“I can hear the roar of women’s silence”

 

Thomas Sankara by Mthethwa

 

It was Thursday, 4th August 1983 in what was soon to be renamed Burkina Faso, the country of the “upright people”. On this day, a coup d’etat led by Captains Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré set in motion a Pan-Africanist, Marxist, revolution which sought to liberate Franz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” from the clutches of imperialism and neo-colonialism. This most creative and poetic struggles for liberation lasted a mere 4 years but would live long in the memory of Africans as a constant reminder of what could be and what is desired by social movements throughout the world. Sankara emphasised the universality of the Burkinabe revolution in his address to the UN General Assembly a year after becoming President of the National Council of the Revolution..

“So yes, I wish to speak on behalf of all “those left behind”, for I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me”. Our revolution in Burkina Faso embraces the misfortunes of all peoples. It draws its inspiration from all of man’s experiences since his first breath. We wish to be heirs of all the revolutions and all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.” [1]

Sankara’s revolutionary vision was based on ‘self-reliance’ and solidarity and included an ambitious programme of development – health, education, agriculture, infrastructure and an end to the excesses so familiar in African governance today- hyper corruption and consumerism. He embarked on an agrarian revolution which including the planting of millions of trees and land reform.  He called for the full cancellation of the continent’s debt, rejected foreign aid and asserted that only a complete rejection of the “norms of global capitalism and opposition to imperialist domination would ultimately liberate Africans.

“It must be proclaimed that there can be no salvation for our peoples unless we decisively turn our backs on all the models that all the charlatans, cut from the same cloth, have tried to sell us for the past twenty years. There can be no salvation without saying no to that. No development without breaking with that” [1]

But it was in the area of women’s emancipation and its meaning for all of humanity, that distinguished Sankara’s revolutionary vision. Sankara argued that  the key to social transformation was in improving the status of women and he demanded that they be a central part of the revolutionary project.   Sankara did not just make pronouncements, he was meticulous in explaining class relations and the everyday ways in which African masculinities work in collaboration with capital in exploiting women’s labour and abuse of their dignity. His analysis of gendered and sexualised social relations would be considered progressive even today, as shown in this quote.

“It was the transformation from one form of society to another that served to institutionalize women’s inequality. This inequality was produced by our own minds and intelligence in order to develop a concrete form of domination and exploitation. The social function and roles to which women have been relegated ever since are a living reflection of this fact. Today, her childbearing functions and the social obligation to conform to models of elegance determined by men prevent any woman who might want to from developing a so-called male musculature.”…. [2].

Describing the home as the premier sight of capitalist reproductive exploitation and sexualised oppression, Sankara’s government campaigned against forced marriages, polygamy, and what he described as those  ‘norms of beauty that violate the integrity of their bodies”,  female genital mutilation and tribal markings.   Women were for the first time able to initiate divorce without the consent of their husbands.  Sankara  insisted that men take an active part in the domestic sphere by experiencing those activities traditionally left to women such as preparing meals, going to the market and caring for children.  At the same time he encouraged women to take on jobs that had previously been the domain of men including joining the military.   He also began a programme of dismantling traditional sites of patriarchy by reducing the powers of village chiefs and nationalising all land.  Other areas where his government prioritised women’s equality were in providing improved access to education and public health through a nation-wide adult literacy and grassroots health programmes. Significantly he was the first African leader to appoint a large number of women to government positions including the cabinet.

One of the primary instruments in the transition of women towards full citizenship  was the Women’s Union of Burkina Faso [UFB].  Sankara described the UFB  as “the organisation of militant and serious women”.  These were the women of the revolution drawn from the urban workers and rural ‘peasants’ classes. Sankara repeatedly urged the UFB women to break away from the “kind of practices and behaviour traditionally thought of as female”.   He was  also scornful of the petty-bourgeois class of women who he accuses of being materialistic, exhibitionist and “unremittingly empty”. But for Sankara there was always a means to redemption for example he suggests that rich and educated women could offer their knowledge and services to the Burkinabe people.

On International Women’s Day March 8th, 1987 Sankara addressed thousands of women in Ougadougou calling for the emancipation of women in Burkina Faso and throughout the continent. In the speech he explained n in great detail, the material base for women’s oppression rejecting simplistic theories such as biological differences ..“being slaves to the nature of our species”.  There can be no liberation if any group of people are subjugated, only a false consciousness detrimental to progress.   In the speech Sankara insists that ‘the present situation of women must end and there must be a change in men’s behaviour and attitude.

“At this moment, we have little choice but to recognise that masculine behaviour comprises vanity, irresponsibility, arrogance, and violence of all kinds towards women. This kind of behaviour can hardly lead to coordinated action against women’s oppression. And we must say frankly that such attitudes, which can sink to the level of of sheer stupidity, are in reality nothing but a safety valve for the oppressed male, who, through brutalising his wife, hopes to regain some of the human dignity denied him by the system of exploitation. This masculine foolishness is called sexism or machismo. It includes all kinds of moral and intellectual feebleness–even thinly veiled physical weakness–which often gives politically conscious women no choice but to consider it their duty to wage a war on two fronts. [2]

On Thursday 15th October 1987, the Burkinabe revolution ended when Sankara along with 12 comrades were assassinated in a counter-revolutionary coup led by Blaise Compaoré. In his betrayal like Mobutu’s betrayal of Patrice Lumumba, Compaoré donned the “white mask” and returned the Burkinabe people and Burkina Faso to a neo-colonialist state.   Just months before, Sankara had spoken at the 23rd session of the OAU [3] and called for an end to Africa’s debt which he described as ‘technical assassination’ and a ‘reconquest of Africa’.    In the final Summit Declaration on Africa’s debt, the members not only ignored  Sankara’s words, they turned their backs on him by reaffirming the obligations of member states to honour the debt.   It is possibly at this moment that the decision to remove him was made.  In 2009, an Italian documentary revealed the involvement of France and Blaise Compaoré in the assassination of Thomas Sankara. [4]

Sankara lived the Burkinabe revolution by example and insisted his ministers and government officials do the same.  He rejected the trappings of ministerial privilege and proceeded immediately to reducing the expenses of governance. He changed the official fleet of cars from Mercedes to the modest Renault 5 and forbade the use of drivers.  He reduced government salaries including his own and forced civil servants to donate one months salary to public projects.   Thomas Sankara’s revolution was committed to removing the injustices of imperialis. His ambitions went well beyond  changing the social relations of all Burkinabe people to the whole continent.  His legacy lies in the fact that he not only showed us a different way is possible but that it actually happened. But the reasons why the revolution was stopped after such a short period of time speaks to the enormity of the struggle we face if we are to achieve the kind of social transformation he envisaged.

 

References

[1] We Are Heir’s of the World’s Revolutions: Thomas Sankara Speeches, 1983-87’ Pathfinder Press 2007

[2] Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, 1990, Pathfinder Press

[3] OAU Summit Declarations.

[4] Italian revelations on the assassination of Thomas Sankara, Silvestro Montanaro. 

Additional sources: 

Thomas Sankara, an Upright Man, California Newsreel

Aziz Fall, L’affaire Sankara; parachever une victoire historique contre l’impunité en Afrique.

Aziz Fall, Echoes of Revolution: Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara

Amber Murray, The revolution and the emancipation of women”

Bruno Jaffre, “Thomas Sankara, I Have A Dream