The 25th anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution
by Edwin Bentley
BURKINA Faso was different. Foreign dignitaries arriving in the capital, Ouagadougou, during the 1980s would be picked up at the airport in an old Renault 5 from the government’s transport pool. The minister of education of this West African country received the same wages as a schoolteacher, and Burkinabé diplomats attending United Nations meetings in Geneva would share a room in the cheapest bed and breakfast just across the border in France to save money.
No Mercedes, no shopping trips to Paris and London, no Swiss bank accounts. This was a country that had embraced its reality as an underdeveloped ex-colonial backwater, and in so doing had found the strength, unity, and dignity to look to the future with optimism.
From 1983 to 1987 the people of this West African country – previously known as Upper Volta – lived through a revolution which we can now see as a process of national liberation that shook off the shackles of neo-colonialism. The revolution was eventually crushed by its enemies, but as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution we can celebrate its achievements and value it as a shining example for future African liberation.
Formal independence from France in 1960 had changed nothing for the vast majority of the seven million Burkinabé (as the people are called) who endured 98 per cent illiteracy in rural areas, a total absence of healthcare, feudal social structures, and rampant corruption by the tiny ruling class of some 30,000 government employees and landowners.
The Burkina Faso revolution was a mass movement, but it was lead, inspired, and represented by a young army officer, Captain Thomas Sankara. Sankara was born the son of a low-ranking colonial policeman on 21st December 1949 in the town of Yako. He always said how lucky he had been to receive a secondary education, something completely outside the dreams of the majority of his countrymen. Sankara joined the army and did much of his training overseas, particularly in Madagascar. It was there that he became politicised, as a consequence of witnessing a wave of strikes and demonstrations in 1972. Military duties back home were interrupted by further training and studies in Morocco and France. These travels lead to Sankara’s first contact with revolutionary ideas. “Thanks to reading, but above all thanks to discussions with Marxists on the reality of our country, I came to Marxism.” Together with like-minded military personnel, he formed an organised communist group within the army.
A gifted orator, strikingly handsome and with boundless energy, Sankara was invited to join the progressive military government of Jean-Baptiste Ouedragou in January 1983, and served as prime minister, but this government was overthrown by yet another coup on May 17th. Sankara and his closest collaborators Henri Zongo and Jean Lingani were arrested for a while, and on their release they worked underground to organise opposition to the reactionary regime in power. Meanwhile another of Sankara’s closest supporters, Blaise Compaoré, held out against the régime at the Army base in the town of Po. Sankara, Lingani, and Zongo and a large number of supporters escaped to Po. It was from there that the revolution started. On 4th August 1983 Blaise Compaoré and 200 soldiers marched on Ouagadougou the capital, overthrew the government and formed the Conseil National de la Révolution (National Council of the Revolution, or CNR), with Thomas Sankara as president.
From the first day of the revolution, in his broadcast to the nation on the night of 4th August, Sankara invited the people to form local Comités de Défense de la Révolution (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, or CDR). These CDR became the method for exercising direct democratic control over the organs of state and local administration. Members were elected by direct voting by everyone in the village or urban neighbourhood. Not only within the country, but also amongst Burkinabé overseas, the CDR were the everyday instruments of democratic power.
Sankara saw his main role as one of animating and encouraging the CDR under the slogan “Raise consciousness! Act! Produce!”, helping ordinary working people to understand that they could run their country; that power really did lie in their hands, and that everyone had a part to play. Of course, there were many mistakes caused by human error and petty squabbles, but the CDR meant that for the first time every Burkinabé had a say in public life. As Sankara said, “We must dare to invent the future.”
The legal system of the country had remained unchanged since colonial days, and represented the interests of the former ruling elite. The courts and the old laws were therefore replaced from January 1984 by the Tribuneaux Populaires de la Revolution (TPR, or People’s Revolutionary Courts), with the judges all appointed from among the working people. On 3rd January, Sankara told the first session of the TPR: “There is no need for the judges to know the old laws; they only need to let themselves be guided by their sense of popular justice.” He made it clear that the main purpose of the TPR was: “To bring to light and publicly expose all the hidden social and political sides to the crimes perpetrated against the people, and to help them understand the consequences of them in order to draw lessons of social morality and practical politics.” Perhaps surprisingly to many observers, the TPR turned out to be remarkably successful in combating all sorts of crime, by helping people understand that criminal behaviour and corruption had no place in a socialist society.
On the first anniversary of the revolution, the name of Upper Volta was changed to Burkina Faso, which in the local languages means “The Land of Upright People”. Speaking during a cultural visit to Harlem in New York later that year, Sankara explained that “Upper Volta” was a purely colonial name, and that adopting a new name for the country symbolised its re-birth. He was deeply aware that all of Africa had been divided indiscriminately by the European imperialists, and that virtually none of the African countries had rational boundaries. But Sankara knew that it was impossible to turn the clock back to some imaginary pre-colonial golden age, and concentrated on accepting present-day realities and starting again to build something new.
“Starting from scratch” was certainly the core slogan of the Burkinabé revolution. The CNR never once proposed grandiose prestige projects. It focussed on low-technology plans that would lead to the greatest possible improvement in the lives of people within a sometimes non-existent budget. The country simply did not have the resources to provide schools for every child at once, so a campaign was launched to ensure that everyone who knew how to read and write would teach a certain number of others. In just the first two years of the revolution, literacy was almost trebled from eight per cent to 22 per cent, and 35,000 adults were trained as literacy instructors.
In 1983, Burkina Faso had one doctor per 48,000 inhabitants and one of the highest mortality rates in the world. The CNR rapidly moved to make basic healthcare available to everyone, and for the first time established centres for maternity and baby care. Perhaps the greatest achievement was the vaccination programme. In just two weeks in 1985, for example, volunteer health workers vaccinated 2.5 million children against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever. And these were not just Burkinabé children; foreigners crossed the borders and were vaccinated too. After only two years, by 1985 infant mortality had fallen from 208 to 145 for every 1,000 live births. By early 1987 river blindness – onchocerciasis — had been completely eliminated from the country.
Innovative technology was sometimes amazing in its simplicity, such as the mass manufacture by hand of thousands of simple clay stoves to replace the open fires that most people had used for cooking. The northern parts of Burkina Faso are in the Sahel, the very arid region on the edge of the Sahara. Because of the need to provide wood for cooking, deforestation had taken place at an alarming rate. The clay stoves were introduced to reduce wood consumption. Direct measures to protect the environment included mass tree planting; over a 15-month period 10 million trees were planted, and in the villages and settled agricultural areas each family was encouraged to plant 100 trees a year and take care of them. In towns, anyone given the tenancy of municipal housing was evicted if they failed to look after the trees for which they were responsible. In the villages, local people were entrusted with the management of forestry resources.
Agriculture employed the vast majority of Burkinabé, but feudal patterns of tenancy prevailed. The landowners were able to demand unpaid labour and tribute payments from their tenants. The CNR abolished these feudal rights, nationalised and redistributed land, and encouraged co-operatives. A National Union of Peasants was established. Irrigation was an age-old problem and there were no funds to build concrete dams, so with all available hands taking part, villages built their own simple earth dams, with reservoirs for the dry season. Agricultural production increased. For the first time ever, public housing schemes were launched. Just simple two-roomed bungalows built with mud bricks and managed by the local CDR, but something previously unimaginable.
But it was perhaps in the field of the emancipation of women that Sankara’s ideas had most impact. Sankara was profoundly influenced by Engels’ writings on the origins of social structures, and he applied them to the realities of Burkina Faso, where women did most of the manual work without enjoying any rights. He taught that women suffered doubly in neo-colonial societies. Firstly, they experienced the same suffering as men, and secondly, they were subjected to additional suffering by men! “Exploited in the fields and at home, yet playing the role of a faceless, voiceless extra. The pivot, yet in chains. Female shadow of the male shadow.”
Sankara and the CNR – which itself included women members – ensured that women were fully involved in decision making and public administration. As he said: ”The genuine emancipation of women is one that entrusts responsibilities to women, that involves them in productive capacity and in the different fights the people face.” Women played a powerful role in the CDR, served as ministers and as provincial governors. Forced marriages, polygamy, and genital mutilation were forbidden and family planning promoted.
Revolutionary Burkina Faso had close ties with progressive governments throughout the world, but maintained membership of the non-aligned movement and was the client state of no one. Sankara visited the Soviet Union in October 1986, but the closest international ties were with Nicaragua and Cuba and, in Africa itself, Mozambique. Samora Machel was something of a hero for Sankara, and the two were personal friends. Machel’s assassination by South African agents in an aircraft explosion was a cause for great sadness.
Burkina Faso was a good friend of the Polisario Front that sought the independence of the former Spanish Sahara from Moroccan occupation, and supported the cause of Palestinian liberation. The generally progressive government of Gerry Rawlings in neighbouring Ghana was friendly towards the Revolution, and there were joint military manoeuvres, but most West African countries were at best cool and often hostile towards Burkina Faso. On Christmas day 1985 troops from the neighbouring country of Mali even briefly attacked Burkina Faso following a dispute over the frontier.
Relations with Europe and North America were very difficult, but the CNR had no expectation of a helping hand from countries that were only interested in the exploitation of Africa. Sankara openly rejected aid from the imperialist countries, pointing out that hand-outs from the rich simply created a culture of debt and dependency and destroyed emerging local economies.
Burkina Faso was capable of feeding itself, and it was up to the Burkinabé to get their own house in order. Technical and social help was another matter when it came from friendly countries like Cuba, but the CNR was always aware of the impossibility of receiving no-strings help from the imperialists. When a French politician told Sankara that West Africans should be grateful for all the help they received from France, the Burkinabé leader replied that the French should be grateful for all the Africans who spent their lives sweeping the streets of Paris and cleaning the Metro!
What went wrong, when the Burkinabé revolution had clearly been such a success? Sankara himself had admitted in his speech on the fourth anniversary of the Revolution that time was needed to establish proper political structures. The CDR had functioned well, but they were clearly not a political party and the level of political education was low.
Sankara wanted everyone to take the time to catch up; revolutionary enthusiasm had to be properly channelled into a Marxist-Leninist party. This level-headedness by Sankara was opposed by ultra-leftist elements who wanted to go full steam ahead in immediately overthrowing all remaining vestiges of pre-revolutionary Burkina Faso without thought to the consequences. Some commentators have classified these people as “Maoists”, whereas they exhibited all the characteristics of Trotskyites in condemning everyone and everything and demanding immediate solutions.
These ultra-leftists, as is so often the case, made common cause with feudal landowners and the old ruling families, and with government employees who wanted to get back to the days of graft and corruption. To this alliance can be added the neo-colonialist leaders of neighbouring countries, particularly Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, who feared the export of the Burkinabé revolution, and also the French government of Mitterrand. Inevitably, Burkina Faso’s growing links with Nicaragua and Cuba also made it a target of the United States.
Sankara undoubtedly contributed to his own demise by his openness and transparent honesty in everything he did. An austere but friendly soldier who was happy to lead a spartan lifestyle, he upset those who were not prepared to make personal sacrifices and this lead to vendettas against him. Sankara was sometimes naive and assumed that everyone shared his values. Earlier that year, for example, he had sought to re-appoint schoolteachers who had been dismissed for taking a counter-revolutionary stand. In good faith, he believed that the teachers had mended their ways, but his opponents in the CNR used this decision as another way of attacking him.
On 15th October 1987, Thomas Sankara and 12 others were gunned down by an aide of Blaise Compaoré, who had been one of the leading lights of the revolution. Compaoré immediately seized power, abolished the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) and dissolved the CDR. Resistance went on for a few days, but the Revolution was over. Compaoré has been in power ever since.