The trial of 14 people indicted for the killing of former president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara is set to begin in Ouagadougou. Sankara became president in 1983 after a coup d’état. But after only four years in power, he was killed in a coup led by his friend and comrade-in-arms Blaise Compaore. Compaore would rule the impoverished West African country for 27 years until his overthrow in popular protests against his corrupt and brutal regime. Though in absentia, Compaore is among those to be put on trial for killing Sankara among other crimes.
Sankara was a pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist and Marxist revolutionary. Pan-Africanist ideology rejects a eurocentric view of the world and instead advocates for Africa to interpret the world from its perspective. Therefore, instead of the history of conquest of Africa, pan-Africanism highlights resistance to colonialism.
Instead of depiction of Africans in the pre-colonial period as living — according to the philosopher Friedrich Hegel — “in the conditions of mere nature”, pan-Africanists highlight history of achievement by Africans. Pan-Africanist historian, Cheikh Anta Diop, even claims ancient Egyptian civilisation as African. Pan-Africanism has a political dimension which promotes the political unification of all Africa and political solidarity of all people of African descent.
Anti-imperialists view Africa’s underdevelopment as being caused by the imperial designs of the West. In some formulation, the West keeps Africa poor by siphoning her resources for its own development. Accordingly, financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and products or Western music are seen as instruments of financial and cultural bondage. The anti-imperialist stance calls for severance of ties with former colonial powers, and views their cultural institutions in Africa with suspicion. Anti-imperialism promotes self-sufficiency because, as Sankara himself said, “He who feeds you, controls you.”
Marxism, on the other hand, analyses contradictions in society through the prism of class struggle between the rich and the proletariat. It sees the middle class and owners of capital as being a hindrance to creation of a progressive and equitable society.
Upon taking power, Sankara changed the country’s colonial name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso – “land of upright people.” Importantly, he moved quickly against the feudal practices and ideas perpetuated by various traditional chieftaincies in the country. He advanced women’s rights, especially the right to education for girls. During his tenure, literacy rates rose significantly. He built hospitals and schools in rural areas. Then he slashed his own salary as well as those of high-ranking officials. Unlike African presidents, Sankara had an austere lifestyle.
Despite these positive steps at the beginning, Sankara began to become intolerant of dissent. He curtailed freedom of the media, unions and opposition. Amnesty International accused his revolutionary committees of atrocities against dissidents.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator