Burkina Faso: La Patrie ou la Mort… Venceremos

This paper was originally written for the Latin American Studies Association Conference held in Bogota, Colombia from June 12-15 2024. Parts of this paper were read during a panel titled, “Daring to Invent the Future”: Learning from Black and Indigenous Resistance.”

August 4th 1983: The Birth of the First Burkinabè Revolution 

On August 4 1983 at 9:30 pm, power went out across Ouagadougou. Thirty minutes later, Captain Thomas Sankara, a young military officer previously the prime minister of Upper Volta before becoming a political prisoner under the same regime, announced on the radio that the government had been overthrown. In and out of prison under the presidencies of Colonel Saye Zerbo and Jean Baptiste Ouedraogo, leaders who both attempted to bring Sankara into their political administrations and then punish him for his revolutionary alignments, Sankara finally succeeded in doing what previously government’s most feared. 

Upper Volta had seen military coup d’états before. Sankara was the fourth. And yet this coup immediately distinguished itself as radically different. From the beginning, it was established through mass mobilisations of civilians working to express widespread popular support. Already known to the people as an outspoken political leader who sided consistently with the exploited workers and peasants of the nation and who expressed consistent solidarity with anti-imperialist and socialist struggles within an international geopolitical context, the people had a clear reason to admire Sankara. Large protests led by secondary school students, working-class youth and trade unionists rocked Ouagadougou the previous May in favour of then-political prisoner Thomas Sankara’s release. Thus, unlike prior coup makers who seized power over Upper Volta, Sankara was already beloved by the time he came to power. 

Also immediately distinguishing Thomas Sankara was his ideology which drew direct inspiration from Marxism, Pan-Africanism and national liberation struggles. Sankara had been radicalised, in part, during his paratrooper training in Paris during which he spent time with Voltaic communist groups and purchased Marxist literature from revolutionary bookstores. He also established close relationships with various communist groups that were active in Burkina Faso upon his return (Harsh 41).  In the words of De Valera N.Y.M. Botchway and Moussa Traoré, 

The Burkinabè Revolution was a military putsch (or coup) led by a group of charismatic Marxist military officers. This military putsch, however, had considerable popular support and came to power against a pro-imperialist regime.

While Sankara came to power indisputably through a military coup, he quickly characterised the revolution as popular and democratic– the coup itself being an action by and for the people. Insiders close to Sankara, including his friend and advisor Valère Somé, characterised the birth of the revolution as an event driven by popular insurrection on the part of the masses. 

La Patrie ou la mort… Venceremos! 

Thomas Sankara famously stated that the Burkinabè revolution was the heir to the world’s revolutions. Yet there was perhaps no revolution that Thomas Sankara drew more direct inspiration from than the Cuban Revolution. On a symbolic level, the unity of the two revolutions is represented by their shared slogans– in Cuba: Patria o Muerte, Venceremos–  in Burkina Faso: La Patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons— the latter slogan adopted in honour and recognition of the former. On a structural level, the unity between both revolutions was most clearly reflected in the Burkinabè Comités de défense de la révolution (CDRs) modelled after the Cuban Comités de Defensa de la Révolucion (CDRs). Established by Fidel Castro in 1960, the Cuban Comités de Defensa de la Révolucion were established to engage the masses of Cuban people in various cities, towns and neighbourhoods to protect and defend the Cuban revolution. The Cuban CDRs have been described as the “eyes and ears” of the revolution, organising the working class to keep a watchful eye on any attempts to destabilise or destroy their collective gains. The mass organisation of the Cuban CDRs also made it possible for workers to carry out various campaigns to transform the quality of life and material conditions of their communities and their nation such as campaigns focused on literacy and public health. 

In Burkina Faso, the Comités de Défense de la Révolution were established for largely the same purpose. Many CDRs were armed groups empowered to protect the Burkinabè revolution from potential imperialist collaborators and to address local community or village needs through collective labour and shared responsibility. Like in Cuba, the Burkinabè CDRs had a large focus on both education and public health. In addition to serving as a defence force for the revolution and organising workers to exercise campaigns for their neighbourhoods and country, the Burkinabè CDRs also replaced the rule of semi-feudal chieftaincies in rural villages. It should be noted that in this particular context, the semi-feudal practices of rural taxation, tribute collecting, and labour exploitation on the part of traditional chiefs were largely developed and solidified under French colonial rule, thus they are not necessarily reflective of pre-colonial social and economic relations in the region. Within Burkina Faso, the CDRs evolved to serve as the fundamental unit for popular engagement within the revolutionary process. The Burkinabè CDRs were assigned the role of diffusing political and ideological education, increasing literacy, protecting the environment, improving public health, building new infrastructure and housing, and serving in administrative, economic and judicial roles. 

In addition to building similar revolutionary structures, the Cuban revolution inspired the Burkinabè revolution through the direct participation of Cuban revolutionaries in the carrying out of various campaigns in Burkina Faso. Very quickly after Sankara established his revolutionary government upon taking power in 1983, he signed accords with Cuba for scientific, economic, and technical collaboration. That year, Cuba sent a couple dozen healthcare professionals, including doctors, to Burkina Faso. Cuba also provided material support and assistance for the development of agriculture, socialist economic planning, animal husbandry, education and the building of a dam. 

The following year in 1984, Thomas Sankara travelled to Cuba to meet President Fidel Castro and to receive the José Martí award, the highest honour that the Cuban revolution bestows. Upon receiving the award Sankara declared, “Cuba and Burkina Faso are so far and yet so near, so different and yet so similar, that only revolutionaries can understand the sincere love that pushes us irresistibly toward one another” (141). Thomas Sankara would continue to speak out regularly in defence of and in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.

 In 1987, he did a special interview with Radio Havana that was published in Granma on the fourth anniversary of the Burkinabè revolution. Sankara stated, 

I realised Fidel has great human feelings, keen intuition, and that he understood the importance of our struggle and the problems of my country. I remember all this as though it were yesterday. And I’ve happily reminded him of it each time I’ve seen him since then. We’re great friends, thanks to the revolution that guides both Burkina Faso and Cuba… Cooperation between Cuba and Burkina Faso has reached a very high level. We attach great importance to this because it puts us in contact with a sister revolution. We like feeling at ease with each other. Nobody likes to feel alone. Knowing we can count on Cuba is an important source of strength for us. 

Sankara then highlighted Cuban material contributions to the Burkinabè revolution at that time. He spoke of Cuban support in sugarcane production and ceramics as well as Cuban support in railroad and housing construction, health and education. 

One of Sankara’s final speeches, just one week before his assassination, was dedicated to the life and legacy of Che Guevara during the opening of an exhibition honouring the Latin American revolutionary in Ouagadougou. In Sankara’s own words,

Che Guevara, an Argentine according to his passport, became an adopted Cuban through the blood and sweat he shed for the Cuban people. He became, above all, a citizen of the free world– the free world that we’re building together. That’s why we say that Che Guevara is also an African and a Burkinabè… Che is Burkinabè. He is Burkinabè because he participates in our struggle. He is Burkinabè because his ideas inspire us and are inscribed in our Political Orientation Speech. He is Burkinabè because his star is stamped on our banner. He is Burkinabè because some of his ideas live in each of us in the daily struggle we wage.

In this same speech, Thomas Sankara tells the story of the famous Attack on the Moncada led by Fidel Castro explaining that as the Cuban revolutionaries were on the verge of being assassinated by Batista’s army one officer declared, “Don’t shoot, you cannot kill ideas.” Sankara went on to state, “It’s true, you cannot kill ideas. Ideas do not die.” He presented this speech on October 8th 1987. Exactly one week later on October 15th 1987, traitors to the revolution would shoot and kill Thomas Sankara. Sankara’s own legacy and the past 37 years of Burkina Faso’s history would prove his parting message true. 

The Orphans Left Behind 

Beyond the exchanges between the Cuban and Burkinabè heads of state and the arrival of  Cubans on Burkinabè soil, hundreds of Burkinabè also spent significant portions of their lives in Cuba. Most notable are the “orphans of Sankara ” or the 600 school-aged children whom Sankara sent and Fidel Castro invited to attend a boarding school on the revolutionary Caribbean island. The Cuban government offered scholarships to Burkinabè pupils and Sankara selected children who had lost one or both parents for the educational opportunity. They studied at the school ESBEC 37 on Isla de la Juventud where in addition to traditional core subjects, they learned agroecology, received basic military training and had a Marxist-Leninist ideological education. While most of their classmates were Cuban, they were not the only international students at the school. The school had 40 nationalities, including Angolans, Mozambicans, Nicaraguans, Cape Verdeans, Guineans, Congolese, South Africans, Sahrawis, Ghanaians and North Koreans. Their time in Cuba brought them close to Cuban culture through music and dance, an artistic exchange that continues to produce ripples throughout the African continent. 

Thomas Sankara visited them at the school six months into their education, meeting and shaking hands with every one of them. He arrived in Cuba in September 1987. His right-hand man, Blaise Compaoré, backed by an imperialist hierarchy, took his life the following month. This was a huge shock for the Burkinabè students who were sent off to Cuba on a revolutionary mission to learn as much as they could before returning to Burkina Faso to advance the struggle at home. As many of the students were orphans, they saw Thomas Sankara as a father figure who came to visit them at the school. They thus became the “orphans of Sankara.”

Blaise Compaoré was worried that these Cuban-educated children with military training could become a real danger in now-counterrevolutionary Burkina Faso so he suspended their scholarships. However, Fidel Castro fought for the children to continue their education on the island and the Cuban government was determined to cover all of their needs. The children experienced and were a part of Cuban history, both the revolutionary process and the hardships caused by the US blockade on Cuba and the fall of the USSR. 

When they finished their secondary school education, 33 of the students continued to the university level. Others did technical training. Six places were reserved for Burkinabè students to attend medical school. At this point, many students were adopted by local Cuban host families. Many of them formed real familial bonds with their adopted Cuban parents, making their return to Burkina Faso a sad affair. But they all insisted upon returning to the country of their birth. After all, they had received clear instruction from Sankara that they were to use their Cuban education to advance and serve their homeland.

The transition back to Burkina Faso after years, sometimes over a decade, in Cuba was challenging. In addition to the reverse culture shock and identity questions that come along with a childhood split between two far-off countries, the political context of Burkina Faso under Blaise Compaoré was hostile towards the returnees. Most of them found that their degrees were considered invalid or illegitimate by the new government and the local job market. Cuban-educated Burkinabè were considered at best a nuisance and at worst dangerous under the new regime. 

Today the Orphans of Sankara organise under the banner of L’Association pour la solidarité et l’amitié des anciens étudiants formés à Cuba, in English The Association for the Solidarity and Friendship of Former Students Trained in Cuba (ASAC-BF). 

We Must Make Nicaragua’s Struggle Known Throughout the World

Thomas Sankara first made contact with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution at the Non-Aligned Movement in New Delhi in 1983 when he was still the prime minister under former president Jean Batiste Ouedraogo. This was before his political imprisonment the following May and before he seized power in a revolutionary coup the following August. However, Sankara also used the opportunity to establish ties to other Latin American and Caribbean revolutions. He met Maurice Bishop who was at the head of the Grenadian Revolution. Imperialist forces assassinated Bishop and reversed the Grenadian revolution just a few months after the triumph of the Burkinabè revolution, preventing the two revolutions from ever establishing formal ties. In one of his famous speeches delivered in Harlem, Thomas Sankara spoke about the letter that he wrote to Maurice Bishop that was never delivered due to the assassination of the Grenadian revolutionary. 

At the Non-Aligned Summit of 1983, Sankara also spoke out in support of the FMLN in El Salvador and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, denouncing US imperialism in the region (Harsch 45). This would be the beginning of a long enduring friendship with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Thomas Sankara first visited Nicaragua in 1984 on his way back from the US and Cuba (Murrey 44-45). Thomas Sankara and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega then visited each other’s countries in 1986 with Ortega first arriving in Ouagadougou. There, Ortega received the Gold Star of Nahouri, the most honourable award Burkina Faso granted at the time. Three months later, Sankara would visit Nicaragua for the first time where he spoke at a mass rally of 200,000 people on the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista Front’s founding and the 10th anniversary of Carlos Fonseca’s death. On this occasion Sankara declared, “We must support Nicaragua because if Nicaragua were to be crushed, it would mar the happiness of other peoples all over the world…We must make Nicaragua’s struggle known throughout the world” (Sankara 321). In 1986, Burkina Faso also supported Nicaragua in their International Court of Justice case against the United States. This case found the United States guilty of training and arming the Contras death squad. 

The current Nicaraguan ambassador to Burkina Faso Luis Manuel Andino Paiz also talks about the significant impact of the Burkinabè revolution on the peoples of Nicaragua into the present, 

Before I came here, I already knew Thomas Sankara. Because Thomas Sankara is also studied in Nicaragua. The Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua, we also studied the internationalists, a freedom fighter for change, a better, fairer, balanced society. And well, Thomas Sankara, is known all over the world as the African Che, it was impossible that in Nicaragua he was not studied.

Major Setbacks and the Beginning of New Victories

Thomas Sankara was assassinated not just by Blaise Compaoré, but by an entire international imperialist system that sought to remove him from power. Compaoré then ruled over Burkina Faso for 27 years following Sankara’s assassination, reversing many gains of the revolution. 

According to the current Ambassador Luis Manuel Andino Paiz, ties between Burkina Faso and Nicaragua were broken under the Blaise Compaoré regime. Similarly, according to the Cuban ambassador to Burkina Faso, Nadieska Navarro Barro, the relationship between Cuba and Burkina Faso weakened during the Compaoré regime. However, Cuba continued to collaborate with Burkina Faso because they did not want to end collaboration with the people due to the nature of the state. 

Despite widespread repression and high risks, Burkinabè continued to organise and mobilise under Compaoré often under the slogan “justice for Thomas Sankara!” Teachers and school students played a visible role in the struggle, taking time off of the school year to protest together on the streets.

In 2014, when Blaise Compore sought to change the constitution to further extend his 27-year-long rule over the country, a mass insurrection spanning the country broke out. This insurrection would lead to Compaoré’s resignation and downfall. However, the organisations at the head of the insurrection were more unified around wanting to depose Blaise Compaoré than they were ideologically aligned in regards to the kind of new government they were seeking. No significant leftist parties were organised and prepared to take power over the state leading to the election of Roch Kabore. Kaboré was a former member of Blaise Compaoré’s Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) ruling party who left the party to form his own as tensions regarding Compaoré’s rule were mounting. 

Roch Kaboré served as president of Burkina Faso from 2015 to 2022 before his overthrow in a military coup that briefly installed Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. One of the most significant shifts in Burkina Faso to occur under the Kaboré administration was the proliferation of paramilitary death squads known as “terrorists” in the post-9/11 political vocabulary. In reality, these paramilitaries operating throughout the western Sahel can be compared to the Nicaraguan Contras or the death squads that ravaged El Salvador throughout the late 20th century. They are propped up by an international imperialist system, even as major western powers have claimed to fight against them. Much of their early weapon supply stemmed from the NATO destruction of Libya in 2011 as the power vacuum over the Libyan state allowed for paramilitaries to seize weapons that belonged to the deposed Jamahiriya and bring them into the Sahel. Western countries, France and the US especially, rushed to set up bases and new military agreements to defend the Sahel from attack allegedly. However, trust in the NATO bloc quickly eroded. 

In 2021, a military coup in neighbouring Mali overthrew former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who was the target of large protests and widespread popularity due to French military occupation of the country. By 2022, the new leader of Mali, Colonel Assimi Goita expelled the French military and, at the level of the UN, the new prime minister of Mali, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, publicly accused France of providing weapons and intelligence to the paramilitary death squads they were supposedly fighting. Civilians were outraged by footage of a mass grave uncovered at the site of the recently evacuated French military base. In November of 2023, the Malian Armed Forces liberated the Kidal region of Mali and uncovered evidence of an unknown American mercenary who was active in the area. 

These developments in Mali had a significant impact on the people of Burkina Faso who organised widespread demonstrations in the hope of following in Mali’s path by ending military cooperation with France. The Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba coup of 2022 was seen as a hopeful sign that Burkina Faso might be moving in the same direction as Mali. However, after nine-months without any visible signs of progress and an official pardoning of Blaise Compaoré who had been charged with Sankara’s assassination, hope began to fade. The final straw for many was Damiba’s speech at the 2022 General Assembly which was deemed ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shallow’ by many Burkinabè especially when compared to the powerful anti-imperialist speech delivered by Mali’s prime minister. Small protests broke out against Damiba following the assembly. 

A New Coup, A New Revolution?

On September 30 2022, cellular mobile data was shut off for most of the day as rumours spread rapidly that another coup was underway. That evening an announcement confirmed the coup on public television. This would be President Ibrahim Traoré’s public debut. 

Like Thomas Sankara, Ibrahim Traoré was involved in the coup government that preceded him before overthrowing it. Thomas Sankara served as prime minister under coup maker Jean Baptiste Ouedraogo and then proceeded to depose him. Ibrahim Traoré overthrew Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, despite them both being members of the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (PMSR) which put him in power. Like Sankara, Ibrahim Traoré was radicalised and politically educated through communist organising before his rise to power. As a student in Ouagadougou, Traoré was an active member of L’Association nationale des étudiants du Burkina or The National Association of Burkina Students (ANEB), a Marxist trade union that politicises and organises students on university campuses. 

As in the context of the 1980s revolution, Ibrahim Traoré’s rise was driven by popular insurrection on the part of the masses. The people of Burkina Faso immediately rushed to mobilise and organise in support of Ibrahim Traoré, certain that he had come to power to represent positive change in Burkina Faso or that he could be pushed in that direction. While many outside of Burkina Faso see coups as a top-down imposition of power over the masses of the people, both Thomas Sankara and Ibrahim Traoré’s power is locally understood as emerging from grassroots desires and demands. Almost every major policy decision that has been adopted by the Ibrahim Traoré government first emerged as a demand emanating from popular mobilisations of workers, unemployed youth and elders, and farmers. 

Following the anti-imperialist coup in Mali, the Burkinabè people took to the streets mobilising for months on end to call for the expulsion of the French troops from their soils, the forging of new partnerships outside of the NATO camp, and unification with the Malian state. Since coming to power, this has been the cornerstone of Ibrahim Traoré’s foreign policy. In addition, Ibrahim Traoré has taken steps to industrialise the country through partnerships with diverse countries, mostly outside of the NATO camp, or otherwise with scientifically-trained Burkinabè. Ibrahim Traoré has signed contracts or, in some cases, launched the construction of projects such as building a nuclear power plant, an oil refinery and a gold refinery. Traoré nationalised the sugar sector and, most recently, a major bank. He has also launched L’Actionnariat populaire to allow working class and rural Burkinabè to own shares in smaller local industrial and agricultural enterprises, a cooperative initiative referred to in Burkina Faso as community economics. New land reform policies have limited the amount of land an individual can possess to five hectares to break up large landholdings for speculation. Like Sankara, Traoré has opted out of a presidential salary and has redistributed money from ministers and civil servants to oppressed sectors of society, in this case to people who the death squads have internally displaced. 

A defence agreement known as the ‘Alliance of Sahel States’ (AES) has been signed by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to coordinate their efforts in the fight against the paramilitary death squads and to create a joint foreign policy. At the core of the agreement is the clause “Any attack on the sovereignty and integrity of the territory of one or more Contracting Parties will be considered as an aggression against the other Parties.” A delegation of Pan-Africanists walked 862 kilometres on foot from Bamako, Mali to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in March 2023 to express their desires for unification between Mali and Burkina Faso. Across the Sahel, civilians are organising and rallying for the creation of a federal United States of Africa as imagined by Kwame Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Modibo Keita, Marcus Garvey and many others. Ibrahim Traoré has expressed his desire for such a federation on many occasions, leading many to anticipate the formation of the AES as a step in that direction. In addition to this joint defence collaboration, Burkina Faso’s Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDPs), a new people’s volunteer militia composed of civilians turned combatants, is fighting the death squads alongside the Burkina Faso Armed Forces.

Traoré works closely with Sankara’s former officials and those who remained loyal to Sankara throughout the Compaoré era. This is best reflected in his choice for prime minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla, a former CDR leader whom Sankara admired and wanted in his government. Another prominent figure who worked closely with Sankara without betraying him throughout the years is Alouna Traoré, the sole survivor of the Blaise Compaoré coup who managed to flee before execution. Alouna Traoré has stated that he gives his full support to Captain Ibrahim Traoré whom he admires for “his taste for the truth.” 

Ibrahim Traoré and Latin America 

Since Ibrahim Traoré’s rise to power, Burkina Faso has strengthened or restrengthened its relationship with revolutionary countries in Latin America, particularly Venezuela and Nicaragua. 

In May 2023, Prime Minister Apollaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambela visited Venezuela to meet with President Nicolas Maduro and various Venezuelan ministers to strengthen relations with the socialist South American state. The two countries met for a friendship mission that would increase their collaboration in agriculture, mining, education, the advancement of women, health, technical training, culture, and defence. Burkinabè Prime Minister Kyélem de Tambela called for the US to lift the sanctions on Venezuela. The two countries began establishing a joint commission in January 2024. They established a parliamentary friendship group in February to oversee this process. Regarding the commission, the Burkinabè Minister of Foreign Affairs SEM Karamoko Jean Marie Traoré stated, “I have good faith that we will sign as many agreements and memorandums of understanding as possible, up to what we expect from cooperation between our two countries.” Burkina Faso and Venezuela have drafted 26 collaboration agreements with particular advancements in the areas of space technology such as the development of satellites and sustainable mineral resource management. Eight students were sent from Burkina Faso to the Caracas Latin American School of Medicine as the first contingent of Burkinabè to study at the school.

In July 2023, Joachim Kyélem de Tambela attended the 44th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua. It was a powerful rekindling for two revolutionary countries that followed similar trajectories. As aforementioned, the two states shared a very close friendship under the revolutionary leadership of Thomas Sankara and Daniel Ortega in the 1980s. Both states then experienced long periods of counterrevolution and hardship upon the assassination of Thomas Sankara and then the ousting of the ousting of the Sandinistas in the 1990s. Now Sankarists have returned to power in Burkina Faso and Sandinistas have returned to power in Nicaragua bringing the two states back together and proving the revolution can triumph even in the face of temporary setbacks or defeat. While at the Sandinista anniversary celebration in Nicaragua, Kyélem de Tambela traced the history of the friendship between the two countries and stated, 

For people of my generation, there are things that unite us with Nicaragua, Augusto César Sandino, the Sandinista National Liberation Front and Commander Daniel Ortega… We have learned to know Nicaragua. When the liberation struggle began, I was small, but we followed, day by day, the context of Nicaragua’s liberation. I went in July of ’79, and when they entered Managua we were happy, people of my age celebrated that…And then, when Thomas Sankara came to power, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Revolution was something happy for us; we as students studied a lot the history of Nicaragua, we followed its evolution…Nicaragua’s struggle is also that of our people. 

This was the birth of a new friendship between the two states. The countries established a joint commission that July to establish cooperation in the sectors of economy and finance; commerce; industry; agriculture; breeding; scientific and technological research; professional training, health, sports,  culture and tourism, and media. On his visit to Nicaragua, Prime Minister Kyélem de Tambela stated, “Nicaragua is what I would like for Burkina Faso, that is to say that without a lot of resources, we can ensure that our country is envied and enviable, that it is pleasant to be there.” On January 18th, 2024, the Nicaraguan embassy opened in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. 

Luis Manuel Andino Paiz, the new Nicaraguan ambassador to Burkina Faso, has stated, 

So, we have started a new process, and this also means that in Nicaragua we see that this process, which is headed by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, as a process that aspires and follows the guidelines of Thomas Sankara. They killed Thomas Sankara, but the ideas stayed there. And today we believe that these ideas are being restored, and this new reality that Burkina Faso is experiencing is being applied. And not only Burkina Faso, this has also been spreading in many countries in Africa, especially countries near the Sahara, or countries in West Africa that we know. So it is a process of true independence, true self-determination of the peoples. I think people are becoming aware, like many people in Latin America, the people of Venezuela, the people of Nicaragua, the people of Cuba, mainly, and there are other people who have become aware that we have to first believe in ourselves and look for development among ourselves.

At the 78th Session of The United Nations General Assembly in September 2023, Burkinabè Minister of Civil Service Bassolma Bazié who is also the secretary general of the Marxist trade union General Confederation of Burkina Workers (CGT-B), paid homage to the world’s revolutionaries before beginning his speech. Notably, he honoured Fidel Castro and  Ernest Che Guevara alongside numerous Pan-African leaders of the African continent and diaspora. 

Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambela has also stated the following about Cuba and the Cuban revolution, “We have very close relations with Cuba, President Fidel Castro has been and was a very important person for the revolution in Africa; we have excellent memories, both of Cuba and of President Fidel Castro.”

Defending Our Liberated Zones

In his 1968 book, The Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare, Pan-African theorist and first president of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah divided African states into three categories: liberated zones, contested zones and, zones under enemy territory. He defined liberated zones as zones where “a puppet regime was overthrown by a people’s movement,” and where “a social revolution is taking place to consolidate political independence by: 1) promoting accelerated economic development, 2) improving working conditions, 3) establishing complete freedom from dependence on foreign economic interests” (44). Contested zones are zones where there is a revolutionary struggle on the part of workers and peasants to attempt to overthrow imperialism and end neo-colonial rule. Zones under enemy control are African states that are under the firm grip of neo-colonialism. 

Of the categories of African states that Kwame Nkrumah delineates, Pan-Africanists often consider the defence and protection of liberated zones to take priority within the struggle. Today three states in the Sahel are best categorised as liberated zones, Burkina Faso, Mali, and now Niger. Following the anti-imperialist coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger followed suit with a military coup in July 2023 which installed Abdouramane Tchiani. Since that time, Niger has not only expelled the French troops, Niger has also become the first African country to end military accords with the US Africa Command or AFRICOM. Eritrea, which never signed AFRICOM accords to begin with, is the only other African country that does not have a military agreement with the United States. Like in Mali and Burkina Faso, the majority of civilians have organised mass mobilisations and rallies nationwide to express their support for both Abdouramane Tchiani’s government and the decision to expel French and US troops. 

As in the case of sovereign socialist and anti-imperialist Latin American states, the western destabilisation efforts directed towards these three states in the Sahel are enormous. Burkina Faso, Mali and, Niger, referred to collectively as the Alliance of Sahel States or AES, are the target of negative media propaganda funded and fueled by powerful countries that have long benefited from unequal political and economic relations with the African continent. 

On 25 April, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report claiming Burkina Faso’s military killed 223 civilians. The report was referenced or republished across mainstream western news sites. The United States and the United Kingdom proceeded to issue a joint declaration denouncing the Burkinabè government for these alleged killings. Yet, Burkinabè citizens reacted differently. Mobilisations quickly broke out in the country, most notably with large crowds of civilians rushing to the US embassy to decry what they insisted was an imperialist destabilisation attempt against a revolutionary African government. 

In various speeches, President Ibrahim Traoré and Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambela have called out the hypocrisy and corruption of an organisation like HRW. President Traoré recalled the false reports HRW published to fuel an uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, which ultimately resulted in the 2011 NATO-led invasion and destruction of the North African state. As aforementioned this had disastrous consequences for the Sahel where paramilitary death squads have seized Libyan weapons in the aftermath of the NATO invasion to wreak havoc in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. 

Curiously HRW seems to consistently side with US foreign policy whether in regards to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela or Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Perhaps this is reflective of their funding which includes sources such as the National Endowment for Democracy dubbed ‘the new CIA,’ a view the founder of the organisation confirmed. This may also be a result of their board members and advisors which have included US diplomats, advisors to US presidents and even an individual who oversaw the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Fernández). 

There is another way that the Alliance of Sahel States are targeted which may be familiar to some Latin Americans: sanctions. In 2022 Mali was hit particularly hard with sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in 2023, ECOWAS sanctions devastated material conditions for workers in Niger. The ECOWAS is a regional bloc covering 15 African states that collaborate on certain economic policies while supposedly guaranteeing the free movement of people and goods. In practice, West African nationals are often policed and fined when crossing borders. Dominated by neo-colonial states whose foreign policy is dictated by western demands, ECOWAS could perhaps be compared to regional American bodies such as CARICOM or the OAS. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger withdrew from ECOWAS in January 2024. 

Today the United States, Canada and the European Union maintain economic sanctions against the state of Mali and the European Union is also sanctioning Niger. This is likely only the beginning of western aggression towards the Alliance of Sahel States. 

The Thomas Sankara Centre

Today, the Thomas Sankara Centre, known officially and on some online platforms as Burkina Books, is a Pan-African socialist library and political education centre in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It brings otherwise unavailable Pan-African reading materials and other resources to Burkina Faso and increases political and ideological education through workshops, reading groups, discussions and debates. It has also become a bridge between the struggles waged by workers and farmers in the Sahel and the rest of the world, especially English speakers. The Thomas Sankara Center maintains a close relationship with the Cuban and Nicaraguan embassy in Ouagadougou leading in Cuban solidarity work and intending to expand solidarity efforts to Nicaragua. All day-to-day activities and operations of the centre are entirely grassroots funded. For more information you can visit the official Instagram page with is @Burkinabooks or the Facebook page which is ‘Centre Thomas Sankara pour la liberation et l’unification africaine.’ If you would like to support this work please visit Patreon.com/Burkinabooks.

Works Cited

Botchway, De-Valera N.Y.M., and Moussa Traore. “Military Coup, Popular Revolution or Militarised Revolution?: Contextualising the Revolutionary Ideological Courses of Thomas Sankara and the National Council of the Revolution.” A Certain Amount of Madness the Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara, Pluto Press, London, 2018, pp. 19–35.

Fernández, Belén, et al. “Human Rights Watch’s Revolving Door.” Jacobin, 6 Aug. 2014, jacobin.com/2014/06/human-rights-watchs-revolving-door/.

Harsch, Ernest. Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest, and Revolution. Zed Books, 2021.

Harsch, Ernest. Thomas Sankara: An African Revolutionary. Ohio University Press, 2014.

Murrey, Amber. A Certain Amount of Madness the Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara. Pluto Press, 2018.

Navarro Barro, Nadieska, and Inemesit Richardson. “Interview with the Cuban Ambassador to Burkina Faso Her Excellence  Nadieska Navarro Barro.” 11 June 2024.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare: A Guide to the Armed Phase of the African Revolution. International Publishers, 1969.

Richardson, Inemesit, and Inousssa Dankambary. “Association for the Solidarity and Friendship of Former Students Trained in Cuba- Inoussa Dankambary.” 5 June 2024.

Richardson, Inemesit, and Luis Manuel Andino Paiz. “Interview with the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Burkina Faso.” 5 June 2024.Sankara, Thomas. Thomas Sankara Parle: La Révolution Au Burkina Faso, 1983-1987. Edited by Michel Prairie, Pathfinder, 2014.


More from this Writer

Inem Richardson is originally from the Bay Area in Northern California but she currently lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where she is the founder of the Centre Thomas Sankara Pour La Libération et L’Unité Africain, a Pan-African library and political education center.