Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa – Book Review

By Bob Newland

I have been a campaigner colonial freedom throughout my life. It is to my shame that until reviewing this book, my knowledge of Thomas Sankara was virtually nil. This is partly explained by the dearth of reporting in anglophone media of events in francophone Africa. It may also be influenced by the change of focus following the success of the majority of African states in throwing off the yolk of colonialism. This book helps to overcome that ignorance and illustrates the impact of cold-war politics on Africa as a whole.

Thomas Sankara came from lowly beginnings but through a youthful decision to join the military gained a high quality education. A Catholic, he became fascinated by liberation theology but in military academy was exposed to Marxism through his engagement with communists organised in the African Independence Party (PAI).  PAI leader Adama Toure was one of his greatest influences. Under his tutelage Sankara learned of the Vietnamese victory over French colonialism coming to side with the guerillas against their colonial masters. He also learned about the French and Russian revolutions.  

While promoting Marxism-Leninism, Sankara never described himself as a communist despite his close association with the communist groupings with which he spent many hours in discussion.  His main influences were Nkrumah, Lumumba, Machel and Fanon. He was a great fan of Che Guevara becoming known as the African Che. He was particularly impressed by Cabral’s Marxist methodology and his development of a theory of ‘Third-Worldism’ as opposed to more orthodox European Marxism.

Sankara came to power in a junior officers coup in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)  on 4 August 1983. This removed a previous highly corrupt military regime which was very close to France, the former colonial power. He was committed to empowering the people and overcoming corruption which he saw as the way in which France maintained its power over its former colony and the central barrier to betterment for the people.

Rejecting a top down structure Sankara sought to develop local democracy through Cuban inspired Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. Nationally matters were controlled by the National Council for the Revolution (CNR). This composed military officers along with civilian groupings including the communist OCV and communist led PAI-LIPAD. The trade unions were also represented.

Sadly the CNR was riven with competing ambitions. Eventually the military forced Sankara to expel the communists. Without a political party to discuss, debate and formulate policy his initiatives became more haphazard and over time he succeeded in alienating those on whom his power depended. Military leaders became dissatisfied with the lowly lives the revolution imposed on them and began developing corrupt relationships with neighbouring hostile states, particularly Cote d’Ivoire. Following a teachers strike led by reactionaries opposed to the revolution the trade union was banned and its leaders imprisoned. Over time, the ordinary peasants became fed up with the constant demand upon them to be revolutionaries pressed by the day to day need to survive and keep their families.

Sankara’s revolution also fell foul of cold-war contradictions. France manoeuvred with military officers in the CNR and former coup leaders expelled following the 1983 coup. The US deeply mistrusted the communist influence and Sankara’s outspoken opposition to colonialism and imperialism. Sadly the USSR was luke-warm in its support as Sankara sought to follow a distinctly African model of socialism and fought hard to keep Burkina Faso in the non-aligned movement.

In 1987 matters came to a head when Sankara threatened to act against corruption amongst military leaders. While there is evidence to suggest that France had a powerful hand behind the coup and promised immediate recognition of the coup leaders the assassination of Sankara does not appear to have been part of that plan. The leader of the coup was Blaise Compaore, one of Sankara’s closest allies in the launch of the revolution. Following the 1989 coup Compaoré served as President for 27 years until being overthrown in 2014 by a popular uprising supported by junior military officers. Democratic elections took place in 2015. Sankara’s reputation has subsequently been resurrected in support of widespread social and economic change but without the revolutionary fervour with which he ruled Burkina Faso. Since the book was written Compaoré was finally arrested, extradited and convicted of the murder of Sankara. He is now serving a life sentence.    

It is impossible to say what may have happened if Thomas Sankara had not been assassinated. The evidence suggests that even had he lived, the forces that subsequent to his death overturned the major economic, social and political advances of his ‘revolution’ had already established sufficient control of events to achieve their aims despite him.

His legacy however demonstrates that he was a man of the people, a leader in many ways ahead of his time. He addressed questions of the environment and environmental justice when much of the world was in denial. He was forthright in his opposition to debt repayment with a commitment to regional collaboration alongside national self-reliance. His advocacy of women’s rights and equality in the most difficult of circumstances should shame many leaders in Africa and globally even today.

One unintended benefit of this fascinating volume is that it casts light on issues which again become pertinent as a result of recent military coups in the Sahel region including that in Niger. While these may have occurred with popular support, as was the case in Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) in 1983, without the development and legalisation of political parties and freedom for trade unions then military leaders will always tend to military solutions to political problems. This insight and the detailed telling of Sankara’s life makes this book a fascinating and educating book which I highly recommend.

Bob Newland is a Liberation member and a London Recruit

Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa by Brian J. Peterson is published by Indiana University Press.

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