Determination and vigilance: Sankara speaks after the revolution

Apr 9, 2024

Thomas Sankara and Mukhtar Kablai Mustapha.

Liberation School introduction

This interview with Thomas Sankara took place mere days after the success of the Burkinabé revolution of August 4, 1983, although the precise date of the interview is unknown. Despite Sankara’s stature within the previous government, a question mark hung over the new revolutionary state: what would it’s class character be? what would a liberated country look like and how would it be structured? how would neighboring countries and the masses in West Africa react to the revolution? Sankara used this interview as a clear attempt to begin addressing these, and other, burning questions.

In addition to bolstering our understanding of the revolutionary process in Burkina Faso, this interview provides historical context for the struggles in West Africa today. Many of the questions Sankara addresses could be similarly posed to the popularly-supported military governments that have taken power in the region, including Sankara’s homeland of Burkina Faso [1].

This is the 10th installment in Liberation School’s Thomas Sankara translation project, in collaboration with, an online platform dedicated to archiving work on and by the great African revolutionary. As always, we express our gratitude to Bruno Jaffré for providing us the right to translate this material into English for the first time.

The Pan-African Press Agency interviews Thomas Sankara

Guillaume Launay was responsible for transcribing this important document, which was recovered in photo form thanks to the Burkina Archives Facebook group.

In his first long interview since the advent of the revolution, the President of the National Council of the Revolution (CNR), Captain Thomas Sankara, gives pride of place to the expression of African unity through his precious instrument, the Pan-African Press Agency (PANA).

Pan-African Nress Agency: Captain Thomas Sankara, what prompted you to return to power for the second time?

Thomas Sankara: All my actions have a single starting point: the unshakeable faith I have in my country’s future. I am deeply convinced that the Voltaic people can make their own happiness and be the architects of their own development [2]. It’s a question of determination and, above all, of the participation of each and every Voltaic in the common enterprise.

For my part, I consider that if my modest contribution to this daily struggle of the Voltaic people for their happiness is to be at the level of participation in power, there is no reason why I should shirk this task. This is the fundamental reason for my return to the government and the head of state.

On the other hand, I must admit that my first stint at the helm of my country’s government had something to do with it [i.e. my decision to return to a leadership role as president of the CNR]. These heavy responsibilities have enabled me to appreciate more fully the immense potential of our people, their profound aspirations and, above all, their readiness for revolution.

PANA: Mr. President, many observers believe that Upper Volta will be going through a difficult period in the coming months. Do you share these concerns?

Sankara: Our country is part of a continent and a group of countries which, to one degree or another, are going through a period of crisis. We are all affected, and Upper Volta perhaps a little more than the others. If your question means that the Revolution will accentuate the crisis and worsen the situation, my immediate answer is no. The Revolution will set our country on the road to progress.

PANA: Do you have a magic recipe, Mr. President?

Sankara: The magic recipe is the Voltaic people. Let’s take a look back at the first six months of the now defunct CSP [Council of the Salvation of the People] government, in which I participated [3]. No one can deny that those six months were an era of hope for the Voltaic people. Our popular masses were largely committed to the process of change announced by the CSP. But this momentum was broken on May 17, and the process sabotaged by our people’s internal and external enemies. The revolution will put this process back on track. This is why we are firmly convinced that our people, through the revolution, will resolutely embark on the road to progress. The people of Volta have realized what they can do for themselves. They are on the road to progress. Our people have enough means and resources to make themselves happy.

PANA: Mr. President, can you tell us about your government’s program?

Sankara: This program will be made public in a few days, as will the composition of the government. So I’ll limit myself to telling you that the first task of the government of the Voltaic revolution will be to liberate mentalities.

This is the top priority of our political program. Liberating mentalities means showing Voltaïques that they can transform their economic and social situation by themselves. That’s why we’re going to offer Voltaïques a program designed to satisfy their aspirations and daily concerns.

PANA: The legacy [of colonialism] that you have isn’t the most attractive?

Sankara: We are perfectly well aware [that it is not]. After 25 years of independence, 95% of our people are still illiterate, our children lack schools, and the privileged few who do get an education receive it in a foreign language, which is still our language of communication. Our heritage is disappearing. Our sick lack hospitals and medicines. Our families don’t have enough to eat, and in our villages water is still an extremely rare commodity over which we have no control; very often our mothers and daughters have to walk dozens of kilometers every day to fetch a little brackish water that is unfit for consumption.

Our peasant masses are left to fend for themselves, and the only relationship they have with the State is the collection of taxes. Upper Volta is even obliged to sell its blood: the flower of our youth is forced to emigrate to sell its labor force abroad.

Our young people are not being offered a plan for the future. The legacy is a heavy one, which is why the task of the revolution is immense, but how exhilarating! We are going to forge together, starting today, the Upper Volta of tomorrow.

PANA: Mr. President, do you really believe your country can survive pressure from neighboring countries?

Sankara: What kind of pressure are you talking about? Why do you want our relations with our neighbors to be confrontational from the start? Why do you want Upper Volta’s neighbors to exert pressure on us and harm our revolution?

Upper Volta is surrounded by Mali, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, and Niger, countries with which we have not only historical ties and mutual economic interests, but also blood ties. Our relations with our brothers in neighboring countries are excellent, and we’re going to strengthen them even further.

PANA: Do you have a border problem with Mali?

Sankara: It wasn’t the August 4 revolution that caused this problem. We found this old dispute on our table at the time of the CSP. A peaceful solution to this problem will be found as soon as possible. I have a great deal of respect for President Moussa Traoré, and I know that he is a man of principle and a man deeply committed to respecting the OAU Charter. What Mali and Algeria have done to clarify their borders must inspire us. All the more so since President Abdou Diouf has agreed to help us find a solution to this problem as soon as possible.

PANA: Mr. President, if you say you don’t have any problems with your neighbors, why did you close the borders?

Sankara: We have decided to interrupt traffic between Upper Volta and its five neighbors for a few days. It’s a decision that disrupts normal activities and business life, but it’s an imperative imposed by external demands, and one that we’re going to lift very quickly. Closing our borders for a few days is a decision dictated by common sense and wisdom. We know that the advent of the Voltaic revolution does not please everyone, especially imperialism. They will therefore try to use this period of rupture between the old order and the new order to mount provocations from our territory and try to frighten our neighbors. We preferred to take the initiative to preserve peace and the fundamental interests of our region.

PANA: Mr. President, don’t you think that your revolution could give rise to legitimate concerns in Upper Volta’s neighboring countries?

Sankara: Our revolution, like any revolution, always raises questions and misgivings here and there. Everyone needs to understand that this revolution is a national project carried out by the Voltaic people, for Voltaic people and in their interests. We know that imperialism is currently trying, as it did at the time of the CSP, to oppose us and put us in a difficult [position] with some of our brothers [i.e. neighboring countries]. It’s not out of the question that imperialism will succeed in misleading some of our brothers and drag them into a scheme to strangle the revolution of the Voltaic people, as it did at the time of the CSP.

PANA: What if these pressures become effective, Mr. President?

Sankara: We have confidence in our people, who will resist all pressures. Our people know that this revolution is theirs, which is why they will be able to resist all forms of pressure. Only a people who don’t feel involved and are not associated with power can give in. This is not the case with the Voltaic people.

The love we have for our people is the same as the love we lavish on other peoples, especially those of neighboring countries, which is why we are confident that none of our neighbors will attack us. If one day the Voltaic revolution is attacked, it will be because a foreign hand will have armed the hand of the brotherly people who would have stabbed us in the back. For this state, that [act] would not only be a crime against the Voltaic people, but a crime against its own people.

PANA: Mr. President, you don’t seem to doubt for a moment your people’s determination to continue the revolution. But can you quickly master the instruments of power? The administrative apparatus and above all the instruments of production?

Sankara: Absolutely. There’s no school, there’s no training course to take charge of the state apparatus. It’s revolutionary determination that gives us this strength and confidence.

The revolution has already taken control of the state apparatus. It will now reorganize this apparatus according to the interests of the Voltaic people, and of them alone.

PANA: Mr. President, it is said that President Gaddafi is the inspiration behind your revolution.

Sankara: I’ve already explained enough about this question so I won’t belabor the point again. My answer is that the inspiration for the Voltaic revolution came from the Voltaic people and from them alone.

It is the Voltaic people who, through their misery and the various manifestations of their aspirations, have been showing us this path for a very long time. It is the people who have imposed this path on us since November 7th [I.e. since the time of the CSP], through their support.

PANA: Captain Sankara, what exact role do you play in the CNR as its president?

Sankara: I participate as a revolutionary with revolutionary cadres in the CNR, which is the supreme body of the Voltaic revolution. I’m in charge of political direction and orientation.

The CNR is an emanation of the Voltaic Revolutionary Movement, made up of revolutionary comrades who are extremely serious, extremely determined, and very attached to their people. The revolution is not the work of Thomas Sankara, it is the work of all Voltaic revolutionaries. Thomas Sankara is just one element among many.

“The revolutionary ticket is the ticket to victory”

PANA: One last question, Mr. President. Do you believe that the Voltaic people picked a winning ticket on August 4th?

Sankara: Of course, the revolutionary ticket is the ticket to victory. I think the Voltaic revolution is on the right track, and the good thing for our revolution and Upper Volta is that this revolution is taking place at a special time in our history. Our country has undergone a multitude of political experiments.

We were led to believe that we were the example of democracy in West Africa. We were led to believe that our development depended on a certain moderation, a certain reserve… in fact, an alignment that implied a fatalistic acceptance of domination.

Regimes have come and gone, taking on all sorts of names with reformists programs and projections, but in reality nothing has changed. After two decades of independence, the picture is bleak: no real progress has been made in Upper Volta. On the contrary, things are only getting worse.

Compared to the old order, we’re proposing something completely new. We propose revolution. This revolution has a precondition: the Voltaic people must finally open their eyes and tackle all their problems once and for all. Frankly, it’s not a question of maintaining society in the state in which we found it, but of ensuring that the broad masses of the population no longer perceive well-being [le bien-être] as a favor, but as a right that they have conquered.

Translators’ references

[1] See, for example, Monica Johnson and Deja Gaston, “Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger leave ECOWAS: What moves are being made in the region?” Liberation News, 08 February 2024. Available here; and Pavan Kulkarni, “Why has Niger Declared U.S. Military Presence in its Territory Illegal? People’s Dispatch, 19 March 2024. Available here.
[2] At the time of the revolution on August 4th 1983, Sankara’s country was known as Upper Volta. This colonial name, inherited from the French, was changed in 1984 to Burkina Faso, an amalgam of words from two indigenous languages which translates to “Land of the Upright People.”
[3] On November 7, 1982, a coup led by the officer corps ousted the military government which had itself come to power through a coup in 1980. Thomas Sankara, as representative of the progressive, anti-imperialist faction within the officer corps, held a high position in the newly formed government of the CSP. Class contradictions within the newly installed military-civilian government led to Sankara’s imprisonment. This event triggered the subsequent revolution on August 7th, during which Sankara’s allies in the officer corps staged an attack on the capital in conjunction with a massive popular insurrection.


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Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

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In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...