WASHINGTON — “The words of Thomas Sankara survive. You can read them and learn about what he achieved,” said Gnaka Lagoke, welcoming participants to the fifth annual conference on Thomas Sankara here. Sankara was the leader of the popular revolutionary government in the West African country of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. (See box below.)
The Nov. 5 meeting was entitled “Thomas Sankara Legacy, Democracy in the Global South, and Black Lives.” It attracted more than 120 participants to a discussion and debate on how Sankara’s example and ideas can be used to advance popular struggles today — from Burkina Faso to Brazil, from Venezuela and Cuba to the United States.
Lagoke, the event’s main organizer and founder of the Revival of Panafricanism Forum, introduced the panel: Shelley Green of Pan-African Community Action in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Msia Clark, professor of African Studies at Howard University; Aline Piva, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs; and Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party and president of Pathfinder Press. Lagoke, who teaches African and world history at Montgomery College, also welcomed Armand Tiemtoré, who brought greetings from the embassy of Burkina Faso.
The majority of participants were from West African countries, including members of Balai Citoyen, a Burkinabe group from New York that helped organize the meeting. Others were from Pan-Africanist groups and other political organizations in the D.C. metro area.
Two different class courses were presented by panelists: one placing Sankara as part of currents in Africa and the Americas that over the past half century have sought to reform (even radically reform) capitalism; the other pointing to Sankara’s communist course and the revolutionary internationalist and Pan-Africanist alternative he posed to the dismemberment of Africa by imperialist powers in order to oppress and exploit its toilers.
“Community control is true democracy at work,” said Green of Pan-African Community Action. Sankara’s legacy is linked to control of local economies, education, health care and the police, she said.
“The legacy of Sankara is through Pan-African activism,” said Clark from Howard University. “The ways people mobilize have shifted, due in part to social media and how activists engage the state. Instead of one single leader, leadership is dispersed.”
Piva of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who is Brazilian, compared the achievements in Burkina Faso during Sankara’s years to “the goals of the Workers Party of Brazil’s ‘alternative project’ — to regain sovereignty and rebuild our country into a more equal and democratic society.” She called the impeachment and removal of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff earlier this year “a coup against the Workers Party.”
“Thomas Sankara understood that to be free from imperialist domination, you must rely on local and natural resources as opposed to foreign aid,” Piva said. “His revolution promoted self-sufficiency and social programs that directly empowered the people.”
SWP leader Waters, who wrote prefaces to Thomas Sankara Speaks and two other collections of his speeches, pointed to sharply different reasons why his course “set an example not only for Africa but the entire world.”
Waters’ talk “sharpens the meaning of the legacy of Thomas Sankara in the 21st century and reminds us that democracy is not a classless content,” said Mwiza Munthali, host of the radio show “Africa Now,” during his broadcast of the program, and “that the guiding ideology of Sankara was communism.”
“The capitalist rulers and their apologists,” Waters said, “try to convince us that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. But the course Sankara charted was proletarian democracy, proving that even in one of the poorest countries, it was possible to mobilize millions to take their destiny into their own hands and change themselves as they changed their conditions and the world.”
“What distinguished Sankara,” Waters said, “is that everything he did was aimed at raising the consciousness, confidence and combativity of the people of Burkina Faso. He was a Marxist, a communist, who had confidence in the revolutionary capacities of ordinary men and women, who are so arrogantly dismissed by the imperialist rulers and leaders of capitalist countries worldwide.
“Sankara was unique among African leaders in refusing to reject Marxism on the pretext that it’s a ‘European idea’ alien to Africa and the struggles of its people. He understood that communism isn’t an ‘idea,’ but a course of class struggle drawing on lessons from centuries of revolutionary battles by working people. Those lessons apply to struggles by working people in Africa like anywhere else in the world.”
From the American and French revolutions, to the 1917 Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, to the Cuban Revolution, with whose leaders he closely collaborated, Sankara said, we are “the heirs of all the world’s revolutions and all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World.”
“It may be a little controversial to say so,” Waters added, but “what’s sometimes called Sankarism, as well as Pan-Africanism, only point a way forward for toilers if they’re grounded in those historical materialist foundations.” That’s the basis on which Sankara led Burkina’s working people to become part of the fight to bring down the racist regime in South Africa and struggles by the oppressed in Angola, Western Sahara, Palestine, Nicaragua, Grenada and the United States, she said.
There was a lively discussion period, including questions directed to each panelist by the chair, Gnaka Lagoke.
“What were the weaknesses of the Workers Party of Brazil?” he asked Piva.
“It distanced itself from the working class,” she replied, “and didn’t put in the time to change consciousness. You see a difference between Brazil and Venezuela — Brazil was never a revolution. We did make progress, but now we are taking blows.”
Piva reported that Michel Temer, who replaced Rousseff as president, is escalating state repression. “Yesterday, 14 warrants were issued against members of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers Movement,” she said, “and police stormed their school in Sao Paulo.”
Earlier in the meeting, Carlos Ron, a consul at the Venezuelan Embassy, reported on efforts by pro-imperialist opposition parties in Venezuela to force the government of President Nicolás Maduro out of office. “The opposition is divided,” he said. “We must preserve the integrity of our country, and we seek a dialogue to turn away violence.”
Lagoke asked Waters how she would compare the strengths of Sankara, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan president.
“What’s in common to the three of them,” Waters said, “is their qualities as leaders able to win the confidence of workers and rural toilers, to have rapport with them, as they fight to change the conditions of their lives.
“But the differences are very important,” she said. “The Cuban leadership built a proletarian cadre through the revolutionary war and struggles after the victory over the U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1959. That’s how they were able to chart a course toward socialist revolution. Without that, imperialism’s efforts to overturn what Cuba’s working people had won would have succeeded over time.”
The capitalists always counterattack, said Waters. “For them, there’s never a ‘hopeless situation.’ They fear workers and farmers when we go into action, recognizing we’re capable of making a revolution that can end their class rule, as toilers did in Cuba.”
Gains won by working people in Venezuela after Chávez became president in 1999 were made within the framework of a capitalist state and property relations, Waters said. “There was no revolution. Chávez said in a widely read 2008 interview that, ‘Fidel is a communist. I am not. I am a social democrat.’ He thought some kind of radical reform of capitalism was possible, that there was a road other than that of Cuba’s socialist revolution.
“Like Fidel, Sankara was a communist,” Waters added. “He made every effort to start down the road charted politically by the leadership of the Cuban Revolution,” but with no illusions a socialist revolution was yet possible in Burkina Faso due to economic and social conditions there and in much of Africa.
But Sankara’s murder and the counterrevolution led by Blaise Compaoré weren’t evidence that the course workers and peasants had begun under Sankara’s leadership was “premature,” Waters said. Sankara “had a more difficult load to carry. He was starting from scratch to build a leadership when he and other revolutionary-minded young people and junior officers came into control of the government. There wasn’t enough time for Sankara and those closest to him politically to forge that kind of leadership from among Burkina’s most selfless working people before the landowners, bourgeoisie and imperialist powers, especially France, mobilized to crush the revolution, as they always will.”
Sankara and Burkina’s working people set an example that continues to spread in Africa and beyond. Waters held up the newly released South African edition of Thomas Sankara Speaks, published by Kwela Books, which will circulate across that country and Africa-wide.
“Capitalism forces people into struggle,” Waters said. “It is the great subversive. As the crisis of their worldwide system grows, working people will organize and resist, and from those struggles new leaders like Thomas Sankara and communist organizations led by them will be forged. That’s the opportunity ahead of all of us.”