Remarks prepared for the “Thomas Sankara Annual Conference”

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Remarks prepared for the “Thomas Sankara Annual Conference”

This paper is a contribution of Carina Ray during the Second Edition of the Thomas Sankara Annual Conference held in Washington, DC on October 12, 2013. Carina Ray is an historian historian of Africa and the Black Atlantic world, a researcher, an author and an Assistant Professor at Fordham University. Her publications include Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan: A Critical Reader

Remarks prepared for the “Thomas Sankara Annual Conference”

By Carina Ray - October 11, 2013

Greetings. I’d like to begin by saying that I regret very much that I cannot be with you today in person for this very important occasion. I am very thankful, however to Gnaka Lagoke, for inviting me to participate in today’s forum and for sharing my contribution with all of you.   

I want to begin by recounting a recent conversation I had with an Ivorian taxi cab driver, named Mamadou, in New York City last summer. We started talking about politics in West Africa and at some point in the conversation I mentioned Sankara, and before I could finish my sentence he exclaimed, “I remember exactly where I was when I first learned that Sankara had been assassinated. It was a Friday, and I had just come home from school for lunch and there were people gathered around in our compound very upset. They said to me “Sankara is dead!” -­‐-­‐   Sankara was killed in Ouagadougou on a Thursday and by the next day news had reached
Mamadou’s village in Cote d’Ivoire, not far from Lake Kossou.

Even as a young teenager, Mamadou said he knew who Sankara was and knew that he was a different kind of leader. He recounted knowing about how Sankara had confronted then French President Francois Mitterrand, during his visit to Burkina, in the wake of PTW Botha’s state visit to France. (You can actually see stirring footage of his confrontation with Mitterrand in a number of the documentaries on

Sankara).  Mamadou said he’d never thought something like that was possible. Not surprising given the only president he had ever known was Houphouet-­‐Boigny.  I recount this brief conversation because it underscores something very powerful that perhaps those of us gathered here today can appreciate, but that many don’t know: Sankara’s assassination was a cataclysmic event. For West Africans, in particular, the global African world and progressive people internationally, more generally, its significance can be compared to that of JFK for many Americans, MLK and Malcom X for African Americans and their progressive allies, etc. That is to say it was one of those defining moments that left an indelible mark in our psyche precisely because we knew it mattered – that things would never been the same again.

What I want to suggest here today is that indeed, things have never been the same in terms of progressive, Pan-­‐Africanist, anti-­‐imperialist leadership at the governmental level.  Sankara’s assassination marks the last in the third wave of indepdendence-­‐ era/post-­‐independence assassinations of progressive global African leaders (please have audience refer to the chart). Here I want to acknowledge the assassinations iof Chris Hani in 1993 and John Garang in 2005, but bracket them off because for me, Hani’s assassination although chronologically out of order, fits in with the second wave, in that like Biko’s assassination it was intended to stamp out the more “radical” Black Conciousness anti-­‐apartheid leadership. And as far as Garang is concerned, more definitive answers about the circumstances surrounding his death are needed.

In fact, when we look at Sankara what we saw is really the last example of a visionary leader who was not deterred by the very clear message that the consistent program of assassinations of progressive leaders was meant to send: self-­‐ determination, including economic self-­‐determination, anti-­‐imperialism, African unity, essentially anything that curbed the continuation of the exploitative and dictatorial relationship between Africa and the west, would not only not be tolerated, it would be actively rooted out. To that end we have our first wave of assassinations in the 1960s (Lumumba and Nkrumah’s political assassination); the second wave starting in 1969 and ending in 1977 (Eduardo Mondlane, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko); and then in the 1980s (Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop, Samora Machel, and then Sankara). – And here it is important to incorporate the assassinations of Rodney and Bishop because they represented Sankara’s counterparts in the diaspora, and also because they have in common with Sankara’s assassination, as well as many others, the collusion between regressive internal elements and external aggressors.

When we look at Sankara in this context, understanding that he made the choice to take on a leadership role in the progressive vein in full view of the first two waves of assassinations, and just 3 years after the start of the third wave, with the 1980 assassination of Walter Rodney, and then a few months after he’s in power, Maurice Bishop is assassinated, and then shortly before his own assassination, Samora Machel was assassinated. Neither the first two waves stopped him, and the when he could have switched courses after Bishop and most especially after Machel’s

assassination, he did not.  Boukari Kabore, one of Sankara’s staunchest supporters until the very end, recalls that he knew he would die, and he accepted it as the price he had to pay in order to accomplish great things for his country. As Sankara was fond of saying, “you can kill a man, but not his ideas.”

But Sankara also said something else that is very telling: asked whether he felt isolated in Africa – IN AFRICA – he said he felt “not understood, not liked.” He was aware, hyper-­‐aware, of the fact that the revolution he had enacted had not only brought him the enmity of the West, but also disdain in Africa, among his peers in government, but also among some of his people. And this is one of the greatest tragedies of the Sankara episode, that it reveals the ways in which a downtrodden people can lash out or reject the very person or party that has their best interests at heart in favor of supporting the source of their own oppression. In a way, it reminds me of the paradoxical relationship between the Republican Party and a large swath of the American working class, who unflaggingly support the Republicans despite the fact that the party consistently works against the interests of poor and working class people! An ever-­‐relevant example being the sizeable numbers of uninsured Americans who still support the Republicans in their efforts to repeal Obama’s health care reforms.

If we shift the perspective to the post-­‐Sankara period what you begin to see is the absolute effectiveness of the three waves of assassinations, that ends with Sankara. Twenty-­‐six years later, at the state level there is no African leader who even remotely comes close to espousing the kind of progressive agenda that epitomized Sankara’s time in power. And I think this awareness of what the legacy of these assassinations has been is often missing in discussions of the impoverished state of state-­‐level African leadership.

In fact it is quite telling that that at the time of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, he was the only African head of state unequivocally calling for the formation of a United States of Africa, as earlier espoused by Nkrumah and Nasser. This fact alone reveals just how decrepit the movement for continental unity, at the state level, has become over the last fifty years, despite the African Union’s (AU) perennial nods to the idea of a union government.

African leaders have long been divided about the merits of unifying Africa under a single governmental structure. As independence movements swept the continent in the late 1950s and the early 1960s two schools of thought emerged. The avowedly anti-­‐colonial Casablanca Group, led by Nkrumah and Nasser, called for the complete liberation and total unification of the continent.  The moderate Monrovia Group, led by Nigeria, Liberia and a number of Francophone West African countries, favored a gradualist approach which foregrounded regional integration and economic cooperation.  While the two groups ultimately put their differences aside to form the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, in subsequent years the OAU adhered to the Monrovia Group’s conservative regional approach.

It was at Gaddafi’s insistence and largely with his funding that the AU was created to succeed the largely ineffective OAU in 2002. Disillusioned by the AU’s slow progress towards unity, in 2007 Gaddafi began championing the idea of a United States of Africa.  He made it the focal point of his 2009 AU Chairmanship, during which he called for the implementation of a single African military force, currency, and passport system.  But for Pan-­‐Africanists, like myself, Gaddafi seemed to hijack rather than resuscitate the Casablanca Group’s vision for Africa.

Gaddafi’s African unity project suffered from his cult of personality politics. As many of his political counterparts distanced themselves from him, he courted the support of so-­‐called traditional leaders from across the continent. Some 200 of them later bestowed the title “King of Kings of Africa” on him. He often appeared in public flanked by African rulers elaborately dressed in customary regalia, in a desperate attempt to position himself as a man of the people.

Gaddafi proposed making his hometown, Sirte, Libya, the capital of Africa and in a series of billboards he projected himself as Africa’s savior who would usher in an era of hope and prosperity for the continent. In short, Gaddafi’s antics turned African unity into a personal pet project for self-­‐glorification.

This did little in the way of converting skeptics to his cause, especially those who were familiar with his long record of wanton destabilization throughout the sub-­‐ region.  His close ties with Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s Foday Sankoh

and his cozy relationship with Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, who briefly offered Gaddafi asylum, are prime illustrations of his destructive tendencies. And more to the point here, whether directly or indirectly through his support for Taylor and Compaore, he is also implicated in Sankara’s assassination.

More recently Gaddafi’s contradictory tendencies were on full display when he suggested in 2010 that Nigeria should be split into several states in order to avoid religious and ethnic conflict. Surely, Nkrumah turned in his grave.

The foregoing should make it clear that far from being the death knell in the coffin of African unity, Gaddafi’s demise has cleared a space for a new generation of Africans to seize the mantle of change by claiming Pan-­‐Africanism as a movement of the people rather than of disinterested, misguided political elites. Having said that we must still condemn Gaddafi’s assassination.

But what does Pan-­‐Africanism as a movement of the people look like? What are its aspirations and who are its leaders? Is political and social transformation at the national level in Africa a prerequisite for forging the kinds of transnational solidarities and networks that make continental unity possible? Or do we reinscribe the very boundaries that Pan-­‐Africanism seeks to nullify when we emphasize the nation as a building block of African unity? And how do we persuade people that this is an agenda they should care about, that it is not simply an abstract ideological position, when survival is often the order of the day.

These are the kinds of tough questions that Pan-­‐Africanists must confront if we are to move beyond the well-­‐worn rhetoric of African unity towards an actual plan of action. We can do this by developing new models of and platforms for civil society leadership. And we have some successful examples, already, to draw from. In terms of information organs, we have Pambazuka News and New African, and we have progressives organizations like GRILA in Canada, Revival of Pan-­‐Africanism Forum, and the other organizations that sponsored today’s gathering, as well as civil-­‐society leaders, many of whom go about their work unrecognized, but there are others, like our dearly-­‐departed Tajudeen Abdul-­‐Raheem, who was able to work at both the
level of the ideological and the practical.

I think it is fitting to end with an excerpt from one of Tajudeen’s beloved Thursday postcards, titled “A United Government of Africa: It’s Now or Never”:
He says: “Sovereignty belongs to the people.  Therefore a Union of African Peoples is what our people are prepared for but the leaders are holding us back. …they are pandering to Afropessimism and defeatism by saying ‘we are not ready.’ If not now then when?   It is a false choice to posit the issues as one between gradualists and radicals.  The choice should be between fast or faster! Africa has waited too long and we should all be tired of the stagnation.”

In rejecting the nomenclature of the United States of Africa in favor of a Union of African Peoples, Tajudeen points us in the direction that Pan-­‐Africanists must go if we are to actualize unity: away from the state and towards the people.

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