Thomas Sankara: 30-year Anniversary

Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara a Ouagadougou

Today marks the 30-year anniversary of the death of Thomas Sankara, our African Che.  The first article I ever wrote on this blog was on Thomas Sankara, Thomas Sankara, The African Che. To me, Thomas Sankara is one of the most charismatic, selfless, dedicated, and beautiful African leaders of all times. And I love his sense of humor, and humility. He may not have had a perfect time in power, but what I am certain of, is the deep love he had for his country, his people, and for the whole of Africa. Imagine, someone who renames his country and people to empower them, from Haute Volta to Burkina Faso, the land of the upright man. I would also like to thank the people running the website entirely dedicated to his memory, thomassankara.net; I raise my hat to them, and their tireless work throughout the years.

Here is a summary of Thomas Sankara‘s actions in his 4 years of power. These are taken from thomassankara.net. For the full article, check out Full facts about Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso . Enjoy the video below!

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Guerrillero Heroico
Picture taken by Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960, at the La Coubre memorial service

After renaming his country Burkina Faso, here are Thomas Sankara’s accomplishments, [after] ONLY 4 YEARS in power (198387).

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (21 December 194915 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.

– He vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in a matter of weeks.
– He initiated a nation-wide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987.
– He planted over 10 million trees to prevent desertification
He built roads and a railway to tie the nation together, without foreign aid
– He appointed females to high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education.
– He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy in support of Women’s rights

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Flag of Burkina Faso

– He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
– He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.
– He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants. Wheat production rose in three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient.
He opposed foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, controls you.”

Thomas Sankara
Thomas Sankara

– He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity [Thomas Sankara Speech on Debt and Unityagainst continued neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. • He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.[Thomas Sankara’s Speech at the United Nations / Discours de Thomas Sankara aux Nations Unies]
– In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).
He forced civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.
– He refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.

Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso

– As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.
– A motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
– He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic (the Faso Dan Fani), woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. (The reason being to rely upon local industry and identity rather than foreign industry and identity)
– When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”
– An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.

Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Cuba in the Independence of African Countries

Amilcar Cabral
Amilcar Cabral

To continue with our theme of the week, I will leave you here with a video showing Cuba’s African victory, first with Amilcar Cabral and the people of Guinea Bissau, and then with Agostinho Neto in Angola, leading to the independence of both countries through long struggles against imperialism. This later also led to the liberation of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the independence of Namibia! There was a ripple effect! Countless other African countries benefited in some other ways, as well: medical training from Cuba, soldiers’ training, and much more.

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Ernesto Che Guevara

Enjoy! Bear in mind, as I said earlier, that Ernesto Che Guevara’s failed Congo expedition had been decisive in making these Cuban and African victories realities.

Ernesto Che Guevara’s Letter to Fidel Castro about Congo

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Guerrillero Heroico
Picture taken by Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960 at the La Coubre memorial service

Here are excerpts from the letter of Che Guevara to Fidel Castro about his time and recommendations for Congo. For the full letter and more information, visit The Guardian, and read the book The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Guevara and Aleida Guevara.

Che Guevara’s words, “we can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight; you’ve got to create a fighting spirit and look for soldiers with the torch of Diogenes and the patience of Job, ” still ring true today. We’ve got to create a fighting spirit. My question to you readers is, HOW? How do you instill in people a ‘fighting spirit’?

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Congo, 5/10/65

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Fidel Castro

Dear Fidel

I received your letter, which has aroused contradictory feelings in me – for in the name of proletarian internationalism, we are committing mistakes that may prove very costly. I am also personally worried that, either because I have failed to write with sufficient seriousness or because you do not fully understand me, I may be thought to be suffering from the terrible disease of groundless pessimism.

When your Greek gift [Emilio Aragonés, a member of the Cuban central committee] arrived here, he told me that one of my letters had given the impression of a condemned gladiator, and the [Cuban health] minister [José Ramón Machado Ventura], in passing on your optimistic message, confirmed the opinion that you were forming.

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Map of the Congo in 1964. The territory affected by the Simba rebellion is in red and the Kwilu rebellion in yellow. (Wikipedia)

You will be able to speak at length with the bearer of this letter who will tell you his firsthand impressions after visiting much of the front; for this reason I will dispense with anecdotes. I will just say to you that, according to people close to me here, I have lost my reputation for objectivity by maintaining a groundless optimism in the face of the actual situation. I can assure you that were it not for me, this fine dream would have collapsed with catastrophe all around.

In my previous letters, I asked to be sent not many people but cadres; there is no real lack of arms here (except for special weapons) – indeed there are too many armed men; what is lacking are soldiers. I especially warned that no more money should be given out unless it was with a dropper and after many requests. None of what I said has been heeded, and fantastic plans have been made which threaten to discredit us internationally and may land me in a very difficult position.

I shall now explain to you.

Soumialot [Gaston Soumialot, president of the Supreme Council of the Revolution] and his comrades have been leading you all right up the garden path. It would be tedious to list the huge number of lies they have spun.

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Mulele (third from the right) with the Lumumba Government, 1960

There are two zones where something of an organised revolution exists – the one where we ourselves are, and part of Kasai province (the great unknown quantity) where Mulele [Pierre Mulele, former minister under Patrice Lumumba and the first leader to take up arms] is based.

In the rest of the country there are bands living in the forest, not connected to one another; they lost everything without a fight, as they lost Stanleyville without a fight. More serious than this, however, is the way in which the groups in this area (the only one with contacts to the outside) relate to one another.

The dissensions between  Kabila [then second vice-president of the Supreme Council of the Revolution and head of the eastern front where Guevara was] and Soumialot are becoming more serious all the time, and are used as a pretext to keep handing towns over without a fight. I know Kabila well enough not to have any illusions about him. I cannot say the same about Soumialot, but I have some indications such as the string of lies he has been feeding you, the fact that he does not deign to come to these godforsaken parts, his frequent bouts of drunkenness in Dar es Salaam, where he lives in the best hotels, and the kind of people he has as allies here against the other group.

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Laurent-Desire Kabila

Recently a group from the Tshombist [pro-government] army landed, in the Baraka area (where a major-general loyal to Soumialot has no fewer than a thousand armed men) and captured this strategically important place almost without a fight. Now they are arguing about who was to blame – those who did not put up a fight, or those at the lake who did not send enough ammunition. The fact is that they shamelessly ran away, ditching in the open a 75mm recoilless gun and two 82 mortars; all the men assigned to these weapons have disappeared, and now they are asking me for Cubans to get them back from wherever they are (no one quite knows where) and to use them in battle.

Nor are they doing anything to defend Fizi, 36km from here; they don’t want to dig trenches on the only access road through the mountains. This will give you a faint idea of the situation. As for the need to choose men well rather than send me large numbers, you and the commissar assure me that the men here are good; I’m sure most of them are – otherwise they’d have quit long ago. But that’s not the point. You have to be really well tempered to put up with the things that happen here. It’s not good men but supermen that are needed…

And there are still my 200; believe me, they would do more harm than good at the present time – unless we decide once and for all to fight alone, in which case we’ll need a division and we’ll have to see how many the enemy put up against us. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration; maybe a battalion would be enough to get back to the frontiers we had when we arrived here and to threaten Albertville.

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37-year-old Guevara, holding a Congolese baby and standing with a fellow Afro-Cuban soldier in the Congo Crisis, 1965

But numbers are not what matters; we can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight; you’ve got to create a fighting spirit and look for soldiers with the torch of Diogenes and the patience of Job – a task that becomes more difficult, the more shits there are doing things along the way.

The business with the money is what hurts me most, after all the warnings I gave. At the height of my “spending spree” and only after they had kicked up a lot of fuss, I undertook to supply one front (the most important one) on condition that I would direct the struggle and form a special mixed column under my direct command, in accordance with the strategy that I outlined and communicated to you.

With a very heavy heart, I calculated that it would require $5,000 a month. Now I learn that a sum 20 times higher is given to people who pass through just once, so that they can live well in all the capitals of the African world, with no allowance for the fact that they receive free board and lodging and often their travel costs from the main progressive countries. Not a cent will reach a wretched front where the peasants suffer every misery you can imagine, including the rapaciousness of their own protectors; nor will anything get through to the poor devils stuck In Sudan. (Whisky and women are not on the list of expenses covered by friendly governments, and they cost a lot if you want quality.)

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Listening to a Zenith Trans-Oceanicshortwave radio receiver are (seated from the left) Rogelio Oliva, José María Martínez Tamayo (known as “Mbili” in the Congo and “Ricardo” in Bolivia), and Guevara. Standing behind them is Roberto Sánchez (“Lawton” in Cuba and “Changa” in the Congo), 1965.

Finally, 50 doctors will give the liberated area of the Congo an enviable proportion of one per thousand inhabitants – a level surpassed only by the USSR, the United States and two or three of the most advanced countries in the world. But no allowance is made for the fact that here they are distributed according to political preference, without a trace of public health organisation. Instead of such gigantism, it would be better to send a contingent of revolutionary doctors and to increase it as I request, along with highly practical nurses of a similar kind.

As the attached map sums up the military situation, I shall limit myself to a few recommendations that I would ask you all to consider objectively: forget all the men in charge of phantom groups; train up to a hundred cadres (not necessarily all blacks)… As for weapons: the new bazooka, percussion caps with their own power supply, a few R-4s and nothing else for the moment; forget about rifles, which won’t solve anything unless they are electronic. Our mortars must be in Tanzania, and with those plus a new complement of men to operate them we would have more than enough for now. Forget about Burundi and tactfully discuss the question of the launches. (Don’t forget that Tanzania is an independent country and we’ve got to play it fair there, leaving aside the little problem I caused.)

Send the mechanics as soon as possible, as well as someone who can steer across the lake reasonably safely; that has been discussed and Tanzania has agreed. Leave me to handle the problem of the doctors, which I will do by giving some of them to Tanzania. Don’t make the mistake again of dishing out money like that; for they cling to me when they feel hard up and certainly won’t pay me any attention if the money is flowing freely. Trust my judgment a little and don’t go by appearances. Shake the representatives into giving truthful information, because they are not capable of figuring things out and present utopian pictures which have nothing to do with reality.

I have tried to be explicit and objective, synthetic and truthful. Do you believe me?

Warm greetings …

Ernesto Che Guevara’s Contribution to Africa’s Struggles for Independence

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Guerrillero Heroico
Picture taken by Alberto Korda on March 5, 1960 at the La Coubre memorial service

9 October marks the 50th anniversary of Ernesto Che Guevara ‘s assassination. As many in countries around the world celebrate the life of this great man who gave his life selflessly to liberate the masses from imperialism, a look at his impact in Africa is on the order.

Even though Che Guevara’s expedition in Congo (modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)) resulted in failure, what it showed was an example of the solidarity of ‘third-world’ countries against Western imperialism.

The Argentine-born guerilla “spent a while with us in the forest, but he found that our leaders lacked political maturity and he preferred to go,” Shibunda said of Che’s seven-month adventure with the Simba (“Lion” in Swahili) rebels in South Kivu province. Yet he was growing disillusioned, finding that Simba forces lacked revolutionary fervor. As a military mission, the Cuban adventure in eastern Congo was, as Che Guevara himself admitted in his diary, a failure. Their plan had not taken into account the fact that the level of political organization in the Congolese rebellion was extremely weak; that Guevara and his comrades knew almost nothing about the African society they were presuming to mould; or that the pro-Western regime had the help of powerful white mercenaries in the region.

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37-year-old Guevara, holding a Congolese baby and standing with a fellow Afro-Cuban soldier in the Congo Crisis, 1965

I was a simple soldier” in 1965, General Lwendema Dunia, now in his 80s,  says in a hut in South Kivu’s capital Bukavu, recalling how Che “taught us how to make a revolution. He gave us military training and taught us politics.” But “once we started to take from the people and trample on revolutionary ideals… they left,” he said.

By October 1965, Che wrote to Fidel Castro: “It’s not really weapons that are lacking here… Indeed, there are too many armed men and what is lacking are soldiers.”

When Che Guevara left, there was a great battle,” Shibunda adds.

Truth be told, Che’s work in Congo marked a decisive moment in Cuba’s great relationship with Africa. Although the Congo’s mission had been a failure, it marked the turning point for great Cuban victories in Africa, where Cuba helped Amilcar Cabral and Guinea Bissau achieve independence, Angola of Agostino Neto as well, and provided support to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and independence in Mozambique. So like they say, sometimes, in order to achieve greatness, you have to fall… so sad that Che Guevara never lived to reap the fruits of his hard work in Africa. 

Hugo Chavez: ‘Love is the Combustible of Revolution’

Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez

Words cannot express my extreme sadness at the loss of yet another one of our revolutionaries.  ‘El Comandante‘, Hugo Chavez, has left us yesterday to join the land of his ancestors.  I am extremely saddened at his passing, but I am also grateful to have lived in a time when I could see Hugo Chavez at work for his country, at a time when I could see what it meant for a leader of a poor country to have love and vision for his country.  Few leaders in the world have fought against western imperialism as Hugo Chavez did.  He led the bolivarian revolution against the US influence in Venezuela, and Latin America.  He gave back hope to his people, emancipated millions of Venezuelans, regained control of the economy of Venezuela, and worked for world peace by openly opposing the US and its colonial wars.  Millions of Venezuelans regained sight, were taught how to read, or just visited the doctor for the first time, because of Chavez’ laws.  Those will remember him forever.  Hugo Chavez was a bright star who gave hope to millions across the globe.  He gave us the strength to believe that we, the oppressed of the world, could one day be free.  He was often depicted in the Western media as a dictator (but then again, which progressist or revolutionary has ever been depicted otherwise in the western press?) because of his frankness and clear fight for the interest of the Venezuelan people. Chavez was a true sincere politician and loyal to his people.

El Comandante de la Revolucion, Hugo Chavez
El Comandante de la Revolucion, Hugo Chavez

El Comandante used to say: “Let the dogs of the empire bark, that’s their job. Our job is to fight to achieve the true liberation of our people.” You (Chavez) gone, who will fight again for us? who will voice our opinions? who will lead us? We have to keep true to your ideals, and keep our head up.  Thank you Commandante, for showing us the way, for showing us beauty and hope in this world.

Hugo Chavez also said: “Love is the combustible of a revolution.” El Comandante gave us just that: love, hope, dignity, and peace. So long, brother. Like Franklin Boukaka said “your work is that of humanity“… you have now joined the greats of this world: Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Mouammar Kadhafi, Amilcar Cabral, … Long live to your ideals!

Please enjoy this video “The revolution will not be televised” which shows the coup fomented by the US against Hugo Chavez in 2002 where Chavez was removed from power by American military; and for the first time in world history, a president was brought back to power by his people who refused to give into American threats. The people defeated the machine! This documentary was made possible because of the presence of some European journalists from Arte who were in the country at the moment of the coup.

Mehdi Ben Barka: Moroccan Light, African Leader, and World Revolutionary

Mehdi Ben Barka
Mehdi Ben Barka

After “Les Immortels” by Franklin Boukaka, it is only normal that I would talk about Mehdi Ben Barka himself, and why he brought so much hope to people in Morocco, Africa, and the entire world.  Yes, his work encompassed all the oppressed people of the globe.

Mehdi Ben Barka was a Moroccan politician born in January of 1920 in Rabat, Morocco.  Although from a middle class background, Ben Barka was among the first to attend the French school (which was mostly for rich people), as he was always the best and brightest in his class.  He was the first Moroccan to receive a degree in mathematics in an official French school in 1950.  He then taught mathematics in a local Lycée (high school), and at the Royal College, where young Hassan II was one of his students.  Working in parallel, Mehdi got involved in politics, and worked to challenge the French “Protectorate” on Morocco.  In 1943, he got involved in the creation of the National Istiqlal Party.  In 1955, Mehdi took part in negociations which culminated with the return of Sultan Mohammed V, who had been exiled by the French authorities to Madagascar.  In 1956, Ben Barka’s other negociations culminated with the end of the French protectorate on Morocco.  From 1956 to 1959, Mehdi Ben Barka was president of the consultative assembly of Morocco.  In 1959, Mehdi broke off from the National Istiqlal Party after clashes with conservative opponents, and found l’Union Nationale des Forces Populaires – National Union of Popular Forces (UNPF).

King Hassan II
King Hassan II

The future King Hassan II, then chief of the army, wanting to inherit his father’s trone as soon as possible, called for repression against subversion, against any opposition in the land.  This forced Ben Barka to go on exile in Paris, as Ben Barka was King Hassan II’s principal opponent.  After King Mohammed V’s death in 1961, Hassan II ascended to the throne, and claimed to want to make peace with his main opponent.  Ben Barka returned from exile in May 1962.  On 16 November 1962, Mehdi escaped an attack on his life (car accident, where his car was forced into a ravine by a police car), which had been fomented by the services of General Mohamed Oufkir and colonel Ahmed Dlimi.  In June of 1963, Ben Barka was accused of plotting against the monarchy, and once again forced into exile; this was plot by King Hassan II, to dissolve the UNFP, the main opposition to his reign.  On 22 November 1963, Ben Barka is sentenced to death in absentia, for conspiracy and attempt to assassinate the king.  Some think that this was also caused by Ben Barka’s calling upon Moroccan soldiers to refuse to fight Algeria in the 1963 Sand War.  Ben Barka first went on exile in Algiers, Algeria, where he met with Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, and Malcolm X.  Then he went to Cairo, Rome, Geneva (where he escaped several attacks on his life), and Havana, trying to unite the revolutionary movements of the Third World for the Tricontinental Conference to be held in January 1966 in Havana.  As the leader of the Tricontinental, Ben Barka was seen as a major figure in the Third World movement, and supported revolutionary, and anti-colonial actions in various states, thus provoking the anger of the United States and France.  Just before his death, he was preparing the first Tricontinental Conference scheduled to take place in Havana, Cuba, from 3 -13 January 1966.

Mehdi Ben Barka during an address
Mehdi Ben Barka during an address

On October 29, 1965, Mehdi Ben Barka was abducted (“disappeared”)  in Paris by French police officers.  He was never to be seen again.  On Dec. 29, 1975, Time magazine published an article called “The Murder of Mehdi Ben Barka”, stating that three Moroccan agents were responsible for the death of Ben Barka, one of them former Interior Minister Mohammed Oufkir.  Speculation persists as to CIA involvement.  French intelligence agents and the Israeli Mossad were also involved, according to the article.  Many believe that the abduction and removal of Mehdi Ben Barka on that cold day of October 29, 1965, was to give a blow to the impetus of the Tricontinental Conference,which was going to have effects on liberation movements across the globe, and thus hurt imperialist powers (US, France, UK, Portugal, Spain…).

Indeed Mehdi Ben Barka was a true hero, some refer to him as the Moroccan Che Guevara…  To many, he was hope itself… His charisma, and his work went beyond Morocco’s borders and blessed the entire globe, countries which were oppressed by imperialist powers and which over 50 years later are still suffering from neo-colonialism, and ferocious capitalism/imperialism.  You can read more on how the French government is still stalling on the “Ben Barka affair” at the Guardian, and check out this interview of Bachir Ben Barka, Mehdi’s son, who was aged 15 at the time of his father’s abduction.  Watch this really good documentary below which details the life of Mehdi Ben Barka.  50 years after his disappearance, the “Ben Barka affair” still remains an open dossier.  One can only sing, like Franklin Boukaka, ‘Mehdi nzela na yo na bato nyonso’ … Mehdi your work is that of humanity! So long brother, your work and vision will keep guiding us. ‘Oh O Mehdi Ben Barka, Mehdi nzela na yo na bato nyonso.’