Burkina Faso and Thomas Sankara


Burkina Faso remains one of the ten least developed countries of the world.

The 1983-87 Burkina revolution, Sankara acknowledged, was occurring in a backward, agricultural, semi-feudal country where there was not yet ‘an organized working class, conscious of its historic mission.”

He sought to build a national economy based more on domestic markets and interests. Much of the economy was still dominated by subsistence agriculture and there was very little industry of any kind.

New state investments could be financed only by seriously economizing on existing operations. Civil service salaries were frozen and government ministers had to give up allowances.

The government provided poor farmers and livestock herders with public services, productive inputs, price incentives, irrigation, environmental protection and other support. At the same time, a serious campaign against desertification was undertaken and 10 million trees were planted to that end.

In the five-year plan, 71% of investments in the productive sectors was allocated to agriculture, livestock, fisheries, wildlife and forests

The government suppressed many of the powers held by tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labor.

Health Care and Education

By January 1986 more than 7460 primary health posts had been established, roughly one for each village.

With the help of Cuban volunteers and mass mobilization, some 2 million children had been vaccinated against the major childhood diseases. This raised the rate of immunization against the three diseases from just 11–19% of all children to 60–75.

Access to education increased from 12% to 22% within 3 years.

An adult literacy campaign launched in 1986 was conducted in nine. Major rallies and conferences frequently featured dance and musical performances by troupes from different ethnic groups. A declaration of a prize jury at one cultural festival affirmed that while individual works might be in competition, the cultures themselves would not be, since ‘each culture has its own value. . .This festival is an occasion for our different nationalities to discover themselves, to make themselves known, and to mutually enrich themselves, for the birth of a genuinely national culture’

Television news was no longer delivered only in French, but also in Moore´ and occasionally other languages. Because very few Burkinabe` had access to television, radio remained the main means of communication, and it used 11 indigenous languages.

Anti-Imperialism, Pan-Africanism

Sankara made many pronouncements against imperialism and in support of liberation movements – from Southern Africa to theWestern Sahara, from Central America to New Caledonia. He had a staunch stand against Africa’s growing foreign debt and his (unsuccessful) call on other African leaders for Pan-African unity to collectively refuse to pay.


Sankara’s strong stance against corruption and high living by government officials

reflected another side of his outlook. There were public trials sent scores of dignitaries to jail for corruption or fraud. Sitting government ministers had to drive small and inexpensive Renaults or Peugeots.

Sankara kept his own children in public schools and rebuffed relatives who sought state jobs. His salary was $450 a month, after he made radical pay-cuts to his and other top officials’ wages.

Mass Organizations

The country had various village assemblies, farmers’ groups, cooperatives, youth associations and other civil organizations. The largest peasants’ association relied heavily on the tradition of naam collective work groups, in which young men and women mobilized for community and cooperative agricultural activities.

The CDRs spread within several months from the main urban centers throughout the country, to most of the approximately 7000 villages.

The CDRs’ first collective labor mobilizations involved cleaning school and hospital courtyards, graveling roads, building mini-dams and even starting construction on schools, community centers, theatres and other facilities. They elicited a ready and sometimes enthusiastic response from villagers and urban poor, since the projects were of immediate benefit to local communities and there was at least an element of consultation in their selection, with proposals often raised during public general assemblies.

The CDRs themselves had a popular character. They involved many people, especially among the poor, who previously had never taken part in any political or associational activity. With few other means of expression available to them – in societies where traditional power relations accorded formal authority to elders and family patriarchs and denied younger age-sets any real say over basic life decisions – youths especially flocked to the CDRs. Lower castes or those of other subordinate status also found in the CDRs new opportunities to assert themselves.

Women’s Liberation

Women found avenues for advancement through the CDRs. They tended to be most active in community self-help mobilizations, and a quota system for elections to the CDR bureaus ensured that at least a few women rose to leadership positions.

From the outset, Sankara emphasized the emancipation of women as one of his central social and political goals – a rarity for any president in Africa at the time.

Specific ‘pro-women’ measures were built into many programs, from literacy classes targeted toward women, to the establishment of primary health units in each village, to support for women’s cooperatives and market associations.

A new family code set a minimum age for marriage, established divorce by mutual consent, recognized a widow’s right to inherit and prohibited the bride-price. Vigorous public campaigns were launched against female genital mutilation, forced marriage and polygamy.

Relations with Trade Unions

Very early, relations between the CNR (National Council of the Revolution) and a number of the trade unions soured, in part because of the political leanings of some union leaders. In fact, on the very day of the August 4, 1983 revolution, the CNR was repudiated by a congress of the main primary school teachers’ union, which had backed a previous military regime. In March 1984 security forces arrested several of the union’s leaders, prompting a three-day strike that was observed by many teachers around the country. The CNR retaliated by firing about 1300 strikers.

Several hundred of the teachers fired after the 1984 strike were reinstated. In August 1987, Sankara sent a memorandum to all cabinet ministers asking them to examine ways to reintegrate more dismissed teachers, as well as civil servants who had been fired for political reasons.

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