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.

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.