Africa’s Che Guevara

Jan 11th, 2013 | By | Category: Articles

africaThe history of Africa in the second half of the twentieth century is strewn with dead revolutionaries. Lumumba in the Congo, Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Biko in South Africa, Mondlane in Mozambique: all were feted as the saviours of their people; all were felled by colder, worldlier foes. These idealists, these visionaries with plans for the improvement of their countries were snuffed out before they could see their projects through. Their fervour, their energy, and the love they inspired in their people would prove insufficient defence against the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the old guard, those grim-faced, calculating rivals who were still in cahoots with the hated colonial masters.

In Burkina Faso the revolutionary torch was taken up by Thomas Sankara. A charismatic, handsome army officer with an intense gaze and a burning zeal for change, it is he who lies here before us, beneath the headstone whose inscription reminds us of his humble rank of "Capitaine". Dynamic, impulsive and passionate for his country to be free, this ill-fated young firebrand is seen by many as Africa's Che Guevara, and still inspires adulation a quarter of a century after his death.

Sankara becomes president of Burkina Faso in 1983, after ousting the repressive military government in a bloodless coup d'état. He takes over a people whose hopes have been muzzled. Independence, that great eruption of optimism and joy, has been and gone, and Burkinabes are no better off, no freer. Two decades of corrupt and incompetent leadership have left their country penniless and indebted; to stay afloat it has been forced to beg for loans, first from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and then, most humiliatingly, from France, the former colonial power.

Sankara, who sees these moneylenders as neo-colonialists engaged in a "reconquest" of Africa, dreams of throwing off the chains. sankaraAlthough he is just thirty-three years old and has no experience of high office, he tackles the task with relish. As soon as he comes to power he launches his revolution. He promises to bring development to all Burkinabes, and not just to the elites who are in league with the French. His people will no longer need foreign handouts or be fleeced by their own leaders. 'We do not want this aid that turns us into beggars and dependents,' he thunders, pumping his fist in the air. Peasants, women, the working classes and the young will break free and lead their continent to a self-sufficient, dignified future. 'Down with imperialism!' he cries as he rallies his spellbound followers. 'Down with the embezzlers of public funds! Down with toadies and thieving rats! Down with the ravenous jackals!'

The young leader has revolution in his bones. As a child he had celebrated independence by lowering his village's French tricolour and raising the new flag of Upper Volta; as president he replaces his ministers' Mercedes with the humble Renault 5, the cheapest car on the market. While other African leaders stash millions in foreign bank accounts, Sankara, whose cheques often bounce, draws a monthly salary of less than five hundred dollars and needs a mortgage to buy a home. While other African leaders buy private jets and lounge on luxury yachts, Sankara's most valuable possessions are a refrigerator, three guitars and the battered old bicycle he rides around Ouagadougou. And while other African leaders wear the finest suits flown in from Paris and Milan, Sankara, echoing Gandhi, dresses his ministerial team in homespun Burkinabe cotton. The youth of Africa lap it up.

It is Sankara who gives the country its name. The French had called their colony Upper Volta, a dry, geographical description taken from the three rivers that rise to the west of the capital. Sankara renames it Burkina Faso, the Land of the Honourable People. He wipes the colonial stain from the map and puts his countrymen proudly in its place. Burkinabes revel in their new-found importance, thrilled that one of their own sons is daring to stand up to Africa's historic oppressors, amazed that they, humble peasants, are in the vanguard of a movement that will transform the entire continent.

But the Revolution is not only about symbols. The corrupt institutions of power must be brought to heel, and Sankara is fearless in his choice of targets. He takes on tribal leaders by abolishing the tribute payments and forced labour they exact from their subjects. He takes on the political classes by cutting civil servants' salaries and launching an anti-corruption drive. He tells haughty army officials that they must 'live among the people,' and drags ambassadors out into the countryside to explain their raison d'être to mystified villagers. And he rattles foreign donors, and in particular the French, by telling them his country does not want their help and cannot afford to pay back its debts. 'Those who lent to us were playing a game of chance,' he explains unapologetically. 'As long as they were winning there was no problem, but now they've lost they squeal "unfair". They played, they lost. Those are the rules of the game. Life goes on.'

vaccineHaving torn down, he sets about building up. Burkinabes lack the skills and physical strength to carry the Revolution forward, so Sankara builds schools and invests in healthcare, vaccinating millions of children against killer diseases.  To boost agricultural productivity he breaks up feudal landlords' estates and parcels them out among the peasants. He plants trees to hold back the encroaching Sahara. Lithe and fit and rarely seen out of military fatigues, he darts around, full of energy, driving his people on and exhorting them to work harder, to produce more, to haul their country out of poverty. 'Consommons Burkinabe!' he cries, and backs his words by slapping a ban on fruit imports.

There is room on the revolutionary juggernaut for women, too. Africa will never develop, Sankara says, if half its people are treated like chattels. He promotes women to key government positions, reforms inheritance laws to give equal rights to male and female children, bans polygamy, and rails against female circumcision, a painful rite of passage for girls that can lead to fatal complications during childbirth. He instigates a national day for husbands to do the family shopping, and takes an all-female presidential motorcade with him when he tours upcountry. Already bewitched by his youthful good looks, the women of Burkina swoon.

We sit with Maurice on a rock by the grave, buffeted by dust, the only sounds the wind and the rustling of the flying plastic bags. A brown goat walks across one of the whitewashed tombs. People cycle past from time to time, wearing masks to keep out the dust and toxic fumes from the tip. There is a strong smell of burning plastic. A young mother walks by with a baby on her back, seemingly unaware of her proximity to history. 'She knows about him,' says Maurice when I wonder aloud whether today's younger generation are still interested. 'Everyone loves him except those who killed him.' I have heard many similar sentiments. 'He was unique,' Maurice continues, staring wistfully at the gaudily-painted grave. 'He was the only African leader who worked for his people and not for himself. He was a martyr.' Back in Bobo-Dioulasso, Abdoulaye had given a similar endorsement. 'All African leaders are the same, except one,' he told me. 'Thomas Sankara wanted people to work, to prosper, to make Burkina Faso and Africa better. He was loved not just here but all over Africa, and even in Europe. But he was the last one.'


ringtonedrumThe Ringtone and the Drum - Travels in the World's Poorest Countries, Mark Weston

ISBN: 978-1-78099-586-1, $26.95 / £15.99, paperback, 343pp

EISBN: 978-1-78099-587-8, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

Tucked away in a remote part of Africa, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso, three of the world's poorest countries, are in the throes of great upheaval. Globalisation has shown their people that a more comfortable life is possible, but as they strive to attain it, climate change, the population boom, the tyrants of the old guard and the firm grip of tradition block their way.
The clash between old and new is explosive. Civil wars erupt without warning, with drugged up rebels fighting over blood diamonds, gold or a humble bowl of rice. Al Qaeda has set up camp in Burkina Faso. Colombian drug gangs have overrun Guinea-Bissau. Christian and Muslim fanatics battle for African souls, preparing their converts for Armageddon.
In The Ringtone and the Drum, Mark Weston dives into this maelstrom. In an often-unsettling adventure, he travels around the three countries and immerses himself in local life. Combining the remarkable stories of those he meets with his deep knowledge of Africa's development, the book sheds new light on a neglected corner of the globe.
…a truly engaging and informative book that provides a rare tour of one of the world’s poorest and least understood regions, Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, Canada.
Mark Weston is a writer and policy adviser specialising in international development.


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