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Africa

Thomas Sankara: Ambitious campaigns

14 September 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Thomas Sankara: Ambitious campaigns

True to his own background and training, Sankara’s government met these challenges through military-style campaigns whose swiftness astonished international observers. An ambitious vaccination campaign to inoculate millions of children against measles, meningitis and yellow fever was completed in just two weeks, saving the lives of thousands. The government’s nationwide literacy campaign achieved a substantial increase in the country’s literacy rate between 1983 and 1987.

To halt the expansion of the desert, Sankara’s government planted some 10 million trees, accomplishing a greening of the environment that helped to preserve countless communities threatened by ecological catastrophe.

In these and countless other ways, Sankara sought to use the meager resources available to his government to improve the condition of the masses of peasants and working class people whose lives had been, in Sankara’s words, a “barely tolerable hell” prior to 1983. Increases in government spending yielded significantly larger investments in health and education: during Sankara’s reign, as Harsch reports in his biography of Sankara, spending on education improved by 26.5 percent per person, while spending on health increased by 42.3 percent. The outcome of these campaigns was to provide measurable and life-saving improvements in the lives of millions of Burkinabé citizens.

How did the Sankara government manage to afford funding such commitments? Notably, one of Sankara’s primary accomplishments was to limit the state bureaucracy that had emerged under earlier regimes. Reductions in pay and the elimination of perks for civil servants freed up the budget for other priorities. In this regard Sankara also sought to lead by example: enrolling his children in public school, he sold off the limousines and private jets that had been the markers of privilege for previous rulers. He also vigorously prosecuted governmental corruption, annually laid off government workers who he argued had become too secure in their positions, and in this way freed up funds for more vital projects.

Sankara’s reduction of government bureaucracy was certainly one of the most unique aspects of his regime. In many ways, Sankara’s system of government closely resembled the Stalinist model, as defined by Paul Le Blanc in his very helpful essay “Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism.” Of the five principle elements of Stalinism which Le Blanc identifies, Sankara’s Burkina Faso clearly meets four of the conditions: it was anti-democratic, it did pursue socialism in one country, it was unmistakably a revolution from above, both in terms of Sankara’s military background as well as his nationalization of land and resources, and it did engage in both internal repression and extensive state propaganda. But, unlike most Stalinist regimes, it checked, rather than expanded, the state bureaucracy.

In this way, by ensuring that state resources were directed away from bureaucratic elites and towards the peasantry and working poor, Sankara’s regime constituted revolutionary authoritarianism in a nearly ideal form. One would have to search extensively through the annals of revolutionary governments in the twentieth century to find a more enlightened example of revolution from above.
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