jujitsu moves

What do we take from Thomas Sankara?

By Joël Té-Léssia Assoko

Posted on May 17, 2023 15:32

 © Supporters of assassinated Captain Thomas Sankara commemorate the 20-year anniversary of his killing 14 October 2007 in Ouagadougou. Sankara was killed 15 October 1987 during the coup d’etat which brought the present president Blaise Compaore to power.  AFP PHOTO/ KAMBOU SIA (Photo by Sia KAMBOU / AFP)
Supporters of assassinated Captain Thomas Sankara commemorate the 20-year anniversary of his killing 14 October 2007 in Ouagadougou. Sankara was killed 15 October 1987 during the coup d’etat which brought the present president Blaise Compaore to power. AFP PHOTO/ KAMBOU SIA (Photo by Sia KAMBOU / AFP)

Radical theorist, or pragmatic leader? Thomas Sankara is claimed by everyone – perhaps we need to let him rest in peace, argues Joël Té-Léssia Assoko.

Freed from their left-wing and Marxist jargon, Sankara’s economic ideas can be seen to foreshadow one of the most original modern development theories: the ‘capabilities’ or ‘substantial freedoms’ approach formalised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.

In Development as Freedom (1999), Sen defines ‘basic capabilities’ as both assets and attributes of development, such as avoiding deprivations like famine and illiteracy, and promoting freedoms like political participation. By embracing these capabilities, Sankara’s Burkina Faso defied the norms of its time.

Sankara’s journey began exactly 40 years ago, when he was dismissed as prime minister, arrested, and, after a coup, assumed the presidency of the country he would rename Burkina Faso.

In 1983, the National Revolu­tionary Council he headed inherited a country where human capital development was systematically underfunded. In 1960:

  • there was one doctor for every 100,000 people
  • the literacy rate was 2%
  • investments in human capital remained negligible for the next two decades,
  • adult literacy barely reached 9% in the 1970s.

Sankara’s administration defied the trend of social spending cuts, instead implementing austerity for an overpaid public administration and thus making savings that could be invested in human capital.

Between 1983 and 1987, education spending doubled, and health investments rose significantly, revitalising local agriculture and the mining sector.

‘Big capitalism’

Despite the myth of a rebellious and autonomous Burkina Faso, the World Bank recommended trimming fertiliser subsidies and financing training centres for young farmers, and contributed to a $23m education reform project in 1984, alongside UNESCO. UN agencies funded a $120m programme to eradicate onchocerciasis (river blindness), while the ‘commando vaccination’ campaign of 1985 used vaccines from the WHO.

The resurgence of the mining sector, in which gold exports tripled to 74bn CFA francs ($122m) between 1983 and 1987, was primarily due to investments from the much-reviled ‘big capitalism’. While Sankara showed his bravado at the UN, the country continued dutifully to pay off its debt, with interest repayments rising from $11m in 1983 to $19m in 1987. Ultimately, due to either the captain-president’s actions or external pressures on his government, the ultra-pragmatic Burkina Faso under Sankara continued to receive – albeit grudgingly in public – nearly 14% of its GDP in international aid, mainly from the US and France.

Today, it is impossible to separate the legend from the facts, as every aspiring revolutionary and publicity-hungry alter-globalist from Senegal to South Africa claims to be Sankara’s heir. The strange geopolitical jujitsu moves employed by the Burkinabe leader — extending a hand while giving the finger to the same international partners — should not overshadow Sankara’s sole genuine accomplishment: putting human welfare at the heart of development. That in itself is more than enough. Let him now rest in peace.

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