Thomas Sankara: Revolution and the emancipation of women

"The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph." -- Thomas Sankara

By Amber Murrey

August 2, 2012 -- Pambazuka News -- The life and work of Thomas Sankara can be taken as a reminder of both the power and potential for human agency to enact transformation. I would like to situate my ideas within the geopolitical context of the popular uprisings that continue to take place around the world as people organise against neoliberal policies of advanced capitalism and their resultant gross inequalities in wealth, health and education.

Accompanying the intensifying neoliberal crises -- manifested through the financial crisis, food security crisis, and struggles over land reform and landed property -- is an ever expanding militarisation. The US military now has more bases and more personnel stations in more countries than ever in its history. The US Africa Command is one component of the US military’s current phase of expansion, including millions of dollars of military equipment, arms and training in African nations.

This is our contemporary moment as we approach [the 29th anniversary of the revolution in Burkina Faso on August 4] and the 25th anniversary of the assassination of that revolution's leader, Thomas Sankara, on October 15.

The revolutionary transformation of the West African country Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (what is known as the August revolution of 1983) occurred during a previous neoliberal crisis, that of the 1980s African debt crisis. Sankara vehemently and publicly denounced odious debt and rallied African political leaders to do the same.

Sankara’s politics and political leadership challenged the idea that the global capitalist system cannot be undone. During four years as the president of Burkina Faso, he worked with the people to construct an emancipatory politics informed by human, social, ecological and planetary wellbeing. The people-centred revolution was a pivotal point for a shift towards new societies on the continent. We have much to learn from the Burkinabé revolution.

What distinguishes Sankara from many other revolutionary leaders was his confidence in the revolutionary capabilities of ordinary human beings. He did not see himself as a messiah or prophet, as he famously said before the United Nations General Assembly in October of 1984. It is worth quoting from Sankara:

I make no claim to lay out any doctrines here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. I possess no truths. My only aspiration is … to speak on behalf of my people … to speak on behalf of the “great disinherited people of the world”, those who belong to the world so ironically christened the Third World. And to state, though I may not succeed in making them understood, the reasons for our revolt.

Furthermore, Sankara placed women’s resistance agency at the centre of the revolution. He saw women’s struggles for equal rights as a focal point of a more egalitarian politics on the continent.

Meaningful social transformation cannot endure without the active support and participation of women. While it is true that women have been deeply involved in each of the great social revolutions of human history, their support and participation has historically often gone relatively unacknowledged by movement leaders. This was the case when Russian women united to march in St Petersburg in February of 1917, demanding bread. Similarly, French women marched to Versailles in 1789, again to demand bread. Despite significant contributions to revolutionary movements, women remained second-class citizens. Oftentimes women’s political organisations were chastised by formalised male-led revolutionary groups.

Women mobilised for freedom against colonial and neocolonial oppressions In revolutionary and social struggles across the African continent. Again, many male leaders either omitted or failed to recognise the vital nature of the work carried out by women to mobilise and maintain social movements.

Sankara was somewhat unique as a revolutionary leader -- and particularly as a president -- in attributing the success of the revolution to the obtainment of gender equality. Sankara said, "The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph."

Historical background

The West African country of Upper Volta, a former French colony with more than 7 million inhabitants, was among the poorest countries in the world at the time of the popular uprising on August  4,1983. At 280 deaths for every 1000 births, it had the world’s highest infant mortality rate. School attendance hovered around 12 per cent and was even lower for girls.

Thomas Sankara, a Burkinabé with military training, had witnessed the student and worker-led uprisings in Madagascar. He was influenced by what he witnessed there as a young man and returned to Upper Volta with an anti-imperialist worldview, founding a strong notion and respect for the power of the grassroots. This put him at odds with the ruling party of Upper Volta and he was imprisoned in 1983. The people demonstrated in mass to protest his arrest and on August 4, 1983, Blaise Compaoré and some 250 soldiers freed Sankara. Sankara took over as president and formed the National Council of Revolution (NCR). He was 33 years old at the time. One year later the people of Upper Volta embraced a new national name, that of Burkina Faso -- meaning the land of upright men.

During four years as the president, peasants, urban and rural workers, women, youth, the elderly and all ranks of Burkinabé society mobilised to create a more egalitarian and human-centred society. Sankara focused especially on the political education of the masses. A literacy campaign was organised and school attendance doubled in two years. He nationalised all land and oil wealth as a means of ending oppressive class relations based on landed property. An anti-corruption campaign was implemented. A massive reforestation project was undertaken as millions of tree saplings were planted to halt desertification. They sunk wells, built houses, and immunised 2.5 million children, including children from bordering countries.

On October 15, 1987, Captain Blaise Compaoré led a military coup against Sankara. It is widely accepted that the coup was in the interests of the landed and upper classes, whose domination was threatened by the revolution. Sankara and 12 of his aides were assassinated.

Blaise Compaoré remains the president of Burkina Faso today and has been implicated in conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, and in arms trafficking and the trafficking of diamonds. There has been no independent investigation into Sankara’s assassination, despite repeated requests by the judiciary committee of the International Campaign for Justice for Thomas Sankara, a legal group working in the name of the Sankara family. The UN Committee for Human Rights closed Sankara’s record in April of 2008, without conducting an investigation into the crimes.

Sankara and women's liberation

To a rally of several thousand women in Ouagadougou commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8, 1987, Thomas Sankara took a distinctive position as a revolutionary leader and addressed in great detail women’s oppression. He outlined the historical origins of women’s oppression and the ways in which acts of oppression continued to be perpetuated during his lifetime.

He said:

Imbued with the invigorating sap of freedom, the men of Burkina, the humiliated and outlawed of yesterday, received the stamp of what is most precious in the world: honour and dignity. From this moment on, happiness became accessible. Every day we advance toward it, heady with the first fruits of our struggles, themselves proof of the great strides we have already taken. But the selfish happiness is an illusion. There is something crucial missing: women. They have been excluded from the joyful procession… The revolution’s promises are already a reality for men. But for women, they are still merely a rumour. And yet the authenticity and the future of our revolution depend on women. Nothing definitive or lasting can be accomplished in our country as long as a crucial part of ourselves is kept in this condition of subjugation -- a condition imposed … by various systems of exploitation.

Posing the question of women in Burkinabe society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system functions, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation.

We must understand how the struggle of Burkinabe women today is part of the worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. The condition of women is therefore at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here, there, and everywhere.

Sankara's words display a profound understanding of, and active solidarity with, women’s struggles, of which he posits as a struggle belonging to all of humanity.  He locates the roots of African women’s oppression in the historical processes of European colonialism and the unequal social relations of capitalism and capital exploitation. Most importantly, he stressed the importance of women’s equal mobilisation. He urges Burkinabé women into revolutionary action, not as passive victims but as respected, equal partners in the revolution and wellbeing of the nation. He acknowledges the central space of African women in African society and demanded that other Burkinabé men do the same.

In an interview with the Cameroonian anticolonial historian Mongo Beti, he said, "We are fighting for the equality of men and women -- not a mechanical, mathematical equality but making women the equal of men before the law and especially in relation to wage labor. The emancipation of women requires their education and their gaining economic power. In this way, labor on an equal footing with men on all levels, having the same responsibilities and the same rights and obligations …"

This means that while the revolutionary government included a large number of women, Sankara did not believe that an increase in female representation was an automatic indicator of gender equality. He truly believed in grassroots organising and that change had to originate with the energy and actions of the people themselves.

He urged his sisters to be more compassionate with each other, less judging and more understanding. He questioned the need to pressure women into marriage, saying that there is nothing more natural about the married state than the single. He criticised the oppressive gendered nature of the capitalist system, where women (particularly women with children to support) make an ideal labour force because the need to support their families renders them malleable and controllable to exploitative labour practices. He characterised the system as a "cycle of violence" and emphasised that "inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women enjoy equal rights".

Sankara's focus on labour rights and the gendered means of production was symbolised through the day of solidarity that the revolution established with Burkinabé housewives. On this day, men were to adopt the roles of their wives, going to the marketplace, working in the family agricultural plot and taking responsibility for the household work.

The 1987 IWD speech provides a powerful heritage of political leadership and stands as a source of political ideas and inspiration for liberation movements on the continent. Sankara offers a possibility for continued male political engagement and solidarity with women’s oppression.

US militarism in Africa

Radical feminist theorists Barbara Sutton and Julie Novkov (2008) explain militarisation as "how societies become dependent on and imbued by the logic of military institutions, in ways that permeate language, popular culture, economic priorities, educational systems, government policies, and national values and identities". US-backed militarisation of Africa takes different forms. First, it means an increase in troops on the ground. US Special Ops and US military personnel have been deployed in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Mauritania, South Sudan (and potentially Nigeria).

Second, US military personnel conduct training with African militaries. Training is underway in Algeria, Burundi, Djibouti, Chad, Namibia, Somalia, South Africa and many other countries. This is often presented as a "counterterrorism" effort to stifle the spread of al Qaeda across North Africa but it is a political tool. Bolstering local military capabilities in undemocratic countries is one means to ensure the control and suppression of local populations, who are often labeled "terrorists" to justify brutal crackdowns on social and political protests.

Third, the US military funds social science research into African society, culture and politics. This takes various forms, one of which is the use of Sociocultural Advisory Teams for the purposes of preparing US military personnel for deployment and missions. This can be understood through the same framework of contemporary counterinsurgency-style warfare in Afghanistan (and previously in Iraq), where winning "hearts and minds" requires in-depth knowledge of local peoples and cultures (what the military refers to as "human terrain"). British and French counterrevolutionary theorists during the anti-colonial period of the 1950s and 1960s also promoted the need for in-depth knowledge of local revolutionary culture and social organisation as a means of anticipating and controlling anti-colonial social unrest.

Although the US government claims that the US Africa Command is an extension of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, an historical analysis of US intervention on the continent indicates otherwise. At every instance of African agency the US was willing and ready to intervene on the side of the colonisers.

In our contemporary moment, neoliberal promises and free-market policies have failed to return on their promises of increased wealth and progress. But more than this, they have caused increased social inequalities that is accompanied by a dangerous militarism. Scholars (see Sutton and Novkov 2008, for example) have explored the ways that increased poverty and the narrowing job markets caused by neoliberal policies pushes people into the military as a means of economic survival. This is true in the so-called global North as it is in the so-called global South.

The process of militarism is accompanied by gender-specific inequalities and disadvantages. Horace Campbell in his article, "Remilitarisation of African Societies: Analysis of the planning behind proposed US Africa Command", (2008) explains, "Sexual terrorism … finds its echo in Africa where insecurities generated by warfare, ethnic hatred, rape, sexual terrorism and religious fundamentalism increase violence and lead to unnecessary military mobilization."

The voices of African women activists and intellectuals are particularly necessary as the interconnections between militarism, masculinity and violence become clearer. Patricia McFadden writes, "By imbuing the notion of rampancy with political weight in terms of its use as a gendered and supremacist practice within militarism … [it] facilitates both class consolidation and accumulation, as well as gendered exclusion of women and working communities in Africa." Women have been combating their exclusion through both organised and non-organised action.

A strong military structure paves the way for the resource plunder and large-scale dispossessions that are seen in neoliberal states in the so-called global South. In this system, the state ensures profit for class elites (both international and domestic) by guaranteeing the super-exploitation of labour and the dispossession of millions of people of their lands and livelihoods for resource extraction at serious costs to local ecology, health and wellbeing. This guarantee can only be made through an increased militarism that stifles political mobilisation.

Different social organisation

But Thomas Sankara and the August Revolution of 1983 tells us another story. They provide a different way of thinking about social organisation. Sankara understood that capitalism is dependent upon the unequal deployment of and distribution of power, particularly state power. But, as he showed us, the state is not unalterable. The state is a complex system of human relationships that are maintained through violent power/coercion and persuasion. And what Sankara did was work to bring the state apparatus down to the level of the people, so to speak. He encouraged people to engage with the state and to change the unequal power relations embedded in the state structure.

He did this -- as demonstrated earlier through the example of gender empowerment -- by exposing the ways that power is generated, controlled and dispensed and then identifying alternative forms of social relations. This is what the August Revolution of 1983 sought to perform in Burkina Faso.

The life and work of Thomas Sankara can be taken as a reminder of both the power and potential for human agency to enact transformation and as a reminder of our obligation to engagement of and for human wellbeing. As the social mobilisations taking place across the world are demonstrating right now, this engagement for human wellbeing means refusing to submit to neoliberal policies that see humans in terms of labour and profit.

I’ve been told that the first time that my daughter’s paternal grandfather cried was at the news of Thomas Sankara’s assassination. It was certainly the first time that my daughter’s father saw his father cry. He recalls, even at the age of seven, his sense of confusion and sadness over Sankara’s death.

The image of my daughter’s grandfather entering his home and collapsing onto the sofa, holding his face in his hands and crying emerges in my head each time I think of Sankara. This image of a middle aged Cameroonian man, Jacque Ndewa, thousands of miles away, who had never travelled to Burkina Faso, crying quietly on his sofa. This is the resonance that Sankara had, across the African continent and among disenfranchised and dispossessed people everywhere.

In honour of his memory, I praise and celebrate his fearlessness, his resilience and his political leadership for human emancipation.

[This text is from a presentation at a Revival of Pan-Africanism Forum event entitled "Celebrating the Life of Thomas Sankara" and held at Jesus College, University of Oxford on June 8, 2012.]

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by Paula Akugizibwe

Thomas Sankara, former leader of Burkina Faso, was the apparent opposite of everything we are often told that success should look like. Mansions? Cars? Who? What? Get out of here. As Prime Minister and later as President, Sankara rode a bicycle to work before he upgraded, at his Cabinet’s insistence, to a Renault 5 – one of the cheapest cars available in Burkina Faso at the time. He lived in a small brick house and wore only cotton that was produced, weaved and sewn in Burkina Faso.

Going by his lifestyle, Sankara was the antithesis of success, but it is this very distinction that enabled him to become the most successful president Africa has ever seen, in terms of what he accomplished for and with his people. Sankara would not have chopped P-Square’s money given twice a chance – in fact, he might have sat him down and taught him a thing or two about the creeping menace of pop culture patriarchy – because Thomas Sankara, “The Upright Man”, was a feminist. In this and many other ways, Sankara was the African dream come true, the only living proof that hopes of African independence are not dead on arrival.

His life ended with a bullet which, according to the testimony of some involved in his assassination, was ordered by former Liberian president Charles Taylor with the support of the French and American governments, and delivered via Blaise Compaoré – Sankara’s long-time friend and colleague, and the current president of Burkina Faso. Four years prior, when Compaoré and Sankara had jointly staged the popular coup of 1983 that made Sankara president, Burkina Faso was one of the poorest countries in the world. Under Compaoré it still is – so much so that the dire circumstances led to a series of violent protests last year.

During the years of Sankara’s administration, things were turning around, especially in the areas of health, education and the environment. Mass vaccination campaigns were rolled out with a level of rapidity and success that was unprecedented for an African country at that time. Infant mortality rates dropped. School attendance rates doubled. Millions of trees were planted in a far-sighted effort to counter deforestation. Feminism was a core element of political ideology, manifested through improved access to education for girls, and inclusion of women in leadership roles. Sankara introduced a day of solidarity in which men switched traditional gender roles – going to the market, running the household – so as to better empathise with what women handle on a daily basis. It was Africa’s greatest success story.

How was this achieved? In a speech to the UN General Assembly, Sankara reflected on the state of Burkina Faso at the time that he had come to power, stating that “The diagnosis was clearly sombre. The root of the disease was political. The treatment could only be political.” And Sankara did not hold back with the treatment. As soon as he came into power, he set about razing the conventional structures of power and inequality.

Gone were the days of politicians living lavish lives sponsored by taxpayers’ money – Sankara issued salary cuts across the board, including for himself. The fleet of Mercedes Benzes for high-ranking officials was done away with, and the cars replaced by Renault 5s. Land and oil wealth were nationalised. While the masses celebrated, the country’s elite was enraged as decades of class inequality, which had previously favoured them, suddenly came into jeopardy.

The international community, whose interests were vested in the status quo, were also disturbed by Sankara’s radicalism, not least when he started calling for African countries to reject debt repayments. From the 1970s onwards, newly-independent African governments had begun to rapidly accumulate huge amounts of debt from rich countries and the Bretton Woods institutions:  the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the Cold War intensified, such loans were increasingly used as a tool for securing political support from key countries – even governments that were patently corrupt and would inevitably default on repayment, such as Mobutu’s in the DRC, were readily provided with billions of dollars in credit.

In one of his most famous speeches, delivered at the summit of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) in Addis Ababa in 1987, Sankara issued a passionate call for a United Front Against Debt.

“We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before,” he declared. “Under its current form, that is imperialism-controlled, debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave…”

At the time of his speech it was clear, just a couple of decades into independence, that African countries were quickly becoming financial slaves. Interest rates rose sharply in the 1980s, but governments continued to borrow more and more. Between 1982 and 1990, African debt doubled from US$140 billion to US$270 billion. Sankara rightly predicted that this would cripple African development for generations to come. Despite debt relief programs, which have resulted in increased spending on health and education in African countries, Jubilee Debt Campaign estimates that in 2008, low income countries paid over US $20 million a day to rich countries.

Their decision-making power is also constrained within the limits of orders given by the institutions and countries to which they are indebted. Strangely enough, while these orders demand decreased public spending for example on health, they don’t seem to have made a dent on the perpetual rise of Africa’s waBenzi clan: politicians rolling in flashy Mercedes Benzes bought with taxpayers' money. And to make matters worse, with access to new creditors – especially China – many African governments are once again sinking into the vicious cycle of debt dependency that Sankara foresaw.

His Foreign Policy Advisor, Fidèle Kientega, explains how this foresight was shared with ordinary people.

“Sankara did not dictate to people or force them to work. He told them about the mechanisms of getting loans…He said that they could relax at home and ask him to borrow money from the neo-colonialists, but that they would have to bear in mind that they and their children would have to pay back the loans with interests. Consequently, his government would find it difficult to provide universal education and health care because he would have to spend a greater chunk of the meagre tax revenues in servicing the debt. They could also beg for aid but then they would remain beggars forever. The people got the message and were motivated into working harder.”

Stories of Sankara tend to focus on his radical policies, but it is this approach that was probably the most radical of all – his efforts to bring discussions and decisions, “the apparatus of democracy” as Kientega puts it, to ordinary people. He was able to do this not only because he had political commitment to the proverbial grassroots – as many leaders claim to do – but because, through the choices he made, he positioned himself as their equal. Sankara made personal sacrifices that no other president has ever made, and did not view them as sacrifices, but as an act of solidarity, of African pride. In his view it was only through collective commitment to such sacrifices, which he hoped would one day be viewed as “normal and simple” actions, that Africans could begin to work their way towards self-reliance.

“He who does not feed you can demand nothing of you,” he said. “We however, are being fed every day and every year. We say, 'Down with imperialism!' yet we can’t ignore our bellies... Let us consume only what we ourselves control! Many people ask, “Where is imperialism?” Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet—that is imperialism. You need look no further."

Despite Sankara’s incredible oratorical gift, the message came across even more eloquently through his actions: it is better to live a simple life in freedom, than a fabulous lifestyle in economic chains. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, most African governments did not share his philosophy. In a recent series of debates on democracy organised by TIA, people from Ghana, Kenya and South Africa all expressed a lack of faith in their countries' democratic systems. Why? Because, they said, existing political systems across the world don’t answer to ordinary people – they answer to money. African governments are first accountable to rich countries, then to their own local elites; and finally, if convenient, to the people.

In a world that only answers to money, everything is for sale – democracy, freedom, dignity, integrity. Thomas Sankara bucked this trend, and in so doing struck at the very core of the international system of control – because for once, the world was faced with an African leader it could neither buy nor co-opt.

And because he was not for sale, Sankara had to be eliminated, buried in an unmarked grave whose whereabouts are still unknown. To this day, Sankara’s family and supporters in Burkina Faso and around the world are still fighting for justice, some in the face of death threats. Meanwhile, despite the fact that some of the fastest growing economies in the world are now African, and the fact that poverty rates are falling, so much of our energy now and for the foreseeable future will have to be devoted to further reducing poverty levels relating to decades of political selling out. And the selling out continues, even as our economies are bouncing back. Why do our leaders keep selling us out? Same reason we all sell out – for nice things.

“Where does this debt come from anyway?” Sankara asked. “Did we need to build mansions…or foster the mentality of overpaid men among our officers?” This last question, in particular, has become more relevant as we learn of just how much money Africa's elite have been salting away in foreign accounts even as their countries' foreign debts mount: 'Capgemini and Merrill Lynch estimate in their latest World Wealth Report that Africa has about 100,000 “high net worth individuals” with a total of $1.2 trillion in liquid assets. The debts, on the other hand, are owed by the African people as a whole through their governments.'

Of all the holy cows in the world today, materialism is probably the deepest and most universally entrenched – from home to school to pop culture. This entrenchment is necessary to preserve the current system of inequality, because it opens us all up to compromise, to co-option. How much would you sell your values for? How much do you sell your values for? Sankara demonstrated that the make-or-break of freedom is not so much about heroes and politics as it is about the very personal struggle between principles and cash-money.

A week before he died, Sankara said, “revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, but you cannot kill ideas”. And so, for us today, the final challenge rests not in finding more Sankaras, but in becoming them – in bringing these ideas to life. “You have to dare to look reality in the face and take a whack at some of the long-standing privileges,” Sankara said, “so long-standing in fact that they seem to have become normal, unquestionable.”  And that’s the most daunting thing of all, because it requires a struggle with the person in the mirror.

"You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future." – Thomas Sankara