Today marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of the violent assassination of Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara. This year, the anniversary also coincides with the belated trial of some of those accused of involvement in his killing.
Although his presidency lasted just four years, Sankara has become an icon of pan-Africanism. His legacy continues to inspire movements against imperialism and colonialism across the world.
Sankara saw that debt was just another form of imperial control by Africa’s former colonizers. His assassination abruptly ended Sankara’s attempt to build an alliance of countries to challenge debt, but his vision of debt resistance is still urgently needed today.
Thomas Sankara came to power in 1983 as Burkina Faso’s leader when he was just thirty-three. In the course of four short years in power, he introduced sweeping reforms to boost domestic revenues and reduce the country’s reliance on foreign aid. He supported land reform as well as ecological local production of food to ensure self-sufficiency, in line with his mantra, “he who feeds you, controls you.”
His health reforms led to public investment in health centers and widespread immunization programs against yellow fever, meningitis, and measles. He also built public infrastructure and housing and tackled mass illiteracy. Rural communities benefited from the ending of tribute payments and obligatory labor to village chiefs. He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy, and he appointed women to high-profile government positions.
While Sankara’s presidency made significant social and economic progress, it was not without its faults. He silenced his opponents, clamped down on trade unions and the press, and held a series of revolutionary tribunals where his enemies were tried without recourse to fair legal processes. Sankara’s former government colleague Serge Théophile Balima has said: “I think he was too slow to accept the idea of pluralistic democracy, and those who opposed him couldn’t talk to him and be heard.”
Sankara’s critics at home and abroad were also threatened by his denunciation of France’s dominant role in its former colonies, and his warnings about neocolonialism in the form of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. He saw debt as a key mechanism of neocolonial control: “Debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. . . . Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies.”
At the time, many African countries were mired in debt crises. Sankara graphically described the officials from the IMF and the World Bank as colonizers who had “transformed themselves into technical assistants. We should rather say ‘technical assassins.’”
The international financial institutions (IFIs), which are controlled by the countries of the Global North, have long pushed an agenda of austerity, liberalization, deregulation, and privatization through the policy conditions they attach to loans, using debt as a form of economic control. These free-market policies have failed spectacularly, leaving countries on the receiving end worse off while enriching multinational corporations.
The impact of such policies is still being felt today. Many countries in the Global South were completely unprepared when the pandemic hit last year, with threadbare public services and woefully inadequate health care systems. The IMF and the World Bank have continued to push austerity conditions with loans they have extended during the pandemic, demanding cuts to social services and unemployment benefits and wage freezes for public-sector workers and health care professionals.
“Lenders Will Not Die”
Thomas Sankara understood fully how Africa’s former colonizers used debt to control its economic development in their interests. In 1987, he delivered a speech at the summit of the Organisation of African Unity, appealing to other African heads of states and government ministers to create a united front against debt: “Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure.”
As he issued that call for solidarity, Sankara predicted that he would not live to attend another meeting if Burkina Faso remained alone in its resistance against debt. Just a few months later, he was assassinated. Sankara’s ally and deputy in the Burkinabe government, Blaise Compaoré, declared himself president. Compaoré is now on trial along with thirteen others for Sankara’s assassination.
Compaoré cited Sankara’s hostility to France as the reason for the coup. It is widely suspected that the French government backed Sankara’s assassination because it was so alarmed by his anti-imperial rhetoric and rejection of IMF and World Bank policies. In recent years, France has shared declassified documents about Sankara’s killing with the government of Burkino Faso, but it has not made those documents available to the public.
Compaoré reversed most of Sankara’s reforms and accepted loans from the IFIs, along with their disastrous economic conditions. He remained in power for twenty-seven years before a popular uprising ousted him in 2014. Burkina Faso is now ranked eighth from the bottom on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, with 40 percent of its population living below the national poverty line and a severe shortage of qualified health workers.
Sankara’s call for debt resistance remains as relevant today as it was at the time of his death. Thirty-four countries in the Global South were already experiencing a debt crisis at the beginning of the pandemic last year. The impact of the pandemic has now pushed debt levels for lower-income countries to a record high. Billions of dollars continue to flow out in the form of debt repayments instead of being used to fund public health care and social protection programs.
Southern countries are facing a double catastrophe, as they also have to grapple with the climate emergency. Debt cancellation would be the quickest way to provide the finance that is so desperately needed. Sankara’s vision must live on, and it should galvanize the global movement for debt justice.