Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thomas Sankara speaks

I'm writing a book review on a new edition of Thomas Sankara Speaks, from Pathfinder Press, which publishes revolutionary texts and is run by Mary-Alice Waters, a Trotsky-ist kind of person if you know what I mean...

Now, I was more Buenaventura Durruti than Andrés Nin, but who wants to talk about "old washed up terrorists" from 70 years ago? Anyway, reviewing a book of speeches involves basically making political critique, so I felt like I should be up-font about my background. Since I am an economist, albeit of the anthropological do-gooder variety (have you been reading this blog?) I get fairly impatient with meandering three hour speeches in the hot sun from the maximum leader. You can anticipate where I am going here in reviewing Sankara's speeches.

In the middle of what was a two year long struggle to the death for power within the Voltaic army (pitting Colonel Somé Yoryan against Sankara), on March 26, 1983, Sankara gave a speech whose title sends shivers down the spine, "Who Are the Enemies of the People?" Imperialism was trembling, Sankara affirmed, before the revolution that was unfolding in Upper Volta. (Sankara would rename the country Burkina Faso later that year.) But who exactly were the enemies of the people? A good speech, as is this, shouldn't be too clear, otherwise it becomes a list, like this:

1. Corrupt people who use public office for private gain
2. Politicians (he does not really explain why)
3. Forces of obscurantism
4. Unpatriotic people
5. Imperialism and neocolonialism... generally unnamed but presumably meaning France and the United States and the powers behind all oppression everywhere in the world that Sankara does not want to excuse (he does want to excuse Libya, the Soviet Union and Cuba) who are powerful enough to stop the revolution in Burkina.
6. And towards the end in what seems to be a throwaway line, people with diplomas (who are lumped together with "owls with the shady look in their eyes", "fence-sitting chameleons", and "lepers who know only how to knock things over" (unkind!))

Are these really the enemies of the people in the sense of requiring analysis and elucidation? Corrupt politicians? Who is in favor of them? Burkina at the time had been ruled for about 15 years by the military ruler Sangoulé Lamizana, and to judge by Lamizana's simply-written if troubling memoirs published a few years ago, Lamizana was not a diploma-holder, not a politician, not a force of obscurantism, not a corrupt person (to any large degree), and not a "shady owl"... so what was he: a supporter of French "status quo" in West Africa, basically.

Are there other enemies of the people? Now, I want to give Sankara the benefit of the doubt: he remains a charismatic and much-loved figure in Burkina Faso. He was murdered in a tragic and poignant way by his comrade in arms Blaise Compaoré in a coup in 1987. But still, I find his analysis insufficient. I can think, in hindsight, of four "enemies of the people" who were obvious to anyone in 1983:

1. Dogmatic leftists who insist on the primacy of ideological debates that bear little relationship to the realities and pragmatic governance needed in a country like Burkina Faso.
2. Urban elites who use their power to strike in Ouagadougou to ensure more comfortable living standards for themselves (better roads, schools, hospitals, parks) than the 80% rural population.
3. Traditional chiefs and rulers who brandish authority solely by virtue of their inherited status; surely such persons need to be immediately demoted and delegitimized, regardless of the cost. What egalitarian society can allow such privilege by birth, completely decoupled from any pretense of merit, to persist?
4. Men. It took Sankara four years before he gave his famous speech on the status of women, but gender issues had been the subject of political discourse for decades in colonial Upper Volta.

Sankara is unable to engage in clear dialogue on these points in this most important speech. What does that say about his revolutionary heart? It tells me he preferred oration to illumination. A politician, in other words.

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