Review: Black Nemesis: A Critical Life of Thomas Sankara
Troy Southgate. Black Front Press 2020.
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In August 1983, a revolutionary insurrection-cum-military coup brought Thomas Sankara into power in the former French West African colony of Upper Volta.
In this short, well-researched book, Troy Southgate shines a light on how this charismatic Black African leader sought to refashion his nation – renamed Burkina Faso, in English ‘the land of the upright men’ – and break free from the legacy of French colonial rule and French-dominated neo-colonialism. Southgate demonstrates that Upper Volta’s nominal ‘independence’ from 1960-1984 was nothing short of a fantasy.
Postcolonialists like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré were, despite their rhetoric, in hock to their former colonial rulers. Southgate makes a telling critique of the modern academic liberal-leftist version of ‘Postcolonial Theory’. He argues that “there can be no true ‘postcolonialism’ until the exploitative Western core has itself been dismantled.”
Maurice Yaméogo was one particular chameleon who chopped and changed policies and parties to his own advantage. As the first president of the Republic of Upper Volta from 1960, he managed to alienate may former allies, traditional chiefs, the Catholic Church, and the trade union movement while maintaining a strong connection to the ‘former’ colonial masters in Paris.
He was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, but his militaristic successors maintained their status as virtual puppets. Their military regimes were in Southgate’s words, “black masks on a white face”, gatekeeper states for French domination.
At the time Yaméogo was ousted, the seventeen-year-old Thomas Sankara enrolled at the Kadiogo military academy in the capital, Ouagadougou, where he learned about imperialism and neocolonialism from an influential teacher, Aduma Touré, who was secretly a member of an underground Senegalese organisation, the African Independence Party (PAI).
In his early career as an engineering corps Second Lieutenant. Sankara discovered a network of corruption in road building, where officers and government officials would favour relatives or steal funds and building material. His attempts at whistleblowing were ignored by his superiors.
In 1978, Sankara first met Blaise Compaoré. They were inseparable friends, officers, and comrades in the underground network. In November 1982, a group of officers overthrew President Zerba and installed an army doctor in his place as acting head of state; Jean-Baptiste Philippe Ouédraogo.
Sankara became Prime Minister. However, his overtures to Colonel Muammar Qathafi in Libya and his presence at a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in India triggered a breach with President Ouédraogo. He had the increasingly popular Sankara and his allies arrested.
Blaise Compaoré led a column of paratroopers into Ouagadougou to force the president into negotiations with Sankara. Ouédraogo offered to resign in favour of a new transitional government, but events overtook them. The paras seized key locations around the city; effectively launching a coup d’état. Sankara found himself at the helm of a revolutionary government determined to establish genuine postcolonialism in his country and send the covert French rulers packing.
Sankara quickly changed the name of the former colony from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. He was determined to end his country’s 98% illiteracy rate, restore its crumbling infrastructure and improve agricultural output to benefit the people.
Despite Sankara’s professed ‘Marxism-Leninism’ he was greatly influenced by Colonel Qathafi’s Green Book in which he set out his so-called ‘Third Universal Theory’. As Southgate observes, this was not your typical Marxist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but rather, “Sankara’s plans were clearly more decentralist than any Communist system on the planet.”
Black Nemesis looks in detail at Sankara’s attempts to restructure the military into a revolutionary people’s self-defence militia and his attempts to emancipate women by giving them direct participation in the new society he was building. In both instances, he was heavily influenced by Qathafi’s Third Universal Theory.
One area the Sankara became unstuck was when he tried to reorganise agricultural production. He was successful in making advances in medicine, education, housing and drilling new wells and building reservoirs to increase agricultural production. However, he came up against the traditional tribal chiefs whose role would have been eliminated under his policy. Southgate compares this to Stalin’s forced collectivisation of the peasantry in the 1930s which saw a massive drop in agricultural production and mass starvation in the Soviet Union.
Sankara wanted his nation to repudiate ‘foreign aid’ – with the usual strings attached – from France, the World Banks or the International Monetary Fund; “Having seen how various African states had been ruthlessly pillaged by Western powers, Sankara was keen to avoid making the same mistakes.” His government ended domestic corruption, brought in more tax revenue and increased spending on education by 26.5% and on health by 42.3%.
Sankara was an honest and sincere revolutionary; a man of total integrity. He did try to change things for the better for the Burkinabè people. Southgate argues that the major flaw in his regime was its centralism that inevitably comes from the political Left, “This immensely popular figure with the easy smile and the humble demeanour should be remembered as a truly independent African leader who consistently refused to bow down to the insatiable jackals of international finance. For that he deserves our respect.”
Nevertheless, he had his critics; not least the ultra-leftist allies who had played a major role in the underground prior to the 1983 Revolution. Factions emerged, claiming that Sankara wasn’t a real Marxist-Leninist. They were probably right. Sankara removed some of these ministers from office, making his National Council for the Revolution seem increasingly like a military regime. Friction grew between the trade unions – led by Sankara’s ultra-leftist critics – and his government.
In October 1987, Sankara’s old friend and comrade – Blaise Compaoré betrayed him. Sankara remained true to his original vision; others around him had not. They engineered a coup and shot him twelve times as he tried to surrender to his assassins. Compaoré claimed to have been ill in bed at the time of Sankara’s murder. Within two years he had his co-conspirators executed for plotting against him. This treacherous neocolonialist collaborator was awarded the Légion d’honneur by the former colonial power. He let the French, the IMF, and the World Bank back into the country again. He held office until 2014.
Black Nemesis is an excellent introduction to Thomas Sankara’s life and work. One valuable contribution to the book is its extensive bibliography of books in English, French, and other European languages on Sankara and the history of West Africa since the European ‘scramble for Africa’ into the neocolonial era today.
Reviewed by David Kerr