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Thomas Sankara: The revolution loses steam, the counter-revolution begins

14 September 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Thomas Sankara: The revolution loses steam, the counter-revolution begins

Sankara might have been able to ward off these threats had he developed better internal mechanisms for the defense of the revolution. Among the country’s elites, Sankara faced many enemies, among them a bureaucracy who had seen its power and wealth curtailed by Sankara’s program, and rural elites who resented the rescinding of their privileges.

In particular, Sankara’s advocacy of women’s rights, including the banning of forced marriages and the expansion of education for girls, angered male elders accustomed to female subservience. Among the country’s peasantry and working class, Sankara had many allies; but by 1987, the revolution, which had demanded much sacrifice from these groups, was becoming increasingly exhausted.

After the success of government initiatives focused on health and education, large-scale development projects stalled due to limitations of labor and resources. By 1987, Sankara’s “Battle for the Railroad,” had managed to lay just a few kilometers of track. Additionally, there was growing popular resentment against government repression. Upon taking power in 1983, Sankara had created the CDRs, which stand for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, civilian groups who were responsible for spreading the revolution’s ideals throughout the country, in every village. Modeled after similar organizations formed in 1960 in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, many CDRs began to serve more as vigilante organizations, punishing civilians for often ill-defined reasons. Growing increasingly disconnected from Sankara’s influence, the CDRs were unable to actually defend the revolution once it faced its greatest challenge.

Although some aspects of the 1987 coup that killed Sankara and ended the revolution remain unknown, what is clear is that the president of Côte D’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, either with the implicit or explicit support of France, played a significant role in facilitating Sankara’s fall from power, as he developed close ties with Sankara’s assistant Blaise Compaoré, whose soldiers carried out the coup on October 15, 1987. Upon taking power, Compaoré pledged to, in his words, “rectify” Sankara’s revolution, but instead he presided over a full-scale counter-revolution that reversed the gains made under Sankara. By the early 1990s, IMF and World Bank assistance once again directed the nation’s economic life, with structural adjustment policies leading to deep cuts in health care and education, and the continued immiseration of the population, which by 2013 was ranked by the UN as the seventh poorest country in the world.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is tempting to conclude that all this was inevitable, that Burkina Faso’s revolution, like so many other Third World revolutions was destined to fail. If we take as a given that Sankara’s movement would confine itself to a national reawakening that would bring about the kind of socialism-in-one-country once espoused by Joseph Stalin, then the defeat of Sankara’s regime was indeed assured. The reason for this is not just that socialism-in-one-country is unfeasible, but more importantly that it is particularly toxic on the African continent, given that region’s history of colonial manipulation of national borders.
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