Watching The World

Published: Thursday November 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday November 13, 2014 MYT 7:29:02 AM

The Sankara dream

Loyal followers: Burkinabe opposition supporters holding paintings of the late Sankara during a rally in Quagadougou on Aug 23. -  AFP

Loyal followers: Burkinabe opposition supporters holding paintings of the late Sankara during a rally in Quagadougou on Aug 23. - AFP

I HAVE often envied those who believe in karma. How nice to think that there is a special place in hell for all the vile dictators from Stalin to Hitler and Pol Pot to Papa Doc to go to.

A couple of weeks ago, another one bit the dust. On Oct 31, Blaise Campoare fled the land-locked West African nation of Burkina Faso after 27 years of dictatorship, and I couldn’t help but rejoice.

Yes the situation is volatile and neighbouring nations like Mali have seen violent movements of the al-Qaeda/Islamic State variety get a foothold and yes, Burkina Faso needs support of the right kind from the international community.

But I fervently hope that Burkina Faso finds its way back to the path laid down by Thomas Sankara, who in four years as president from 1983 to 1987, proved himself inarguably among the most charismatic of 20th century African leaders.

Campoare was a trusted lieutenant who sold him out and had him killed, just like Joseph Mobutu sold out Patrice Lumumba and led Congo to decades of disaster.

Sankara was a soldier who himself took power in a coup in 1983. Unlike the usual evolution into the sort of kleptocratic dictator who lives life in impossible largesse while his people starve, Sankara was an idealist inspired by Che Guevara.

He set about reorganising society in a big way. For starters, he changed the country’s name from its colonial tag of Upper Volta to one more reflective of its roots. He used his musicianship to write a new worker’s national anthem. He dismantled many feudal traditional structures, feeling they were part of the oppression that was holding his people back. Most popularly he got rid of fancy cars and big salaries and even air-conditioning, in his attempt to fight corruption head on. After all, this was a man who cycled to Cabinet meetings, and declined to live in fancy state palaces. He sent his ministers out to live in villages so they could identify with the living standards of the common people.

Sankara’s policies were sweeping and just what many African nations needed, and sadly still do. He implemented massive pro-literacy, pro-agriculture, and anti-disease programmes. He outlawed polygamy and genital mutilation among others.

Crucially, Sankara also railed against third world debt and post-colonial interference in newly independent countries. His words and policies saw an inspired nation progress more than it ever did before or since.

But Sankara made too many enemies. He had a friend in Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, but managed to alienate most of his other neighbours. Traditional forces in his own country were horrified by his progressive changes and in the Cold War environment, his leftist rhetoric didn’t exactly endear him to most Western governments.

It has to be said that Sankara made his mistakes, trying to exert his authority over trade unions and the press when they challenged his programmes. But he made no greater mistake than to trust Blaise Campoare.

Campoare had actually been friends with Sankara since they met as young men in the military barracks in 1976. He played a key role in the 1983 coup that brought Sankara to power, and appeared to serve as his loyal deputy. But obviously that wasn’t enough for him.

Sankara’s mysterious death in the coup that brought Campoare to power was undoubtedly on the latter’s hands. As if the betrayal were not enough, he proceeded to reverse most of Sankara’s meaningful reforms.

So right now the people of Burkina Faso are looting the luxury homes of Campoare and his despised brother Francois. Photocopies of incriminating documents are selling on the streets like newspapers. Francois is implicated squarely in the murder of crusading journalist Norbert Zongo, and the Campoare family appear to have the predictable stash of cash.

The future is uncertain now as interim military leader Isaac Zida has dismissed the African Union’s attempt to impose a two-week deadline to hand power over to a civilian government. There is talk of Sankara’s sons Philippe and Auguste, now in their thirties, making a dramatic return.

I can’t help but hope for a brighter future and recall that a week before his death, Thomas Sankara said, “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

Tags / Keywords: Martin Vengadesan

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