Thomas Sankara was the central leader of the 1983-87 popular revolution in Burkina Faso. This is the 30th anniversary of his assassination, which marked the fall of the revolutionary democratic government he led. The annual conference brings together people from many countries and a broad range of backgrounds to discuss and debate the legacy of one of the great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, who is an example for workers and youth in Burkina Faso, in Africa and worldwide.
Five of Sankara’s brothers and sisters — Paul, Pascal and Pauline, who live in Washington, and Colette and Florence, who live in Burkina Faso — participated in the meeting. More than 100 people attended, almost half from West Africa.
“The conference on Sankara is for the Africa of today,” said Gnaka Lagoke, the event’s main organizer and chair. Lagoke, a native of the Ivory Coast, is founder of the Revival of Panafricanism Forum and an assistant professor of history and Pan Africana Studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
“The people’s movement has been in the streets for months in Togo seeking to end the dynasty’s rule,” Lagoke said, describing anti-government protests against President Faure Gnassingbé and 50 years of his family’s supremacy. “In Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal — something new is going on in Africa.”
The panel, entitled “Pan-Africanism Today: A Time for Transcontinental Cooperation from South Africa to Colombia,” featured Brian Peterson, associate professor at Union College in New York; Faye Joomay, deputy coordinator of the Pan-Africanist Federalist Movement; Sean Blackmon, ANSWER Coalition; Selome Gerima, an Ethiopian writer and film producer; and Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press.
The program also included a performance of African dance and began with a short video of Fernando González, president of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), addressing delegates at the Fifth Continental Africa Conference in Solidarity with Cuba in Windhoek, Namibia, in June.
González was one of five Cuban revolutionaries who served nearly 16 years in U.S. prisons, framed by Washington on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage.
“This week we also celebrate the life and legacy of Ernesto Che Guevara on the 50th anniversary of his death in combat in Bolivia ordered by the CIA,” said Omari Musa of the Socialist Workers Party in D.C., who introduced the video. “Sankara and Guevara both sought to organize the ‘wretched of the earth’ to rise up against imperialism, to take power in their hands and make their own destiny.”
Most of the speakers focused on Sankara’s personal characteristics and his role as a political figure in Africa.
“Calling Sankara the ‘African Che’ decontextualizes Sankara,” said Brian Peterson, addressing Musa and referring to a label that many have pinned on Sankara. “Sankara was fundamentally nonviolent. He tried to transform society peacefully. He explained at the United Nations that the goal of the revolution was two meals a day and water for every Burkinabe. Of course, we know that Che fought the revolution internationally. Young Africans were drawn to Sankara, because he was an African leader.”
As a youth in Senegal in 1985, Faye Joomay said, he went to Burkina Faso to learn from Sankara. “Sankara showed what is possible through his example, and the witch hunt against his supporters after his death proves that his ideas had sunk roots,” he noted. “We became Pan-Africanists and use his ideas today as we campaign for the unity and sovereignty of African states.”
“Today we are seeing a resurgence of self-determination struggles experimenting with radical democracy across the African world — from the cooperative movement in Jackson, Mississippi, to South Africa with the Economic Freedom Fighters,” said ANSWER’s Sean Blackmon. “We see Sankara’s influence in the EFF’s opposition to sexism, homophobia and all the other oppressive ideologies.”
Selome Gerima drew from the diary she kept when she lived in Burkina Faso from 1984 to 1989, saying, “President Sankara was tender, friendly. He lived simply. He rode a bicycle, did his own grocery shopping, picked up his kids from school.” She concluded her remarks by asking, “Who killed brother Sankara? Was it Compaoré or was it the enemy of Africa — imperialism who used him as a tool?”
Mary-Alice Waters, who wrote the prefaces to Thomas Sankara Speaks and two other collections of his speeches, the only places where you can find his political contributions collected in print, explained that Sankara was a Marxist, a communist, and an internationalist who had confidence in the revolutionary capacities of ordinary men and women.
“Sankara stood out among several generations of revolutionary leaders in Africa in refusing to reject Marxism on the pretext that it’s a ‘European idea’ alien to the people of Africa and their struggles,” she said. “He came to that conclusion from his own experiences and the struggles of his people. He knew that communism isn’t an ‘idea,’ but the line of march of working people to conquer their emancipation.”
“One of the measures of the stature of Thomas Sankara was the importance he gave to the struggles of women,” she said. “Both women and men are victims of imperialist oppression and capitalist exploitation. The revolution and women’s liberation go together.”
“And of course Thomas Sankara was an internationalist. That’s the basis on which Sankara led Burkina Faso’s working people to become part of the fight to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa and identify with the battles waged by the people of Angola,, Namibia, Western Sahara, Palestine, Nicaragua, Grenada and the United States,” she said.
“He identified above all with the Cuban Revolution,” she said, “because it provides a beacon for what is possible for working people to accomplish when they take power in their own hands.”
Thanking participants for coming, Paul Sankara pointed to the importance of the popular mobilizations across Burkina Faso that forced President Blaise Compaoré out of power in 2014. He noted that “Thomas Sankara said even if you kill me, thousands of Sankaras will be reborn.” Compaoré led the counterrevolutionary forces that assassinated Sankara in 1987.
The meeting was endorsed by the Africa World Now Project, All-African People Revolutionary Party, ANSWER Coalition, Black Alliance for Peace, Friends of the Congo, Institute for Policy Studies, Pan-African Community Action, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Revival of Panafricanism Forum, and the Socialist Workers Party.
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