Africa Renewal - - Contents - — Pavithra Rao

by Ernest Harsch

Ohio Uni­ver­sity Press, Athens, Ohio, USA, 2014; 164pp; pb $ 14.95

Fol­low­ing the exit of Pres­i­dent Blaise Com­paore from power in Oc­to­ber 2014, Burk­ina Faso was led by an in­terim gov­ern­ment made up of mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, pending elec­tions. Back in 1987, Mr. Com­paore had led an up­ris­ing that top­pled and killed the pop­ulist pres­i­dent, Thomas Sankara. Af­ter his mur­der, Sankara was hastily buried in a sim­ple grave with­out any public cer­e­mony.

Fac­ing pres­sure from the fam­ily and oth­ers, the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment re­cently agreed to per­mit the ex­huma­tion of Mr. Sankara’s body to prove that the body is in­deed that of Mr. Sankara, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader held in high es­teem by the peo­ple of Burk­ina Faso and many oth­ers in Africa and be­yond.

Pres­i­dent Sankara’s leg­endary rule over Burk­ina Faso from 1983 to 1987 has at­tained iconic sta­tus, sim­i­lar to that of Ar­gen­tinian rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara; both lead­ers’ lega­cies and pop­u­lar­ity are vis­i­ble even to­day – from cof­fee mugs to T-shirts. The fas­ci­na­tion over Mr. Sankara as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader to both the young and older gen­er­a­tions is now ex­plored in a short book: “Thomas Sankara: An African Rev­o­lu­tion­ary,” writ­ten by Ernest Harsch.

In the book, Mr. Harsch, a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Africa Re­newal, ex­plores Mr. Sankara’s early child­hood and the dis­il­lu­sion­ment he felt with the eco­nomic con­di­tions im­posed on the coun­try’s poor and the ram­pant cor­rup­tion in the West African coun­try. His de­spair over the coun­try’s un­for­tu­nate devel­op­ment tra­jec­tory led him to speak out against injustice and to spear­head a revo­lu­tion against the gov­ern­ment. He took con­trol within his party, the Na­tional Coun­cil of the Revo­lu­tion, and as­sumed the pres­i­dency in 1983.

In one of his early acts, he changed his coun­try’s name from the colo­nial-given Up­per Volta to Burk­ina Faso, mean­ing “land of the up­right peo­ple.” In­deed, this motto of be­ing eth­i­cally up­right is just what Mr. Sankara wanted his com­pa­tri­ots to em­u­late.

Dur­ing his rule, Mr. Sankara es­tab­lished a cul­ture of self-re­liant devel­op­ment and moved the coun­try away from de­pen­dency on for­eign aid. In do­ing so, he dis­tanced the na­tion from its colo­nial ruler, France. Sum­ma­riz­ing this re­la­tion­ship with France, Mr. Sankara stated that he wanted “to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship of equals, mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, with­out pa­ter­nal­ism on one side or an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex on the other”. Mr. Sankara spent a lot of en­ergy fight­ing il­lit­er­acy, hunger and the op­pres­sion of women. He was also very crit­i­cal of men who op­pressed women es­pe­cially in their own fam­i­lies, ar­gu­ing that “the new kind of woman must not live with the old kind of man”.

Mr. Sankara ex­em­pli­fied a hum­ble lead­er­ship style that in­cluded shar­ing flights with other African heads of state in­stead of us­ing pri­vate jets; and sleep­ing on mat­tresses on the floor at Burk­ina’s em­bassies around the world rather than spend­ing money on ho­tels. Money, he felt, should not be squan­dered on un­nec­es­sary ex­penses, but in­stead put to­wards bet­ter use such as ed­u­ca­tion and other so­cial projects.

“Such lack of os­ten­ta­tion in Burk­in­abé of­fi­cials’ travel did not di­min­ish the power of their mes­sages. For some ob­servers, it even en­hanced their im­pact,” Mr. Harsch writes. “Sankara left a mark be­yond his own coun­try. Dur­ing vis­its else­where in Africa or at in­ter­na­tional meet­ings, his speeches struck lis­ten­ers with their force­ful­ness and clar­ity. His frank crit­i­cisms of the poli­cies of some of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tions were all the more no­table com­ing from a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a small, poor land­locked state that few had pre­vi­ously heard of.”

The 163-page bi­og­ra­phy has nine chap­ters that in­clude in­ter­views with the late rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing read about a leader who not only led a revo­lu­tion to free his peo­ple from French col­o­niza­tion, but also lived a sim­ple and hum­ble life, un­cor­rupted by the power of the of­fice he held.

Mr. Harsch’s book is part of the Ohio Short His­to­ries of Africa se­ries of “in­for­ma­tive and concise guides, lively bi­ogra­phies, and suc­cinct in­tro­duc­tions to im­por­tant top­ics in African his­tory per­fectly suited for the class­room.”

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