Thomas Sankara: The challenge of corruption in a gatekeeper state
Updated on May 12, 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Sankara, the son of a relatively privileged family thanks to his father’s employment by the colonial state, was sensitive to the severe conditions of impoverishment that surrounded him, as well as the arrogance of the Europeans living in the country, ensconced in luxuries that sharply contrasted with the desperate suffering of the vast majority of Africans. In 1966, Sankara enrolled in the national military academy, a choice that likely reflected both the importance of discipline that had been instilled in him by his father, as well as his aspirations to combat the political corruption of the young nation’s ruling class.
As Cooper notes, one of the primary features of post-independence Gatekeeper States on the African continent has been their instability, with governments frequently falling prey to military coups. The reason for this is that post-independence government officials aspired to occupy the place of the old colonial order, but generally speaking they lacked the awesome strength of a modernized and disciplined army to back up their rule. Instead, African gatekeepers struggled to retain the loyalty of the armed forces, particularly the enlisted men and junior officers who had not benefited from the largesse of political corruption. As a result, in moments of political instability, the military frequently aligned themselves with protest movements, as they often shared their frustration with endemic political corruption.
This is precisely what happened in Upper Volta. In the same year that Sankara enrolled in the military academy, a military coup overthrew the country’s first elected president, Maurice Yaméogo, whose profligacy and authoritarianism sparked a popular uprising of workers, students, and the unemployed in Ouagadougou. When the army disobeyed Yaméogo’s orders to disperse the crowd, the president was forced to resign in disgrace.
Thereafter followed a series of military dictators, who fell into the same trap that had ensnared Yaméogo and countless other African rulers of the late twentieth century. Instead of focusing their governments on the well being of the population, they used their access to power in order to enrich themselves and their clients, all while accepting loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose structural adjustment provisions required the imposition of destructive austerity measures, including the devaluation of the national currency, massive cuts to social programs, particularly health and education, the elimination of subsidies that protected domestic producers, and the easing of labor and environmental regulations so as to encourage foreign investment.
These programs, hugely unpopular with the civilian population, provoked mass insurrection and further interventions from the armed forces. It would be the fourth such coup in the nation’s history in August 1983 that would bring to power the National Council of the Revolution, a group of radical young Army officers led by Thomas Sankara.