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The Land Of Upright Men: Thomas Sankara & The Marxist Revolution of Burkina Faso

Sankara reads like Rothbard with his condemnation of war for tribe’s sake and suggestion that his people deserved a greater understanding of the impact that their blood and death played outside the battlefield.

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By Spencer Kellogg | AFRICA

I am often asked, ‘Where is Imperialism?’ Just look into your plates: you see imported corn, rice or millet. This is imperialism. Our country produces enough to feed us all. We can even produce more than we need. Unfortunately, for lack of organization, we still need to beg for food aid. This type of assistance is counterproductive and has kept us thinking that we can only be beggers who need aid.

Africa has long been a testing ground for some of the world’s most appalling and dangerous ideas. Raped of their land and wealth, Africa as a continent still lags severely behind all other land masses though their nations are blessed with a bounty of natural resources. Even after the uprising and reclamation of many African nations from their colonialist masters, today these countries still suffer at the hands of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other global political & economical conglomerates that seek to push through often failed large-scale agricultural and industrial projects to the detriment of Africa leaving these poor people mired in unresolved debt and slaves to a new order – that of a globalist economy. In 1983 in the former French Upper Volta, one man was determined to stand against the tyrants who used his land and abused his people for wealth to be exported to the other side of oceans and seas. This man was Thomas Sankara.

Landlocked to the North by the Malian desert and cut off to the Atlantic Ocean by The Ivory Coast and Ghana to the South, The Former French Upper Volta has long been one of the poorest nations in the entire world. Although the country achieved independence in 1960, the following two decades were known best for their lackluster development and incompetent leadership often bankrolled by their former colonizers in France. Dressed in military garb and sporting the classic red beret, Sankara immediately went about slashing the salaries of public servants, eliminating all colonial taxes levied on the country and breaking up powerful unions that hoarded wealth while reinvesting the nations small abundance back into the communities that lived in abject poverty. Socially, Sankara rejected the patriarchal undertones of colonialism and allowed women to enlist and serve in the military alongside men while also creating a holiday where men would go to the market to buy goods while the women stayed home. This challenge to societal norms set a precedent not only for Africa but also for countries far and wide which still reverberates today.

When you are bearing arms that can spit fire and death and when you can receive orders standing to attention in front of a flag without knowing who will benefit from this order or this arm you become a potential criminal who’s just waiting to spread terror around you. How many soldiers are going around such and such country and bringing grief and desolation without understanding that they are fighting men and women for the same ideals as their own. A soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal.

Sankara questioned the use of force and allegiance to a war machine that often pitted mutualistic philosophies against one another. As we are witnessing throughout the Middle East today, African nations were wrought by civil and border wars often gaslit by European powers seeking to gain footholds in their shadow wars against other global and regional enemies. Here, Sankara reads like Rothbard with his condemnation of war for tribe’s sake and suggestion that his people deserved a greater understanding of the impact that their blood and death played outside the battlefield.

While many African leaders promised reform and advancement for their people, Sankara wasted little time enacting policies to make a concrete change in his burgeoning country. He set up a nationwide vaccination program to tackle the deadly trio of Polio, Measles & Meningitis and within one month had vaccinated over two and half million citizens earning him the respect of the World Health Organization. To increase physical activity, he instituted once a week sporting rituals and himself participated in the new decree by playing soccer and suggesting the practice was important to promote “a healthy mind and a healthy body”. By the early 1980’s, Africa was just beginning to recover from a generational drought and Sankara took the lead by planting millions of trees and instituting policies against the desertification of Burkina Faso. While building new housing for the impoverished cities Sankara also poured money into building railroads and highways that would connect the disparate villages and cities of his nation.

For all of his Marxist tendencies, Sankara showed a reliable libertarian streak in his aims to decentralize and localize the production of goods and services in his land. His arguments against the global economic structure that stood against the needs and prosperity of his own people were rooted in the idea that what is locally produced by his people was best for his people’s economic and ideological strength. While the majority of Africa was used as a production hub for cheap labor, he rallied a new way in Africa by demanding food and goods come from Burkina Faso for Burkina Faso. In his aims to transform Burkina Faso into a truly independent state, he championed the “Faso Dan Fani” (History of Faso Dan Fani) a local cloth woven of cotton that all public servants were required to wear. While skeptics could point to this institutionalized clothing requirement as authoritarian in nature, it could also be seen as a liberating force that stood to question the reliance of outside industrialization that was the driving force of Africa’s weakened economic and philosophical power.

We think that France’s politic in Africa is very French. That is to say that it resembles other French politics. In the past, the French were present in such and such African country in order to either support one particular leader, one kinglet, or to take away another chief and fly him out. France still proceeds that way today.

At the Vittel conference of 1983 in France, the French President François Mitterrand met with Sankara and other African heads of state. In the preceding weeks many, including the French-owned state of Côte d’Ivoire, had expressed doubt and worry over the revolutionary ideas of Sankara and Burkina Faso. Most of the nations that met at the Vittel Conference were dependent on the French treasury and there was a sense that Sankara and his ideas needed to be suppressed before uprisings and counter-revolutions sprang up throughout the continent. There, Mitterrand reminded the nations of their precious alignment with the west and struck out against the sovereignty of rising independent states who sought new allegiances with the Soviet Union and Cuba. At the Organization of Africa Unity Summit later that year, Sankara pointed accusingly at the African heads of state who grew richer while their people grew poorer. He spotlighted the mounting debt and rising interest rates hoisted upon Africa by their former colonizers and called on leaders to stand with him against the global economic tyranny of African nations.

I would like this conference to clearly declare that we cannot pay the debt. Not in a rebellious spirit. But just to avoid being assassinated individually. If Burkina Faso is the only one to refuse, I won’t be at the next conference. When we are saying that we should not pay the debt, we’re not refusing our responsibilities or not keeping our words. It’s just that we don’t have the same moral standards as others. Between the rich and the poor, moral standards cannot be the same. The Bible or the Koran cannot serve those who exploit people and the exploited ones, in the same way. We should have two editions of the Bible and two editions of the Koran. Brothers, with everybody’s support, we will make peace at home. We’ll be able to use Africa’s full potential as well to develop our country because our land is rich. We have enough manpower and we have a very large market, from the North to the South, the East to West. We have enough brainpower to create or at least to go and learn science and technology where it can be learnt.

Mister President, let’s present a united front against the debt here in Addis Abbeba. Let’s make sure that this conference will decide to limit the arms race between poor and weak countries. The clubs and knives that we buy are useless. Let’s make sure that the African market belongs to Africans. Let’s produce in Africa, manufacture in Africa and consume in Africa. Burkina Faso came here to show you our locally produced cotton woven in Burkina Faso and tailored in Burkina Faso to clothe our people. I, along with my delegation, am dressed by our tailors, our farmers. Not a single thread comes from Europe or America. I am not presenting a fashion show here but I simply would like to say that we must accept to live the African way, it’s the only way to live in freedom and with dignity.  Our homeland or death, we will win.

By 1986, Sankara was paranoid by threats mounting from political opponents in every direction. He tried enemies of the state and the upper-class citizens of Burkina Faso became agitated by his authoritative demeanor. For crimes against the country, Sankara forced the guilty to address their treason on radio and television for all to see. Public servants found guilty were often made to work without pay and the trials administered by The People’s Revolutionary Tribunal did not guarantee rights to a lawyer or proper defense. Even worse, the prosecution was not tasked with proving the defendant guilty. Instead, the defendant was presumed guilty of charges and expected to prove his innocence. The once shining beacon of new liberty on the African continent was being extinguished by the very man who lit the flame.

Later in the year, French President Mitterrand would visit Burkina Faso with the aims of squashing the increasingly important player in international politics. The environment was heated as many saw Mitterrand as representative of the same policies that had created and fostered apartheid in South Africa. P.W. Botha, President of South Africa, had visited France only months before Mitterrand made his way to The Land of Upright Men and Sankara, with an international audience watching, took the opportunity to speak out in protest against Mitterand’s relationship with the South African ethnostate:

Killers such as Pieter Botha have had the right to travel through beautiful France. They dirtied it. With their bloodied hands and feet. And all those who allowed them to act the way they did will bear the responsibility for it, here and elsewhere, now and forever.

Though Sankara could not be bought or sold, his second in command, Blaise Compaoré, was growing weary of the revolution and seized on a section of the nation who wished for a more liberal regime. Compaoré, in collusion with the newly elected right wing of France, began to speak out against Sankara. Once close friends, by 1987, Compaoré had disowned Sankara and used his control of the nation’s army to lead a coup against his closest friend. Within weeks, Sankara was murdered in a staged attack by Compaoré’s associates and buried in a shallow grave before nightfall. In the following weeks, Compaoré championed many of Sankara’s ideas while back peddling into a subsistent relationship with the French. In France & The Ivory Coast congratulations were extended to Compaoré and Sankara’s name was dragged through the mud. Throughout Africa however, Sankara’s name still remains synonymous with Pan Africanism and the struggle for complete independence and liberty from neo-colonialist empires.

The modern prism by which we view and define the failures of Marxism is often distorted by the ills of the Soviet Union archipelago and the postmodern academic bastardization of collectivism as seen throughout Asia in the late 20th century. In Africa and South American too, Marxism has played chief doctrine to the murder and widespread poverty of millions of citizens. However, we are aggrieved if we cannot also correctly assert that Capitalism and its determined march against the sovereignty and freedom of poor people is not also to blame for massive death and unrest. Sankara was a poor man who stood for a poor people. He refuted the tone and nature of ‘Afro-pessimism’ and believed wholeheartedly that his people deserved respect, dignity and ultimately freedom. His message today still strikes with the tone of Jefferson. He carried a torch where once no light existed.  In a world full of slanted men hungry for money and power, Sankara stood upright with pride and love of his country and people.

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