Thomas Sankara: Chronicle of an organised tragedy
Cheriff M. Sy
2007-10-11, Issue 323
It is 20 years since a great combatant for African dignity, integrity and human liberation, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, was assassinated. Widely recognised as pivotal to his death, his incumbent, Blaise Compaoré, meanwhile, has been in power for 20 years. Frequently compared with such dictators as Mbotu at home, his legitimacy resting solely on orchestrating the military coup that murdered Sankara.
On the commemoration the anniversary of his death that will be mourned in Burkina Faso and marked by the popular leader’s supporters throughout the world, Cheriff M. Sy, editor of the progressive and independent Burkinabe weekly political and cultural affairs journal, Bendré, recounts the assassination of one of Africa’s most important independence leaders, and assesses the legacy for his country and continent.
The tragic fate of Thomas Sankara is tied to the struggle for a social democracy. The ‘Africa mafia’, the businesspeople and their collaborators who control Africa, did not like the struggle. Therefore, he had to be exterminated. They found armed hands among the local ranks. The killing machine splurged into motion.
Reflecting on the causes of a dark Thursday
‘In favour of the meandering direction of history, this autocrat heaved himself up to the head of our revolution to choke it from the inside. This high treason was illustrated by his derision of all the organisational principles, the various denials of the noble objectives of the RDP [Rassemblement Démocratique et Populaire: ‘democratic and popular rally’], the personalisation of power, the mystical vision. As for bringing solutions to the concrete problems of the masses, everything engendered demobilisation at the heart of the militant people.’ – Extract from the Proclamation of 15 October 1987
‘People of Burkina Faso…the tragic moments that we lived through on 15 October belong to the exceptional events that often make up the history of the peoples. As revolutionaries, we must have the courage to assume our responsibilities. We did so through the proclamation of the Popular Front. We will continue…with determination, for the triumph of the objectives of the August revolution. This brutal denouement shocks us all as human beings, and me more than most, for having been his comrade in arms, moreover, his friend. For us too, he remains a revolutionary comrade who got things wrong.’ – Extract from the message to the nation delivered by the president of the Popular Front, comrade captain Blaise Compaoré, 19 October 1987
On Thursday 15 October 1987, the democratic and popular revolution in Burkina Faso was brutally arrested on the strike of 4pm. After the onslaught of the kalashnikovs, which lasted all the evening, the signed Proclamation of the Popular Front fell down like thick rain mixed with hail, surprising the RDP militants as much as those uninterested in and distanced from the revolution.
For a while, it had been known that there was a serious crisis in the national revolutionary council. Its principal leaders, formerly united, no longer agreed about orientation and strategy for action. Increasingly, the four historic leaders, Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaoré, Boukary Lingani and Henri Zongo, appeared to be ‘too many’ to lead the revolutionary movement.
But the serious crisis that shook the RDP leaders remains mainly concealed from the grass-roots militants, to the extent that they will be surprised by the magnitude and the brutality of the October denouement.
Additionally, many sincere militants still regret the outcome of the 15 October, as it has been presented, telling themselves there had been no lack of opportunity for debates about ideas to avoid this tragic event. But those responsible for the coup ran a significant risk by giving Thomas Sankara a voice, because he was such a convincing speaker that he may have emerged victorious.
His same capacity for persuasion led to certain decisions, which have retrospectively been judged as wilful or spontaneous, whereas in his time, he did not receive such constant criticisms. And this same personality trait of the late president saved the skin of more than one soul, whom close collaborators wanted to sacrifice, over-and-over, on the alter of the counter-revolution.
In fact, we can ascertain that the interventions of 15 October and the subsequent adjustments were precisely because the comrades who had started the RDP with Thomas Sankara were already exhausted. They had neither the strength nor the heart to continue. As there were influential enemies within and outside of the revolution, they had no difficulty in rallying to their side a whole world of people to counterbalance the RDP. The invented reasoning of ‘betraying the initial path’ was rapidly conjured up.
Now, captain Thomas Sankara was the first to realise the need to democratise, which he professed in his speech of August 1987 in Bobo Dioulasso: ‘Burkina Faso needs a people of conviction, not a vanquished people subjugated to their fate.’
He thus began the genuine rectification of the RDP, otherwise marked by the release of several political and common law prisoners. The wrongly sanctioned would be able to restart their careers.
But this policy, initiated by Thomas Sankara, was quickly short-circuited by the events of 15 October, and claimed by the Popular Front. The image of Sankara as closed and hostile to openings had to stick.
Things accelerated after the speech of reconciliation on August 87 in Bobo Dioulasso, when Sankara said: ‘in recent years, we have sometimes made errors. They must not re-occur in the scared land of Burkina Faso…we must prefer to take one step together with the people rather than ten steps without the people’.
After this speech, it was necessary for his opponents to take power. Leaving Thomas Sankara time to initiate democratisation of the RDP would deprive them of a justified pretext for the plot.
The political crisis that had prevailed for some time, as is customary, benefited the military, and from then on, arms had to speak to unlock it. Such have the tactics of politicians in Bukina Faso always been. Thomas Sankara opposed this, asserting that the soldier must ‘live amongst the people’, and preaching ‘a quarter of chicken per day per soldier’.
During regular meetings with their chief, he constantly made this complaint. To which the chief in question responded that he did not see a problem, except that ‘Sankara is opposed to us’. The soldiers replied: ‘why don’t we remove him?’ By force of repetition, he was finally removed on 15 October 1987.
What happened on that day?
According to Gilbert Diendéré’s book, ‘on 15 October, with the meeting of the officers, elements in the palace accused the soldiers of Pô of organising a coup. The atmosphere was heated…we went our separate ways without reaching an agreement…we knew that Sankara had a council meeting at 4pm and we decided to wait for him there…shortly after 4pm, Sankara’s Peugeot 205 and his guard’s car arrived at the pavilion. A second security car went to park a bit further on. We encircled the cars. Sankara was in sports gear. As always, he held his weapon, an automatic gun, in his hand. He immediately shot and killed one of our people. At this time, all the men broke loose, everyone fired and the situation got out of control…after the events, I telephoned the house of Blaise to inform him. When he arrived, he was extremely disappointed and dissatisfied, above all, when he established there had been 13 deaths’.
So the coup was apparently made without the knowledge of Blaise Compaoré! He declared ‘when I arrived at the council, after the shooting and that I saw the body of Thomas lying in the ground, I failed to have a very violent reaction towards his killers. That would undoubtedly have been a monster carnage, which I would certainly not have got out of alive. But when the soldiers provided me the details of the business, I was disappointed and disgusted…when I asked my men why they had arrested Sankara without informing me, they answered me that if they had done so, I would have refused them. And it is true. I knew that my political camp was strong. Thomas did not control the state any longer. I did not need to enact a coup d’état. But, my men became frightened when they learned, after midday, that we would be arrested in 24 hours’.
However, the truth is that on that day, Thomas Sankara was in a work meeting with some of his collaborators in a room at the council. Always in the council, 70 metres away, there was a white [Peugeot] 504 with seven people. A vehicle arrives at the meeting. The few elements of the guard in front of the room do not worry, because the passengers of the vehicle are their colleagues. The vehicle pulls over; the passengers open fire immediately. A police officer and two drivers are shot dead. They collapse. Thomas Sankara is in the room when he hears the shooting. He stands up, his gun in the hand and said to his collaborators ‘stay, stay, they want me!’ Just after crossing the door, he is shot. He collapses. Do they stop there? No. The attackers entered the room and killed his collaborators.
In short, let us suppose – and it is difficult – that the thesis that captain Blaise wanted to impose on the fait accompli were true. Would that however exonerate him? Would he not have been indirectly at the root of the tragic events of 15 October? Is he not the main beneficiary of the plot?
The man, even if he had never been really thirsty for power, as he claims, leaves any observer of political life in Burkina Faso sceptical all the same. Effectively, after 15 October, he proved that the power cannot be shared. The entire cohort of intellectuals that constituted the insurrectionary committee that psychologically prepared for 15 October with a series of filthy leaflets and intrigues of the lowest order will learn this at their own expense. Commander Boukary Lingani and captain Henri Zongo will learn at theirs.
Today, 20 years later, what should we remember?
Beyond the rhetoric, Sankara died because of his patriotic and progressive convictions, but also because he prevented some of his civilian and military comrades and soldiers from eating luxuriously and spending handsomely, to the detriment of the people.
When he arrived, his country was a ‘mournful synthesis of the sufferings of all humanity’, held the world record on infant mortality, and had permanently negative trade and agricultural balances and extremely high public debts. He wanted to make his country a land of dignity and freedom.
Thus courageously, he redefined the sum total of all the possible and the thinkable ways in which the development of a country among the most denuded in world could be envisaged.
On the evidence that underdevelopment and dependency could not be resolved without the integration of the marginalised, he engaged his country in progressive social transformation.
Sankara’s revolution was simple: work more, spend less and spend better, produce more, be concerned with the priority needs of the country. He said ‘our revolution is and must be permanent; the collective action of the revolutionaries to transform reality and improve the concrete situation of the popular masses our country. Our revolution will only have a value, if, looking back, we will be able to say that the people of Burkina are a little happier because they have clean drinking water, sufficient food, good health, education, decent housing and more freedom, more democracy, more dignity. Our revolution will have a right to exist if it can answer these questions concretely.’
Within a few years, he had achieved a qualitative jump for his country. But he remained aware that the essential questions of his people were those of his whole continent and of all the exploited and oppressed people. Pan-Africanist and anti- globalisation activist, he knew how to be the voice of the voiceless.
One afternoon, bullets of the assassins shot Sankara dead. He fell, but had had time to sow the seeds and sprinkle them with his blood, time to break a link in the chain and free the oppressed youth of Africa.
He was a precursor of an alternative policy to the dependency and enslavement that the global economic institutions continue to impose by their model of development based on indebtedness.
Most importantly he has contributed to the understanding of his people and all the oppressed that a credible alternative cannot come from outside to save them. It is only by relying on themselves and their intrinsic capacity that they may ‘dare to invent the future’ and find the keys of their development and freedom.
Today, in each of our movements for social, political and cultural advancement, Sankara, the man, lives on in us. He will remain forever in the collective consciousness. He will be an example to those struggling for the liberation of humankind.
Link: Thomas Sankara - www.thomassankara.net/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=27
* Cheriff M. Sy is director of the weekly Bendré publication providing information and reflection on Burkina Faso, www.journalbendre.net
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at pambazuka.org
* Translated and adapted from the original by Stephanie Kitchen.
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