On Oct. 30, the people of Burkina Faso ousted the dictator Blaise Compaoré from office. The protests started when Compaoré, who seized power in a French-supported coup in 1987, sought to extend his decades-long rule and repeal presidential term limits. Protesters set ablaze the government building in the capital, Ouagadougou, to prevent parliament from voting in favor of Compaoré seeking a fifth term in office.
But the mass protests on the part of the Burkinabè people transcend constitutional and electoral reform. They arise from a break in the long-simmering repression of the masses under Compaoré’s capitalist and despotic rule, and persist in the spirit of a socialist revolution that he derailed 27 years ago with his forceful takeover of the country.
The lasting legacy of revolutionary Thomas Sankara
Blaise Compaoré ascended to power by murdering Thomas Sankara, the socialist leader of the former French colony, Haute-Volta, which Sankara renamed Burkina Faso, translating to“land of the upright men.” The country’s new name illustrated Sankara’s rejection of French colonialism and his assertion of a pluralist and progressive pan-Africanism uniting the various peoples of his nation, Burkina being the Mooré word for ‘honest’ and Faso the Jula word for ‘homeland’.
Under his guidance, Burkina Faso became food self-sufficient in the span of four years. Sankara rejected the imperialist aid industry and encouraged local production and trade. He nationalized Burkina Faso’s land and mineral wealth against the broaching power of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Alongside the economic revolution, he instated a vast social-cultural transformation wherein civil servants were forbidden from driving Mercedes vehicles and required to wear cotton tunics indigenous to the country. The women of Burkina Faso partook in the revolution with action centering on their rights. Sankara outlawed female genital mutilation and polygamy, and more women joined the military and were appointed to government positions.
But this revolution was not to last. The French neocolonial control in West Africa was threatened by Sankara’s anti-imperialist economic and foreign policies, his explicit denunciation of apartheid South Africa, and his burgeoning connections with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
In the end, the man to betray Sankara was his best friend and advisor, Blaise Compaoré, who committed the assassination with the help of France and Félix de Houphouët-Boigny, the anti-communist president of Côte d’Ivoire who had conspired to oust Kwame Nkrumah from power in 1966 and enforced French imperialist rule in the region.
Sankara was shot dead and thrown in an unmarked grave. Compaoré took the reigns of power in a military coup well-received by the so-called democratic West and its compradors in the region.
His memory was not forgotten. At the time of his death, masses of people were crying in the streets. According to Burkinabé journalist Abdoulaye Diallo, the tragedy was “felt in all of Africa,” directly resulting from Sankara’s pan-Africanist political vision. Sankara himself had a sense of foreboding that he was going to die, and he understood that his death would make him powerful as a martyr. He famously said, “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
The popular uprising in Burkina Faso today is a legacy of Sankara’s revolution, and a confirmation of his adage that ideas are indestructible and survive state-sanctioned repression. Inspired by the protests in North Africa and the successful regime change in Tunisia, protests flared up as early as 2011.
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world in spite of its vast resource wealth in gold and cotton, which is monopolized by the local bourgeoisie and multinational corporations. Increasing privatization of state-owned companies, the expropriation of peasant-produced export crops to pay debts to the IMF, and the hyper-exploitation of the peasantry and proletariat inflamed the people to revolt.
The struggle continues
In the wake of Compaoré’s departure, the military has made a grab for power. General Honoré Traoré, the army chief of staff, declared a state of emergency, which was duly rejected by the people, who mobilized against him in the streets. This compelled Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida to claim power and broker a deal with the opposition, a reactionary political move that seeks to de-radicalize the masses and does not represent their popular and ongoing mobilization against military rule.
Negotiations between the military and various opposition groups, including “civil society” and parties founded by recent defectors from the Compaoré regime, have produced an agreement that allows the military to stay in power until elections next November. However, the revolution showed that the grassroots organizations that rely on the support of the people, who largely oppose military rule, are capable of playing a decisive role in events.
Burkina Faso remains a target of particular interest for French and U.S. imperialism on the African front for the global “War on Terror”, and a drone base in Ouagadougou was established under Compaoré’s rule.
The overturning of the Western-supported dictator challenges imperialist hegemony, but the battle against imperialist-supported military rule or the limitations of bourgeois liberal democracy will prove key to the successful outcome of the revolution.
The people’s mass struggle has opened up new possibilities for the development of radical organization capable of leading them to victory. If the people’s energy is channeled and affirmed by a revolutionary leadership, Sankara’s work, cruelly derailed so many years before, will finally be finished.