ felt need to combat all vestiges of colonialism, dismantle all functioning apparatuses of neo-colonial plundering, overthrow economic subjugation and uproot institutionalized degradation. This commitment to revolution resolved to fervently denounce and repudiate capricious imperialism.

Thomas Sankara’s continent wide popularity is due in part of Africans’ disillusionment with African leaders whose complicity is entrenched within imperialism. For the purposes of our discussion we define imperialism as the main hegemonic global power which dispenses its power in numerous forms which include the United Nations, The Security Council, and The Bretton Woods System, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other multilateral institutions.

The principle of self-reliance was the basis of Sankara’s denunciation of so-called foreign “aid'' which he argued “produced nothing more than disorganization and enslavement.” He refused to listen to the: “charlatans trying to sell development models that have all failed''.

Of course, he was alluding to the so-called experts from the World Bank and the IMF who took control of economic policy in many African countries to disastrous effect in the form of the Structural Adjustment Development Program (SADP).
The enactment of SADP in Africa, beginning in the late 1980s, significantly lowered the general population’s literacy rates. The literacy rates that were gained shortly after many African nations instituted universal education after independence. Increases in the infant mortality rates when governmental health subsides were gutted. African life expectancy is the lowest in the world and unemployment for ages 18-35 is among the highest in the world. Public infrastructure and resourses were privatized to various multinational corporations and for the purposes of movement of imperial finance capital.
Sankara’s position was in stark contrast to that of several African leaders who literally became beggars who no longer dared raise their voices against the injunctions and interference of their “development partners”. Sankara showed that “poverty'' did not have to translate into a loss of dignity and an abdication of sovereignty.

Sankara rejected the inevitability of “poverty'', and was one of the first proponents of food security. Food security is at the forefront of popular discourse throughout the global north and south and in the United States the issue of budget cuts in WIC program that has led to mass mobilizations to fight back against these cuts. Sankara’s leadership achieved the spectacular feat of making his country food self-sufficient within four years, through sustainable agricultural policy and, above all, the mobilization of the Burkinabé peasantry. He understood that a country that could not feed itself ran the risk of losing its independence and sovereignty.

In July 1987, Sankara, close on the heels of Fidel Castro two years earlier, called on African countries to form a powerful front against their continent’s illegitimate and immoral debt and to collectively refuse to pay it. He understood that the odious debt was a form of modern enslavement for Africa; a major cause of poverty and deep suffering for African populations. Sankara famously stated; “If we do not pay the debt, our lenders will not die. However, if we do pay it, we will die.''
On the international stage, Sankara was the first African head of state, to denounce the United Nation’s Security Council’s right of veto and to condemn the lack of democracy within the United Nations system as well as the hypocrisy that characterized international relations.

Internationalism and convergent solidarity came to the fore when he did not hesitate to give his unwavering support for all popular revolutionary struggles and resistance movements against imperialist domination and colonial oppression.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly on October 4, 1984, Sankara stated:
“Our revolution in Burkina Faso is open to the suffering of all peoples. It also draws its inspiration from the experiences of peoples since the dawn of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all of the revolutions of the world, of all of the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.''
These revolutions and struggles inspired Sankara in his vision and desire to profoundly transform the economic and social structures in Burkina Faso as well as the deconstructing mentalities forged over centuries of foreign domination and oppression by dominant and exploitative classes internally and externally.
Recognition of the Pandemic of HIV/AIDS and Women’s Movement
The other dimensions of Thomas Sankara’s popularity found its currency in the HIV/AIDS peoples’ rights struggle. The revolutionary Burkinabé government was the first African government to publicly recognize the pandemic of HIV/AIDS as a major threat to Africa. This had a tremendous impact particularly in Southern Africa where ordinary people joined in solidarity and organizing around the principle that health and access to treatment is an inviolable fundamental human right. This recognition gave buoyancy to people’s rights movement throughout the global south.
Thomas Sankara was one of the first heads of state, perhaps the only one in his time, to condemn female excision, a position that reflected his unwavering commitment to the emancipation of women and the struggle against all forms of discrimination against women. He was a relentless advocate of gender equality and the recognition of the role of women in all spheres of economic and social life. This was not a rhetorical stance but one in which a large number of women were in government and held leadership roles within society of Burkina Faso. In his famous speech of October 2, 1983, he stated:
”We cannot transform society while maintaining domination and discrimination against women who constitute over half of the population”.
When we look at the Women’s movement throughout Africa the revolutionary Burkinabé government forthright assertion aligned itself within the continuum of women’s movement.  The African women's movement agitated not just on political representation, but also a substantive rendering to the furtherance of women's rights. Women in Africa like their counterparts in the global north often work more than men, yet are paid less; pronounced gender subjugation, ignoble discrimination affects all women throughout their lifetime and in Africa women, more often than not, are the ones who suffer considerably in poverty and sexual violence.
The continent-wide challenges still persist but the women's movement continues to fight back and focus onward in formulating the deconstruction of patriarchy and endeavoring to mandate health, reproductive and gender identity rights.
Sankara Legacy Today
Today, all of these ideas are at the heart of popular resistance movements, including the fight back campaign against privatization of the public sector, the struggle against blood minerals, fight back against land dispossession and the Arab Spring which has led to concurrent uprisings in Algeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda Western Sahara and Zambia.
The ideas Thomas Sankara practiced and forwarded during his brief time on the African and international stage. arouses as much fervor today as he did 30 years ago,
it is because he and the people of Burkina Faso demonstrated and defended causes that still resonate today among the oppressed in Africa and around the world.
As recently as February 20, 2011 in Burkina Faso political tensions arose when following the death in police custody of student Justin Zongo on February 20 which sparked widespread student anger. Authorities initially said the death was due to meningitis, a lie that only amplified the protests against police brutality, which quickly spread from Zongo’s native town of Koudougou in west-central Burkina Faso to the entire country. Public protest involved all sectors of society; the current Burkina Faso began to waver and met the demands for a full inquiry into police brutality. The form and scope of these protests differ from the revolutionary era but the mass effort to confront brutality finds its roots in the legacy of Thomas Sankara. .
Undoubtedly, Thomas Sankara’s contribution to revolutionary praxis attains its pointedness within the framework of political struggle whereupon oppressed people become imbued with political consciousness, correctly comprehend their interests and fight steadfastly for their liberation.
Thomas Sankara was assassinated in the belief that it could extinguish the example he set for African youth and progressive forces across the continent. They could not have been more wrong.

One week before his assassination on October 15, 1987, in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Ernesto “Che'' Guevara, Thomas Sankara declared:
“Ideas cannot be killed, ideas never die.”
Indeed, the history of humanity is replete with martyrs and heroes whose ideas and actions have survived the passage time to inspire future generations.
Thomas Sankara is one in a revered list of African revolutionaries and visionary leaders who were assassinated by the colonial, neocolonial and comprador ruling elite allies.That list includes Maurice Audin of Algeria, Ali Soilih of Comoros, Félix-Roland Moumié, Ruben Um Nyobé of Cameroon, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Marian Ngouabi of the Congo-Brazzaville, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto of Kenya, Attati Mpakati of Malawi, Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique, Ken Sora-Wiwa of Nigeria, Bantu Stephen Biko, Chris Hani, Ruth First, Abram Tiro of South Africa, Tavio Amorin of Togo and Herbert Chitepo of Zimbabwe.
The ideas and principles that guided the Burkinabé Revolution did not vanish with Thomas Sankara’s assassination. They will continue to guide African popular struggles and resistance movements until foreign domination has been utterly vanquished and Africans have recovered their sovereignty.

The formation of African unity must be premised on the public ownership of the continent’s vast resources and reorganize to meet the needs, reflect and to affirm Africa’s most valuable resource, the African people themselves.
I submit to you, Sisters and Brothers, that our understanding of Africa today must be our revolutionary support and firm commitment to the total liberation of the people of Africa and the complete liberation of humanity as a whole. We must do everything we can to advance and deepen our interconnected of unity. A unified Africa is the real Africa, Long Live the Legacy of Thomas Sankara. Long Live African Unity.
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