Protesters pose with a police shield outside the parliament in Ouagadougou on October 30, 2014. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images Protesters pose with a police shield outside the parliament in Ouagadougou on October 30, 2014. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

The uprising of the masses in Burkina Faso proves western arms and support doesn’t guranatee unrestrained tyrannical control writes Explo Nani-Kofi [1]

‘While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.’
Thomas Sankara

The recent uprising of the masses in Burkina Faso should be a lesson for those who think that being armed to teeth and supported by the western military powers means unrestrained tyrannical control of their countries.

Despite French and US military presence and political intolerance of opposition, the myth surrounding one of Africa’s long serving tyrants has been broken by the masses of working people showing what people’s power is.

The Compaore government in Burkina had become a major ally of the west in its war on terror targeting islamist militants. France launched its supposed anti-terrorist programme making Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, one of its bases just in August 2014.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa with an area of 274,200 square kilometres (105,900 square miles), It is bordered to the east by Niger; Benin to the south-east; Ghana, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire to the south and then Mali to the west and to the north. It was a French colony before independence on 5th August 1960 when it became known as Upper Volta until it was renamed Burkina Faso on 4th August 1984 by the then President Thomas Sankara.

The organised working class

Historically, Burkina Faso has had a very influential and powerful organised working class. The first post-independence government was brought down in 1966 by a series of strikes and demonstrations by students, labour unions and civil servants eventually leading the military intervening.

Lt Sangoule Lamizana who headed the military government was kept in power with the support of the labour unions and civil groups into the 1970s and was even elected as a civilian President with that support. It was when he got to loggerheads with the country’s traditionally powerful trade unions that his government fell in a bloodless coup d’etat.

Col Saye Zerbo overthrew Lamizana in 1980 but when he encountered opposition from the trade unions he was overthrown by Major Jean-Baptiste Ouedrago within two years (in 1982).

When it appeared as the government’s anti-labour drift played a role in the overthrow of Ouedrago in 1983 and the installation of the progressive regime of Captain Thomas Sankara. Even when the progressive Sankara regime fell out with the trade unionists and civil servants it provided a fertile ground for Compaore to capitalise on to overthrow and assassinate Thomas Sankara and his twelve other lieutenants.


In 1976, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Henri Zongo, Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaore formed the “Communist Officers’ Group” within the armed forces in Burkina Faso. One of their members, Thomas Sankara, was appointed Secretary of State for Information in a military government in 1981 but resigned in 1982 for what he saw as the government’s anti-labour drift.

Sankara was again appointed Prime Minister in another military government in January 1983. Sankara was the leading figure in the “Communist Officers’ Group” and had read the works of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin in early 1970s and this was to influence the rest of his life. Sankara was from the least advantaged section of the ethnic Mossi caste system in the country and his father who fought in the French army during the Second World War was a imprisoned by the Nazis during the war.

There was in-fighting between radicals and moderates in the government which led to the dismissal of Thomas Sankara in May 1983 – and also because of his revolutionary rhetoric which the French were uncomfortable with.

Sankara was placed under house arrest together with Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani and Henri Zongo whilst Blaise Compaore was not touched.

There was an uprising which led to their release and a coup d’etat on 4 August 1983 and Thomas Sankara became the President and in effect the government of the “Communist Officers’ Group”.

The Sankara regime

One coincidence which should be noted all along in the history of the nation is how the organised working people and the progressive soldiers have been on the same path with regards to the post-colonial arrangements of governance.

On the anniversary of the radical regime coming into office, it changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso which means “Land of Incorruptible People”.

Domestic Policy

During the rule of Thomas Sankara, he led the country with a revolutionary orientation of self-reliance.

To change the colonial political system and draw ordinary people into decision-making, the regime introduced Cuban-style Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and alongside them Popular Revolutionary Tribunals trying cases of corruption.

The government embarked on a programme of self-reliance. It worked for agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, carried out a nation-wide literacy campaign and in the field of health vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. It organised the planting of ten million trees to check the spread of the desert in the Sahel zone.

Wheat production was doubled when the government redistributed land from landlords to peasant farmers as well as suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents.

Sankara called on every community and mobilised them to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour.

With his commitment to women’s rights he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy. He appointed women to high governmental positions and encouraged them to work outside the home as well as encouraging them to be in school even when they were pregnant. He formed an all women motor cycling personal guard.

Sankara said:

“The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”[2]

With a politics of modesty and against opulence, he sold the government fleet of Mercedes Benz cars and the cheapest car sold in the country at that time, Renault 5, became the official service car for ministers.

He reduced the salaries of well-off public servants, including that of himself, and forbade the use government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets for officials. He forced well-off public servants to contribute one month’s salary to public projects. Corrupt officials were tried and punished. He discouraged the hanging of his portrait in offices contrary to what other heads of states ensured.

Foreign Policy

Sankara was an internationalist, Pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist. He was an admirer of Fidel Castro-led revolution in Cuba. He championed the campaign for the cancellation of the odious debt of developing nations.

On the forum of the Organisation for African Unity, he questioned the neo-colonial penetration of Africa through western trade and finance.

Sankara emphasised the enslavement character of foreign aid and the relationship with the International Monetary Fund as well as the World Bank. He called for a united front of African countries to repudiate their foreign debt. He steered his country out of the orbit of control by former colonial power, France, and therefore incurring the displeasure of France.

Sankara’s overthrow

In 1987 Sankara fell out with trade unionists who had been his allies in the past. In 1984, a strike by teachers led to the dismissal of 2,500 teachers. It was also reported that a number of trade unionists were arrested and tortured in 1987.

On 15 October 1987, Thomas Sankara, together with twelve other colleagues of his were killed in a coup d’etat led by his former colleague, Blaise Compaore.

After the coup, Blaise Compaore appeared to be heading a triumvirate with his two other colleagues of the “Communist Officers’ Group” – Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani and Henri Zongo.

On 18 September 1989, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Henri Zongo and two other officers were arrested, alleged to be plotting to overthrow the regime, and were executed.

It is worth pointing out that when members of the “Communist Officers’ Group” were placed under house arrest in 1983, Compaore was the only one among them who was free and now he has killed all his friends who were put under house arrest earlier.

In 1983, it was after the visit to Burkina Faso by the French President’s son and African Affairs Adviser, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, that Sankara and his colleagues were placed under arrest.

When Sankara was overthrown, the usurpers tried to placate all forces alleging the breaking of relations with those who not long ago were friends and in this case they listed trade unionists and militant workers as well as relations with neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire and former colonial power – France.

Era of Blaise Compaore

Gradually, Compaore reversed all the pro-people policies which were developed during the Thomas Sankara era. He reversed nationalisations and brought in the IMF and the World Bank for supposed desperately needed funds.

Blaise Compaore became a major ally of USA and France in the West African sub-region.He became a peace broker and facilitated peace, being the mediator in the Inter-Togolese Dialogue in 2006, in the crisis of Cote d’Ivoire in 2007 and between representatives of Malian coup d’etat and other regional leaders in 2012.

He is also known to have had a hand in the brutal wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone as such being like a double edged knife. He maintained good relations with Muammar Qadhafi of Libya who had been a supporter of the Sankara-led Burkina Faso revolution.

Compaore re-introduced a multi party electoral system. He won elections in 1991 boycotted by the main opposition and in 1998 with a pitifully poor turnout at the polls. Despite this, in 2000, there was a constitutional amendment which reduced the term of office from 7 years to 5 years and also that the President could not serve more than two terms.

Although, Compaore had served two terms the amendment did not apply retroactively so he stood for elections in 2005 and 2010 and was re-elected as President.

On the way out

In 2011, the spring was not limited to only the Maghreb as the mainstream media made it appear. This view was corrected by the book African Awakening – The Emerging Revolutions by Sokari Ekine and Firoze Manji. Those who missed out on this clarification may be surprised about what has happened in Burkina Faso now.

In April 2011, there was a mutiny of soldiers over unpaid housing allowances in Ouagadougou, the capital of the country, leading to Compaore fleeing to his home town of Ziniare.

The mutiny followed demonstrations over rising prices in various cities across Burkina Faso.

Students also demonstrated in February 2011 over the death of a student in police custody and further shooting of students during demonstrations resulting in the death of 5 students.

On 22nd April 2011, 35 opposition political parties called for a rally to demand the resignation of Compaore as President. In the same month, farmers protested in the second largest city, Bobo Dioulassou, over low prices.

Merchants rioted in another town, Koudougou, over the closure of shops due to unpaid rent and the house of the mayor of Koudougou as well as the police station were burned during the riots.

Later on the same day, riot police joined a widespread mutiny in the capital, Ouagadougou.

At the 30th April rally, there were over 3,000 protesters and some carried signs comparing Compaore with Tunisian ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – who was toppled in January through demonstrations in Tunisia. There were mutinies and deaths in the month of May as well. A living protest movement had been built during the year.

When it appeared to Compaore that the protests had subsided, he established a 68-member committee to consider changes to the constitution. Spokespeople of the protest indicated clearly that they would not collaborate with the committee. An attempt to amend the constitution to allow him to contest an election for a fifth term was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, provoking the recent uprising.


The masses’ uprising started on 29th October 2014. On 30 October, tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets and burnt government buildings, including the city hall, the ruling Congress of Democracy and Progress (CDP) party headquarters, and parts of the National Assembly. The state radio and television station was also stormed. A number of people died in the violence as police and soldiers tried to stop the uprising.

Violent protests occurred in the second largest city Bobo Dioulasso and in the northern city of Ouahigouya.

The constitutional proposals were withdrawn, but Compaore, imposing a state of emergency, declared that he was going to stay in office and have a year transition in which he was prepared to consult with the opposition – something he didn’t find necessary to do for 27 years. He might not have seen that it was too little, too late.

By 31 October, Compaore finally resigned and fled the country. Later, General Honore Traore, the army chief, declared that he was heading the transitional government but a counter-announcement came from Lt Col Isaac Yacouba Zida, the second-in-command of the presidential guard, that instead he was the one heading the transitional government.

About 1,000 people gathered on Sunday 2nd November to demand a civilian and democratic transition a day after the military announced that the lieutenant colonel was in charge.

It is interesting to note that the French troops made no attempt to protect Compaore, reinforcing the known reality that the west has permanent interests and not permanent friends. However, French President François Hollande admitted that France had facilitated the evacuation of Compaoré, and urged the military to hand power to a civilian authority.

The African Union chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has also called for a civilian-led transition.

There is the danger of the military hijacking the struggle for which the masses have fought and even died for. To prevent this will not depend on just Burkinabes but all progressive Africans and the masses as well as all internationalists.

Lessons and the future

Let us mobilise in solidarity with the masses in Burkina Faso so that they wouldn’t have toiled for the same forces who misruled the country together with Compaore to take over.

One point which comes up as a lesson is the initiation of a revolution from the belly of the neo-colonial army.

The internal conflict between radical and moderate forces could not be solved in any civil way and clashes with the organised working class provided an opportunity for reaction to take advantage bringing to an end one of the most ambitious attempts at reforming and re-organising the neo-colonial state in Africa.

There doesn’t seem to be a way out as any rectification here seems to be channelled into legacy politics which is more about emotions than structure, principles and agreed programme.

There are 3 political parties specifically called Sankarist after Thomas Sankara and it is likely there are more which may not be specifically called so or groups within parties which will all be claiming the legacy.

With the naming of Michel Kafando, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, as Transitional President, and his appointment of Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida, who had earlier declared himself acting head of state, as Prime Minister, it appears as if a deal is being knocked together which tilts in favour of the old ruling class and not the masses of demonstrators.

With the coordination of Kilombo Network to which I belong, twenty-one Pan-Africanist organisations have signed a solidarity statement to address this crisis, available in English, French and Portuguese.


[1] This is an updated and extended version of an article originally published on 3 November 2014

[2]We are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions’, Lessons from Thomas Sankara, by Akinyemi Adeseye, May 15, 2010

Explo Nani-Kofi

Explo Nani-Kofi is Societal Affairs Analyst and Social Justice Practitioner. He was born in Ghana where he started his activist as a grass root organizer for popular democracy. He coordinated the Campaign Against Proxy War in Africa and the IMF-World Bank Wanted For Fraud Campaign. He is a member of Counterfire and Director of the Kilombo Centre for Civil Society and African Self-Determination, in Peki, Ghana and London, UK.

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