Legacies of the Global South: Thomas Sankara

by Khoro Makhesha

The current plight of nation states in the Third World is often seen as justification for use of the term as a pejorative. Excessive debt, poverty and peripherality are in many ways considered to be defining characteristics of the Third World. The coalition of political actors in marginalized positions of the global arena-could function in, yet beyond the constraints of dominant ideologies of that period. The Third World thus became a model of self-conscious production of political opposition to the First and Second World.

Thomas Sankara was another political intellectual who sought to create discourse which could respond to the integration of peripheral nations as unequals.

Sankara inherited the economic plight of Burkina Faso which was drenched in fiscal degradation, mismanagement corruption and plunder which left the economy in a precarious position for a considerable part of its independence. Burkinabe debt exponentially rose from $62 million in 1975 to $197 million in 1983 — coupled with a life expectancy of just 44 years and mass hunger. The National Council for Revolution (CNR) aimed to establish a self-sufficient, planned and independent economy which required radical socio-economic transformation. The vast malnourishment of the masses was one of the ,major issues   that required immediate rectification. Sankara enforced radical agricultural reforms which saw the abolition of private ownership of land. The attainment of food self-sufficiency would be facilitated by the Popular Development Program (PPD). Sankara postulated that the underlying philosophy of this program was “Economic self-reliance as an immediate objective and as a stage towards economic development”. The PPD constituted a program of sectoral financing geared towards catering for the rural masses at both a national and subnational level. A key manifestation of Sankara’s ideology was evident in the national participation, self-reliance and cooperation within the PPD. The population actively participated in the management of water-developments projects both regionally and nationally. Such state led initiatives aimed at national development sought to rectify the social and economic detriments of French colonial rule through national solidarity and cooperation.

Sankara’s domestic political orientation was  based on the notions of cooperation, self-determination and nationalism. A growing commonality in that epoch was the trend of the West to attribute ideological leaders to the political elites of the Third World, hence Sankara often being pigeonholed as a Marxist. He vehemently rejected this claim, questioning why Eurocentric attitudes aimed to “try at all cost to put us [Third World leaders] into ideological boxes, to categorize us?” further appropriating the actions and experiences of the third world through the western lens . Central to his political thought laid the idea of the People as the principle proponents of the revolution, who should thus reap the fruits of the revolution. Thus, he lucidly postulated that, “the revolution’s object is to give the people power”. Such sentiments extended into all elements of life in Burkina Faso, where the needs, dignity and aspirations of the people were treated as an end and the state led by Sankara was the means by which that end would be actualized.

His radical beliefs aimed to divorce the future of Burkina Faso from the remnants of French colonial rule by fundamentally purging class cleavages in the post-colonial state. Public officials were encouraged to interact with the masses to create a unified state predicated on the notion of solidarity. Sankara made considerable cuts to the salaries of public officials in an attempt to reduce the disparities between the state and the masses. He illustrated this by stating that, the pivotal objective of the revolution was to “take power out of the hands of the national bourgeoisie and their imperialist allies and put it in the hands of the people” . In accordance with Sankara’s narrative, it was the people, an extension of the state, who bore the onus to determine the destiny of Burkinabe. Sankara deemed the state democratic because for him, democracy meant “the freedom of expression of a conscious majority, well informed of the issues and of their internal and external implications, capable of verifying the fairness of electoral processes and in a position to influence their outcome”. Such values were essential in the process of self-determination. Sankara aimed to politically embody the unity of theory and praxis in the hope that such action would radically aid the progression of the Burkina Faso masses.

Foreign Policy 

Sankara’s foreign policy was largely centred on the unity of those marginalized in the global system, resembling many proponents of the Third World project, he believed that through African unity the grievances of the peripheral masses could be rectified. He openly condemned the neo-colonial practice of debt deeming it draconian and immoral. In his address to the OAU (Organization of African Unity) he stated that, “debt is neo-colonialism… and a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa” . He argued that through such doctrinal impositions coupled with the loans, the underdevelopment of Africa would play out in a perpetual fashion. He unequivocally argued that debt obligation should be severed, by stating “We cannot repay our debt… and we cannot go with those who suck our people’s blood”. He argued that only through collective cooperation and unity could such obligations be declared null and void, which would subsequently “prevent us [OAU leaders] from being individually assassinated”. Sankara aimed to unify Africa in the hope that her “huge potentialities to develop” would actualize because of its vast resources. He championed continental trade cooperation urging leaders to make “African markets, the markets of Africans” by producing what the continent needed and consuming what was produced “instead of importing”. Such sentiments displayed how the notions of unity and solidarity proved essential components to Sankara’s political project both domestically and transnationally.

Failures of the Third World.

The pathologies of these pitfalls in the Third World project were illustrated all too clearly in Fanon’s narrative, which saw one-party states, authoritarian rule and abuse of human rights inherent in all if not most regimes of the Third World. Although, these pitfalls cannot be attributed to factors in isolation, by accrediting the failures of the Third World project to hegemonic influences would be both naive and myopic. The respective pitfalls point out to the failure of leadership and inherited structural legacies of despotic rule. All too often, Third World states functioned as, ‘gate-keeper’ regimes wherein power was extensively centralized and vertically structured. Many argue that answers to the current plight of the third world may be accredited to the difference between ‘imagined communities’ and ‘synthetic communities’, that saw decolonization not as an exit but rather an entry into an international political system that shared structures and norms with their colonial predecessors .

Considering the case of Burkina Faso Sankara’s regime paralleled authoritarian political structures omni-present in the Third World. The CNR centralized power indicating “its willingness to strictly control all aspects of Burkinabe’ social and political life. Although, in rhetoric Sankara proclaimed to lead a democratic state such sentiments weren’t evident in practice. Sankara’s political thought was largely founded on the notion of the People yet the Communities for the Defence of the Revolution’s (CDR), which were mostly comprised of citizens, autonomy was largely limited and they acted primarily as an agent of the CNR .

In retrospect, the Third World once rose in solidarity, attempting to redefine the global arena that systemically perpetuated their peripherality. Through cooperation and strategic coalesce many of the project’s objectives were fulfilled, challenging the political hegemony of the West, which was best epitomized in the UN General Assembly. Thomas Sankara, an extension of Third Worldism, displayed how the fundamental reconstruction of Burkina Faso, through solidarity and cooperation, could advance the agenda of the Third World project.