Sankara’s elusive socialism

Jean-Claude Kongo and Leo Zeilig look at Thomas Sankara’s reforms in Burkina Faso in the 1980s. Sankara understood that Africa had to find its own path to development, and this would require redistribution of wealth and severing the ties with imperialism. Yet ultimately Sankara’s project of transformation proved too weak.

By Jean-Claude Kongo and Leo Zeilig

Thomas Sankara’s project of transformation was dramatically uneven. With his comrades, Sankara attempted to push through radical reforms. With his personal incorruptibility and deep commitment to transforming Burkina Faso’s diabolical underdevelopment, he remained an intransigent figure of opposition to the emergence of neoliberalism, privatisation and the marginalisation of Africa. Sankara understood that Africa had to find its own path towards development. This development had to include not only opposition to the corrupt local elite, by wide-ranging redistribution of income and wealth – but also freedom from imperialism, by severing the lines of economic and political slavery with the North. In all of these ways, he was right and remains worthy of our celebration and study.

Yet the strategy and politics for pursuing the transformation Sankara sought were deeply flawed. This is not a matter of simple ideological disagreement. By using and creating institutions and organisations from above to implement his project for Burkina Faso, he failed. Sankara’s tools for transformation proved too weak.

If this conclusion seems cynical or indicative of acquiescence, it is neither of these. If the need for such transformation remains vital on the continent, then we need fraternally and critically to assess how previous radical projects have failed. Sankara’s years provide us with vital lessons from which to judge and assess the project of emancipation and on how to make subsequent projects more resilient.

Sankara was greater than the totality of the speeches and declarations he made at international forums, great as these were. He fought against a world economy that was set up to crush initiatives such as his, even in dreadfully poor, economically marginal countries such as Burkina Faso. The enemies of the regime were national and international. Even such a top-down project posed too great a threat to many important interests.

A key action, indicative of the top-down nature of the project, was the setting up of the CNR (Conseil National de la Révolution – National Council for the Revolution), charged with directing and coordinating transformation from the top of the military command structure.

Some of the top-down initiatives were successful and incredibly audacious, and thousands of people are alive today as a direct result of them. In primary healthcare the regime scored some of its greatest successes. To give just a few examples, infant mortality fell from 200 in every thousand births in 1982, to less than 150 in 1984; local pharmacies were built in approximately 5,800 of the 7,500 villages. Even more impressive was the programme of mass vaccination: between 1983 and 1985, 2 million children were vaccinated against a range of illnesses. In addition, tens of thousands – including many poor peasant farmers, men and women – were for the first time given access to education and literacy. School fees were reduced, and thousands of classrooms and school premises were built. All of these were real achievements – even if progress was uneven and hard to sustain. Yet the regime’s own decision to sack striking teachers in 1984 had a devastating impact on the lives of thousands.

Despite these achievements, the government was still locked into a deeply unequal relationship with the world economy, and the recession that rocked the continent stung and provoked Burkina Faso’s radical government. The country was dependent on gold and cotton, with cotton comprising half of all export revenue. Although cotton production increased from 60,000 tonnes a year in 1980 to 170,000 tonnes in 1987, the actual income levels, despite this increase, barely rose. The price of cotton continued the inexorable fall it had suffered since 1960 – and Sankara was powerless to affect this.

Prices of cash crops, as Sankara knew, significantly contributed to the country’s overall instability (and underdevelopment). Valiant though they were, attempts to diversify the economy into production and manufactured goods were important, but remained largely symbolic. Food instability – another target of reform by the CNR – deepened in the 1980s, so in 1984 and 1985 the government was forced to import food, triggering a dramatic trade deficit. Foreign investment – the holy cow of contemporary African finance ministers – remained pitifully low under the CNR, so the deficit was filled by long-term borrowing that by 1987 had doubled the country’s debt burden. Economic and financial independence remained a dream.

The regime’s relationship with the World Bank was fraught. The original aim of the government was to extend Burkina Faso’s potential, to make the maximum use of the country’s resources. Gold mines were opened; there was an attempt to build a railway line in 1985 – undertaken by the regime itself after the World Bank and other donors refused funding – to connect manganese fields in the north-east to the rest of the country; local businesses were subsidised; and a poll tax on local farmers was lifted.

The project was not so much anti-capitalist as national capitalist development, and the World Bank was not always opposed to many of the measures: the Bank found in 1989 that economic growth in Burkina Faso between 1982 and 1987 had been ‘satisfactory’. The report noted that agriculture had performed particularly well, with an annual increase in added value of 7.1%. The reasons for this were linked to several reforms pushed through by the government, including improved land utilisation in the south and south-west, and impressive use of technology in cotton production.

At a time when structural adjustment was being implemented across the continent as a condition for accepting IMF or World Bank loans, Burkina Faso managed to avoid external adjustment. The reason was that Sankara had been able to impose his own form of ‘restructuring’: he ensured that there was considerable control over budgetary expenditure, with a reduction in public-sector employment accompanied by attempts to generate private capital investments in manufacturing, in line with imposed ‘reform’ packages elsewhere on the continent at the time.

The genuine and committed efforts at agricultural reform included ‘austerity’ measures designed to reduce the state deficit, and as a result the income levels of state employees, teachers and civil servants suffered, and levies were raised on workers to fund development projects. Nevertheless, these efforts – attempting to make up for underdevelopment because of the country’s incorporation into the global economy less than a hundred years before – were understandable; what other tools were available to achieve such development and to alleviate the region’s terrible poverty and suffering?

Sankara was nothing if not an enigma. He argued for a radical plan of national self-development, condemning in powerful terms the behaviour of ex-colonial powers, financial institutions and global capitalism, yet he also in a sense made a compromise with these bodies while attempting to build up and diversify the economy. This terrible and dangerous dance – weaving between competing and hostile interests – meant that national capitalist interests overrode all others; the regime was left at the end of 1987 without any powerful domestic allies. Sankara was almost without comrades on the left. Left-wing supporters and opponents were condemned and imprisoned, and the unions were often silenced. The trade unionist Halidou Ouédraogo was unequivocal in his verdict, and it was harsh: “We do not understand how foreign socialists can have a positive verdict on Sankara, without having heard the opinion of the trade unions.”

Socialist Labour (Nigeria) hosted a public meeting about the life, struggle and legacy of Thomas Sankara (29 May, 2021).

Yet – and it is important, indeed vital, to qualify this verdict – the appearance and behaviour of the government were impressive. Ministers were no longer overlords and gods, living in the dizzying heights of luxury, extravagance and conspicuous consumption. They received the average worker’s wage, while basic healthcare and education were delivered to the poor. In this atmosphere of national austerity, which was implemented from above and actually included the highest office-holders in the executive, there was a genuine commitment in practice to the national endeavour.

Imperialism was routinely denounced, even directly to France’s then president François Mitterrand during a regular state visit, and the grande bourgeoisie in their turn often came in for denunciation. Unlike anywhere else on the continent, these statements, while frequently limited to the level of rhetoric, were sincerely meant and not accompanied by acts of hypocrisy.

But if Sankara’s project was a valiant attempt at radical reforms, he was unable to turn international market trends in his country’s favour. He forced through what could be seen as economic restructuring and even launched a systematic attack on trade unions. Some studies have concluded that the position of corporations was actually strengthened after 1983, and wages in the public sector fell and food prices increased. Sankara’s project was a self-conscious effort at capitalist modernisation and development, and its characterisation as socialism is confusing and unhelpful.

Ideological clarity

Sankara and his comrades, including supporters in the PAI (Parti Africain de l’Indépendance – African Independence Party), argued that they stood as socialists in the traditions of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Yet, all of them were equally infected by a notion of socialism from above, as state edict and control. They claimed this style of politics for socialism, but in reality it was an attempt at national democratic development.

Despite Sankara’s speeches being full of references to the people, depicting them as ‘leading’ the Burkinabé revolution, the actual agency of these popular masses was tightly constrained. In some respects, the statement of their leading role in the revolution was a declaration of an abstract ‘future’ intent. Babou Paulin Bamouni, one of Sankara’s leading advisors, was clear that the middle class had led the revolution, but that at some later, ill-defined stage, the path would be cleared for the peasantry and working class instead to benefit and take the lead.

The French activist and writer Lila Chouli was scathing about Sankara’s political shortcomings. As we have seen, Sankara’s social reforms were from above, rather than nurturing the self-emancipation of the working and popular masses: indeed, his reforms worked against popular empowerment. The result of this approach, Chouli tells us, was to lead to the regime into conflict with sections of the working class and its organisations. In January 1985 a trade-union front was set up in protest against and to counter the decline in democratic and trade-union freedoms. Although this front remained active throughout the so-called revolutionary period, trade unions and independent organisations were to be considerably undermined as a result of repression of union activity. This included the dismissal of civil servants, and the arrest and torture of activists.

By 1986, less than three years after taking power, the CNR’s authoritarian approach had alienated sections of the Burkinabé population, leaving Sankara and his allies isolated from those in whose name they were acting. This also led to divisions and opposition from some elements within the government.

As Chouli has argued in 2012

the government banned trade unions and the free press as these were seen as obstacles to the CNR’s reforms. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Comités de Défense de la Révolution (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, CDRs). In principle, all Burkinabé were members of the CDRs and critics and opponents were branded ‘enemies of the people’. The actions of the trade unions were considered subversive and could be punished with ‘military sanctions’.

The ruling CNR found itself unable to conduct a meaningful dialogue with other groups and the elusive ‘people’ about its objectives and how to achieve them. Chouli explains:

In the name of wanting to provide socialism for the mass of poor people, they did it without them. Sankara recognised this in his self-critical speech of 2 October 1987. But he and his allies did not have time to restore the severed lines between the authorities and the mass independent organisations of the poor and the working class.

The end of Burkina Faso’s brave – if not socialist – revolution

Sankara’s project was state-led development oriented towards benefiting the poor, as part of a perceived transition to socialism – a socialism that however remained almost completely absent from his official speeches and declarations. Carried out by a military hierarchy and an even smaller political cadre around Sankara, the project was inherently elitist. This is not a criticism, but a description.

What forces were there in Burkina Faso to lead such a struggle against this top-down project? The story of Sankara is one of absences – absence of other social forces, of radical left organisations, of a social base that could have sustained his project. The presence of an ideological and organisational centre for the radical left, in Burkina Faso and the region, could instead have ensured an enduring project of development of the people as part of a radicalising movement – powered by the popular classes – across West Africa and the continent. This could have developed as a practical and realistic alternative.

The militant uprising that finally swept Sankara’s murderer (and former comrade) Blaise Compaoré from power in 2014 came about after an extraordinary period of protest from 2011 among agricultural workers, miners and urban trade unionists, and mutinies in the armed forces. Still, maintaining the momentum of popular protest beyond the sacking of the Assemblée Nationale and Compaoré’s forced and hurried resignation in 2014 has proved difficult. In this sense, Sankara’s predicament – political isolation and the absence of alternative radical forces – remains unchanged today.

Almost a hundred years ago, many of these questions were being posed in practice, in the struggle for democratic transformation and socialism in Russia. That experience spoke of linking democratic and socialist transformation within a single process that had to be international. The international development of socialist politics in the early 20th century sought to build the capacity for such linking, which would ensure that movements within the nation state could survive – could literally grow over and transcend the barriers of the national state.

Underpinning these ideas was the understanding that national autonomy was a reactionary, impossible pipe dream, and economic evolution – a process that today we describe as globalisation – had broken the fragile edifice of the nation state. The era of permanent and global social transformation as a practical and realistic project of radical development remains the essential path for socialists today.

Although the working class was present in Upper Volta in the early 1980s, sometimes in a dramatic way, it lacked its own consistent organisation and strategy. The national bourgeoisie remained feeble, impotent in the face of crisis and congenitally incapable of resolving Burkina Faso’s dependency and underdevelopment. It was as a result of this real impasse and blockage that Sankara and the CNR were able to emerge. By 1987, the isolation of the ruling military group around Sankara was almost total – trade unions and civil society were increasingly moving against them. Sankara, true to form, refused the option of breaking the regime’s isolation (and principles) by incorporating a wider circle of openly establishment parties. But the crisis and isolation were real.

Sankara’s comrade Compaoré had no such compunction and did not want to see his power overthrown along with Sankara. Knowing that he would fail to persuade his comrade through discussion, Compaoré turned to the violent and bloody murder of Sankara and his loyalists on 15 October 1987. This murder marked the end of the incredibly brave, though mislabelled, Burkinabé socialist revolution.

Jean-Claude Kongo is a teacher and journalist in Burkina Faso. As a student in the 1980s, Kongo was also an active supporter of the Burkinabé revolution. Leo Zeilig is editor of Kongo and Zeilig are co-editors of Voices of Liberation: Thomas Sankara (HSRC Press, 2017).


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