The Ghost Of Thomas Sankara And Burkina Faso’s Fantasy Of A Romance With Russia

Thomas Sankara
The Ghosts Of Thomas Thomas Sankara and John Jerry Rawlings

“The judges have done their jobs and I am satisfied. Of course, I wished that the main suspects would be here before the judges. It’s not good that people kill people and stop the process of the development of a country without being punished!” – Mrs. Mariam Sankara, at the sentencing of Blaise Compaore, in absentia, to life imprisonment for the 1987 assassination of Thomas Sankara; on April 6, 2022

Mariam Sankara

The news of another coup in Burkina Faso on Friday, September 30, 2022, was mostly received with indifference and equanimity, “Oh. There they go again!” Capt. Ibrahim Traore replaced Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba as head of state.


Traore’s reason for this coup was: insecurity. Damiba was in power only for eight months after overthrowing the elected government of President Christian Kabore. Damiba’s reason for that coup: insecurity.

President Kabore had seven years to defeat the Islamic insurgency but failed.

However, pictures soon emerged of citizens protesting in front of the French embassy in Ouagadougou and waving Russian flags. Observers around Africa were at first puzzled, but that was then quickly followed by alarm. Russia would be considered by most people to be a poor choice of a place to look to for redemption.

But the tragedy and devastation on an industrial scale that was French colonization, and the role France has continued to play after independence to keep Burkina Faso an unstable dependency, is a travesty. It is understandable then if Burkinabes, bearing that unrelieved historical burden alone, have come to feel that they had nowhere to turn to but Russia.


The journey to this psychological place of desperation for the people started on October 15, 1987, when Blaise Compaore murdered Capt. Thomas Sankara, and took over power in Burkina Faso. Sankara was in power for a little over four years, but his was a purposeful and visionary leadership:

He put a system in place to reduce government wastage and spending by concentrating the civil service and rationalizing wages and perks
He operated a balanced budget and cut down on internal and external borrowing
He initiated policies to regulate the mining of gold and other precious metals in order to maximize returns – taxes and royalties – on the nation’s natural capital and use same to fund social programmes
He embarked on ambitious social programmes in education and healthcare in order to generate and add value to the human capital that will drive development
He embarked on infrastructural projects, modelled on America’s Public Works Administration during the Great Depression, to bypass contract awards and the ten-percenters, in order to deliver cost-effective projects completed by direct pay labour; and reduce youth unemployment
He negotiated with the French to review Burkina participation in CFA Franc
He called for a cancellation of dubious loans owed French financial agencies
He called for back-dated payments for past injustices and past trade malpractices
He caused to be changed the name of his beautiful country from Upper Volta – with all its colonial connotations and baggage to Burkina Faso – the land of Upright People (in the dialects of the Mossi and Dioula peoples) – in other to give a great sense of dignity, self-worth, and of community to his people
Finally, Sankara sought: to steer an independent and thoughtful foreign policy for Burkina Faso; to seek alliances with other nations on more favourable mutually beneficial terms; and to prepare his people for a robust participation in the global economy.


“The origins of debts come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies … Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules.” – Thomas Sankara at the OAU Summit in Addis Ababa; July 29, 1987. Read the full speech in the Thomas Sankara Internet Archive

Thomas Sankara did not write a book, so we can only track his original economic thoughts by threading his speeches at home and on the world stage – at the UN General Assembly, AU, ECOWAS, and other fora. He thought Africa’s debt burden was a systematic trap made possible by unfair and unjust diplomatic, monetary, and trade relations between Europe and Africa. These relations were set up during the era of slavery and perfected during colonialism. For Sankara, the aim of contemporary French policy in Burkina Faso was to perpetuate this inequitable system. He thought that Burkina should have more control over her own monetary policies with a proper review of the modalities of her participation in the CFA Franc currency union.

CFA Franc is convertible currency acceptable in the eight Francophone countries in West Africa. It is tied at a fixed rate to the French Franc or Euro. It requires 50% of Burkina’s foreign reserves to be held in Bank de France, Paris. Ndongo Samba Sylla calls it the “last colonial currency in activity”. To be sure, CFA Franc has its advantages: it brings exchange rate stability to a currency which permits better economic planning; it has anti-inflationary mechanisms built in; and it assumes the entire Francophone West Africa as its free trade zone.

It is safe to say that this economic union was a precursor and framework for ECOWAS.

But CFA Franc comes also with its inherent drawbacks – it limits growth, it limits access to capital from other sources, and gives an undeserved and an unearned place of favoured trading partner to France. It was evident to anyone with an enquiring mind – as Sankara would argue with his interlocutors – that running monetary policy from Paris would almost certainly be inimical to Burkina’s interest every single time. For instance: a good policy to rein in inflation in France would be a disincentive to GDP growth in the homeland; or again, a good policy to make consumer goods manufactured in France internationally competitive, would be a bad policy for the price of cash crops harvested in Burkina Faso and earmarked for export with no value added.

Such moral clarity of thought and economic sagacity by Sankara was too much for the French and the conflicted African elite who do their bidding. So they labelled him a revolutionary Marxist and put a bounty on his head.


“You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man die than for the whole nation to perish!” – Caiaphas

It’s a sad and tragic thing that Cote d’Ivoire’s Felix-Houphouet Boigny, with his Catholic minor seminary schooling, “realized” what had to be done to save French interests in neighbouring Burkina Faso. He conspired with President Francois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, and they recruited Capt. Blaise Campaore to extinguish the light in Ouagadougou.

Thereafter, Campaore ruled Burkina Faso for 27 years during which he reversed all Sankara’s authentic policy initiatives, and went in the opposite direction to confirm his country as a French dependency. He was chased from power in 2014 by popular protests with songs describing him as an affliction of Ebola virus on the Burkinabe people. He was poised to amend the constitution to perpetuate himself in office. A little over a year later, in January 2016, a major terrorist attack in Burkina Faso took place at Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Café. Both were popular destinations for aliens and tourists. Thirty people died and seventy were wounded. That signaled the beginning of the reckoning of history for Campaore’s poor stewardship.

Insecurity is the new norm in Burkina Faso from one end to the other.


The French, like the British in Nigeria, have a permanent interest in Burkina Faso: The outward flow of Burkina Faso’s natural resources – gold and cash crops. And France’s permanent agency for this natural capital flight and consequent pauperization of their former colony are Burkinabe elite and army officers. The elite are trained in the best traditions of French schooling on the Metropolitan Curriculum with the singular purpose of assimilating the Burkinabe into a greater French union. In other words, the curriculum taught in schools in Paris and Ouagadougou were the same. The education policy and philosophy of the French Fourth Republic, which had oversight of foreign territories beginning from the period after World War 11, was to create French citizens of African descent whose loyalties and responsibilities were primarily to the Mother Nation.

The earliest nationalists and political leaders of Upper Volta were so trained – Maurice Yameogo, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Gerard Kango Ouedrago, Christopher Kalenzaga, among others. Part of the preparation for these politicians to lead their people into a cultural, political, and monetary union with France was selection to serve in parliament abroad. In fact, Upper Volta’s first president, Daniel Ouezzin Coulibaly, once served as a representative in the French National Assembly, in Paris. To put that in perspective, imagine for a minute that Chief Obafemi Awolowo or Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had served in the House of Commons.

But, those re-conditioned minds, products of the French educational system, didn’t go into politics alone. They were the ones exclusively recruited into the civil service, teacher training corps, seminaries, and the military academies. These then were the vanguard of the agency France had in Burkina Faso to protect their interests at the opportunity cost of robbing Burkinabes of their own destiny and vision. The words of Thomas Sankara’s widow, Mariam, captured it at the sentencing of Campaore, “… to stop the process of the development of a country …” Though she mourned her husband, as her children mourned their father, but above all she mourned a land of promise she had once glimpsed but which has seemed to recede into the horizon as the years have gone by.

All of that when taken in context explains why the Burkinabe reacted by protesting at the French embassy.


Thomas Sankara had a vision…

“The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The Black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.” – Nelson Mandela

France had betrayed the trust of the people of Burkina Faso. Burkinabes do not need anyone to read out human developmental indexes to them in order to get a sense of their own quality of life. They live it out daily in the hunger and insecurity of their land. Nigerians of goodwill share their pain for we are – for better or for worse  – at the same place of desperation. We see also Nigeria’s promise of greatness frittered away by Britain’s permanent agency for the malpractice of governance in Nigeria. This week the managers of the downstream and upstream sectors of our crude oil industry announced that they had discovered an illegal pipeline that had been used to steal oil for the past nine years. Reuters gives it the colourful connotation of a “theft line” that runs direct from the oil wells to the loading barges at sea.

‘Tis but organized crime that reaches from government to foreign corporations, and the military.

A day after the Ibrahim Traore coup in Ouagadougou, Nigerians at home and in the diaspora celebrated Independence Day in rallies that turned out to be offerings of love for the Peter Obi and Yusuf Datti-Ahmed campaign for the 2023 presidential elections. Nigerians were united in the hope that it was possible to birth a New Nigeria. For the first time, we have a presidential candidate who have the courage of his convictions: Peter Obi has called out what is happening at our upstream sector as “it can only be done officially”.

The talk of a man of courage in Nigeria – as it was once so in Burkina Faso – is hopeful news indeed. But we must remember always how the vanguard to overthrow the people’s lofty aspirations in Burkina Faso was formed. It’s time to claim Madiba’s blessing.

Albert Ik Ngene, Prime Business Africa‘s Public Interest Analyst, writes from Atlanta.


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