In the pantheon of every youth who flirts with the far left, Ernesto “Che” Guevara surely stands atop the loftiest plinth. Such was once the case for me, though not for very long. Guevara’s fervid hatred of Yankee imperialism had me genuflecting at his feet; his dauntless spirit was a source of envy. I agreed wholeheartedly with what Sartre said of him, and cantillated with the Cubans thus:
Aprendimos a quererte,
desde la histórica altura,
donde el sol de tu bravura
le puso cerco a la muerte.
I soon realised, however, that the feet were bootless, the philosophy cold, and the widespread reverence of him foolish. And so my splendid monument to the comandante was toppled, never to be hoisted up again. But many of my principles emerged from this development unscathed, and, in the way that thirsty minds often do, I looked for some other lodestar to help me cultivate them further.
The search led me to a constellation which contained such lucent suns as Cabral and Lumumba and Biko. Yet the light of one man blazed the brightest. Thomas Sankara was the President of Burkina Faso between 1983 and 1987. The coup d’état, that most stubborn feature of African politics, had first carried him to power and then cruelly ripped him from it. But the four intervening years, replete with radical reform, saw Sankara appear to engineer an inflorescence that no African nation had ever seen or, indeed, has seen since.
Together with his manner and his great respect for the Cuban Revolution, this led to the beret-clad Burkinabé being lauded as the African Che Guevara. Such a comparison is inevitable, but is it more than merely superficial? Is it really just? By juxtaposing the deeds of each man and the milieus in which they operated, we can reach an answer. Let us begin, then, with their ascensions to power.
‘Imperialism,’ wrote Lenin, ‘is the monopoly stage of capitalism’. At this stage, among other things, ‘international monopolist capitalist associations’ carve up the world between themselves. By the early fifties, much of Central America had been so divided, and in Cuba, those corporations — overwhelmingly American — were despoiling the vast working class. Gangster-in-chief of this particular banana republic was Washington-backed Fulgencio Batista. During his dictatorship, Havana grew notoriously fat from depravity, while the rural Cuban was illiterate for want of education, became sick for want of healthcare, and stayed poor because the wealth which he created and which belonged to him was being pumped out of his country. And so in 1953, anti-Batista sentiment came ablaze. Led by Fidel Castro, one hundred and sixty men attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The rebels were repelled and Castro was imprisoned, but the revolution had begun.
Guevara was soon to join it. Born into a genteel Argentinean family, the young man was a doctor whose Marxist convictions had in part been shaped by his travels through Latin America. But his revolutionary ardour had crystallised in Guatemala, where he had ‘sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin [never to rest until the American] capitalist octopuses are annihilated’. He had seen their tentacles claim a victim in the righteous President Arbenz, who had been heinously overthrown in a coup organised by the CIA. Guevara declared, then, that he was preparing ‘[his] being as if it were a sacred place, so that in it the bestial howling of the triumphant proletariat can resonate with new vibrations and new hopes’. In the Sierra Maestra, this ardour would reach its fullest height.
Helmut Schmidt rather contumeliously used to call the USSR ‘Obervolta mit Raketen’: Upper Volta with rockets. The phrase may have irked the Soviets, but it also did well to capture the insignificance and abjection of the landlocked little African country. Like Cuba, Upper Volta too had suffered at the hands of greater powers. The French, espying a trade surplus and a deep well of labour, had come to West Africa in the 1890s as part of the imperialist Scramble. Over the next sixty years, Upper Volta was conceived, dismembered and rearranged again; its borders, like those of so many other African nation-states, were arbitrarily drawn. In 1958, it became a self-governing colony; then, two years later, Upper Volta was finally free.
By the early eighties, the country had not made a great deal of progress. It had been stunted by a series of useless presidents — Yaméogo, Lamizana, Zerbo — all of whom had fallen victim to coups. The country’s infrastructure was scraggy; its people were illiterate and poor; infant mortality was appallingly high. Trade unions were striking constantly, but the plight of workers remained static.
Thomas Sankara, contrary to Guevara, rose to power from within. He did not fight the national army; he was indeed a part of it. But like the Argentinean, Sankara was a Marxist. Born the son of a policeman in 1949, he had read Marx and Lenin during his officer training, first in Madagascar and then in France. A paratrooper, he rose to the rank of captain and fought the Malians in 1974. But it was in 1981 that his journey to the presidency properly began. Sankara reluctantly accepted a post in Saye Zerbo’s cabinet but soon resigned. Zerbo was deposed in 1982, which brought Jean-Baptise Ouédraogo to power. Sankara became the conservative Ouédraogo’s Prime Minister, but his radicalism and popularity saw him dismissed and jailed for treason — a development which roused people to protest.
His ascent thereon in was a thunderstroke, as quick as Guevara’s was protracted. Castro and Guevara led columns of guerrillas against Batista from the mountains. Their two-year struggle, which had begun with the Granma landing, culminated in January 1959 with Batista’s fleeing Cuba and utter exaltation in the streets of Havana. On the other hand, Sankara, having been freed from prison, overthrew Ouédraogo on the night of 4 August 1983 with help from his best friend and fellow officer, Captain Blaise Compaoré. The people were joyous, and Upper Volta sang:
une seule nuit a rassemblée en elle
L’histoire de tout un peuple.
Et une seule nuit a déclenché sa marche triomphale
Vers l’horizon du bonheur.
Une seule nuit a réconcilié notre peuple
Avec tous les peuples du monde,
A la conquête de la liberté et du progrès
La Patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!
It can be seen, then, that Guevara and Sankara’s respective ascensions were not terribly alike. The death tolls tell the story: thirteen perished on that August night in Ouagadougou, while thousands lost their lives during Castro’s campaign. Gossamer removed, Sankara’s was just another humdrum West African coup d’état; success by guerrilla warfare was by far the greater achievement. But there were similarities: both revolutions had Marx as their principal guiding light; both were well-received by the downtrodden masses; and each man had a close comrade — Castro, Compaoré — who would profoundly affect his future.
We come thus to the centrepiece of our comparison, at which the exercise becomes infinitely more profitable. By the time the initial euphoria in Cuba had dissolved, Castro’s work was well underway. He had installed Manuel Urrutia as President and loaded Urrutia’s cabinet with anti-Communists. This assuaged the fears not only of Cuban conservatives, but of Washington as well. Meanwhile, the radical Guevara was sent out of sight, away from the upheaval, to an old fortress called La Cabaña. He had been tasked with dishing out revolutionary justice to Batista’s brutes, to informers and traitors. At least fifty-five times such justice rang through the barrel of a gun. Che himself did not carry out the executions — though he had the final word — and it is said that each defendant received a fair trial — though one cannot of course be sure. Whatever the case, here was a man inured to death and one who considered killing necessary for the health of the revolution.
There is little mention of anything similar occurring in Upper Volta on Sankara’s ascension. But the new President set about safeguarding his own revolution by other less explosive means, and with impressive alacrity. Some of his major changes smacked of Castro; for example, Comités de la Defense de la Révolution (CDRs) were instituted to nurture the revolution. They did so in multifarious ways. CDRs stringently inspected all imports with a view to eliminating the booming black market. Moreover, decision-making powers stripped from fusty village chiefs were absorbed by the Committees. Of course, this did not very much please the chiefs.
It was in fact just one of a number of measures designed to haul the backward-looking Voltan tribes into the here and now. The very poles of their ancient way of life were being rocked by Sankara, as they had been by the French, but just try to argue that Sankara’s programme of progressive change was not for the better. In early 1984, the right of the chiefs to tribute payments was abrogated. At the same time, so too was their right to enjoy the fruits of obligatory labour. Polygamy, practised by many a rural chieftain, was also strongly discouraged. Sankara had made the lumbering Goliath of old-fangled attitudes his enemy, and, what is more, had smote it in its forehead. It would later rise — and to his detriment — but in so smiting it, Sankara had shown great verve and nerve and most importantly the integrity of his vision. On the first anniversary of the revolution, Sankara changed the name of his country. The dull geographical designation, Upper Volta, became Burkina Faso: the land of the upright men.
Guevara, of course, could not claim to have redefined Cuba in the same way. He did not infuse himself into the very bones of that country until after his death, when, among other things, schoolchildren would begin each day by roaring seremos como el Che. He did, however, come to play a significant role in setting in motion the transformation of the economy. Just four weeks after Batista’s overthrow, Guevara gave a speech in Havana which made very clear the socialist character of his position and that of his government. Radical agrarian reform had always been on the menu — Guevara himself called it the ‘banner and main slogan’ of the movement — but it was now about to be served. Indeed, in May 1959, an Agrarian Reform Law was promulgated. Under it, restrictions were placed on how much land any one entity could own. Anything exceeding the limit was first expropriated, and then nationalised or redistributed. This included land that was owned by American corporations. Moreover, the law provided for the creation of the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA), of which body Guevara would become head. Its job was to administer the new law, and it fast became the most important institution in Cuba.
All of this is not to say that Sankara did not himself embark on a scheme of radical economic reform. He did. For example, he nationalised his country’s oil and mineral wealth, as well as many of its industries. He too was a champion of agrarian reform, and actually made it work. Injections of money into rural Burkina Faso and a reduction in poll tax saw the lot of the wretched Burkinabé peasant very slowly improve.
Above and beyond such reform, Sankara, with his measureless charisma, encouraged his people to be thrifty. Without a sea-change in the mindsets of people from every social stratum, Sankara knew that many of his economic policies could never properly bear fruit. This fact had quickly dawned on Guevara too. Sankara’s upright man was a sort of kinsman to the Argentinean’s own conception — that of the New Man. Guevara, by now the president of the National Bank and head of two ministries, wanted to create a ‘new type of human being’, one who was ‘selfless and cooperative, obedient and hard working, gender-blind, incorruptible, non-materialistic, and anti-imperialist’. He strove to achieve this end by, among other things, replacing material incentives with ‘moral’ ones. He also moved to require workers to meet quotas. If they did not, their pay would be slashed. He encouraged his fellow officials to engage in volunteer labour. Certainly the first two of these were questionable schemes — despite their noble aim — and may well have done more to bruise the workers’ consciousness than to give birth to a new and superior one. But one could not accuse Guevara of being a lazy slaver. He worked hard and for legendarily long hours, in the fields and factories as well as in the office. He showed himself to be a kind of paragon in other ways: he refused his National Bank salary and lived instead on the paltry amount he received as comandante.
His Spartan way of life mirrored Sankara’s. The latter too subsisted on a tiny wage, having lowered it to just $450 a month. He made government officials follow suit, and rid them of their fancy cars. Sankara himself drove a Renault 5 — the cheapest car available, and thereby somewhat comparable to Guevara’s own Chevy Impala. And like Che, the Burkinabé President had humility enough to mix with his people in ways that many in power simply would not; he ate in a mess with soldiers, and jogged unprotected through the streets of Ouagadougou every morning. Of course, such modesty and austerity cannot and did not move mountains, but it does give one a reliable indication as to the characters of both men.
So far, then, we have discovered that underneath the apparently substantial differences, there are a good number of similarities uniting Guevara and Sankara. Each implemented relatively radical socialistic economic policies, including agrarian reform. Each essentially recognised the need to change the consciousness of his people; conceived a purer, greater kind of human being; and set about trying to midwife it. And each man, by way of his charisma, austerity and unswerving dedication, led by glowing example.
Yet there is still more common ground to be unearthed. Most notably, both men were bold on the international stage. Guevara’s first real appearance thereon came after his stint at La Cabaña, in mid-1959. Castro sent him on a so-called goodwill tour of fourteen countries, including Yugoslavia, Egypt and Japan. In Tokyo, Guevara caused a splash by angrily refusing to lay a wreath at Japan’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, because the Japanese army had been an ‘imperialist’ one which killed ‘millions of Asians’. ‘Where I will go,’ said Guevara, ‘is to Hiroshima, where the Americans killed one hundred thousand Japanese’.
Of course, the Argentinean never let up so far as fiery denunciations of imperialism were concerned, and the United States bore the brunt of his righteous fury. The sanctions imposed upon Cuba by the USA — and in particular the cutting of the sugar quota — would condemn the island’s people to ‘economic slavery’. Yankee aggression in Vietnam was ‘brutal’. The general foreign policy of the United States was nothing short of criminal. The discrimination against blacks in America itself was downright repugnant. How could a government like this purport to be the guardian of freedom worldwide? All but the first of these unassailable statements were made in a coruscating speech at the United Nations in 1964.
In the selfsame address, Guevara recognised the recent ‘resounding triumphs’ of African people, who, at the time, were in the process of sundering the chains of colonial oppression. Two decades later, they were still going, and Sankara was at the vanguard. There is no doubt that the Argentinean would have approved of the Burkinabé president’s own courage in the world arena, for the latter too shook his fires at those who kept his people down. ‘He who feeds you controls you,’ said Sankara of foreign aid, which he vehemently opposed. At the African Unity Organisation Summit in 1987, Sankara spoke out cogently and movingly against debt:
Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonised us before. They are those who used to manage our states and economies… Colonisers are those who indebted Africa… We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it. Debt is neo-colonialism… [it] is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa.
Of course, Sankara could not even prick the skin of foreign hegemony, such was its strength. Guevara and Castro, on the other hand, pierced it deep. In any case, both governments inevitably suffered for their attempts. Sankara never had to deal with a Bay of Pigs Invasion, or with an Operation Mongoose, or with a missile crisis, but his courage — or foolhardiness — resulted in enormous drops in foreign aid and investment. These drops were chiefly responsible for the continuing moribundity of the Burkinabé economy. In the final analysis, noble intentions or not, one is judged nowadays on outcomes. In respect of the economy, Sankara did not, for a number of reasons, succeed. He did not see that total disengagement from global capitalism would lead ineluctably to disaster in an underdeveloped country. It is sad, but that is that.
And so we come to the final patch of common ground. What makes Sankara’s economic failings more frustrating is the fact that he did, in the end, achieve so much in other spheres. A champion of equality, he strove to empower women. He held a women’s day in 1984 and organised an all-woman parade to celebrate the second anniversary of his ascension. He appointed women to his guard and to his cabinet. Prostitution was made illegal. In short, Sankara knew full well how women formed the engine of the country, and wanted others to appreciate this fact as well. Just as importantly, he also instigated a successful literacy campaign, which embraced the whole land and its very many tongues. Guevara too was proactive in the areas of equality and literacy. He was the force behind the success of the ‘year of education’ in 1961; over 700,000 Cubans were taught to read and write. He also introduced affirmative action to the universities. Once again, the parallels are obvious.
It is as well to consider one or two of Sankara’s achievements in areas where Guevara had little to no impact. In 1984, at Sankara’s behest, two and a half million children were vaccinated against a number of diseases. The operation took only a fortnight. In 1985, Sankara took to battling the Sahara, the pitiless empery of which was threatening to swell over the Sahel. He planted ten million trees with a view to stopping the desertification. His stock grows even further thus.
But of course, constancy has never been a feature of West African politics, and things were soon to change. Hostility towards Sankara was hardly aflame, but it had been bubbling for some time. Certain sections of society had had quite enough of his revolution and wanted him gone. Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s best friend and closest confidant, was the one to give effect to their wish. The abruptness with which we turn now to the falls of Guevara and Sankara reflects the brutal quickness of the latter’s overthrow.
Et tu, Bruté? Caesar’s famous words are rather apposite. Once upon a time, Sankara and Compaoré had been inseparable. ‘The day you hear that he is planning to stage a coup against me,’ Sankara had once said, ‘don’t bother wasting your time trying to stop him; it’ll be too late for that.’
By 1987, Sankara’s policies had apparently alienated many: the tribes, the unions, the extreme left. It is said that the press was no longer free and that Sankara was quite the megalomaniac. Whatever the case, it transpired that, on the evening of 15 October 1987, Sankara was murdered. A death certificate stated falsely that he had died of natural causes; his grave was unmarked and its whereabouts to this day unknown. The precise identities of his assassins have never been ascertained.
Compaoré justified the killing by accusing Sankara of ‘treason against the revolution’ and of ‘causing social decadence and total chaos in the society’. Twenty-five years later, Mr Compaoré — who of course enjoys the support of the West — is still in power. The fatigues have been replaced by expensive suits. Corruption is rife again. Burkina Faso is poor and wretched still. In summary, Sankara’s revolution lies in tatters.
Che Guevara’s arc diverged dramatically from Sankara’s after his departure from Cuba in mysterious circumstances. He resurfaced in Congo, hoping to start a revolution there. But he failed to transmit his revolutionary ardour to the locals, and his time in Africa therefore ended with a whimper. So too did Guevara’s next and final project in the jungles of Bolivia. There, his tiny band of men, unable to attract any kind of support, fell ill and took to slaughtering their own horses for food. The CIA may have feared him, but had no good reason to do so by this point. Guevara’s situation was pathetic; older and softer, he was a sorry husk of what he had been before. When he was captured by the Bolivian army on 7 October 1967, he did not even own a pair of boots. On 9 October, he was executed. At thirty-nine, he was one year older than Sankara had been when he was murdered almost exactly twenty years later.
It is now, at last, time to consider the questions which were set down at the very beginning. Is the resemblance between Guevara and Sankara more than merely superficial? Is it really just?
To the first of these questions, we can say Yes. The fatigues, the beret, the charisma — these are the outward similarities, the obvious ones. But they conceal a large and solid core of more. Despite their different origins, both were austere and hard-working Marxists who implemented many of the same policies and championed many of the same ideals. Both despised the protean beast of imperialism, spoke out stridently against it and suffered for their noble opposition. But both these children of integrity ultimately failed.
As for the question of justness, one hopes that the answer is clear. Upper Volta was a truly abject place on Sankara’s ascension — much more so than was Cuba. One also has to remember that unlike Guevara, Sankara had no Castro beside him. Nevertheless, one struggles to think of a four-year period in any sub-Saharan African country which was as generally successful as that over which Sankara presided. That he is practically unknown to most is utterly amazing.
Of course, he made mistakes. Yet one is tempted once again to borrow from Julius Caesar, and say that he ‘did never wrong but with just cause’. Whatever the case, one proposition towers over all others as incontestable: even now, Africa, that rich and fecund land, needs fifty Thomas Sankaras.