Thomas Sankara was one of Africa’s most important anti-imperialist leaders of the late 20th Century. His declaration that fundamental socio-political change would require a ‘certain amount of madness’ driving the Burkinabè Revolution, which again resurfaced in the country’s popular uprising in 2014.
In this blog, Amber Murrey and Nicholas A. Jackson, editor and contributor of A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara examine Sankara’s political philosophies and legacies and their relevance today.
In December 2017, Ghana’s President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, gained international attention by renouncing aid from European countries during a visit from France’s President, Emmanuel Macron. As part of this move away from development aid and toward self-sufficiency, Akufo-Addo proposed that local economic well-being be promoted through sustained job creation and projects aimed at boosting local agricultural production.
Interestingly, the names of some of the programs and the political orientation of the national project itself—Ghana Beyond Aid—echo much earlier efforts initiated in the West African country of Burkina Faso by the Pan-African revolutionary, Thomas Sankara (1949-1987). Agricultural policies like ‘One Village, One Dam’ in Ghana will mean an increased focus at the grassroots, village-level, and a commitment to encourage food self-sufficiency—a project that was at the heart of the Burkina Faso August Revolution of 1983. Burkina Faso’s ‘One Village, One Grove’ initiative concentrated grassroots attention on combating desertification by fostering a culture of tree planting. Much like Sankara’s focus on ‘producing and consuming Burkinabè’,[i] Ghana is giving increased attention to processing its own raw materials.
Whilst we hope that Akufo-Addo and Ghana are successful in their pursuit of a more sovereign-directed development agenda, it is a historical injustice that Akufo-Addo’s insistence that Ghana ‘move beyond aid’ remains unique and noteworthy in international politics today, given its emergence some 30 years after Sankara’s assassination.
A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics & Legacies of Thomas Sankara is a collaborative volume that reflects the uncertainties, ‘noisy conversations’[ii] and disregard for the creative ‘madness’ that comprised Sankara’s period of leadership. The title takes inspiration from Sankara’s words during an interview with Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985:
‘I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory [but] You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. […] We must dare to invent the future.’
This ‘madness’ takes the form of ‘of undaunting audacity, preparedness and enthusiasm for decisive and radical action to overturn existing ways of doing things and thinking’.[iii] Sankara himself urged that:
‘It is both necessary and urgent that our trained personnel and those who work with the pen learn that there is no such thing as neutral writing. In these stormy times we cannot give today’s and yesterday’s enemies a monopoly over thought, imagination, and creativity.’[iv]
This bold storm of creativity was what made Sankara a unique leader. He came from a ‘normalised rural poverty’ in one of the world’s most wealth-deprived countries. He grew up with what Patricia McFadden calls a strong ‘resistance consciousness’, demonstrated through his devotion to his mother and sisters, a series of childhood encounters with French colonialists and colonial inequalities and later by his exclusion from pursuing a medical degree due to his family’s lack of elite socio-economic and political connections. Alongside his radical feminism and populism, Sankara also brought a love of music (he was a guitarist) and the arts, which likely played a large part in his willingness and ability to ascertain the value of nonconformity. This included the ‘madness’ of believing that the people of his impoverished landlocked country could proclaim themselves as ‘upright’ (Burkinabé) and in no need of conditionally attaching themselves to any patron.
There is little disagreement among decolonial scholar-activists on the enormity of his courage and creativity in standing up to Western neoliberal imperialist administrators as well as potential patrons in Libya and the Soviet Union. Regarding his relationship with Libya’s Qaddafi, for example, Sankara replied, ‘When it comes to ideology, we’re not virgins’. Sankara unflinchingly spoke his truths and the truths of so many. Before French President Mitterand he asked, ‘why are killers like Pieter Botha … authorized to travel to France?’ Before the United Nations General Assembly: ‘he who feeds you also imposes his will’. Before the African Union, ‘debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa … each of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave’.
Sankara’s vision did not make him many friends among those who craved clients. However, if one is looking for radical transformation rather than patrons, then one can potentially change history. Sankara intervened not only in regard to radical human rights (as if it is radical to oppose apartheid!), debt and women’s dignity, but also food sovereignty, local extractive and textile industries, health, literacy and the arts. How history may have been different had Sankara’s ideas and the ideas of his comrades been part of central academic spaces from the beginning. Akufo-Addo’s recent expressions, for example, would not stand out as quite so impressive—they might have, indeed, not even been necessary—because there would have been sustained and concrete efforts to ‘move Africa beyond aid’ for 30 years.
A Multidimensional Conversation
In any consideration of Sankara’s work it is important to not place him on a pedestal, as he constantly reminded us during his lifetime. (This was a leader who eschewed the idea of a biography because it focused too much attention on him, who scoffed at songs written in his honour and who refused to have his photographs hung in public buildings.) Rather, we acknowledge and cultivate his ideas and legacy within the ecosystems of intellectual, political and activist debates on contemporary African politics.
Comparisons between Sankara’s ‘Afro-centred [rural] populism’ and the ‘wage-centred’ urban-centred trade union movement reveal an integral point of contestation within two radical, socialist leaning projects, forcing us to consider: how might rural-urban ambitions and needs be met concurrently? The issues around tensions between rural and urban social justice projects remain pertinent in African politics today. One might, for example, employ these lessons when looking at the tenuous and delicate relations between tea estate trade unions, other weakened neoliberal trade unions and local relations of support in places such as the Ndu Tea Estate in Cameroon.[v]
Sankara’s battle to manage the tensions between different forms of socialism, evidenced in the sacking of teachers as well as the growing alienation of trade unions in the workplace, is regarded by some as a ‘political blunder’ that ‘exposed the dictatorial, one-party mentality of Sankara and the CNR’. Other critics have wondered how much these actions can be definitively traced to Sankara, as well as whether dismissals of the revolution as a ‘one-party system’ do not acknowledge the mimicry of multi-party politics in Burkina Faso, in which each party nonetheless represented monolithic economic and capitalist orientations (as Sankara himself asserted).
Critiques of Sankara have often been lumped under the ‘unproblematised [thesis]’ of ‘the African Leadership Crisis [or ALC]’ hegemonic within corporate political science and its echo chambers in popular media. This thesis evolved within a liberal ideological paradigm that has not sufficiently considered the failure of liberal democracy or how it operates to create the illusion of freedom (which is reduced to ballot casting and others). On the other hand, Sankara has been held up as an example of the rich potential for a different kind of leadership in Africa—one who does not fall prey to the so-called ‘African Leadership Crisis’. Such celebrations are likewise problematic for failing to take into account the systematic efforts to weaken the revolutionary project and the ultimate assassination of its leader. This context shows that the failure is not at the level of leadership but is a failure of a violent and racialized global capitalist system. Any serious contemporary conversation about ‘leadership in Africa’ must attend to this.
On Sankara’s legacy for present day activists, there is similar disaccord. Some argue that urban-based labour movements find little inspiration in Sankara, whereas Sankara has considerable influence for urban-based artists. There are questions regarding the depth of their engagements with his politics: what happens when a revolutionary figure like Sankara becomes mainstreamed and his face mass printed on T-shirts? These are only some of the core ‘noisy conversations’ that should have been taking place for a long time, had not Sankara’s legacy been absent from central scholarship and even more tellingly from radical movement literature.
The chapters in the volume show how Sankara’s visions of just and sustainable existence might be taken seriously going forward. In our current political epoch, characterized by the perpetuation of the ‘cult of the individual’ from spaces as disparate as the US to Uganda, Sankara’s insistence that revolutionary projects move beyond hero-worship and hagiography to focus on the structures of society—which require holistic transformation from the grassroots for the grassroots—is as important as ever.
One month after his ‘Ghana Beyond Aid’ speech, Akufo-Addo responded to US President Donald Trump’s disparaging and racist remarks about African countries as ‘shitholes’ during a bipartisan meeting at the White House by tweeting: ‘We are certainly not a “shithole country.” We will not accept such insults, even from a leader of a friendly country, no matter how powerful’. Meanwhile, France’s Macron had joked during a December 2017 meeting with Burkina Faso’s President, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, that he might ‘go and fix the air conditioners’ in the auditorium on the University of Ouagadougou campus, where Macron delivered his speech.[vi]
It is in this international political climate of on-going neo-imperial racism(s) that 27 scholars, activists, journalists and students have come together in an edited volume to reconsider and dispute the dynamic salience of the ideas, programmes and legacies of Thomas Sankara. Seeking to do justice to this rich legacy within the urgencies of projects of self-sufficiency and gender and economic justice in African societies—it is a living volume and an on-going conversation.
Nicholas A. Jackson is a scholar of international development and social movements. His current work examines the contested geographies of neoliberalism, corporate exploitation and resistance in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
Amber Murrey is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology at The American University in Cairo, Egypt. Her award-winning research considers contemporary Pan-Africanism, resistance to neo-colonial violence, resource extraction and decolonisation. She has been published in a variety of academic journals, including Third World Quarterly, Political Geography, The Journal of Black Studies, The Postcolonialist and Capital & Class.
A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara edited by Amber Murrey is available from Pluto Press.
[i] Burkinabè and Burkinabé are both widely used spellings for people from Burkina Faso.
[ii] Giroux, H. A. (2014) Academic Madness and the Politics of Exile. Truthout, 18 November. Retrieved on 16 February 2018 from www.truth-out.org/news/
[iii] Biney, A (2018) “Madmen, Thomas Sankara and Decoloniality in Africa” in A Certain Amount of Madness: The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, Murrey A. (ed). p. 136. London: Pluto Press.
[iv] Sankara, T. (2007). Thomas Sankara Speaks. New York: Pathfinder Press, p. 87.
[v] Konings, P. (2011) The Politics of Neoliberal Reforms in Africa: State and Civil Society in Cameroon. Bamenda Cameroon:Langaa Publishers.
[vi] The comment was made after Macron responded to student questions by saying that it is not ‘his job’ to ‘fix the air conditioners’ in Burkina Faso. When Kaboré left the room during Macron’s speech, Macron made the comment in speculation about what Kaboré was doing.