Eye witness from Burkina


Source: Socialist Action, No. 174, November 6, 1987, p. 10.
Transcribed: Zdravko Saveski, December 2022.

OPPOSITION to the military coup in the West African country of Burkina Faso, in which president Thomas Sankara and 15 of his supporters were shot, continues. TREVOR SHELDON, who was in the country at the time of the coup, reports.

MOST Burkinabès, from all walks of life, were stunned by the coup. Thousands of people made their way in sweltering heat to the cemetary on the outskirts of the capital where Sankara and the other dead had been hastily buried in a mass grave with their names written on scraps of paper.

Popular support for Sankara was so great that the intensive propaganda campaign against him on the radio has had little success in placating people's anger. The regular broadcasts put out by the 'Popular Front' accused Sankara of being 'a fascist, a misogynist, an autocrat' and said that he 'was a petty bourgeois who consorted with bourgeois potentates' and that he was a 'traitor'.

Captain Blaise Compaoré, the new president and formerly a close collaborator of Sankara, had to tone down the calumny and declare in his speech to the nation that despite his errors Sankara had increasingly isolated himself from his colleagues, concentrating power in his own hands. The killing, he alleged, was provoked by the uncovering of an assassination plot led by Sankara against himself (Compaoré) and two other officers who had helped Sankara lead the revolution in August 1983.

Very few people believe the official version. The two appeals for the people to come out and demonstrate in support of the 'Popular Front' were ignored and counter demonstrations in the country's second town of Bobo-Dialasu [Bobo-Dioulasso] were dispersed by the military.

This reflects the wide support for the revolution of August 1983 and the popularity of Sankara's leadership.

Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, was a French colony until 1960. Since then it has been ruled by a series of neo-colonial regimes taking their orders from France. This left the country one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the world.

The revolution was defined as 'democratic and popular'. Its primary task was to liquidate imperialist domination and to remove obstacles to social and cultural development particularly in the countryside where 90 per cent of the population live.

It was a popular revolution in that it based itself on the support and mobilisation of the people, particularly through the local grassroots Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs).

In the last four years, the revolution resulted in major gains for the toilers in the country. Irrigation schemes, dams, health clinics were built; mass literacy and vaccination programmes were established based on unleashing and harnessing the energies of the people.

Women, who had been particularly oppressed and isolated from political life, organised through the CDRs and the Women's Union of Burkina. They demanded, and got, a ban on forced marriages and female circumcisions, and a major education drive. They won the right to have title to land and to equal pay. By this year there were five women cabinet ministers.

Sankara also earned an international reputation as a bold anti-imperialist fighter. Just one week before he was killed he hosted a major international anti-apartheid conference which followed months of a major educational campaign in the country on apartheid, including the setting up of a national anti-apartheid movement MOBRAP.

All this brought him into conflict with France and other imperialist countries, along with neighbouring conservative African governments who were scared of the popularity of the revolution amongst African youth, who looked to Sankara for a lead.

The main support for the coup has come from the Union of Communists of Burkina (UCB) a small but well-placed hard line faction based originally in the military. This was set up by Compaoré and other officers in 1985. The UCB had come increasingly into conflict with Sankara over the last six months.

This group called for a tougher line against internal dissenters and a more administrative approach to the revolution. This was in direct conflict with Sankara who was trying to integrate people into the revolutionary process by means of discussion, organisation and education, by political consent as opposed to administrative force.

Since the coup, supporters of the UCB and smaller Union of Communist Struggle (UCL-B) have been placed in senior ministerial positions and put in charge of national and local organisations. This has confirmed early suspicions that this was a UCB-backed coup.

The new president's efforts to gain support by sending men round to address meetings of the local popular organisations have been frustrated by a mixture of poor attendance and widespread incredulity and rejection.

School students at one of the capital's largest schools physically ejected the Popular Front speaker amid chants of 'Sankara or no one'. A few hours later it was announced that the schools would be shut down for a week.

In the countryside, peasants showed their opposition in many areas by suspending markets. Well known radio commentators who broadcast in the various local languages refused to translate the official communiques and several former ministers have been arrested or are in hiding.

This poses a deep problem for the military leadership who for two weeks had still not been able to announce a government. Opposition has also come from outside the country where Sankara was internationally respected for his bold anti-imperialist stance. In neighbouring Ghana, for example, Jerry Rawlings refused to see the envoys sent from Burkina, and declared a week of mourning.

The 'Popular Front' says it will continue implementing the programme of the revolution - though in a different way. However, since the coup the few policy measures announced mark a move away from the peasantry and in favour of the more privileged layers in the towns.

The use of the brutal methods of the coup to resolve political differences followed by the lies and propaganda campaign afterwards to cover these up indicate that they put their own interests before that of the revolution. Fidel Castro put this clearly when condemning the killing of Maurice Bishop in Grenada when he said 'no crime can be committed in the name of the revolution'.

As one high-ranking administrator told me: 'Sankara's support is widespread in the popular organisations, but their power is diffuse, it is not organised.' When asked about the future of the revolution he shook his head and said that 'perhaps it is dead too'.