The Many Uses Of Thomas Sankara

What has achieved on October 21, 2014, was no small miracle, and undoubtably the result of decades of determined, courageous and inspiring dissent and resistance by the people of Burkina Faso against the regime of Blaise Campaoré. This uprising was only the latest of a number of attempts the people of the country have made to rid themselves of a regime based on violence, and repression. Through their rebellion, and resistance to oppression, the Burkinabé have used the words and actions of Thomas Sankara to inspire and mobilise them. But, during those decades, the ways in which his image, words and actions have been interpreted, and acted on has been driven by a desire not for ‘historical evidence’ or accuracy of facts, but “…to reconfigure the terrain of the present” [Moffat, 2016]. And in that process, a new Thomas Sankara has emerged–a simulation of the original, but one that has no reference or relationship to it.

The Prevalence of Thomas Sankara

His image was everywhere. Protestors gathering outside the parliament before they stormed and burnt it, carried placards with photographs of Thomas Sankara, and others with his words on it. Young men and women stoning government buildings, setting up road-blacks, setting types on fire, sparing with the riot police and throwing Molotov cocktails at government vehicles, were seen wearing hand painted t-shirts with pictures of Thomas Sankara, sporing his characteristic military beret, and his brilliant smile. Graffiti artists like Deris – member of the art group Burkigraff, became a house-hold names during the uprising against Blaise Campaoré as their caustic images, and portraits of Thomas Sankara began to appear on walls across the city.

As Ernest Harsh documented,

Sankara’s portrait was often carried by demonstrators. His recorded voice rang out over demonstration sound systems. Quotations from his speeches featured in popular chants and in the addresses of protest speakers. Even politically moderate opposition leaders concluded their speeches with “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!” (Homeland or death, we will win), the emblematic slogan of Sankara’s government [Harsh, 2014c].

Thomas Sankara’s central role in inspiring and mobilising the uprising was written about by most all international media. His ideals, his aspirations for the country, considered an unchanging and consistent inspiration for a young generation of Burkinabé tired of the corruption and culture of impunity found in Burkina Faso.

More than a quarter century after his death, Sankara remained a hero and inspiration to many young Burkinabè, his portrait carried by marchers, voice recordings played over demonstration sound systems, and sayings quoted in slogans and speeches. In the huge antigovernment outpourings of late October, Al Jazeera reported that many young protesters were inspired by the spirit of “Africa’s Che Guevara,” while the Paris daily Le Monde saw Compaoré’s overthrow as “the revenge of Thomas Sankara’s children.”Acknowledging such popular sentiments, Lt.-Col. Zida, the interim military leader, said that the Burkinabè people’s decision to rise up reflected an “identity of integrity that we have carried proudly since the August 1983 revolution” led by Sankara [Harsh, 2014b].

For many, in the media and in the populace, there was a direct line between the ideals, ideology and image of Thomas Sankara, and the protests that had seemingly spontaneously broken out on in the month of October 2015. The ideas of liberation and justice that Sankara had spoken about during his short reign in power were finally being grasped by the people from the clenching fist of a dictatorship.

Thomas Sankara As An Exemplar

Almost everyone one I spoke to during my six weeks in Burkina Faso, days after the ouster of Blais Campaoré, would return to the words and actions of Thomas Sankara to explain their political and social engagement and activism. From musicians, artists, slam poets, activists, politically commitment lawyers and academics, most all would at explain their social activist, their political dissent and struggle, to the example of Thomas Sankara. “I consumed it all–Lumumba, N’kruma, Seko Toure and Sankara of course.” Answered Zinaba, a Le Balai Citoyen organiser in Ouagadougou. “We were in love with Sankara,” Explained Sams’K Le Jah, one of the founders of Le Balai Citoyen and Burkina Faso’s most well known rap artist. “Prophets are guides–Sankara was a living man, but he was to me.” Even Guy Kam, the rational minded lawyer who is considered a force behind Le Balai Citoyen, attributed his ideas for organised direct action to Sankara. “It is Sankara who showed us that collective action, cooperation, and collaboration can make a huge difference.” Guy told me in an interview. “It is Sankara’s most important legacy for me.” But where does one find Sankara as a guide–he left few written texts, and much of his archives, personal and administrative papers were destroyed by the regime soon after his assassination. Schools and universities were not allowed to teach his life and about his works, and there remains a dearth of biographic, academic and scholarly work on the Sankarist revolution, the man himself and certainly of his legacy. The Sankara that we hear about exists in the transcripts of a handful of speeches that he gave during his time as President of Burkina Faso, anecdotes and stories from men and women who met him, or were part of his administration for the 3 years he was in power, or through videos–largely based on state news and television programming, of Thomas Sankara speaking to the people of Burkina Faso, visiting various projects. That is, of Thomas Sankara performing in the role of new leader of a new nation. Since his unexpected assassination–an event that left the country in shock, Sankara’s legacy has been carried forward through unofficial channels, underground student and political discussion groups, personal memory and a random collection of written and visual artefacts and archival materials.

Scenes from a popular local hangout the Institute of the Burkinabe People – the cafe is a center for musicians, artists, activists and others to gather.

This void–gaps in the archive, has allowed a number of different groups and interests to usurp Sankara for their own ends. The powerful and active trade unions have highlighted his belief in collective action and organised labour [Wayne, 2014]. Feminists have found in his speeches a modern, forward looking commitment to the equal participation of women in all sectors of Burkinabé society [Gwaambuka, 2017]. The ecologists and environmentalists have highlighted his calls for self-reliance in farming and food production as measure of his environmental concerns and insights [Keita, 2015]. There are today a number of what are referred to as Sankarist political parties, though none are taken seriously by the members of new organisations like Le Balai Citoyen because of their collaboration and collusion with the existing Campaoré regime. There are accountability and transparency organisations, inspired by the large number of international NGOs and their discourse of ‘good governance’ who have found echos of their concerns in many of  Sankara’s speeches. It is difficult not to see the many ways in which Burkinabé communities have tried to incorporate and make meaningful the death and life of Thomas Sanakar for a politics in the present. And even where historical records do exist, as Moffat points out in his study of the archive of Bhagat Singh’s writings, “The historian’s desire to reconstruct ‘the real’…is challenged by both the event of death and the ‘vacuum’ produced by the missing writings. But even those writings that have been recovered remain amenable to creative misreading” [Moffat, 2016]. However, there is in fact no sustained or scholarly effort to “reconstruct ‘the real’” Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso or elsewhere. Thomas Sankara today exists beyond the real, as an icon, and as with all icons, it has no need for the original.

Scenes from a popular local hangout the Institute of the Burkinabe People – the cafe is a center for musicians, artists, activists and others to gather.

Sankara As Icon

A closer ear to the way Thomas Sankara’s legacy is described, explained, and used to justify political action reveals not just the ways in which his legacy has been carefully sculpted in the neoliberal present, but also how much of it has been silenced. The images (visual, audio and textual) of Thomas Sankara that we see today are not representations of a real man, but simulations, and that, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” [Baudrillard, 1994, 2]. He is become what Baudrillard called ‘the hyperreal’–simply models of a real without origin or reality [Baudrillard, 1994, 1]. This is perhaps most evident in the way the most revolutionary, transformative and disruptive elements of Sankara’s legacy have been erased from the demands and aspirations of the new civic movements, most all of whom have quickly and conveniently crafted their discourse to merely demands for ‘good governance’. As Lila Chouli, in a detailed analysis of the uprising, pointed out:

As for civic groups [like Le Balai Citoyen], for the most part they are not organising themselves against state power, but rather are wedded to the current hegemonic concept of civil society, that is to say neoliberalism, in which they are just keeping a watchful eye on ‘good governance’.

Revolution Sqaure, renamed Place de la Nation, after the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987.

These groups deployed the ‘revolutionary’ idea and image of Thomas Sankara against the Campaoré regime, but only to a point. It was not lost of most observers that the same ‘revolutionary’ groups were quick to endorse the military’s role in the transition government, and even accept and celebrate the return to positions of power of former members of Campaoré’s administration. Again, as Chouli so presciently pointed out:

The main challengers in the presidential election are divided between neoliberals and social democrats, even though they were important officials during Blaise Compaoré’s regime. Some of these figures were the architects of his regime, even macroeconomic decision-makers, before manoeuvring themselves away from their position alongside Blaise Compaoré.

Today, Thomas Sankara remains a powerful icon in Burkina Faso. He stands for much of what the citizens of Burkina Faso aspire to for their nation, and their political leadership–self-reliance, independence, freedom of speech, equality, justice, and prosperity. They have repeatedly come out onto the streets over the decades and risked their lives to strive for these goals, and the words and images of Thomas Sankara have acted as powerful visual representatives of their aspirations. But one has to closely examine the ways in the Thomas Sankara of the nostalgic and imaginary (as icon, as prophet, and as sage)  isn’t the Thomas Sankara of the present. We have to accept that the acts, and transformations, towards which his image is utilised in the present, do not transform the status quo. In fact, with the principal focus on the revolution on ‘transparency’ and ‘fighting corruption’ or ‘political accountability’, they ensure Burkina Faso’s continued place as “…a neo-colonial state” and one concretely locked in a neoliberal structural framework. The Thomas Sankara who led the country for three years was adamantly determined to change this structural framework.

Sankara criticised the international order. His themes – the injustice inflicted by globalisation and the international financial system, the omnipresence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the vicious circle of third world debt – were similar to the modern alternative world movement. Sankara argued that third world debt was caused by the “alluring proposals of technical assassins” from financial institutions. Debt was the means for “the deliberately organised reconquest of Africa, a way of ensuring that its growth and development conform to stages and standards entirely alien to us.”

Party offices of the UNIP (Sankaristes), Benewende Sankara’s political party offices.

On 25 May 2015, the interim government permitted the exhumation of Thomas Sankara’s body. It was one of its first acts, and came, as it claimed, at the behest of the people. Miriam Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s widow who has been fighting for an inquiry into his death, said the exhumation, “…Should be in the context of a judicial process that we have always demanded, in the context of finding out the truth and the helping in the search for President Sankara’s murderers.” Hundreds of people gathered at Sankara’s grave to observe the exhumation. As I read the news of the event, I was reminded of Baudrillard: “We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them [Baudrillard, 1994, 10].