The courage to criticize imperialism: Thomas Sankara on the 1986 Reykjavik summit

Dec 21, 2022


Liberation School introduction

The contemporary situation in Burkina Faso is quickly changing, and the new Prime Minister, Me Kyelem Apollinaire de Tambela, identifies with the tradition of Thomas Sankara. He has also written an important book on Sankara and the revolution he led. We strongly recommend that people read Bruno Jaffré’s detailed assessment of the possibilities for a Sankara-inspired transition in Burkina Faso.

This is the first English translation of an interview with Thomas Sankara, originally published here in French under the title “Thomas Sankara Interview with the TASS New Agency on January 13, 1987: ‘Even in an OAU Forum, We Should Have the Courage to Criticize Imperialism.” This is the fourth installment in Liberation School’s Thomas Sankara translation project [1]. This translation series is the result of a collaboration with, an online platform dedicated to archiving work on and by the great African revolutionary. We would like to express our gratitude to Bruno Jaffré for allowing us to establish this collaboration and providing us with the right to translate this material into English for the first time.


This interview has come to us by way of François Thibault, a researcher who was working towards a thesis on the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. It was found in the national archives of Burkina Faso. The title is from our team. We express our sincere gratitude to him. The retranscription (which arrived to us in the form of a photograph) was undertaken by Achillle Zoungo, a team member of the site. Below is the text that introduced the interview:

“We pass on the text of the interview granted to the TASS special envoy, Boris Chabaev, by Captain Thomas Sankara, President of the National Council of the Revolution, President and head of the government of Burkina Faso. The text will be published by the weekly ‘The News from Moscow.’”

The Reykjavik summit was held in Iceland on October 11 and 12, 1986. It brought together Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The summit laid the foundations for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, finalized in 1987.


TASS: How do you assess, comrade president, the international situation after Reykjavik? What is your opinion regarding the Soviet position during the talks and the course of action after this meeting at the summit?

Thomas Sankara: You know that we have appreciated this initiative of the Reykjavik meeting, we have appreciated this initiative of a unilateral moratorium. We have commended it, we have said as much. I had the chance to be in Moscow just at the moment when comrade Gorbachev had to go there, and I was able to say to him, in the name of the people of Burkina Faso, in the name of the revolution of Burkina Faso, “good luck with the meeting in Reykjavik.” We have followed the results, the results that don’t surprise us at all, but which should not be grounds for discouragement, because I believe that, generally speaking, everyone has understood who the peace initiative belongs to and who marked a retreat, a step back in relation to the peace initiative. The international community has understood once again where the line of demarcation passes. Therefore, I believe that comrade Gorbachev has marked a point which is important and that it is necessary to maintain it.

I am searching for which camp we belong to… We are in a camp, yes, it is true. The camp of Burkina Faso. Perhaps we come to disrupt the catalog of camps, elementary and well known. In the directory of political camps, what are those that exist? Well, if you don’t respond, it’s that, first off, you recognize that it is easier to be a journalist than to respond to questions. And then next, perhaps because the camps, for us, are not important.

We consider ourselves concerned because war today, with the methods of communication, with the technological improvements, war cannot be limited. It will have consequences, direct or not, on other regions. It could be Burkina Faso, it could be us who are directly affected; it could be some ecological disruptions that can affect Burkina Faso. It could be economic disruptions. It will be above all political disruption with, at times, the reinforcement of imperialist aggression. Thus, the questions of peace, we insist, are not questions reserved for the great powers. We, also, are concerned; we also have the right to be present in these negotiations.

TASS: You have anticipated my second question. Speaking at the Indian Parliament, during his visit to India, comrade Gorbachev emphasized the importance of the world community, of global organizations, in the struggle for peace, for disarmament. Among other organizations, he cited the Organization of African Unity (OAU).[2] In your opinion, what role can the OAU play in this struggle since, as you say, we are all concerned?

Thomas Sankara: Africa remains a coveted object economically and militarily. Being a coveted object, it is only in the awareness [prise de conscience] of those who are really able to struggle for our unity, our development, our happiness and our liberation that we can avoid being the simple, manipulable pawns of imperialism. On this subject, then, we think that the OAU has a great responsibility and that comrade Gorbachev was right to have acknowledged, in second place, the role and the interest that represent the OAU at the current moment. We believe that it is necessary that Africans mobilize themselves more, in any case, with regard to Burkina Faso, in order to condemn all attempts to manipulate, to use, and to exploit Africans. It is necessary to condemn this, of course, you’ll say, but how will it be possible since the OAU is a grouping of several member states that have different political regimes, which are at times openly subservient to imperialism, even to colonialism. We say that it is the struggle, the permanent struggle even at this level, even in a forum like the OAU: we have to have the courage to condemn imperialism and to show in the clearest and simplest manner, the most acceptable manner for everyone, that imperialism exists, that it is trying to exploit us, to manipulate us, to use us. Our peace, and also peace in the world, all of this depends as well on peace in Africa.

All this depends on our capacity to resist the exploitation they want to impose on us, on Africans, to resist the wars that they provoke in our homeland, the conflicts that they provoke between Africans, the military support, the bandits that they dispatch, the opposition groups that they arm for destabilizing progressive, revolutionary regimes. Today, on the African continent, there are many centers of listening, detection, monitoring, etc. that do not profit Africans but those who exploit Africans. There are many African ports that are occupied, which are veritable imperialist enclaves. It’s all this that we must drive out of Africa.

TASS: The Soviets are following with great interest the difficult struggle that you are spearheading on all these fronts: economic, social, political. Your visit to the Soviet Union and the publications of the Soviet press have enriched our understanding of the life of your people. What important tasks do the revolutionary people of Burkina Faso have to accomplish? What areas of activity are you focused on, and which ones are you drawing your people’s attention to above all?

Thomas Sankara: The most important thing in the struggle that we are leading at the current moment in Burkina Faso is to raise awareness in each Burkinabe, man or woman, young or old, from the cities as from the countryside, that imperialism exists, that it is not simply a word, but that it is stalking us and wants to destroy us. This means an awareness that it is imperialism that is the principal factor responsible for our backwardness, and that we cannot build a happy society unless we agree to struggle against it. It is very important to begin in this manner because otherwise, if we do not clearly situate the ideological basis of our struggle, we are going to blow hot air about our work, courage, determination, but in reality we will continue to serve so-called imperialist causes. The goal therefore of the revolution is to qualitatively transform the situation that so far was exploited by the enemies of the people and to allow the people to take their destiny into their own hands.

TASS: And my final question, comrade president, concerns your impressions of your trip to the USSR.

Thomas Sankara: The discussions that I had in the USSR were very rich, whether it be with comrade Gorbachev, or with comrade Gromyko. We greatly appreciated the understanding on the part of the Soviet Union and of its leaders, and we think that the different aspects of our negotiations will soon be concretized. There was a second aspect that is more important, which is the opportunity to get acquainted, the meeting of our two peoples. You know that for a long time in Africa the dominant, bourgeois, reactionary ideology wanted everything that came from the Soviet Union to be integrated into totalitarianism, the absence of freedom, misery, and suffering for the people. We have combatted this idea; we have shown that the Soviets are human beings like others who aspire to happy lives. That is their objective, and they are ready to work for this happiness; they are even ready to die to defend their homeland, as we have seen at Leningrad and everywhere else.

Burkina Faso is a small African country. It is poor with an economy that is very weak, backward, but it has a revolutionary courage to defend its freedom and peace. This peace cannot be defended exclusively by the Soviet Union but by everyone. Besides, I was saying that it is all of us who have to accompany Gorbachev to Reykjavik; it is all of us, it is not him alone who had to go to talk for all of us.


[1] The first three are: “We didn’t import our revolution,” “Thomas Sankara on the founding of the Black Institute,” and “Apartheid is a cancer that must be exterminated.”
[2] The OAU was an intergovernmental organization in Africa, established in 1963 with 32 signatory governments. Affiliated with the leadership role of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, it sought to increase economic and political integration among member states and eliminate colonialism and neocolonialism in Africa.