Man of action

Brian Peterson

An interview with Brian Peterson, author of a new biography of Thomas Sankara. Peterson positions 1980s Burkina Faso as counterhegemonic to the neoliberal transition then.

Image via Kaysha on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Interview by
Benjamin Talton

Thomas Sankara’s 1983 to 1987 revolution in Burkina Faso was part of a small group of national, radical political movements in the global south during the heady but volatile 1980s. These movements were geared to achieve economic and political independence for their countries as the majority of global south nations oriented their political institutions according to the prescriptions of North American and European patrons and the detrimental economic models of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Union College Professor Brian Peterson’s Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa, published in February 2021 by Indiana University Press, is a timely, engrossing, highly informative history that is as much a biography of Sankara as it is a national memoir of West Africa during the Cold War of the 1980s. Peterson positions Sankara’s revolution as an example of the counter-hegemonic struggles during the 1980s’ neoliberal transition.

In addition to his most recent book and articles on the intersection of Islam and colonial rule in West Africa, Peterson is the author of Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960 (Yale University Press, 2011).

I was fortunate to have the following exchange with Peterson via email about Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary in Cold War Africa.


It’s really nice to have your book, Thomas Sankara, in print. I learned so much about Burkina Faso and the domestic and transnational politics of the 1980s from reading it. For those who may not be familiar with Thomas Sankara and his revolution in Burkina Faso, how do you present him in terms of political ideology and leadership? What is his legacy in the context of West Africa’s recent history, the 1980s, the Cold War, and Africa generally?


In my book, I tried to present him as a complex individual who, in the most fundamental way, was a self-described patriot. He was completely committed to his people and put his energies into fighting for his country’s political and economic sovereignty. Sankara rejected labels, but there were clearly some main strands to his thought. At the core was his visceral opposition to injustice and a sense of moral outrage at oppression and inequality. This is reflected in his intellectual influences, like Marxism, Catholic liberation theology, and Third Worldist currents of thought. This bundle of ideological orientations was packaged in a highly charismatic individual who, ultimately, was a man of action. In his leadership style, I would emphasize Sankara’s non-conformism and preternatural work habits. I also think he set a high bar in terms of moral rectitude and incorruptibility, and, because of these qualities, Sankara’s legacy in Africa has been mostly positive.

In so many ways, Sankara went against the main political currents of the 1980s. As a revolutionary hero and political icon, he is often viewed as a virtuous political leader who, despite his errors, had the genuine interests of the people at heart. Reading your book on Mickey Leland made me realize how much the two men shared, in terms of their commitment to the people and their positioning within global politics. They both represented powerful counter-hegemonic struggles that were ongoing in the 1980s but have often been occluded by triumphalist neoliberal narratives.


I also see many similarities between Mickey Leland and Sankara, despite their different political positions and the contexts in which they moved. An obvious similarity is that they died tragic, untimely deaths at a point in their political trajectories where they appeared to be on the verge of launching transformative social and political projects. You write of the tendency in studies of Sankara and his revolution to read events through the lens of his death. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that and describe how your book departs from this practice?


Sure, that’s a great question, and what I mean by that is that the way the revolution ended—with Sankara’s assassination—shaped perceptions of the entire course of the revolution. This singular violent event was so shocking, and demanded explanation, that both Blaise Compaoré apologists and Sankara’s allies, in their public statements and books, placed heavy attention on the processes leading to his assassination, and this tended to obfuscate the revolutionary process. The various revolutionary actors who opportunistically joined Compaoré’s regime also revised the revolution’s history and heaped excessive blame on Sankara, even as he remained largely admired by the people. So, in response to the official repudiation of Sankara, there was a powerful counter-memory that proliferated as he was kept alive at the grassroots level, especially among the youth. But there’s another component that merits attention, and that is the fallacy that the revolution ended—when in fact things were on the ascent and revolutionary enthusiasm was at its peak. In other words, Sankara’s murder has been framed, especially in popular transnational understandings, as the abrupt termination of an otherwise successful revolutionary project.

But my research shows that Sankara was assassinated just as popular grievances mounted and internal factionalism grew. And, of course, this was against the backdrop of foreign powers’ efforts to destabilize the revolution. So, the revolution had a life of its own, with different interests, internal factions, external pressures, countervailing forces, and many things that were far beyond Sankara’s control. What I’ve done in this book is chart the trajectory of the revolution alongside Sankara’s political career, keeping track of the different moving parts and integrating conflicting views while drawing on new primary research in order to present a more balanced picture of the revolution and Sankara’s life.


Sankara appears as a reluctant Pan-Africanist in your narrative. He regards race, and blackness specifically, as possessing limited political currency and relevance. Yet, you also depict him in Harlem, New York in 1984 delivering a fiery speech to an African American audience where he deploys the rhetoric of black solidarity. How do you characterize Sankara’s internationalist, continental and racial politics and the factors that shaped them?


This question really gets at how Sankara evolved as a thinker and statesman. The way I look at it, as Sankara came to see himself more and more as a revolutionary on a global stage, pan-Africanism grew in importance in his public statements. We have to remember that Sankara initially built his political career on fighting corruption, neocolonialism, and poverty within Burkina Faso. He was certainly keen to condemn racism, but comments on racial justice did not have as much political currency with his own people. Yet Sankara evolved over time, especially as he sought to popularize the revolution during his travels around Africa and the wider world, and in time pan-Africanism moved closer to the core of his outlook, as he promoted ideas of African unity in addressing shared challenges. And, of course, his pan-Africanist messages resonated deeply with the African youth. But I also think that Sankara’s sense of “internationalism” was even more powerfully rooted in an affinity with the socialist world and Third Worldist ideas of solidarity with countries in the wider global South that were experiencing foreign aggression, unbridled resource extraction by foreign corporations, and various forms of control via international banking institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund.


Related to your point about international banking institutions, France’s presence looms large in the events you reconstruct in the book. In post-independence Burkina Faso, it was both a patron and political and economic interloper, among its other complex roles. You describe the repeated efforts by French officials to persuade Sankara to sign with the economic programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. How did Sankara perceive and attempt to handle his country’s relationship with France?


Yes, definitely, and it’s quite a yarn to unravel. I think that Sankara had a complicated, even ambivalent, relationship with France. At different points in this history, France did try to work with Sankara, and even tolerated quite a bit of revolutionary rhetoric targeting France. But Sankara expected to be treated as an equal, a peer head of state of a fully sovereign country. He refused to accept his country being a vassal in a neocolonial relationship of domination. However, there were risks involved on this path—opposing debt repayment, criticizing foreign aid, publicly attacking France, and so forth. As I see it, Sankara knew that he couldn’t break with France completely, and the CNR [The National Council for the Revolution] was still depending on foreign aid, especially from France. A transition to greater autarky would take time, and in four short years, this wasn’t possible. My research shows that it was Sankara’s reluctance to accept an IMF agreement in 1987 that led to many economic problems and loss of political support within the CNR. Moreover, from the moment Sankara emerged as a political force in 1983, France had been trying to remove him from power. France finally succeeded in October 1987, when an array of French economic pressures, intelligence operations, diplomatic maneuvers, and disinformation campaigns in the French press paved the way for his overthrow.


While these forces were converging to undermine Sankara and his policies, his government developed special programs that aimed to improve the economic and social position of Burkinabé women. Who were some of the women in key roles in the revolution and in Sankara’s government?


Absolutely, one of the most progressive actions by the revolutionary state under Sankara was to give more political power to women by bringing them into government at all levels, from the local Revolutionary Defense Committees (CDRs) to ministerial positions. In fact, Sankara implemented a 30 percent quota for all government offices to be filled by women. Among the ten civilian ministers within the CNR, three were women, which included Josephine Ouedraogo as minister of family development, Rita Sawadogo as minister of sports and leisure, and Adèle Ouedraogo as minister of budget. Moreover, women now served in the military and gendarmerie. Germaine Pitroipa, who was High Commissioner of Kouritenga Province during the revolution, recalled how Sankara worked tirelessly to support his female colleagues, and how he took many of his cues from women in devising pro-woman policies. He also entrusted high priority state actions to women, like when he put Josephine Ouedraogo in charge of the relief operations during the drought and famine of 1984-85.


It’s ironic that while Sankara was immensely popular with students, urban workers, and farmers, he did not enjoy the full support of trade unions and student associations. What contributed to his strained relationship with these key constituencies? Did these factors pave the way for the success of Compoaré’s coup in 1987?


This observation really gets at one of the more complicated, and often misunderstood, political processes that unfolded across the entire revolutionary period. It’s important to understand that there was intense internal factionalism within the revolutionary leadership, and labor unions and student groups were used as political weapons by Sankara’s opponents. So even as students were still mostly pro-Sankara at the grassroots level, Compaoré’s clique used control over the student groups as a way of opposing Sankara. With the labor unions, because the working class in Burkina Faso was very small, unions mostly represented the interests of civil servants and others deemed “petty bourgeoisie.” And during the revolution, the CDR system, which was incidentally controlled at the highest levels by Compaoré’s military loyalists, slowly eclipsed the labor unions, and this generated grievances. But it’s also true that in seeking to redirect more resources to rural areas, Sankara reduced the salaries and privileges of civil servants, thus diminishing their purchasing power and political clout. Compaoré was able to take advantage of the resulting grievances and wrongly present Sankara as being anti-labor, while absurdly positioning himself to the left of Sankara.


You describe countless national initiatives that were part of Sankara’s revolution. He was clearly ambitious and squarely focused on transformative and sustainable development toward a truly independent, self-determined country. Before Blaise Compaoré launched his rectification program to undo these programs, how would you rate the success of Sankara’s revolution? What were among its outstanding achievements and where was it headed?


This is a great question, and I think that when measuring the revolution’s success, we should also look at the sheer difficulty of accomplishing its goals in such a narrow horizon of time. What Sankara was seeking to accomplish would usually have taken decades. That said, Sankara’s entire progressive agenda radically reoriented the state on a wide array of issues, from battling corruption to promoting women’s rights. I think that citizens in Burkina Faso finally felt that they had a state that was responsive to their needs, not just those of political elites or neocolonial interests. We know that the revolutionary state was very successful in wiping out corruption and promoting greater self-reliance while redirecting far more state resources to rural areas, from the rather bloated civil service to the peasantry. This meant a countrywide improvement of basic health care, the “commando” vaccination drives, and expanded water access. We can also cite the impressive achievement of food self-sufficiency by the end of 1986, following a devastating drought and famine, and the concomitant shift to sustainable development and environmental restoration, which included mass reforestation drives.

As I see it, Sankara viewed raising political consciousness as the most important long-term task, but admittedly the most difficult. It’s not easy to change how people think, their consumption patterns, or entrenched attitudes around things like gender relations. And Sankara understood that this required a major overhaul of the larger cultural matrix, and there was only so much that any nation-state could do. The revolutionary state certainly launched numerous projects, such as literacy campaigns, building schools, mobile film units, and cultural festivals as a way of providing the scaffolding necessary for “decolonizing mentalities.” But this was a long-term intergenerational struggle, and the forces at play transcended the nation-state, both in terms of culture and politics. In the months before his assassination, he redoubled his commitment to the peasantry, and took further steps to raise political consciousness. He also initiated a campaign of revolutionary “self-criticism” and of addressing the errors of the revolution. He was responsive to people’s grievances and even called for a revolutionary “pause,” a course correction. His enemies saw an opportunity, took advantage of his candor, and implemented their coup.

About the Interviewee

Brian Peterson is associate professor of history at Union College.

About the Interviewer

Benjamin Talton is associate professor of history at Temple University, executive board member of ASWAD and an editor on the African Studies Review.

Further Reading

Sankara is not dead

Thomas Sankara has emerged as both a lesson on the uncertainties of revolutionary change and the possibilities for people-centered development for the present and future.