A news broadcast from 17 November 1986 shows François Mitterrand and Thomas Sankara at an official dinner in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Sankara had taken power in a military coup three years before. In the clip he is on his feet delivering a speech and Mitterrand is seated. Sankara has established a radical social programme that aims to modernise his country and lead it out of the feudalism and neo-colonialism which, he believes, has beleaguered it since independence in 1960. He has changed the name of the former French colony, previously known as Upper Volta. He favours self-reliance over foreign aid. His revolution, he often says, requires discipline and commitment. It is backed by the overwhelming majority: all being well, they will become the architects of their own happiness. ‘Dare to invent the future,’ he proclaims. ‘When the people stand up, imperialism trembles!’ Sankara is a soldier. He wants to combat corruption. He is also an environmentalist: he has planted ten million trees. There will be no true revolution, he says, without women’s emancipation, and at his rallies the crowds chant, ‘Down with men who beat their wives.’
When he came to power in Burkina Faso, a small West African country with a population at the time of eight million, he cut the presidential salary, and then the salaries of ministers and public servants, who ceased being chauffeured around in Mercedes. He jogged unaccompanied. He had no patience for waverers and doubters. Teachers were sacked when they went on strike, trade unionists were harassed by popular committees and eventually banned. Western NGOs took note of the summary executions and other human rights abuses carried out by his regime; his revolutionary tribunals denied legal representation to the accused. He carried a pistol with a mother of pearl handle, but other than that was known for his frugality.
At the dinner with Mitterrand he is dressed in a royal blue captain’s jacket with gold braid at the cuffs and the neck. He speaks without notes, his hands clasped behind his back. Mitterrand, by contrast, is drab and impassive in an ashen suit and tie. He looks straight ahead. He has only recently arrived from Bamako in Mali, by Concorde.
After discussing Palestine, Nicaragua, Iran and Iraq, Sankara turns to the apartheid regime and its military involvement in Mozambique and Angola. He berates the brazen insouciance of the French, who have no qualms about receiving visits from white supremacists and their allies: ‘And so it is in this context, Monsieur François Mitterrand, that we have not understood how bandits such as Jonas Savimbi, killers like Pieter Botha, have had the right to rove across France … They have stained it with their hands and with their feet, which are covered in blood. And all those who have allowed them to act as they have will carry the full responsibility, here and elsewhere, today and for ever.’
The film cuts to Mitterrand, who has risen to respond. If he may be permitted to speak from the heights of his experience, he says, Sankara talks with the fine bravery of youth, but his tongue is too sharp and he goes too far. François places an avuncular hand on Thomas’s shoulder. Sankara laughs but doesn’t look up.
Less than a year later, in October 1987, Thomas Sankara was shot dead in his office along with 12 of his aides during a coup led by his former friend Blaise Compaoré and backed by France. Attempts to investigate the details of his death have never got anywhere, but before dawn the following morning the corpses had been buried in a common grave. According to James Brooke, an American journalist who was in Burkina at the time, the burial was so hasty that mourners were able to dip their handkerchiefs in pools of blood draining from the grave.
In October Burkinabés wrested the presidency away from Blaise Compaoré, who’d assumed it on the day of the killings. A large crowd (some put it at a million) marched on the parliament, stormed it and set it alight. @Burkina24 tweeted a photo. ‘The protesters sat in the seats of parliament,’ the caption read, ‘shouting “the National Assembly, it is for the people.”’ Burkina Faso radio announced the end of Compaoré’s regime at around noon on 30 October and an official resignation – as though things had not gone beyond official resignations – followed the next day.
One of the most interesting features of the insurrection was the re-emergence of Sankara. There were references to him everywhere, notably on street banners: ‘Sankara, look at your sons. We continue your fight.’ At the forefront were a number of Burkinabé musicians involved with the collective Balai Citoyen, or ‘citizens’ broom’, a movement intended to sweep away corruption and clean up public life. The reggae artist Sams’k Le Jah said to me that ‘the truths of Thomas Sankara’ were flourishing again, and the rap artist Smockey, who founded Balai last year, described the former president as ‘sweeper number one’: ‘he represents all the qualities we ask for … courage, application, honesty, integrity, curiosity.’
Appeals to Sankara’s memory extend beyond Burkina Faso. ‘We are all sons of Thomas Sankara,’ I was told by Fadel Barro, the co-ordinator of Y’en a marre, a youth movement in Senegal. Y’en a marre inspired the protests that pushed the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade from power in 2012. Like Compaoré in Burkina Faso, Wade had sought to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term in office. ‘We’d rather be sons of Thomas Sankara,’ Barro explained, ‘than sons of Blaise Compaoré. We are all sons of Patrice Lumumba because we prefer to be sons of Patrice Lumumba to sons of Mobutu. But we also think we can do better than … Thomas Sankara; we think we can do better than Nelson Mandela.’ He invoked a generation of young Africans who don’t want to migrate, or beg, or live in dictatorships, or wait at the end of the queue in a global hierarchy of rich and poor. ‘We are in contact with young people all over Africa … the work continues.’ In Burkina, Sams’k spoke of young Africans building ‘a ladder across the continent’.
The logistical obstacles are obvious: it remains difficult for Africans to get visas; travel on the continent is time-consuming and expensive; communications infrastructure is patchy. In some places younger people have nothing like the political education of Burkinabés, and social media – for those who can access them – are not the panacea we liked to imagine at the start of the Arab Spring. But the real difficulty is the scale of the project: there are 200 million Africans between the ages of 15 and 24. Given the differences in language, nationality, gender, race and so on, the best any movement can hope for is to speak on behalf of some of them.
Balai Citoyen consider the overthrow of Compaoré as a victory for popular sovereignty. They talk of remaining mobilised, whatever happens next. The outlines of a government are beginning to emerge, and there are some grounds for optimism. After domestic negotiations and threats from the African Union, a transitional president, Michel Kafando, has been appointed. Some are wary: Kafando was a diplomat under Compaoré and in that sense he represents the old guard; many more are relieved at the end of a brief but worrying military interlude. On 1 November Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida took charge and declared himself head of state, overruling another general who had staked a claim. For a moment it looked as though a tussle in the mess-room was going to determine the country’s future, but Kafando’s appointment appears to have seen off the army for the moment.