ESSAY: Thomas Sankara: Killers fail to erase his powerful legacy

sankaraBY BRUNO JAFFRÉ

Picture: http://howiviewafrica.tumblr.com/post/28842705907/thomas-sankaraThe violent murder of Burkina Faso’s President Thomas Sankara on October 15, 1987 is commensurate with the relentlessness of his killers to dishonour and erase him from the memory of his countrymen. By the same token, attempts to make known the circumstances of his assassination seem to encounter powerful forces. It must be said that the hypothesis of an international conspiracy is slowly making its way. Whatever the case, Thomas Sankara now belongs to the Pantheon of revolutionary figures. He is not only widely adopted as a model by a large segment of African youth, but he is also a source of inspiration for artists of various disciplines.

FLASH BACK TO HIS ASSASSINATION AND HIS CURRENT INFLUENCE

On that day around 4.30pm, a commando unit of the presidential security arrived on the outskirts of a room where Thomas Sankara was chairing a meeting with collaborators. He allegedly told them: “Hold on, I am the one they are mad with”. After killing two men, the commando unit entered the building and killed Sankara, and then all those who attended the meeting, except one who pretended to be dead.

THE OUTCOME OF AN INTERNAL CRISIS

After four years of revolution that had disrupted the country, and whose impact we now know is considerable, this assassination violently put an end to the most important revolutionary experience of the African continent. It is only now, with hindsight, that we can measure its importance.  The African youth turned Thomas Sankara into their hero, just like what Che Guevara became for politically committed youth in South-America and Europe. Blaise Compaore and his friends, who organized this assassination, aware of the popularity of the murdered president, worked on tarnishing his memory and minimizing his legacy. Supporters of Thomas Sankara who could not flee or were unwilling to flee, were prosecuted and often tortured.

Shortly before this tragic outcome, Thomas Sankara was facing executives of the revolution, who often joined its ranks after the takeover. They wanted to carry out further purges for purposes of “clarification”. In fact, they wanted to better take advantage of the benefits of power, while Sankara, conscious of a certain weariness, wanted, on the contrary, to create a political party that would bring together all the revolutionary movements in their diversity, including those that were discarded or that pulled out over disagreement, to go ahead and later open the political game. Blaise Compaore, in whom Thomas Sankara had total confidence, relied on sections of the army that he had control over and on those revolutionaries of convenience. The most influential among them, who believed that the revolution would continue, were murdered, others soon transformed into advocates of economic liberalism, with no qualms. They are mostly still in power.

The heavy atmosphere that preceded this violent and unexpected outcome is explained by the pseudo-differences within the leadership of the revolution. Actually, in a recently found speech that he was to pronounce on October 15 in the evening, Sankara explains that his enemies were unable to face a political discussion and to set out real differences, a certain weariness of a portion of the population, manoeuvres of any kind, but also the organization of a revolt against Thomas Sankara himself who personally monitored the work and commitment of everyone, if not the morality of all; an attitude that must have attracted him a lot of enemies.

Since then, little by little, the outlines of an international conspiracy however began to emerge. Simple political analysis of the international situation and the increasingly important role that Thomas Sankara was playing inside impose it as a more likely hypothesis. Although Burkina Faso was a small country, Thomas Sankara was becoming more and more popular among the youth of the continent, to the extent of worrying leaders of neighbouring countries that he did not hesitate to publicly challenge. Thus, they began refusing to receive him in the capitals to prevent demonstrations of support for this young leader who was increasingly becoming an essential and uncontrollable figure.

Better still,  Thomas Sankara had even exfiltrated managers of some inter-African international institutions, who were untouchable so far, so that they could be prosecuted in Ouagadougou by revolutionary People’s Courts.  His relentless fight against corruption, the momentum he had managed to inspire his people with, the fact that he quickly convinced them of his sincere commitment to build the country, and his integrity, and that he massively put his people at work were several examples that things could have been different in neighbouring countries had they been ruled by upright leaders.

HYPOTHESIS OF AN INTERNATIONAL CONSPIRACY GRADUALLY TAKES SHAPE

The first journalistic investigations already evoked the conspiracy theory. Journalist Sennen Andriamirado, now deceased, who closely followed that revolution and a personal friend of Thomas Sankara developed this thesis in his first articles following the assassination before stating the opposite in a book he was to publish a year later. Moreover, from1993 academic studies by anglophone researchers had reported the presence of Liberians in Burkina Faso at the time. They hypothesized their involvement in the assassination of Thomas Sankara, something that would be confirmed in other works in English thereafter. In 2000, François Xavier Verschave, then president of the association SURVIE (http://www.survie.org ) in his voluminous book Noir Silence ( Les Arènes), writes on page 346 about the “paradoxical” Franco-Lybian relationship :  “The elimination of Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara is undoubtedly the founding sacrifice … Foccart and the entourage of Gaddafi agreed in 1987 to replace a leader too honest and independent to the point of being annoying by one Blaise Compaore much more willing to share their plans.  The Ivorian Houphouet Boigny was associated in the conspiracy.” Since then, different sources have confirmed the hypothesis of an international conspiracy, including an Italian documentary by Silvestro Montanaro aired on RAI3 in July 2009 (see the film and the translation of certain passages at http://www.thomassankara.net/spip.php?article794).   Several former companions of Charles Taylor claim to have been present at the scene, but also talk about the participation of the Ivory Coast, Libya, France and the American CIA.

CAMPAIGNS FOR TRUTH AND JUSTICE FACE

Thus, in France, while relaying a campaign to collect signatures (see http://www.thomassankara.net/spip.php?article866) requesting for an independent investigation, parliamentarians from the Greens and the Left Front requested in turn the opening of a parliamentary inquiry into the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 2011 and in 2012 (seehttp://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/13/propositions/pion3527.asp and http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/pdf/propositions/pion0248.asp).   These requests are yet to appear on the agenda of the National Assembly.

Another campaign, at the initiative of the CIJS (Justice for Sankara International Campaign) was able to put this matter on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Committee.  The latter, after partly ruling in favour of the family in 2006, somehow disowned its ruling in 2008 by claiming to be satisfied with the actions taken by the government of Burkina Faso.  Yet, the government had merely corrected the death certificate of Thomas Sankara, which stated he died of “natural causes” and offered money to the family that obviously rejected it and reaffirmed its demand for justice and truth.  No investigation had been conducted on the assassination of Thomas Sankara. Various judicial proceedings have also been initiated in Burkina. None has been successful so far. All those initiatives have faced all kinds of diversions, showing on this matter the lack of independence of the judiciary in the country. The current president, Blaise Compaore, as well as his special Chief of Staff, Gilbert Diendéré, who was decorated with the Legion of Honor in May 2008, are strongly suspected of being directly involved in the assassination.

A LEADER COMMEMORATED EVERY YEAR IN MANY COUNTRIES

While the demand for justice on the assassination of Thomas Sankara is far from being satisfied, his growing popularity not only in Africa but also in Europe and in South America has eventually destroyed all attempts to tarnish his memory and action.  Many socio-political works have already been published in French, including several by Burkinabe, and in Italian while many others are in preparation in English. Every October 15, many commemorations are organized around the world to honour his memory and action. Some thirty anti-globalization associations organize one week against illegitimate debt and international institutions, Thomas Sankara symbolizing for most of them the precursor of their struggle (seehttp://cadtm.org/semaine-globale-d-action-contre-la,9433).

THE DIFFICULT RISE OF “SANKARISM” AS A POLITICAL MOVEMENT

In Burkina Faso, politically committed and extremely mobilized youth, in a quest of bearings and of symbolic character, are taking possession of his thought to combat the embattled regime. Many parties identifying themselves with Sankarism claim his inheritance. But their division prevents Sankarism, as a political movement, from truly thriving in a complete way.  The difference is however slowly taking shape. In fact one of them, UNIR PS (Union for the Renaissance/Sankarist Party) clearly stands out with four MPs, followed to a lesser extent by the Front of Social Forces, that is however on the decline; others are made up of a few individuals, and only exist through a few releases published from time to time in the media. On the other hand, many associations of young people are created across Africa. The most recent being Balai Citoyen, created a few months ago,  that directly claims Sankara’s legacy. At the initiative of two very popular musicians in Burkina, Sams’K The Jah and Smockey, it is showing strong dynamism, imposing itself as the main organizer of October 15 ceremonies in Ouagadougou alongside Sankarist parties that are more discreet.

A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION FOR MANY ARTISTS

Many musicians, including some very well known, such as Tiken Jah Fakoly, or Didier Awadi, speak of Thomas Sankara, during their performances when they don’t compose songs in his memory.  Designers have taken ownership of his image and reproduce countless copies of it and in all styles. But, above all, choreographers such as Serge Ayme Coulibaly and Auguste Ouedraogo have created shows to honour him. Not to be outdone, literary authors, such as Jean Billeter, Kously Lamko or Jacques Jouet, to name but a few, dedicated their works to him.  Many documentaries, some of which have several times been aired on television, and translated into different languages have been produced. Among them, we have: “Thomas Sankara” by Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, the Precursor Who Could Not Successfully Carry Out His Project, also “The Upright Man” by Robin Shuffield, “Fratricide in Burkina, Thomas Sankara and Françafrique ” by Thuy Tien Ho, and even the latest “Captain Thomas Sankara” by Christophe Cupelin, who has begun a promising festival tour. And among these professional productions, one can’t help mentioning the film ” In the footsteps of Thomas Sankara”, divided into two parts of nearly 2 hours, which is a very complete documentary also translated into several languages. It was produced with the only support of the Baraka Association and has been projected in many countries.  The period to come will probably see the increase in film production projections, just like “Twaaga” the latest movie by Cedric Ido which also launched a tour of short film festivals.  Besides the political aspect, the history of Thomas Sankara, and this story of betrayed friendship carries within itself all the ingredients of a great romantic tragedy.

Thomas Sankara has therefore become all at once, a reference to integrity, probity, commitment, and strategy for revolutionaries, a source of inspiration for artists of various disciplines, the precursor of environmental struggle and a model of self-reliant development for citizens in search of an alternative to the liberal model, a figure of reference for anti-globalization activists who are fighting for the non-payment of illegitimate debts, or more, an example for the young people in search of bearings, a model, a figure to identify with and an example to follow.

* Translated from French by Alain Ngono

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