AFRICANGLOBE – In 1987, Blaise Compaoré overthrew Thomas Sankara and took over the presidency. 27 years later, Thomas Sankara’s ghost may be coming back to return the favour.
30 years ago, on 4 August, 1984, the former French colony of the Upper Volta was re-baptised as ‘Burkina Faso’ amidst a revolutionary process that proved to be one of the most inspiring, yet ultimately tragic, episodes of modern African history.
In 1983, the young Captain Thomas Sankara had come to power in a popularly-supported coup d’état and – with broad support from leftist political parties, students, women, and peasants – initiated a range of ambitious projects, including the country’s name-change, that aimed to make the country more self-reliant and free of corruption.
Sankara also sought to decentralise and democratise power in order to facilitate more participatory forms of governance, though elections for national offices were never attempted.
By many measures, this visionary project was enjoying a number of promising successes, but on 15 October 1987, Sankara’s experiment and life were cut short when a group of fellow soldiers, led by his former close ally Blaise Compaoré and backed by foreign powers, murdered him. Compaoré promptly took the reins of government effectively ending the revolution.
In the 27 years since Sankara’s overthrow, Compaoré has managed to keep a hold of power and largely ruled with impunity, though there have been periodic protest movements. Most notably, there were widespread demonstrations in 1998 after the journalist Norbert Zongo was killed, while 2011 also saw a marked rise in protests and mutinies.
And now, over the past year, the political opposition has reorganised itself once again and sharpened its message in anticipation of the presidential elections due in November 2015. So far, the most heated dispute has erupted over the issue of term limits.
In 2010, the new Article 37 of the constitution reduced presidential terms from 7 to 5 years and imposed a two-term limit. Since then, Compaoré has been re-elected twice meaning that he would not be eligible to run again in 2015, but the ruling party is now calling for a referendum on the article.
It is in this fraught context that the streets of the capital Ouagadougou have become restive today and that the words and images of Thomas Sankara have been revitalised – his quotes declared at demonstrations, his face printed on posters and t-shirts, his revolutionary slogans such as “Homeland or Death, We will Overcome” remembered and recited.
With a revived revolutionary spirit, the people have boldly taken up where Sankara left off, bringing to life his assertion in 1987, as rumours of a planned coup began to spread, that “Even if you kill me, thousands more Sankaras will be born.”
Spearheading the wider movement – dubbed ‘That’s Enough’ – has been the Balai Citoyen (“Citizen Broom”) collective and its main leaders, the reggae musician and radio host Sams’k Le Jah and rapper Smockey. The symbol of the broom represents both the neighbourhood cleaning groups that Sankara initiated and the need to clean the country of bad governance and corruption today.
The protesters want Compaoré gone, and there’s a prevailing sense that they will not relent until this happens. The movement is peaceful and festive and inspired by the youth movement in Senegal known as Y’en a marre (“We’re fed up”) which played a role in forcing President Abdoulaye Wade from office in 2012.
The fall of Sankara
As many know, the name ‘Burkina Faso’ translates as “Land of Honest People” or “Land of Incorruptible People”, and this moniker seems to capture what it means to be Burkinabé – honest, hard-working, proud and free. The name additionally reflects the multi-ethnic vision and nation-building aspirations of Sankara in that it combined the Mooré word for ‘honest’ (Burkina) with the Jula word for ‘homeland’ (Faso).
But the name change was also a statement against imperialism. Speaking about the issue in Harlem, New York City, on 2 October 1984, Sankara explained: “We wanted to kill off Upper Volta in order to allow Burkina Faso to be reborn.
For us, the name of Upper Volta symbolises colonialism.” On another occasion on French television Sankara expanded, saying: “Upper Volta doesn’t mean anything for anyone, particularly for us, the Burkinabés… . By contrast, Burkina Faso is a name drawn from the land itself, that has meaning in our language – the ‘Country of Honest Men.'”
In essence, the name change was about decolonising minds and freeing Burkina Faso from foreign cultural and economic domination, and many Burkinabés who lived through these revolutionary years remember feeling a new sense of pride in being from Burkina Faso and in having the dynamic and bold Thomas Sankara as their president.
Outside the country, Sankara also became something of a revolutionary hero, being labelled the “African Che”, particularly among the youth. His famous adage, “Everything that man can imagine, he is capable of creating,” injected optimism and hope into many people’s lives.
True to the country’s new name, Sankara would live up to the highest standards of incorruptibility. At a time when most African heads-of-state used power to enrich themselves, Sankara set out to end the practice of employing political power for personal gain and lived a life of frugality and simplicity, dying with few possessions and scant money or real estate. Sankara also sought to end decades of French colonial and neo-colonial domination by reaching out to countries in the non-aligned world.
His revolution restored the dignity of the people by giving them a political voice and through social and agrarian reforms. He addressed a wide array of problems with relentless vigour, ranging from environmental degradation, women’s rights, education, local cotton textile production, and public health. And while there were errors along the way, as Sankara frequently admitted himself, he persistently sought to correct them.
Following Sankara’s assassination, however, Compaoré did his best to turn all this on its head. He was quick to blame Sankara’s policies for all the country’s problems, promised to “rectify” the revolution, and used the media to defame him.