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Thomas Sankara: Confronting the burdens of colonization

15 September 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Thomas Sankara: Confronting the burdens of colonization

Thomas Sankara was born on December 21, 1949, in the town of Yako, in what was then known as French Upper Volta. Throughout the colonial period, Upper Volta’s fate had been victim to the whims of French colonial rule, as at various points it was combined with territories from present-day Niger, Mali, and Côte D’Ivoire, before finally being broken off into its own colony for good in 1958, just two years before gaining its national independence along with most of the rest of France’s African empire.

That history, of colonial manipulation of national identities, left Upper Volta—as the country was known until Sankara changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984—with a weak civil society, thanks in large part to the fact that the country, despite being barely larger in size than the state of Colorado, contained 70 different linguistic communities, including 11 major languages plus the French colonial tongue.

In addition, the colonial economy remained shockingly underdeveloped, as the rapidly desertifying soil produced little other than subsistence crops, forcing many thousands of the territory’s population to engage in migrant labor in neighboring and more well-developed colonies, particularly Côte D’Ivoire. As a result of these dynamics, working class organization was limited and largely incapable of taking on the role of political leadership.

In this respect, French Upper Volta was not alone in its characteristic absence of a strong working class. Although Zeilig’s Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa documents a long tradition of working class resistance in places like South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria, these countries featured much more well-developed economies that were either already industrialized or in the process of undergoing an industrial revolution. Likewise, mineral-rich territories such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia could also become hotbeds for working class radicalism thanks to the value of the gold, diamonds, and copper that many thousands of African men mined in appalling and dangerous conditions. But for an overwhelmingly underdeveloped and predominantly rural territory like Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso), working class radicalism was constrained by economic conditions that served the interests of the European metropoles.

This undeniable fact, shared in common—to greater and lesser degrees—by many African countries, has inspired significant debate regarding the dynamics of revolutions on the African continent. In the second half of the twentieth century, revolutionary figures like Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon would seek to adjust Marxist theory to meet the challenges of creating and sustaining revolutions in territories where the working class was incapable of carrying out the historic role which Marx and Engels had assigned to it.

What each of these revolutionaries noted was that the working class was not only numerically insignificant, but that it was also frequently reactionary, as wage labor employment in urban areas conferred a certain sense of cosmopolitanism that encouraged the embrace of Western cultural and economic values, especially when compared with the vast rural hinterlands that were profoundly isolated from the benefits of urban life.

The solutions that Cabral and Fanon would offer to this dilemma varied: for Cabral, the weakness of the working class endowed the petty bourgeoisie with the decisive role in initiating a revolutionary overthrow of the colonial order; for Fanon, it would be the peasantry, those with “nothing to lose,” who would spearhead the revolution.

By the time Sankara seized power in 1983, 90 percent of the country’s workforce was employed in rural areas, most of them peasants struggling to grow crops in a hostile environment characterized by rapidly exhausted soils and predatory markets that condemned the vast majority of Burkinabé to abject poverty and famine. This set of conditions, persisting more than twenty years after independence, could be attributed not only to global capitalism but also to the national elites who served its interests.

Upper Volta, like so many other young African nations, became what Frederick Cooper [Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present] has described as a gatekeeper state, which is to say a state in which government officials, rather than attempting to develop the economy and infrastructure of the country, make it their business to perpetuate a neo-colonial relationship with the developed world, by enabling privileged access to the national wealth and using their control over the state to engage in petty corruption and the cultivation of profitable relationships with foreign investors and advisors. In Upper Volta in the 1960s and 1970s, this meant ensuring the availability of cheap labor to neighboring Côte D’Ivoire, where Burkinabé were forced into work on cocoa, cotton, and sugar plantations that served the needs of the global economic order.
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