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Thomas Sankara: A nationalist vision, its perils and limitations

06 May 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Thomas Sankara: A nationalist vision, its perils and limitations

Nonetheless, Sankara’s nationalist vision meant that his revolution suffered from many of the same weaknesses that plagued the socialism-in-one-country model throughout the twentieth century. Most notably, by succumbing to the inescapable trap of state capitalism, in which, absent the means to eradicate capitalism, the state functions as an exploiter of labor, revolutionary Burkina Faso demanded enormous sacrifices of the peasantry and working class.

Thus, Sankara’s bid to improve crop yields for critical food sources required the construction of dams to facilitate irrigation; the labor for those dams was unpaid, provided by volunteers pressured by a language of national service to toil without compensation. To better link the rural areas with commercial centers, Sankara also implemented what he termed “The Battle for the Railroad,” a nationwide effort in which peasants supplied their labor to lay railroad tracks that would stretch from north to south.

These and other campaigns sought to invoke national honor and duty in order to provide the kind of infrastructure development that normally would have been funded by international loans. But with the severing of links between Burkina Faso and the neo-liberal order, the burden fell on peasants to develop the nation and thus secure its economic competitiveness in the future. In true Stalinist fashion, in 1985 Sankara announced a Five-Year Plan, a national offensive whose culmination was to result in “an independent, self-sufficient and planned national economy at the service of a democratic and popular society.”

One should not minimize the accomplishments of this revolution from above. It increased food crop production, saved the lives of thousands of children, and awakened the population to an anti-imperialist message that took seriously the restoration of national honor in the aftermath of the more than two decades of disillusionment and neo-colonialism following independence in 1960. Sankara’s revolutionary vision won him many admirers both inside and outside the country, but in no sense can it be judged a democratic revolution. The National Council for the Revolution which Sankara headed did not have democratic structures that enabled collective decision making, and Sankara had banned opposition political parties and curtailed trade unions upon taking power.

Towards the end of his reign, Sankara spoke of the need for a vanguard party and democratic centralism, but this ambition remained unrealized at the time of his death. Instead, the revolution’s success largely depended on Sankara’s enlightened perspective and his willingness to reconsider unpopular decisions. For as long as he remained in power, this approach was relatively successful; but his elimination ensured the demise of his political project.

Sankara’s downfall can be traced to the young leader’s enemies both inside and outside the country. Outside the country, France and its West African clients, most notably Côte D’Ivoire, desired a return to the old economic system by which wealthier countries were free to exploit Burkinabé labor. In particular, Côte D’Ivoire, which had a large Burkinabé population inside its borders, feared that the revolution might spread beyond Burkina Faso. It desired a return to the old dependency that had previously guided the relationship between the two countries, just as France and the other neoliberal powers wished to see Burkina Faso reinserted into global systems of economic exploitation.
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