27 July 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Exhuming Thomas Sankara: May 25, 2015, on a warm Monday morning on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, a large crowd gathered outside the gates to Dagnoen Cemetery, located in an especially destitute neighborhood in one of the world’s poorest countries. Police, wearing bullet-proof vests with the French word gendarme planted on the back, blocked the crowd’s access to the cemetery grounds. Yet still the mass of people pushed forward, hoping to get even a small glimpse of the shovels piercing the parched earth, robbed of moisture by the steady advance of the Sahara Desert through this landlocked West Africa nation.
Their view of the operation was blocked by the police, by the burnt orange rocks blazing in the sun, and by the few shrubs that ringed the outskirts of Ouagadougou’s most forsaken burying ground. Nonetheless, the crowd knew that its presence was imperative, reflecting both the solemnity of the occasion, as the shovels reached into the earth to pull up a vital piece of the nation’s revolutionary past, as well as the distrust that the masses felt for a government that had long sought to conceal the national legacy of struggle and resistance against corruption, imperialism, and neocolonialism.
The diggers whose spades punctured the ground at Dagnoen that day were looking for the remains of Thomas Sankara, the former head of state of Burkina Faso. His bullet-riddled body had been unceremoniously dumped into the ground, along with those of his closest associates, 28 years earlier, in the decisive act of a brutal counter-revolution that brought to an end one of the most remarkable periods of modern African history. Prior to his death at the age of 37, Sankara had guided the Burkinabé revolution from 1983 to 1987, a four-year period in which Burkina Faso sought to defy the international neo-liberal order that crippled countless Third World countries in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. For four years, Sankara’s government fought illiteracy, hunger, infant mortality, and desertification, all while insisting on a more equitable relationship with the nation’s former colonial master, France, and demanding an end to the austerity programs that had plagued countless African states due to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies.
Sankara’s revolution, rooted in a Marxism refracted through an anti-imperialist worldview inspired by figures such as Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara, had threatened the established neo-colonial pecking order, prompting a swift counter-revolution carried out by one of Sankara’s closest associates, Blaise Compaoré, who reversed Sankara’s policies and established a reign of terror in the country that would last until Compaoré’s ouster in 2014. It was only thanks to Compaoré’s fall from power that the exhumation of Thomas Sankara’s body became possible. Prior to that, even mentioning the name of Sankara in the streets of Ouagadougou could invite harsh repression from the state.
Yet despite the official silencing of Sankara’s legacy, the crowd that gathered outside Dagnoen Cemetery in May 2015 demonstrated by their very presence that memories of Sankara and his revolutionary government continued to inspire Burkinabé people, long after the former leader’s death. In the mass demonstrations that led to Compaoré’s downfall in October 2014, Sankara’s name and image were prominently featured, suggesting that the former leader was a primary source of inspiration for the many thousands who took to the streets, declaring their uprising the “Black Spring,” in a nod to the recent Arab Spring revolts in North Africa.
As one protesting student told Al-Jazeera, “Young people who were not alive during Sankara’s administration are beginning to look back more to that period because something is wrong in the country today.” Indeed, by the year 2015, Burkina Faso remained one of the world’s poorest countries, its depleted economy dominated by subsistence agriculture, its average life expectancy just 59 years, its infant mortality rate 84 per 1,000 live births, its per capita GDP just $1,730. In all these vital indices, Burkina Faso joins many of its sub-Saharan African neighbors as uniquely impoverished and underdeveloped by the global capitalist order.
During his brief reign, Sankara had dreamed of—and in some ways begun to create—a different world, in which the Wretched of the Earth would claim their rightful place as full human beings, no longer condemned to suffer and die in nameless squalor. Alas, Sankara’s death, supported by the former colonial powers and enabled by their neo-colonial allies on the African continent, had reduced that vision to rubble. In Africa, the human cost of failed revolution is especially catastrophic.
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