Thomas Sankara: Assessing the 3rd year of a revolutionary process

Dec 21, 2023

Liberation School introduction

The eighth installment in Liberation School’s series of previously untranslated works by Thomas Sankara is published on the day Sankara was born in 1949. We would like to thank Bruno Jaffré and the editorial team of ThomasSankara.net for letting us translate and publish these works and the following interview dated September 20, 1985.

The text is from an interview with Thomas Sankara conducted by a graduate student, which results in, as Jaffré notes in his introduction, a unique style of dialogue. It was originally published in French under the title provided by the student, “At the dawn of the third year of the revolution, the birth of a new society.”

Introduction by Bruno Jaffré

Even today, we are receiving or finding new interviews with Thomas Sankara. That is to say that research into Thomas Sankara and his thought is far from complete. This interview stands out somewhat from the others.

It was produced at the time by a student at Sciences Po [a research university in France] and not by a journalist, which makes it [the interview] somewhat original. Thomas Sankara expresses himself a little differently, more pedagogically, with a concern to make clear the meaning of the Revolution, the forces involved, and the difficulties.

He undoubtedly knew that it would not be published in the press but by a student preparing a master’s thesis. She is Isabelle Bardem, who went on to make her career at UNICEF. We went in search of her and hoped to find her to better understand the context of this interview.

What seems like the main point here is Thomas Sankara’s clear-sightedness regarding the stage the Revolution has reached. He responds straightforwardly with a simple vocabulary, developing his arguments with clarity, moving from pragmatism to theory, while clearly asserting his positions. This is true of his relationship with Marxism-Leninism, the possibility of creating a political party, the difficulty of integrating the peasantry into the revolutionary forces, freedom of the press, the roles of the unions and the CDRs, the absence of the working class (an important question which he humorously refers back to the students of Science Po, implicitly acknowledging a major objective difficulty of the Revolution), the relationship between the Council of Ministers and the CNR (National Council of the Revolution), the need for a diversity of sensitivities among revolutionaries, the need to limit the expression of opposition at a time when the Revolution was under attack, debt repayment, etc.

In short, he addresses a number of questions that are of interest to all those interested in the Burkinabe Revolution or other revolutions around the world, whether researchers or activists.

Particularly noteworthy is the passage towards the end where he recounts the pressure from the United States. What he says about French policy, and how he says it, is a major part of the interview. At a time when Burkina Faso is waging a relentless battle against corruption, embezzlement and mismanagement, he is astonished that France is not giving them more aid, while it continues to subsidize other African countries in the region where these abuses are legion. He pertinently concludes that French leaders are insincere, even though they claim to be concerned with good governance.

The end of the interview is devoted to major issues for Thomas Sankara in international politics, the necessary independence of Kanaky (New Caledonia), the fight against apartheid in South African, and for recognition of the SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, also known as the Sahrawi Republic and Western Sahara).

This interview was provided by doctoral student François Thibaut. He found it in the form of photos of typed pages in the Burkina Faso national archives in Ouagadougou. The transcription was carried out by Ilass Ouedraogo, a member of the thomassankara.net website team. Our warmest thanks to them.

Interview

Bardem: At the dawn of Year III of the RDP (People’s Democratic Revolution), what assessment can you make of these two years of revolutionary experience? In which areas are you satisfied with what you had planned, and in which areas have the expected results not been achieved?

Sankara: This is a particularly difficult question whenever we’re asked to take stock. We’re so in the thick of things, we’ve got so many projects and so much happiness [bonheur] to realize, we never know exactly what stage we’re at, and we’re never in a position to say precisely and clearly what the positive aspects of what we’ve done are, and what the failures are; even though, quite often, the failures are quite obvious. It’s a sum of disappointments that we accumulate, but they themselves should be the driving force behind better construction.

However, I can tell you that from August ‘83 to the present day, we have built many community clinics, roads, and bridges. We’ve built maternity wards, dams, stadiums… In some ways, we’ve done more than successive governments did during the twenty-three years of neo-colonization.

We have therefore taken concrete, material steps, some of them very small but of great political importance, some of them major projects such as the Sourou development project, the battle of the railways, collective fields, commando vaccination…

But the most important thing in my eyes is the awareness we have given to a people that they can be self-sufficient, the awareness we have given to a people that they can first of all carry out an operation of justice within themselves to set their goals, their objectives, mobilize the resources at their level to achieve them, and also what we are in the process of doing: convincing an entire people that they themselves can set limits to certain ambitions that would otherwise be whims or illusions.

But we’ve had a lot of failures, we’ve missed a lot of bends because sometimes we wanted to go fast, very fast, which is normal when we know how far behind we are, when we know how necessary it is to demonstrate.

The examples are legion, and I don’t want to mention them, because citing them also brings to mind the dark spots that can end up becoming ingrained in you and wiping out all your will to carry on. But such errors… We’ve become famous for our mistakes and failures.

Bardem: Do you share Saint-Just’s [French Revolutionary and member of the Jacobin Club] opinion when he advocated, “No liberty for the enemies of liberty”? If so, can you give us examples of how this principle was applied under the RDP?

Sankara: Saint-Just is someone we would have liked to have seen by our side today, because he said a lot of the right things. You had to be him to say it in his time.

The enemies of freedom will not continue and in our declaration we said so. Indeed, today we have concrete demonstrations which allow us to give a boost to this freedom, to this untimely demand. I’ll give a few examples which seem entirely understandable to me from our point of view but which elsewhere may be unacceptable untruths because we do not experience the same oppression.

When we declare that nightclubs should be closed, we have people here in Ouagadougou and abroad in particular who are up in arms and indignant at these measures, which only make sense in their eccentric folkloric character, and perhaps even in their flat imitation of Gaddafi-style morality, etc… And we’ve been told that it’s a question of freedom. We don’t understand freedom in this way, except to say that it’s not because you have money, it’s not because you have economic power that you have the right to create poles of depravity in society.

The nightclub, as we’ve come to know them here, imported from elsewhere, well, it’s just this place where some people meet up with appropriate lighting or calculated darkness, [with] entrance fees also calculated so that discrimination takes place at the door… So a selection from the outset that leads a small minority, a handful of individuals, to find themselves there with the complicity and mutual protection vis-à-vis a morality that, in broad daylight, they themselves pretend to defend. That’s why we closed the nightclubs. We also closed the nightclubs because, unfortunately, many of us don’t know how demoralizing nightclubs can be, and think they’re places where people actually enjoy themselves. No, this is not freedom. That’s not the kind of freedom we’re talking about. We’re attacking bourgeois freedom. It’s a form of freedom that we see, a freedom in quotation marks that we fight and for which we are unjustifiably attacked.

In a country like ours, where those who make it rain or make the sun shine, those who make decisions, those who influence the course of things are those who have been to school, and because having been to school, [they have been] to the school of French [with] French being the language of power, of knowledge and of having… Well, in a country like this, we don’t believe that freedom of the press should be preserved when foreign radio stations, ten times more powerful than our little station here, foreign newspapers twenty times bigger in terms of their fetid inundation of the world… We don’t understand, we can’t accept that such organs should intoxicate our people, that it should be up to them to tell our people whether what the CNR decided to do is good or not.

Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening. Everyone here listens to foreign radio stations, and so as not to give the impression that I’m engaging in unfair competition, I won’t name them, but that’s what is happening. So we don’t see this as freedom of the press.

The freedom to brainwash our people must not go on. So the freedom to fight the freedom of our people must not go on.

Bardem: And to what extent do you tolerate criticism or even opposition? To what extent…?

Sankara: Insofar as criticism and opposition can be fruitful, we tolerate them, even encourage them. We deeply need them in order to do better. Unfortunately, those who would like to criticize us don’t know the limits of such criticism. We want their criticism to be constructive, to enable us to question what we are doing, to challenge the old society.

… As luck would have it, I’m giving you this. It’s a set of reviews I asked for. Here’s the military chief of staff’s review of the year: “Further to your referenced memo… In my presentation, I will devote the first part to an assessment of my work…” Well, they think I don’t organize at all, that I push people around too much… It’s full of examples like that.

We certainly attract criticism, but it goes without saying that anyone who doesn’t like the revolution or who had privileges under the old regimes cannot consider that their criticism simply stops at improving the current system, but their criticism is oriented towards destroying it. We find this a fundamental and irreconcilable opposition, and we can’t accept it. Because we know that, when they had power, they didn’t allow us to say that what they were doing was bad.

Bardem: And what does democracy mean to you?

Sankara: Democracy only exists when the people have the opportunity to erect safeguards against any form of power exercised by one man or a group of men. When the people can do that, then there’s democracy.

Bardem In ideological training courses, all analyses are based on Marxist-Leninist theory. Do you think it can be applied in its entirety to Burkina Faso, or do you rely only on certain points, and if so, which ones?

Sankara: Theory is one thing, practice is another… but scientific truth is universal. We take from Marxism-Leninism its scientific principles that apply here and elsewhere. But we don’t want to copy models in the sense that we believe that each country has its own specificities and must resolve its scientifically describable contradictions according to the particularities of the struggles that exist on its soil.

So we’re particularly amused when people ask us if we want to imitate the Cuban, Soviet, Korean, Algerian, or Libyan model… We say no. There is no catalog from which to choose a revolution, and if we must, the Burkinabe revolution would be yet another model. Why shouldn’t we be the ones to set the example, the ones that others would imitate? Why do we want others to imitate us… Is it because, chronologically speaking, we came after the others? Is that [the case], and this would wrongly mean that the models of Revolution stopped after such a date? Let’s find out, and let’s call all those who come after [us] imitators.

Bardem: According to Marxism-Leninism, it is essential to create a proletarian vanguard party to lead the revolution. Do you think this is necessary for Burkina Faso in the short, medium, or long term? If so, wouldn’t the creation of a single party water down the function of the revolution’s defense committees as authentic organizations of the people?

Sankara: We don’t want to decry the creation of a party. That wouldn’t be right from a Marxist, revolutionary point of view. It would be a rather overly, intellectual conception of the process … We want the party, if it’s to come, to be the will of the people. We’ll feel it. If the people don’t need it, there’s no reason to impose a party. Because you don’t build a revolution the way you would fill in a form at the PTT [the former French post office], crossing out the unnecessary, ticking the boxes indicated, to have an organization chart that respects canon law.

Bardem On August 4, you denounced the often-incorrect way in which popular power is exercised by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. It seems to me that, as far as the geographical CDRs are concerned, the problem is less acute and that it will be relatively easy to unmask abuses, opportunists, and denounce them, so that this structure can fully play the democratic role from which it was created. But where the exercise of popular power seems to me to be seriously compromised is at the level of the service CDRs. Indeed, given that some 90% of employees belong to them, and that some have been pressured to take part, aren’t the service CDRs a vast mishmash that has lost all its initial interest and even acted in the opposite direction?

Sankara: Yes, it’s true that we’re having a lot of trouble with the service CDRs. That’s because it’s there [in these sectors] that one finds people who lost a lot with the revolution- but we will see later that in reality they haven’t yet lost any of their privileges, and it wasn’t us who set up this administration.

We’ve come to find an administration [as it existed before the Revolution]. We have to deal with it, and we’re telling this administration that we’re going to clean it up. Last night saw the end of the customs trial. Well, this customs service obviously deserves to be swept away by 80-90%, and I don’t want to go as far as 100% just to sound maximalist. But in everyone’s opinion, today we’ve laid customs bare. The indignation is total, and everyone feels that it needs to be cleaned up. Our country is not unique in this respect, and I can name several, practically from the UN list. We’re all the same. We all have customs officers, each as corrupt as the next…

The criticisms we level at our CDRs have to be acerbic, they have to be violent, because at the same time, since we’ve been criticizing them, we’ve been giving them even more power, as you’ve seen.

Bardem: And at the level of the geographic CDRs, don’t you think it would be preferable to appoint sector CDR delegates, because the choice of the masses, with the election, is not always oriented towards the most suitable person. I’m thinking of the election of certain feudalists who…

Sankara: You’re right. Sometimes we too practice ultra-democracy. We want elections at all costs, sometimes even because we have complexes with regards to the foreign powers. They say to us, “you haven’t had a vote, therefore it’s not democratic.” But democracy isn’t the ballot paper. That’s mystification. That’s a rape and theft of the consciousness of a country where hardly 2% of the population is literate. It’s true that some feudal lords get themselves elected as delegates, and your proposal is very fair, but I don’t want to say any more…

Bardem: I’d like to raise the problem of training the masses militarily. It seems to me that you are perhaps a little too quick to train people militarily without first making them aware of the situation. I’m thinking of certain CDRs who, as soon as they have a Kalashnikov, tend to profit a bit from this power and don’t seem sufficiently conscious.

Sankara: Yes, that’s right, that’s true. But I have to tell you frankly that from the point of view of proportion- apart from the anxiety that some people feel morally when they leave the Champs-Élysée to come and find themselves between two Kalashnikovs, they have the feeling that… The Kalashnikovs, they’ve only seen on French TV so they can’t help but having the feeling of oppression, of a fascist universe when they find themselves between two Kalashnikovs, here in Ouagadougou coming from France.

We find all this perfectly normal… There are people who sleep between plutonic rocks over there, on the Albion Plateau, but they’re not frightened. Well, it’s a question of peaceful coexistence. But if you look at the statistics, there are just as many accidents in the regular army as there are among the CDRs. Sometimes even fewer in the CDRs than in the regular army. In France, in your country, there are just as many accidents involving people who have been professionally trained according to a well-studied program…

Bardem: But we don’t talk much about that…

Sankara: Yes, of course, because it doesn’t come as a shock. We even admit to percentages of loss of human life that we don’t say officially. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are something new, but not yet fully accepted in the States. A State can’t be built with CDRs. It’s not yet accepted as such, but its [time] will come.

Bardem: What do you see as the role of the trade unions under the DPR, and in what areas do they have the same demands as the service CDRs, or even compete with them to assert themselves as the only ones capable of solving a given problem?

Sankara: Trade unions have an important role to play. Firstly, they have to demystify the old unions because they were either totally bourgeois, and therefore unions that created conditions for exploitation of the masses, or they were unions that claimed to be anti-imperialist, but with the defect of being unions that were more into economism, demand for demand. If you have 100,000 CFA (CFA franc, backed by the French treasury. One euro equals 655.96 CFA francs) as a salary, you ask for a raise of 10% or even less but a raise all the same. As soon as we get that increase, the fight stops. We never asked ourselves how many people here in Burkina have 100,000 francs. So it’s not a popular struggle. We’ve got 300,000 francs, and we’re still asking for an increase.

Practically speaking, the dog would bark, be given a bone, and calm down. He wouldn’t come back until he had finished his bone. We don’t consider these to be unions, or at least not the kind of unions we’re interested in today.

Struggles were not totally negative when they exposed the real nature of the political regimes that preceded us. But their demands were not popular demands. They were too limited, too corporate. We don’t want this corporatist struggle today. On the contrary, we want a union that poses the problem from the point of view of the masses. It’s not just a question of seeing the problem on the shop floor but of seeing the upstream and downstream consequences for the people.

Bardem: In an interview with Afrique-Asie magazine in October 1983, you were asked whether the Voltaic [refers to Upper Volta; Sankara changed the country’s name to “Burkina Faso” or “land of the honest men”.] left was still divided, to which you replied, “The left is characterized by diverse sensitivities and specificities. Struggles and composition within it are necessary to enrich political and ideological debate.” Now, after almost two years, don’t you think that, in the case of Burkina Faso today, far from enriching political debate, the division of the left favors reaction and slows down the revolutionary process?

Sankara: No, on the contrary I think that this quarrel within the Left is a useful one, that it is increasingly beneficial. It’s painful, I must say sincerely, very painful to endure, but it’s this quarrel that enables indispensable clarification. And that’s what’s happening. The disqualifications we are witnessing are not the work of those in power, but the work of the masses, the masses who have rejected yesterday’s stars to the point of oblivion and today find their means of expression in other contexts. We have also been able to reject the monopolization of knowledge, ideological knowledge, language, verbiage, intonation, and ideological rhetoric- [all this accomplished] by ensuring that as many Burkinabe as possible have access to this knowledge.

So, this is what we said one day, and I think it was in “Jeune Afrique” [a Pan-African magazine]: Well, rather than have a Pele imposing his whims on us, we prefer to throw the ball into the streets. That is what we’re doing today. Those who don’t like the revolution and nevertheless love talking about it can no longer exercise their intellectual terrorism.

Bardem: What is the relationship between the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) and the Council of Ministers? Do all decisions come from the CNR? Can you elaborate on the function of the newly created People’s Commission for the Ministerial Sector and the Ministerial Administration Committee?

Sankara: The CNR and the Council of Ministers. The government is the executive branch, it receives political orientation and is responsible for applying this policy in a sectoral manner, depending on the department. Political will is conceived elsewhere, at the level of the CNR, which through the intermediary of the President of the CNR, expresses its main options to the government. But policy and strategic choices remain with the CNR.

The commissions we have recently set up are designed to involve workers more closely in the management of people’s power. We’ve had two years during which we’ve waged a struggle to settle things. We can’t say that we’ve managed to have perfect CDR militants, to make the right choice it’s true. But we believe that the role of the CDRs is becoming better understood, even if it’s not yet fully grasped. Thus we can increase the responsibility of the CDRs. That’s why I was quick to raise my voice in a significant way against the CDRs, precisely because we were preparing to set in motion a new process in which they would participate and make decisions with the ministers.

The People’s Commission is intended to examine issues arising in a ministerial department on a daily basis and the Ministerial Commission is at a higher level, so that even the smallest signature doesn’t’ require general assemblies.

Bardem: On the subject of private property, you’ve said that “it’s natural for property to be safeguarded. What Voltaic people do not accept is dishonestly acquired property.” In some cases, isn’t the 1985 rent-free scheme contrary to this principle?

Sankara: When did I say that?

Bardem: … In 1983.

Sankara: This is completely natural. We evolve with an awareness that… If you go back to my speeches, you’ll see that on March 16, 1983, I declared that it was natural for us to accept people owning several homes, if they had been honestly acquired. In August 1983, we did not tolerate people owning several homes. Today it’s applied. So it’s a question of the level of justice. Extreme justice can’t be exposed point blank, otherwise it’s a form of injustice. We impose it, we bring it in, we enact it as the consciousness of the masses allows.

Bardem: Free rent in 1985 must have been an exogenous gag for many households, whose purchasing power increased as a result. Would you consider not renewing these measures in 1986?

Sankara: Insofar as we declared in ‘86 that we were going to go back on the measure, well, it would be a good thing for us to respect those commitments. But it has to be said that one of the main aims was to force everyone to solve their housing problems so that there would be as many houses as possible in our towns, in order to break down speculative prices and ensure that speculation would die out on its own due to lack of demand… a supply that would then be too great to relation to demand.

Bardem: But don’t you think that would be interpreted by the masses as a step backwards?

Sankara: At the time we took the measure, the masses felt that it was malice, and we were besieged [by them] only to be told that it wasn’t the right thing to do, and we couldn’t bear to see people in their areas and villages made unhappy by a decision that brutally deprived them of property income.

But of course we’re not trying to be populist, and we also know that sometimes the masses can be won over by sentimentality. So this measure may be temporarily extended, but it may also be temporarily withdrawn.

Bardem: How do you respond to those who accuse you of giving priority to the petty bourgeoisie by building Year I, Year II, and soon Year III, and of having done nothing yet for the inhabitants of Ouagadougou’s undeveloped areas?

Sankara: Well, I don’t think that they’re justified criticisms because what we allow through these achievements helps improve the lot of others. Let me explain. In a country like this, if you decide to confiscate property or to strike a blow at a bourgeois capital, you have to be sure you’ll be understood and supported. That’s not always the case, especially when all sorts of agendas have been attributed to us.

On the other hand, by solving the problem of the petit bourgeois, by doing things that arouse admiration, we give ourselves permission to do other things. We’ve built a city Year II, everyone agrees on that. Everyone now says that “All things considered, these young people [i.e. the revolutionary cadre] know where they’re going. They also know what they’re doing and if we follow them, we won’t get lost.” So there are other decisions we can make from now on, because we’ve demonstrated our ability to build, but it was a necessary demonstration for us on a tactical level.

Alas, our detractors either don’t understand this tactic, which means they have an extremely low level of politics, or they have a high level and understand very well, but they have no interest in helping us, so they have to fight us… It’s a fair game.

Bardem: In Burkina Faso, a backward agricultural country, the peasantry represents over 90% of the population. Generally speaking, would you say that the peasantry is rather favorable to the DPR, hostile, or indifferent? Do you find only enemies among the traditional chieftains?

Sankara: The peasantry is not that indifferent. On the contrary, they were initially frightened when, after August 4th, people spoke and described communism in a caricatured way, saying, “Communists have come, this is what they’re going to do. All your property will be shared, your wives and children will be collective property.” You can understand how that frightened people in the countryside. But I’ll tell you that I’ve been out in the countryside several times at night, in civilian clothes. No one knows us, so we can talk quite freely: “Ah, you from Ouagadougou, what’s it like over there? I hear these people are going to take our wives, our children, our oxen, our sheep, our goats, our chickens. They’re going to take everything and share it all. It’s not normal, we’re not happy, but you know these are the people from Ouaga, they’re strong, we can’t say anything.”

Bardem: Was there really a campaign of brainwashing?

Sankara: It was strong. Afterwards, I went there again. They were vaccinated, they were able to design schools, community clinics, receive food, the head tax was abolished… It’s not just a thorn that’s been removed from their foot, it’s practically an assegai [a kind of spear] that’s been removed from their flank.

Well, when you go back to the countryside, the peasants tell us: “Listen, I agree, you have to tell them to take other measures. When you go back to Ouaga, tell your friends there to take other measures.”

Well, I think you mobilize people on the basis of their interests and if the masses join in it’s because it’s more and more in their interests. Until the drought, people said it was because we were there, forgetting that before us there was a drought, forgetting that in other countries where there is no regime like ours, there is also a drought. They say that the rain which falls today does so thanks to the CNR… Well, we don’t deny it because yesterday we had to put up with what was against us.

Rural chieftaincy is diseased, so it’s in the process of withering, drying up and disappearing on its own.

Leftists have attacked us, saying we didn’t have the courage to confront it, that a decree [une texte] would have done away with it. No, we’re saying what’s the point of abolishing chieftaincy in the countryside when it’s only in the town that people are against it, while in the countryside chieftaincy continues to enjoy real power. Decrees must reflect the real level of political awareness of the masses. But today, nobody talks about chieftaincy. The chieftaincy itself is embarrassed to talk about itself, and when you listen to a communiqué from one of the feudal chiefs of yesteryear announcing a death on the radio, he says: “The traditional leader of such and such a village announces that…”

Bardem: The working class, which is only embryonic today, will be called upon to develop with the phase of capitalized production that will enable Burkina to acquire technology and develop its productive forces. What role will it play in the DPR?

Sankara: The working class is a decisive class in the revolution, in the DPR, and above all in its consolidation and radicalization. But the transitional phase does not have to pass through capitalist forces. Therefore, the development of working class forces, which we recognize as a common necessity, can be achieved through other forms of development.

Bardem: For example?

Sankara: We’ll see. Maybe Burkina Faso will set an example that Sciences Po students will come and see.

Bardem: In the 1985 state budget, as in the 1983 CSP budget, the defense budget is by far the largest, and one of the few not to have decreased. It represents around three times that of Health, and almost two times that of Agriculture and Livestock. At a time when real budgetary restraint is being implemented, and when health and education for all, as well as food self-sufficiency, are priorities, why not cut the military budget to benefit these sectors?

Sankara: No, that’s not right. Your information isn’t accurate, and I should give you the documents to prove it.

The army and defense budget is by far the most important in terms of reporting.

But the budget remains substantial because the workforce is very large. These are the numbers we were bequeathed, of course. We’ve now reached the irreducible part of the budget. We have eliminated most of the benefits. We don’t buy anything else, it’s not a capital budget. We don’t equip ourselves. It’s the salaries… We can only reduce them if we decide to reduce them everywhere. Because there are university professors and health doctors who earn more than the military. So when we talk about health problems, we forget to mention that doctors are a budget drain. When we talk about literacy, we forget to mention that teachers are a real budgetary burden. Of course, soldiers are also a heavy burden, because there are so many of them. They have a salary base that we’ve cleaned up in terms of allowances, but it’s still very substantial. In other words, if we hadn’t taken the measures we have today, the army’s budget would perhaps be a third, if not half, of what it is today.

This leads me to warn you about this information that was circulating at one point. It is said that we had a bill of 25 billion for weapons, and that Gaddafi was asking for 25 billion from us for these weapons. This is absolutely not the case, and can be demonstrated as follows:

  1. First of all, twenty-five billion dollars goes through the treasury. You can’t have that in your pocket here in Burkina. We’ve never seen so much cash in our country, ever.
  2. Secondly, our financial banking transactions go through the French Treasury, and for over six months we’ve been putting anyone, including the French Treasury, on notice to show that they’ve been holding an arms invoice against us since August 4th.
  3. Thirdly, we are making a formal demand of anyone, and in particular the agents and unions in the Ministry of Finance, in the financial and banking sector, to prove that what we are saying is false.
  4. Fourthly, we affirm – and no one has yet contradicted us on this – that we have received weapons from friendly countries. We had asked them for them, and we will continue to ask them for as many as we need, if they can satisfy us.

All that to say that we were shocked by the defense budget. There have even been attempts to portray it as revolting. But it’s nothing of the sort. It is based solely on the level of the salaries in our country.

Bardem: As far as literacy and school enrollment are concerned, the Ministry of Education’s five-year sectoral plan calls for reducing the illiteracy rate from 92% to 87% and achieving a primary school enrollment rate of 37%. To me, these targets seem too unambitious. Why don’t you undertake what I would call a “Commando Literacy” program, as was done in Cuba and Nicaragua as soon as their Revolution took hold. It doesn’t seem to me, however, that this would require a major financial investment, as you would have the voluntary participation of numerous students and geographical CDRs. Massive and rapid literacy training seems essential to me, especially for children who don’t go to school…

Sankara: I have to tell you that I’m having trouble answering this question because what you’re saying is true. What you’re suggesting is true and good and it’s what is being copied.

Bardem: With regard to the measures taken concerning sport, don’t you think it’s childish to force adults to take part in physical activity for their own good?

Sankara: It’s true that they’ll decrease in age, and even join the children. But as long as the osmosis takes place with the wealth of experience and wisdom they have… In that case, they’ll be vigorous youngsters.

Bardem: Also in your speech on August 4, you announced the forthcoming creation of a living wage for civil servants in order to combat intolerable practices that are, for many of them, everyday realities. However, don’t you think that, faced with such a problem, it might have been preferable to discuss this at the grassroots level first, in the women’s cells for example? Perhaps the solution envisaged isn’t the best suited [to the conditions], and the women could have come up with some interesting proposals… I have the impression that it’s been imposed from above…

Sankara: It’s true, it was imposed from above after a year’s reflection, which the masses don’t know. After a year’s detailed study, we imposed it from above to ensure, on the one hand, that the measure would not be reversible and, on the other hand, to oblige everyone to propose practical solutions for its application. So the solutions for its application have not yet been enacted but the measure is irreversible.

Bardem: Regarding the burden of foreign debt, why do you feel obligated to honor loans made by previous regimes, a large part of which must have surely been squandered?

Sankara: Well, that’s because we haven’t yet taken sufficient steps to cope with the international capitalist economy.

But first, on a national level, until we have fought both our bourgeoisie, who is increasingly being silenced, and above all our petty bourgeoisie, who rants and raves and is intoxicated with ultra-leftism, until we have fought them, we won’t be able to make these decisions. Based on our country’s inability, for lack of foreign currency, to import camembert [cheese], champagne, nail polish, or lipstick, they [the petty bourgeoisie] could simply create unstable social conditions so that certain measures can’t pass.

They cry Revolution, they cry radicalization, but they can’t live up to the slogans, the fine words, the fine rhetoric.

So we need to steel our people against cultural aggression from outside, which is in fact imperialist, economic domination. These are the measures we need to take; this is the consciousness-raising we need to do. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling prey to knee-jerk reactions and the illusions of certain regimes that have created catastrophic economic situations in order to demand benefits through the back door in an infamous manner.

Bardem: In terms of international relations, Burkina receives “aid” from many countries with opposing policies. Have you been subjected to pressure, or even blackmail, to influence any of your decisions or positions? If so, can you give some examples?

Sankara: We’ve known nothing but pressure, especially since we’ve been on the UN Security Council. We’ve been pressured on every vote.

Bardem: … What kind of pressure, for example?

Sankara: Well, we decided to close projects here because we were constantly voting against the policies of one country or another.

For example, the United States. The U.S. ambassador told us that his country could no longer continue to help countries that did not vote as it did, and he told us, on behalf of his government, that we could no longer continue in this way.

We’ve had our aid cut on the grounds that we’re not good partners at the United Nations, or on the political stage. We were put under a lot of pressure. They have dangled before us that which could have been given to us if only we’d been “wiser”, giving it to our neighbors so that we could see it, knowing full well that we have the same problems, perhaps worse here. We gave our neighbors the means to solve problems that weren’t very serious in their own countries. It was simply an attempt to bring about a softening of our position. In short, as far as our speeches, we were advised to soften this, take that back, stop saying this or that…

Bardem: How would you describe your relationship with France? I have the impression that you’re taking it easy on each other, on the Burkinabe side, perhaps because of cooperation and investments, and on the French side, because they don’t want to lose influence in West Africa… I don’t know, but I have the impression that your relationship is rather ambiguous…

Sankara: And if by chance you were right? Yes, our relationship with the French government has not reached the level we would like. France is often mentioned in the political life of Burkina Faso. It could do more. It’s not just money we’re asking for. We’re simply asking her to support and agree with a people who want to build their own happiness. She could even do without sending us anything in the way of aid, and we’d agree, provided that, on the contrary, she appreciates the fact that these people are finally putting an end to the chaos of yesteryear. There was a time in France known as Cartiérisme, after Raymond Cartier [a journalist and proponent of a variety of conservative “anti-colonialism” which saw the colonies as a drain on France]. In 1964, Cartier denounced the village head behavior of African presidents who had just gained formal independence, who were in a hurry to enjoy it, and who squandered the funds that France took out of its budget, [the costs of which were] imposed on French taxpayers. It’s true enough, it’s justified enough, although I don’t agree with Raymond Cartier on the motives and final objectives. But I agree with him on the facts.

Our president’s bought palaces in France… In fact, our president had a building in Paris. We gave the order to christen in “House of the People”, and from now on everyone will be able to live there, for a small contribution towards upkeep.

… Well, that’s fair enough, but if France were really sincere in its desire to find a rigorous, well-managed government, in all modesty, would we be able to say to it: “But here’s what you want. Since we’ve been there, look at all the savings we’ve made by restricting public life, the life of the State, everything we’ve saved or recouped by putting a little more rigor into the control of those who have to deal with public affairs…”

All this has enabled us to rise to what we consider to be an equally interesting level of moralization. France could have applauded. All the willpower to transform this country by relying on our own strengths- does this go against the official discourse of the French? No, so now we don’t see why France opposes someone who is doing precisely what its moral and philosophical point of view has led it to call for… Or are its wishes not sincere? That is the question. In other African countries, where people steal, pillage, rape, and embezzle billions, France is still going to pour in its aid, knowing full well that embezzlement is not punished. Sometimes it is even encouraged in order to corrupt people and keep them in line. It’s even used as a political tool in some countries. France knows this very well.

Bardem: What is your analysis of French policy towards Kanaky [the Melanesian island known in English as New Caledonia]?

Sankara: I had to send a certain number of telexes and write to Mr. Pisani [at the time the High Commissioner of New Caledonia], whom I had the opportunity to meet, to tell him that I felt he had to enter through the great door of history, in other words, to work so that the people of Kanaky could live what they are in the process of demanding with all their blood, with all their soul, i.e. independence.

And I was saying [to Pisani] that France shouldn’t be obliged to do this in thirty years’ time, to go and pay tribute in thirty years’ time to what it refused to do today. [It should support independence movements], above all, if France wants to avoid the deep controversy that arose when it came to the decision over whether or not Claude Cheysson [Minister of Foreign Affairs under French President Mitterand] should go and celebrate with the Algerian people the thirtieth anniversary of their struggle. Even within the Socialist Party, there have been some ambiguous attitudes, and we also know how hard it is for the powers-that-be in France to have this or that TV or film passage selected because it reminds us of things that don’t serve today’s cause, today’s Party policy.

But we say there’s no point in opposing independence, which will be won sooner or later. Our conviction is that when a people want its independence, we must support it. At the very least, you will have the merit and privilege of benefiting from its recognition, right up to the SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) [also known as Western Sahara]. This is what we said to Morocco: “Walk together with the Sahrawi people towards their independence. Then, offer them anything you want to give them. They’ll accept if it’s in their interest.”

Bardem: What is your analysis of the situation in South Africa? At a time when the repression of the people is reaching its climax, do you believe that the scourge of apartheid can still be resolved diplomatically?

Sankara: I’ve never believed it could be resolved diplomatically, because apartheid is a form of domination. It is the expression of imperialism in its savage phase, in a phase of abandonment of the morality that gives the initial absolution. Well, we don’t believe that negotiation can solve this scourge. Schœlcher [the liberal French abolitionist] in 1848, when he spoke of slavery, must have known that pious wishes and philosophical speeches would not suffice. So, since the dawn of time, men have had to take up arms to free themselves. Only arms, only power overthrows power.

Bardem: How important is Burkina in geopolitical terms?

Sankara: Well, I don’t think Burkina is very important. I think it’s simply a country that’s playing its part, working for its development, resolving its minor contradictions, and also resolving its major contradictions with other forces. Perhaps Burkina serves as an example, good or bad… It’s not for me to judge, but I’m simply saying that from a geopolitical point of view, we have our originality. As for its consequences, it’s up to others to judge.

The life and legacy of Harry Haywood

The life and legacy of Harry Haywood

The following article was originally published on Liberation News in 2011 and accompanies this Liberation School article on Haywood's contributions to the "Black Belt" thesis. Introduction There is an old saying that “history is written by the victors.” While subject...