A hero not sung enough; A reflection of ‘We are Heirs of a Revolution: Speeches from Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87 by Thomas Sankara’ ( Pathfinder Press, 2007)

Written by Samuel Ndandala

Two weeks ago I was flipping TV channels in my hotel room in Lausanne, a serene city on the northern shores of lake Geneva. Not too far from there, the Syrians were starting to negotiate an end to a three year old bloodshed that is threatening to wreck the entire Middle-East. Richard Quest was on CNN, interviewing Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkison; the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The Cardinal was sent by Pope Francis to deliver a simple message; Money should serve humans, not rule them. The event covered was the World Economic Forum. This is where those on top of the food chain – Presidents, CEOs, heads of supranational organisations – convene to discuss the state of the world’s affairs.

The theme in Davos this year was ‘The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.’ Don’t you love it when conferences have so much grandeur in their themes? The kind of theme that almost says everything, and nothing at all? Anyways, I better digress no further, on to my story. On my three hour train ride to Lausanne, I finally managed to read a short book, a recommendation I picked up on Andrea Cordes’s blog. ‘We are heirs of a revolution’ is a collection of speeches of one of Africa’s great sons, Thomas Sankara.

Until his assassination, he was Burkina Faso’s president for a short four years (1983 -1987). I will review Sankara’s book in the context of what I think he would say had he attended this year’s WEF. Of course this is partly my imagination (and knowing what I know about him, he probably would feel out of place in Davos). I would like to relay my thoughts on what impression I got from the read, the make-up of the man if you will. And to do this I feel that a brief introduction of the man is necessary.

Thomas Sankara seized power in what was then Upper Volta in 1983. Immediately, he unleashed sweeping reforms. He cut his salary to USD 45o a month, sold the government’s fleet of Mercedes cars and made the cheapest car at the time (Renault 5) the official service car for ministers. In 1984, he renamed the country ‘Burkina Faso’ (which means the land of upright men). Catapulted by the land reforms he introduced, his country’s wheat production per hectare more than doubled, making it self-sufficient within three years. In a move unseen in Africa, he refused to have his portrait hung in public places, he turned off his office air conditioning which he claimed was the privilege the majority of Burkinabes did not have. A new Burkina Faso was under way. Unfortunately his life was cut short in 1987.

So what would he say? I think I have an idea. First, like Pope Franchis I think he would remind delegates that all institutions on earth should have the sole purpose of serving and advancing the welfare of fellow men, without exception. Any institution that fails to do this – be it private or governmental loses its right to exist. Against that background Thomas Sankara rallied every Burkinabe around that goal. ‘The days of a free-spending army are over’ he declared, ‘from now on, besides handling arms, the army will work in the fields and raise cattle, sheep and poultry. Indeed the army must live and suffer among the people to which it belongs.’ For him, no member of a society got a free ride, all had to work in service of the society.

What would he say about foreign aid to Africa? First of all, regardless of the donor’s good intentions, begging is inherently a degrading thing. Begging for over half a century is even more humiliating, even when you call it ‘development assistance’. Not just because it psychologically makes one feel inferior, but also because, as Sankara rightly put it, ‘he who feeds you controls you’.

I believe he would recall that there was a time when Europe received aid. But that kind of aid was specifically targeted at particular sectors, it was clear how much would be given for a specific amount of time and most importantly, it was FINITE. It was clear that the aid taps would stop running at a certain point in time. Africa is treated as if it will forever be in need of aid. That is wrong, insulting and dangerous. Thomas Sankara would be outraged. ‘Of course we welcome aid that aids us in doing away with aid’ he said as he addressed the UN General Assembly.

Let me digress on aid. Bill and Melinda Gates foundation released its annual letter three weeks ago. It focused on why aid is a great thing and why the rich world should be more altruistic. Bill Gates made a bold statement, ‘By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world’. In other words, 21 years from now, the Bill Gates foundation will become redundant. He clearly advocates for more assistance, of course out of good intentions.

In principle, I have philosophical problems with poverty alleviation strategies being set by NGO’s, philanthropic organisations and the UN. In many ways it is assuming that the poor are unable to think for themselves. In ‘The White Man’s Burden’, William Easterley makes a distinction between what he calls planners and searchers. Planners are fancy economists, ‘development practitioners’ and celebrities who seem to think they know what the poor need more than the poor themselves. Searchers allow the entrepreneurial energy of the poor to unleash itself. Planners feel messianic, Searchers do not believe in top-down policies. A planner’s arrogance, Thomas Sankara would have rejected completely. When planners prevail, leaders from poor countries loose focus. They begin to act like they were elected to court Bill Gates and Oxfam.

Self-sufficiency was one of Sankara’s obsessions ‘‘Let us consume only what we ourselves control.” He said. This is reminiscent of Tanzania’s former prime minister, Edward Sokoine’s mantra, ‘ tusimame kwa miguu yetu miwili’, loosely translated as ‘let us stand on our own two feet’. Sankara encouraged Burkinabes to buy local. Soon the men and women started to eat and wear what they produced. In three years Burkina Faso, was feeding itself.

Thomas Sankara understood the indispensable role women at the time when ‘empowerment of women’ was not popular. ‘Women hold half of the other sky’ he said. But more importantly Sankara would have spoken to the women on why it is important that they ‘empower themselves. He challenged women to rise up. ‘Liberation is not given, it must be conquered’ he said to women. He appointed women in places of authority, not out of pity of mercy, but he explained that he not only believed in empowering women, but letting women take the power.

As the Sahara desert encroached Burkina Faso, Sankara embarked on a massive reforestation program. ‘For nearly 3 years, every happy event – marriage, baptism, awards, visits – was celebrated with a tree-planting ceremony in Burkina Faso. Men developed a great relationship with trees,’ he said while addressing an audience in Paris. If they meet in the afterlife, Thomas Sankara and Wangari Maathai would be looking for trees to plant in heaven! Thomas Sankara would remind humanity that it only has one home. That we need to protect our environment before mother earth starts punishing us.

Not many Africans, much less the rest of the world, know of this extinguished star. Any healthy society must have heroes from which to draw the moral, intellectual, ethical and spiritual courage to propel itself. Thomas Sankara is that kind of man. He showed Africa and the world what can happen when a dedicated people resolve to transform their nation. He showed us that the key to economic transformation on the continent lies in its people. He was an upright man, a selfless man. These are the kind of leaders that the African continent needs to resurrect and invoke. Thomas Sankara inspires me.

Samwel Ndandala is a Transfer Pricing and Value Chain Transformation Consultant at PwC Switzerland. The views expressed are entirely his own. 

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One Response

  1. Ada
    Ada at | | Reply

    ‘If they meet in the afterlife, Thomas Sankara and Wangari Maathai would be looking for trees to plant in heaven!’ I feel bad I did not know Sankara that well or even honour him. For Wangari, I am still in love with her.

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