Thomas Sankara: Political apprenticeship, class and ideology
Updated on May 10, 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
When Sankara seized power, he was just 33 years old, but he had already gained the loyalty of many Burkinabé, especially the youth of Ouagadougou. Prior to taking power, his political apprenticeship had begun in Madagascar, where Sankara was stationed from 1969 to 1973. While in Madagascar, Sankara nurtured his own political education both by devouring classic Marxist texts, and also by witnessing the 1972 revolution in the country, in which popular rebellions against a corrupt government brought to power a military regime that initially devoted itself to combating corruption.
Thus, when Sankara returned to Upper Volta and was given command of a training center in the town of Pô, he used his new position to recruit other officers troubled by government corruption and committed to radical reform, while also developing relationships with leftist students and workers. Tragically, one of the Army officers he recruited during this period was Blaise Compaoré, the man who would eventually betray him in 1987.
As Ernest Harsch writes in his excellent biography of Sankara, the young lieutenant first entered the political arena in 1980. In that year, a military coup—the second in the nation’s history—brought to power an Army colonel named Saye Zerbo, who pledged to root out corruption in the government. Though he did not participate in the coup, after its completion Sankara was promoted to captain and asked to serve as the new government’s minister of information. Yet as the new regime lurched towards authoritarianism, Sankara publicly resigned his position in 1982.
Following a third military coup later that year, Sankara, in a sign of his growing popularity, was named prime minister in January of 1983. Using his new position as a platform for demanding radical change, he attacked the state bureaucracy, which he characterized as disconnected from the lives of suffering workers and peasants. Fearing his revolutionary rhetoric and growing popularity with the masses, Sankara was arrested in May 1983, but popular anger at this action forced the government to release him. With the support of a broad cross-section of the country, on August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power in the name of what was called the National Council of the Revolution.
When you read through Sankara’s speeches and interviews collected in the Pathfinder Press volume Thomas Sankara Speaks, one of the features of Sankara’s politics that stands out is his reluctance to be pigeon-holed into any particular ideological framework. His rhetoric was unmistakably Marxist and, as we will see, strongly anti-imperialist, but regarding some of the central questions of class struggle in post-colonial African nations, Sankara became a bit more slippery.
He was fond of saying that Africans were “not ideological virgins,” meaning that they did not need to import any particular revolutionary theory uncritically, but rather ought to apply revolutionary principles of social justice and equality to local circumstances. Thus, regarding the class character of Upper Volta, Sankara found revolutionary potential in the working classes, the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and the lumpenproletariat, although he also believed that the underdevelopment of the national economy precluded a revolution from below, as none of these groups possessed the level of organization or class consciousness that would be required in order to seize political power.
Of the popular groups listed above, Sankara argued that the working class was best positioned to lead, but its numerical weakness limited its power. He viewed the petty bourgeoisie as the most unreliable of all groups, vacillating between siding with the masses or the imperialist order. Finally, Sankara argued that the peasantry had suffered the most under the old regime, and its strength in numbers imbued it with significant, but as yet untapped, revolutionary potential. One of the primary goals of Sankara’s government would be to develop the country’s vast rural hinterland, thus awakening the peasantry to a revolutionary agenda.
Out of this class analysis, Sankara’s revolutionary ideology encountered the significant problem of how to unite these disparate groups into a single people capable of waging war against national elites and the imperialist order. Sankara’s solution to this question was to advance a radical nationalism that would bind together the working classes, peasants, and petty bourgeoisie in a common struggle. On the level of symbolism, Sankara changed the country’s name from its colonial moniker, Upper Volta, to Burkina Faso, which translated to English means “The Land of Upright People.” (It can also be translated as “The Land of Incorruptible People.”)