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The Sankara experience (1983-87): A model for our future  

August 24, 2018
Sankara lives!burkinabe-protesters-with-sankara-placards

Sankara lives! Popular uprising in Burkina Faso, 2014, ousts leader of coup against Sankara

For Part 1 of this article, see ‘The long march to post-capitalist transition: Pan-Africanist perspectives

By Ameth Lô: During the period following the national liberation movements, the revolution in Burkina Faso stands out as the most relevant case of an attempt to break away from the colonial/capitalist system. This revolution drew its strength from both its anti-imperialist orientation and its deeply pan-Africanist inspiration.

Burkina Faso is a small country of the West-African Sahel, characterized by extreme poverty. It is wedged into a region often afflicted by periods of drought that drive its population to emigrate into Ivory Coast and other countries. For many years Burkina Faso was witness to political upheavals caused by the fierce struggles among elite layers for control over the state apparatus and the personal enrichment that this brings.

From the moment of revolution on 4 August 1983, when Thomas Sankara became president, Sankara and his comrades showed their colours by their solidarity with all struggles of oppressed masses around the world (Palestine, Western Sahara, etc.). They invited the people of Burkina Faso (the Burkinabé) to roll up their sleeves in building a foundation for endogenous and autonomous development, relying on their own efforts.

Sankara

Thomas Sankara (1949-1987)

Although the revolution lasted only four years, it continues to provide a model to all youth in Africa and the world over who seek a better world, one based on humanism and solidarity, in a contest against imperialist dominance sustained by military or economic coercion and by devastating neoliberal policies that enable the masters of global financial capital to control the world.

The central goal of the Burkinabé alternative lies in meeting the needs of the African masses impoverished by decades of “structural adjustment,” which imposes continual payments of so-called debt to sinister “funding agencies.”

Any project of transformational revolution necessarily encounters major obstacles. Nonetheless, many projects were accomplished that qualitatively changed the Burkinabé population’s conditions of existence. With the help of Cuban volunteers and within the space of a few months, more than 2.5 million children were inoculated against the infectious diseases that that plague the very young. Access to education increased to 22% from 10% in three years. During the same period, intensive efforts were made to counter desertification by planting ten million trees.

The event that had the greatest impact on consciousness was the institution of “women’s Wednesdays,” in which men carried out women’s traditional household tasks. This initiative helped modify popular modes of thought previously shaped by mediaeval beliefs. It sought to make men more aware of the difficult conditions that women had to contend with every day in order to enable the family to live in decent conditions. Without such a change in thinking, the revolution cannot possibly embrace the population, since almost half of it now lives in conditions of servitude.

Many dikes were constructed to retain water, enabling the rural population to cultivate their land throughout the year and thereby increase their income. Ouagadougou, the capital, was transformed through the construction of new revolutionary housing developments and by an ambitious program to upgrade slum areas that had formerly been virtual ghettos. As regards culture, the emergence of people’s theatre and cinema made it possible to rally the population for the tasks of national reconstruction.

This promising experience had a tragic conclusion: the assassination of Sankara and the end of the revolution in 1987. This outcome should lead us to reflect more deeply on the type of organizational framework needed to carry such a radical project for the transformation of African societies to a successful conclusion.

In our view, there is no way around the necessity of building a broad progressive alliance, based on the project of an alternative society carrying out a radical transformation of a capitalist and/or neocolonial society. To achieve this goal, we must break with the dogmatic positions that often obstruct efforts for consensus around what is essential. By unduly exaggerating such minor and/or secondary contradictions, such dogmatism contributes to undermining worthy initiatives, as in Burkina Faso and Grenada.

In addition, a systematic struggle is required against the elitism of petty bourgeois groupings made up of an intelligentsia cut off from the masses and popular culture, groupings that wallow in theoretical battles disconnected from concerns of the population. Finally, although every social experience has aspects that are universal, we must break with mimicry – the desire to impose such specific experiences on a social environment with its own historical reality.

For this reason, the present renewal of the pan-Africanist movement both within the continent and in the African diasporas can fulfill its great potential only if it unifies the task of rallying pan-African forces once more through popular struggles around the challenges faced by the popular masses, such as land seizures, economic partnership agreements, sovereign control of the currency, and resistance to heightened militarism and economic degradation driven by climate change.

Toward a post-capitalist transition? Tasks and perspectives

One hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution and fifty years after the end of colonialism in the formal sense, we still face the challenges of bringing a new world into being and making the transition to a post-capitalist society.

The free-market ideologists seized on the brief lull in radical struggles to declare this phase to represent the final victory of capitalism. Yet the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of production are still intact and continue to pose the same fundamental questions that will determine whether or not humanity survives. This period is characterized by a rapid deterioration of our ecological system and a deepening of disparities among different social layers – both within countries and at a global level; both within the countries of the South and in the advanced centres of the capitalist system.

Just as Karl Marx predicted, the capitalist mode of production has reached its limits and has today become a barrier to human development. Far from liberating working people by qualitatively reducing their hours of work, advanced robotization is pushing millions of proletarians into the army of the unemployed and the lumpen proletariat.

Africa, whose fate is so central for pan-Africanism and for the world, is witnessing the massive seizure of the continent’s natural resources. This pillage is sustained by increased militarization, including through the presence of dozens of foreign military bases, which serve to protect the geostrategic interests of the imperialist powers. The post-colonial state’s very nature testifies to the fact that the process of independence remains incomplete. Added to this are questions of collective survival posed by so-called jihadist movements that, in fact, are all to often controlled by the very forces that claim to be combatting them.

In reality, the instigators of the present organized pseudo-chaos act as “pyromaniac firemen” – ready to seize on sinister forces crouching in the shadows and press them into action. In this way the imperialist forces, seeking a new mode of domination, strive to make themselves indispensable on the continent in order to achieve more reliable control of the continent’s immense energy resources. Countries of the “triad” – Western Europe, North America, and Japan – are dependent on their ongoing ability to draw on these resources almost without payment in order to maintain their countries’ standard of living.

In the Caribbean, the diasporic African population experiences a dependence on foreign food that grows day by day as a result of climate change, rising sea levels, and salination of their soils. Meanwhile, their economy is controlled by an outward-oriented tourist industry, foreign banks, and cruise ship companies. Added to that, agreements for unequal partnership with the European Union still prevent the emergence of local industry capable of competing with foreign multinationals.

U.S. imperialism has renewed its aggressive expansion with the goal of increasing the isolation of the so-called BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) through a well-planned strategy of encirclement. Meanwhile, imperialism extends its tentacles in Africa by installing a host of military bases (AFRICOM plus French, German, Turkish, and Chinese bases). All this underlines the urgency of mounting a credible alternative that can lead the world to think in terms of going beyond present-day capitalist society. Even though weakened by the emergence of new blocs, the monopoly enjoyed by the Triad is not going to collapse of its own weight.

On the other hand, during the past century the world has achieved significant advances in scientific knowledge that, if oriented to the urgent needs of humanity’s majority, enable us to glimpse the advent of a new society, capable of transforming the world of work and, consequently, of the social relations that arise from the division of labour. However, despite the potential for a qualitative transformation, present technological progress – and above all the present revolution regarding tools such as artificial intelligence – bears within it seeds that could produce quite the opposite effect. These tools could be focused above all on achieving increased and permanent control of citizens through cyber-surveillance and manipulation, minimization of productive labour, concentration on financial speculation, and the like. This control is exerted not only in the physical but also in the mental domain in order to stifle any thought of questioning the established order.

To sum up, the nature of social life in the post-capitalist era will be determined in large measure by the way in which these recent technological advances are utilized.

It is thus appropriate for both socialists and pan-Africanists to reconnect with the traditions of radical struggle on a transnational level for the emergence of a new society. We need to reconnect with forms of transnational solidarity in order to promote the class struggle of oppressed layers of the population. This course requires that the Eurocentric Left recognize that such deep-going shifts in the international relationship of forces will involve a lowering of the standard of living in the richest countries. These living conditions have been made possible only through the systematic pillage of resources from the countries of the South and from Africa in particular. Is this Left prepared for such an eventuality? The future will tell.

On the other hand, these struggles will necessarily take new forms, given the capacity of the capitalist system to assure its survival through continual adjustment. Sources seeking an alternative must therefore also display the same capacity for adaptation in developing the tactics and strategies needed to attain their goals.

For Africa and the Caribbean, such a transition necessarily involves a deepening of pan-Africanism, which must pose again the urgency of decisive steps toward creation of a federal state – a federation of Africa and its diaspora – which alone can counter the dynamic of domination that draws strength from the fragmentation of our peoples. The weak neocolonial states into which they are now divided are equally incapable, individually, of assuring their own survival or of exercising the flexibility needed to negotiate in sovereign fashion how their country is inserted into the world system. Such a federation will also offer the sisters and brothers of the African diaspora in the Northern countries a chance to go back to their roots in Africa, if they so desire. Their contribution will be decisive in terms of their daily experience as an oppressed Black minority in the countries of Europe and North America.

All other approaches are illusory and incapable of seriously challenging the alliance of the bourgeoisie in imperialist countries, through their multinationals, with the African elites charged with managing these pseudo-states. These elites make hostages of their own people, acting as a supplementary force and a buffer between the dominant forces of world capitalism and the popular classes engaged in struggle.

The outcome of these struggles is far from settled. We face a transition in which advances will be made at a varying rhythm, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. But this rhythm can only arise from the capacity of peoples in struggle to manage their development. If one thing is certain, it is what was said a few decades ago by the former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara: “Freedom comes only through struggle.”

Ameth Lô, member of GRILA Toronto
Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa

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