Thomas Sankara, the Marxist icon of the 1980s, was killed in a coup by now ousted Burkina Faso leader Compaore. Today's youth movement is still inspired by the African revolutionary.
OUAGADOUGOU — It's a mix of victory and bittersweet revenge for the generation we can call the "children of Thomas Sankara."
Burkina Faso’s current youth leaders didn’t live through the time when the Marxist revolutionary military captain led the country (from 1983 to 1987), but 27 years after the the African icon was killed, his ideas and aura continue to inspire.
The fall of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré is the result of both political and social factors, but the popular insurrection that swept him from power on Oct. 31 would never have been possible without the high level of political education specific to this West African nation, of which Sankara himself was a product.
On the campus of the capital's Ouagadougou University, a young man perched on a concrete table starts the debate of the day. The topic is written on the chalkboard: Should we leave the military in power?
“We managed to take down a high-level dictator and you’re the ones we have to thank for that, even though you’re just 1% of the population. It’s not the number that makes the truth, but the truth that makes the number,” he tells the crowd as an introduction.
“The people made the revolution,” the speaker continues. “The military could have put an end to the regime long ago, but this time, we’re the ones who called on them to take their responsibilities. We therefore urge them to leave power.”
October protests in Ouagadougou — Photo: Balais Citoyen Facebook page
Another student, infuriated by the fact that since 1966, Burkina Faso's presidents have all come from the military, declares: “May they finally let us breathe the air of a civilian.”
Blaise Gango, whose first name draws a few laughs from the small group of students, continues about the new leader, Isaac Zida. “He comes from my village. If I were selfish, I would root for him, but he’ll stay there six months and strip down to civilian clothes. Then he’ll create his own party and with the money he will have piled up, he’ll bamboozle us for the next 30 years.”
Under the sun
Not everybody agrees. Serge Bayala, a student leader who took part in all the demonstrations sees in Lieutenant Colonel Zida a new Sankara, whom he refers to as his “prophet.”
Sankara was 37 when killed in a coup led by Compaoré, who ruled for the next 27 years.
“He says there’s no way he’ll decide the country’s future in air-conditioned offices, but instead outside in the sun with the people,” the campus activist argues.
Another student, Lassina Konaté, issues a cautious warning: “If he wants to hold on to power, we’ll take to the streets, but I’m not against him remaining in office during the transition.”
Konaté later relives the past few weeks, when crowds opposing the strongman continued to grow. "I could hear gunfire, but everybody was marching forward. So for the first time, I thought: We are worthy of our country. We set fire to the National Assembly, which wasn’t our objective — but it was the only solution that Compaoré left us. After than, I knew he would leave. For once, he was wise.”
Konaté and Bayala are active members of "Civilian Broom" (Balai Citoyen, in French), a group launched in August 2013, which has been one of the spearheads of the uprising. Its two emblematic figures, Smokey, a rapper, and Smas’k Le Jah, a radio broadcaster, took Thomas Sankara as their movement’s rallying symbol, and intend to continue “raising awareness” for the birth of a “new Burkinabe.”
While the political opposition was actively participating in the movement against Compaoré’s plan to remain in power, it now campaigns for a power transfer to the civilians. But in the meantime, Civilian Broom backs the army’s control of the transition. “We might be wrong but, to this day, the fact that the military chose to listen to the people’s suffering shows we’re right,” says Sams’k Le Jah, who doesn’t hesitate to describe the country’s new leader as a rasta, before saying of his opponents, “They say "Zida = Blaise" even though they all served the previous power. We distanced ourselves from this smear campaign.”
In addition to the former president’s scheme to extend his 27-year-old rule, the surrounding poverty and the lack of prospects for the younger generation — even as Compaoré and his family kept growing richer — also played a significant part in the storm of protests that carried off the regime.
Daouda Zida, “a sociologist working as a metallurgist,” was in the middle of the civil uprising. “We respect the parties that awaken the population, but we won’t tolerate that they turn us away from our fight,” he says. “The whole world is looking at Burkina Faso, even though the international community didn’t support our fight.”
Zacaria Ouedraogo, sitting next to the sociologist on the bench installed by the road, adds: “Now, whoever gets elected will need to do what the people want.”