“The international forces against Sankara were too much” – Victoria Brittain in conversation with Brian J. Peterson

Radical journalist Victoria Brittain discusses the life and politics of the Thomas Sankara with Brian J. Peterson. Peterson has written a biography which recounts in detail the politics and murder of the Burkinabé revolutionary. The book sheds new light on the responsibility of those who worked for Sankara’s assassination. In this interview, Brittain and Peterson talk about his work, and the project of transforming Burkina Faso in the 1980s.

Victoria Brittain: Let’s start by talking about your sources and style. One striking thing about the book is its very wide sources close to Sankara. Some of the quotes are clearly from recorded interviews, but many are short, as though part of on-going chats.

Brian J. Peterson: I originally had in mind a book about the revolution, a “history from below,” as a grassroots study of revolution. I was especially keen to explore how state initiatives worked with local politics in the context of the revolutionary local level assemblies, CDRs (Comités de défense de la revolution). I started interviewing people active in CDRs, mostly people who were rather young at the time of the revolution, many of them urban workers, students, and the petty bourgeoisie, as they put it. So, I didn’t start at the “top” of the revolutionary political structure. Blaise Compaoré was still in power, and many people were actually afraid to speak about Sankara. When I met people in their homes or in Ouagadougou’s many roadside bars or restaurants, they would speak in hushed tones, and avoid using Sankara’s name. It took many unrecorded conversations, and the establishment of trust, until people agreed to formal interviews. Eventually, my conversations with local CDR activists led to contacts with the leaders of the leftist civilian political parties (Parti africain de l’indépendance, PAI,  and the Union des luttes communistes, ULC)) that had helped bring Sankara to power.

One of these was Valère Somé, a childhood friend of Sankara from Gaoua. When we first met at his home in Ouagadougou, he was eager to hear about what “ordinary people” were telling me about the revolution. He was working on his own history of the revolution, which he never finished (and he’s now deceased), and he understood the limits of his own perspective as a revolutionary leader. He complained that his own people were often reluctant to speak honestly to him about the revolution’s successes and failures. We spent a lot of time together, chatting, driving around town meeting other people, drinking tea, playing chess, and just hanging out at his house or office. He was very open about the revolution’s history and willingly discussed its errors and triumphs along the way.

As with most research projects, there was a random aspect to how it went. The more I spoke to people, the more my research veered towards Sankara. He was simply unavoidable, and I changed tack to write the book specifically on him. I had heard plenty about the revolution’s policies, what worked and didn’t work. Through Valère and others, I met the major revolutionary actors and Sankara’s closest friends, people like Fidèle Toé, the PAI leader Philippe Ouedraogo, the labour leader Soumane Touré, Sankara’s classmates and military colleagues Abdoul-Salam Kaboré and Paul Yameogo, and many others. In first encounters, Sankara’s colleagues were very protective of him. But when I kept returning for second, third, fourth and fifth interviews and numerous off-the-record conversations they really opened up. Some of them even said it was their responsibility to Sankara’s memory to be as honest as possible. This is not to say that there were some deep dark secrets about Sankara, but rather that, although they universally revered the man and held him in high esteem, they also could see with the benefit of hindsight where things had gone wrong. They volunteered insights into Sankara’s personality and how some of the revolution’s errors stemmed from his approach to governance, and at the same time they defended him from criticisms over a specific policy or action which they knew had come from other initiatives within the revolutionary leadership.

Sankara’s family have been remarkably open and welcoming to you.

Yes, but it was only after I’d spent a good amount time with Sankara’s colleagues and friends that I first met his family. Once I made contact, they really took me into the family. I was able to spend time with them, especially with Pascal and Paul Sankara, socializing, talking, watching soccer, listening to music, or sharing meals. Much of what I learned about Sankara as a person was absorbed through this immersion in the family culture. Of course, there were also formal interviews that were more structured and recorded, focusing on specific questions or periods in their family’s history. Sankara’s sisters, especially Pauline, Florence and Colette were also extraordinarily knowledgeable about the family’s history. Everyone had their piece of the puzzle, their memories, and so my task was simply listening carefully. This array of puzzle pieces would eventually also include many official archive documents, the testimonies of US diplomats, journalists, aid workers, and other foreigners whose anecdotes and memories brought additional perspectives to the story. The wide array of testimonies helped to guard against hagiography.

The chapters on Sankara’s youth and education reveal his unusually deep level of reading, and a gifted student whose leadership qualities emerged in many anecdotes from these years. Can you fit that into the unexpected portrait of the colonial education system you draw, for a lucky few, in this very small, poor country?

Sankara was very fortunate to have access to formal education within the French system, at primary school and then lycée and military academy. His generation was really the first to see education opened up to a broader segment of the population, including women and ethnic minorities. He seems to have had an innate sense of leadership, and in school realized his intellectual potential and demonstrated his rare moral authority. His former classmates and siblings all observed that Sankara naturally rose to leadership in these settings and displayed a rather precocious obsession with justice and fairness.

I do think that the family roots in the Catholic church were very important, as shown in his embrace of liberation theology. But his specifically anti-colonial radicalization was in many ways nurtured in the French academic environment, where his own teachers, many of whom were African, were exposing students to leftist ideas and literature. His classmates described how the school’s own faculty members were decisive in radicalizing the kids as teenagers. It seems contradictory, but these colonial schools, and eventually neocolonial institutions, carried within them the intellectual tools that young Africans appropriated and put to good use in critiquing the colonial system.

It was the same at the military academy where one of his revolutionary fathers, Adama Touré, taught history. Touré was a clandestine member of the communist PAI party, and he used his history courses to educate his young cadets along leftist lines. Bizarrely, in this neocolonial institution, designed to groom future military leaders aligned with France, the cadets were reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the works of Lenin, French utopian socialists, and learning about the long history of revolutions and anti-colonial resistance.

How did four years in Madagascar prepare Sankara for what he would build between military and peasants in Pô, which you have described as the template for the revolution?

In 1969, nearly twenty, Sankara was a graduate of the military academy in Ouagadougou, and selected for advanced training in Madagascar. Here he’d have his first direct experiences of rural revolt, when a Maoist uprising spread across the country. In 1972, as part of his training, he joined a Malagasy unit, called the “green berets,” that got involved in rural development. For the first time, he saw the potential role of the military in development projects. Soldiers were working alongside the people, setting up schools and health clinics, and bringing new agricultural methods. He had entered the academy to specialise in special forces, commando operations. He left Madagascar with a new vision of how he could use his position in the military to help his people.

In the Sahel drought of 1973 Sankara witnessed widespread suffering at home. Three years later, put in charge of the commando training base in Pô, Sankara used his Madagascar experience to build a community based on a new spirit of cooperation and trust between his soldiers and the people. The military were mobilized for development and a broader progressive agenda, including attitudes to women.

Back at home he found his civilian friends who had spent four years in university during the global student uprisings of 1968. Marxist and “Third Worldist” currents had brought them into student activism and politics. Returning from Madagascar Sankara was ready slowly, but clandestinely, to join the emerging leftist groups in Ouagadougou, while charting a new path for himself within the military.

Do you think that the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Delhi in March 1983 was a turning point for Sankara where he found an international fellowship with the anti-imperialist greats of his time? The personal speech he delivered (instead of the one he was supposed to deliver) where he called for Israel to be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, citing the Sabra and Shatila massacres of the previous year, had Fidel Castro send for him for a private talk. And meeting Nyerere, Machel, and Bishop filled him with confidence despite the language barrier, and his speeches at home later that month reflected a readiness for confrontation with the old political powers with anti-imperialism as a central plank?

Yes, I do think that Non-Aligned summit was pivotal and incredibly important for Sankara and his rise to power. But it also must be placed within the context of his trip to Libya. This broader international trip, while he was still prime minister in Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo’s government, and before his arrest of May 17, 1983, provided Sankara with considerable diplomatic, logistical, military, and financial support. He understood that when he and his group took power, they’d been dealing with efforts to destabilize his government. He already had wide support within Upper Volta, among the youth and the civilian left. He also had the support of the young progressive officers who had just carried out their coup of 7 November, 1982. But what he lacked was international standing and support. Although Qaddafi would eventually turn on Sankara, Libya was very important early on, in providing military and economic aid. In fact, the arms that Qaddafi provided via Ghana and the commando base in Pô, were crucial.

But New Delhi and meetings with Fidel Castro, Samora Machel, Maurice Bishop, Jerry Rawlings, Daniel Ortega, and others—provided Sankara with diplomatic allies and friendships that would help Sankara navigate the perils of the Cold War and French neocolonialism. Only Cuba was really in the position to help, albeit modestly, in development projects. But Rawlings was an important regional ally. Bishop, Machel, and Ortega all gave Sankara a sense that he was not alone in his revolutionary aspirations, especially at a time of neoliberal hegemony, Reaganism, Thatcherism, and the sense that the socialist left was falling apart on a global scale.

Moreover, I think, from a psychological standpoint, his reception by these figures gave him greater confidence and even emboldened him. In particular, Sankara was a huge admirer of Castro and the Cuban revolution, so when he was invited over to Castro’s lodgings in New Delhi, and the two had the chance to get to know each other, Sankara found immediate inspiration and a role model, a sort of revolutionary father figure with much counsel on revolutionary processes and the many challenges ahead.

How do you assess the fragility of the revolution by mid-1987? Firstly, how do you weigh the internal fragmenting of the CNR (Conseil national de la revolution) and the CDRs?

As in many other contexts in history, I think there was considerable revolutionary fragility built into the process in Burkina, especially given the array of internal and external forces. Sankara, in his own words, understood that the revolution he led was going up against some pretty powerful currents and headwinds, and some of these probably could have been navigated had the leadership stayed united. But from the beginning of the process, rivalries and infighting plagued the CNR’s core.

When Sankara took power, he depended on a somewhat tenuous alliance between the civilian left and the group of young progressive military officers who wielded real power. This was led by the quartet of Sankara, Compaoré, Henri Zongo, and Jean-Baptiste Lingani. From the first few months, there was dispute over how to structure things, such as the main grassroots structure, the CDR system.

Basically, the military faction managed to muscle their way into control over the CDRs, while nudging aside the more experienced labour union leaders, like Soumane Touré. But even on the left, there was much division and rivalry, in particular between the PAI-LIPAD (Parti de l’indépendance africaine/Ligue patriotique pour le développement ) and ULCR (Union des luttes communistes – reconstruite), both of which were competing for larger roles in the revolution. Within a year of the revolution, the most important of the two—the PAI-LIPAD faction—was purged from the government. The military was able to consolidate power, while keeping up the appearance of civilian leftist participation. Yet, even so, Sankara was resolute in his commitment to his progressive vision and policies, a commitment that, he soon discovered, wasn’t shared with many other military officers. In the end it came down to two main factions, one coalescing around Sankara and the other gravitating towards Compaoré.

Secondly, how about splits in the military? And how did Sankara’s key issues of women’s equality and no tolerance for corruption fit into the differences?

Sankara was losing support within the broader military for his handling of the war with Mali in late 1985, and the diversion of funds away from the military towards rural development projects. Even Sankara’s agenda for advancing women’s equality was not appreciated by his fellow officers. The strongest support for his feminist agenda had been within the civilian left, which had now been marginalized. Few within the military clique were marching to his tune of women’s liberation, especially among his fellow military officers who had mistresses. 

And what about the external context of the web woven by Compaoré involving the US/the IMF, the French, Houphouet Boigny, Gaddafi, Charles Taylor?

In terms of the broader international context, Compaoré was the main link between the growing internal anti-Sankara faction and foreign powers, such as Côte d’Ivoire, France, Libya, and the United States. The divergence between Sankara and Compaoré was clear by June 1985 when Compaoré married Chantal Terrasson de Fougères, a relative of Ivoirian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. From this point onward, he moved increasingly into Houphouët-Boigny’s orbit, his patronage networks, and a world of luxury and self-enrichment, just as Sankara was intensifying his anti-corruption drive within Burkina, and also across the region as the Chairman of CEAO (Communauté économique d’Afrique de l’Ouest).

However, the broader web of international forces that meshed with Compaoré’s coup did not represent a precisely coordinated plan. Compaoré drew on various forms of foreign support in a piecemeal fashion, seeking diplomatic support and post-coup recognition, weapons, incentives, and intelligence. In terms of the timing of the coup, we know that Compaoré struck when the revolution was in the doldrums and facing widespread grievances, and even resistance. It also intersected with growing economic difficulties. Now, based on secret US embassy cables, I’ve seen that leading up to the coup France withdrew financial support to the CNR, and this support had made up between 30 and 40 percent of the CNR’s budget (including technical assistance and development aid). The US had already cut its aid to Burkina, by early 1987, from around $20 million to $1 million, largely for political reasons. Moreover, 80 percent of the funding for the PPD (Programme populaire de développement ) had come from foreign sources. This meant that Sankara’s government was still heavily dependent on foreign aid, despite the bold efforts, and successes, in the direction of self-reliance.

The revolutionary fragility was thus partly based in an ongoing dependence on the institutions, governments, and systems against which Sankara was fighting. Then, with the abrupt withdrawal of financial support, Sankara was suddenly hemorrhaging internal allies, so that CNR members were even reaching out secretively to the IMF to negotiate an agreement just two weeks before Sankara’s murder. The economic pressure was exposing fissures within the CNR leadership and Compaoré was able to take advantage of this.

Also, the French were no longer willing to support Sankara and had already come around to seeing Compaoré as a more moderate alternative. The Americans concurred. Owing to Sankara’s diplomatic estrangement over the previous year, Compaoré and his allies were meeting with US diplomats, and the US ambassador, and shaping impressions, convincing the US that Compaoré was a more viable or “moderate” option. The US ambassador, Leonardo Neher, told me about a lunch he hosted at his residence for Blaise and Chantal Compaoré, just two months before the coup. During the lunch, as Chantal complained about the revolution and the “socialist nonsense,” it became clear to Neher that Compaoré was eager to embrace the capitalist system, and work with France, the US, and the IMF. In fact, very soon after taking power, Compaoré reached out to the IMF to negotiate an agreement.

But Compaoré was equally motivated by other incentives, such as the opportunities that would open up by working with Muammar Qaddafi and Charles Taylor, who were seeking to use Burkina as a base for training soldiers and a conduit for moving weapons from Libya to Liberia. Sankara rejected their requests, and so they reached out to Compaoré, who agreed, in exchange for a cut of the profits once the diamond mines were seized. US cables confirmed that Libya was providing weapons to Compaoré during his seizure of power, and that Charles Taylor had already established ties to Compaoré in Ouagadougou. Now, all of these different foreign powers were not working in concert. Things were being orchestrated by Compaoré, and his faction, in Ouagadougou. But these foreign powers, in varying ways, all knew a coup was on the horizon.

The US was following things very closely via their military contacts with Burkinabé officers who had been trained in the International Military Education and Training program, and France’s tentacles of influence were everywhere, most importantly via Abidjan. US cables suggest that Compaoré was visiting Abidjan regularly leading up to the coup, and that while Compaoré “never asked for a green light from Houphouët-Boigny,” the Ivoirian leader provided assurance that he would “turn a blind eye.” Interestingly, the French ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire, Michel Dupuch—future head of the “Africa Cell” under President Chirac—told US diplomats that he had “personally informed Houphouët of the coup,” and that “the president’s initial reaction was a shrug of his shoulders, almost one of indifference… [he] expressed little surprise and showed no sense of loss at the ouster of Sankara.” The response suggests that Houphouët-Boigny knew about the coup, and at least tacitly supported it, which was a sentiment shared with neighbouring African heads of state.

In the end, the international forces that were arrayed against Sankara, which included the francophone African political class, were too much. Once the connections were established between Compaoré and these sets of interests, there wasn’t much Sankara could do, especially given Compaoré’s overwhelming military advantage within Burkina. The relations of force, internally and externally, had all tipped irretrievably against him, even as Sankara was still widely admired by his people and by Africans across the continent.

You refer to a lot of US diplomatic cables, starting with some warm appreciations of Sankara before the revolution, can you tell us more about that US assessment evolved? And how central did possible links to Libya become in Cold War Washington’s thinking? 

My reading of US embassy cables, and also interviews with foreign service personnel, showed Sankara was the source of much fascination, but also deep concern. He first came on the radar of the US embassy when he was still a cadet at military school, apparently marked out by his leadership talents. There was an idea of bringing him over to the US for the IMET program, as some of his colleagues, like Paul Yameogo, were already among the first group of Voltaic soldiers to study in the US, starting in 1979 (at the US Military Intelligence Center in Fort Huachuca). Sankara’s rise was rapid, and in 1981-82 when he was the minister of information in Saye Zerbo’s government, the US State Department invited him for a month-long tour of the US, as a way of establishing a relationship with him.

At this time, Sankara was also in ongoing contact with the Mitterrand government in France, and the Cooperation Ministry under Jean-Pierre Cot. In fact, he was negotiating French funding for bringing the live television broadcast of the 1982 World Cup soccer games to Upper Volta, and at a certain point he threatened to procure funding from Qaddafi if France couldn’t deliver.

From this moment on, news spread through US intelligence circles that Sankara had ties to Libya. It was a major concern, as the CIA was just getting involved in the covert war against Qaddafi in Chad’s civil war. For President Reagan, Libya was the personification of evil, an Islamist socialist bogeyman and terrorist state. Any ties to Libya were an enormous red flag. The US was deeply troubled by the expansion of Libyan influence across Africa, and especially the Sahel. Washington saw Libya as a dangerous agent of destabilization and so the priority was placed on containing Qaddafi. By consorting with Qaddafi, Sankara was putting himself in the crosshairs.

On the other hand, US diplomats were very charmed by Sankara. At the time, Leonardo Neher was working at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (known as INR), and he was captivated by Sankara, and his proposed policies to fight corruption, liberate women, and so on. Neher, a career foreign service officer and self-proclaimed “liberal,” told me that the reason he applied for the post of US ambassador to Upper Volta was because he really wanted to work with Sankara, who represented something new and exciting in African politics. Unfortunately, the Libyan cloud around Sankara never really dissipated and would continue to complicate this relationship.

How do you explain the apparent serious anglophone interest in Sankara today with your book, compared with the very minimal interest – and that only on the left – during his life and assassination?  

The revolution was followed across Africa, and Sankara generated wide support in Francophone African leftist circles and still does—although the intelligentsia was not always so favourably inclined, as seen in Achille Mbembe’s oblique reference to Sankara’s government as a “pseudo-revolutionary regime.” Within the United States, Sankara was widely admired in certain progressive Pan-African communities during the 1980s, but interest in the revolution faded rather quickly after his murder. There is a discrepancy between his tremendous popularity in Africa and the lack of academic interest in his story. Few Anglophone historians or academics have written about him. He’s even missing from most general surveys of Africa, so that the historian Paul Nugent commented that the revolution was “airbrushed out of history.”

How did his death change that picture?

Sankara’s posthumous legacy really skyrocketed after the overthrow of Compaoré in 2014. Partly this came with the proliferation of Sankara videos, speeches, and other materials online. This dovetails with French interventions in the Sahel over the past decade and the attendant criticisms. There’s also been renewed interest in African revolutions and political struggles since the Arab Spring, while the even broader context of the global financial crisis of 2008, and the resulting popular movements, such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011, led to a serious reconsideration of forms of socialism. There’s a generational factor, both within Africa and the larger Anglophone world. Younger people, even in the United States, who hadn’t lived with Cold War thinking have been able to assess socialism in a more lucid and balanced way. So I have seen a surging interest in Sankara within this frame. For example, Jacobin magazine has published numerous stories on Sankara over the past 5 years or so, and the website Africa is a country has similarly been doing stories on Sankara. Just anecdotally I’ve also detected a strong current of interest in South Africa, and also among the Nigerian diaspora in the UK. 

Brian J Peterson’s study Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa is available here. Peterson is an historian of Africa, specializing in francophone West Africa and the Sahel. His research spans colonialism and the Cold War periods, with particular interests in politics, revolutions, religious change, and environmental history.

Victoria Brittain is an author and journalist who has lived for many years in Africa and Asia, and has been visiting and writing on the West Bank and Gaza for 30 years. A version of this interview and the featured photograph was published on Afrique XXI.

Read more on roape.net on Thomas Sankara’s politics and legacy.


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