Reimagining Society

“This is a somewhat troublesome man, [this] Thomas Sankara.”

Francois Mitterrand, 1986

Fanon had warned that bourgeois anti-colonial nationalism was really only aimed at capturing the structures of colonialism for its own benefit. He had argued that the goal of the bourgeoisie’s project was “…to transfer into native hands those unfair advantages which are the legacy of the colonial period” [Fanon, 1965, 122]. Despite his deep commitment to the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against the French, Fanon was aware of the intellectual and material limitations of the nationalist bourgeoisie. He had argued that since it had “…neither sufficient material nor intellectual resources, it limits it claims to the taking over of business offices and commercial houses formerly occupied by the settlers” [Fanon, 1965, 152]. The consequences for the newly independent state was continued dependency, and servility to economic and political structures beyond its control. Worse, the aspirations for the nationalist bourgeoisie “…had nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialsim” [Fanon, 1965, 152].

There is no evidence that Sankara had read Fanon. His biographers point to the influence of major figures like Marx and Che Guevara, and the impact of teachers such as Adama Touré, a known Marxist and member of the secret African Independence Party (PAI), at the military academy in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. And yet, his actions upon coming to power, suggested the workings of a man who had understood ‘the pitfalls of national consciousness’, and knew the necessity of breaking the ‘transmission lines’.

Sankara argued as much the very first time he spoke to the people of the country, outlining his program in his political orientation speech delivered in Ouagadougo in 1983, stating that “…neo-colonial and colonial society are fundamentally no different. Thus, the colonial administration was replaced by a neo-colonial administration which was identical in all respects with the first” (Sankara, 2007). He was clear that the primary objective of the August revolution that bought him to power was “…the liquidation of domination and imperialist exploitation…that maintain [the country] in a state of backwardness” (Sankara, 2007). There would be no continuity, no ‘transmission line’ between the new nation, and the old colonialism. And he would break this continuity, by breaking apart the bourgeois bureaucracy, and re-orient it towards the people of the country. And he let the people know this, and repeatedly, though acts and rhetoric, invited them into the making of the new State.

He had inherited a country that, despite nearly twenty odd years of ‘autonomy’ remained deeply entrenched in the French colonial imagination and economic web. Burkina Faso, or Upper Volta, as it was known until Sankara renamed it in 1984, was a minor colonial possession, and to the French, little more than a cotton plantation, and a source of human labor for use on plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. Its ‘selected’ leaders were chosen to best serve the interests of the French colonial administration – autocratic, beholden to the French administration, nepotistic, profligate with the national treasury for personal gain, and determined to maintain the colonial economic and political linkages.

When Sankara came to power in 1984, he was determined to break these colonial linkages, and equally determined not to create a reliance on new ones. His project was a determined re-imagining of the idea of State itself, and its complete modus operendi. And he was loved for his faith in the people’s ability to break the chains of colonial servility, and make themselves into, as Fanon had asked, “a deserving people, a people conscious of its dignity.”