On October 11 a trial opened in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, of 14 men accused of plotting the murder of Thomas Sankara 34 years ago. Sankara, 37-years-old at the time, was president of Burkina Faso and leader of its popular revolutionary government from 1983 to 1987. Assassinated alongside Sankara were five of his six special cabinet members, and seven soldiers. Following this treacherous act, Blaise Compaoré, the former minister of state and justice, took power, and the democratic anti-imperialist revolution that began on August 4, 1983, came to an end.
Compaoré is the main suspect in organizing the execution of Sankara and his associates. Under his reign, the country returned to an arrangement with Paris in which the French government continued to pull the strings of its former colony. After 27 years in power, Compaoré tried to amend the country’s constitution to allow him to extend his rule further. Popular protests, however, forced him to resign in 2014 and then to leave Burkina Faso. He is now on trial in absentia becasue the Ivory Coast, where he lives, has turned down extradition requests from Burkina Faso.
The year after Sankara’s murder, Pathfinder Press published Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987. It remains the best introduction to Sankara’s revolutionary outlook and the example he set. As the book’s introduction explains, “Under Thomas Sankara’s leadership, the revolutionary government of Burkina Faso in West Africa mobilized peasants, workers, craftsmen, women and youth to carry out literacy and immunization drives; to sink wells, plant trees, build dams, erect housing; to combat the oppression of women and transform exploitative relations on the land; to free themselves from the imperialist yoke and solidarize with others engaged in that fight internationally.”
A year after the revolution had begun, Sankara made an appearance on the world stage, delivering the address below to the 39th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York on October 4, 1984. The Permanent Mission of Burkina Faso to the UN subsequently published it as a pamphlet.
World-Outlook is re-publishing this speech to honor Sankara’s life and as a contribution to keeping alive the revolutionary continuity he helped knit.
The text of the speech reproduced here is from the Marxists Internet Archive, which used the translation from the original French provided by the UN. World-Outlook corrected parts of this translation by cross-checking it against the speech as it appears in the Pathfinder Press edition cited above. Subheadings and footnotes are by World-Outlook. Due to its length, we are publishing this speech in two parts, the first of which follows. The second part of the speech can be found here.
By Thomas Sankara
I bring you fraternal greetings from a country of 274,000 square kilometers whose 7 million children, women, and men refuse to die of ignorance, hunger, and thirst any longer, even though, in their quarter-century of existence as a sovereign state represented here at the UN, they have been unable to really live.
I come to this thirty-ninth session of the General Assembly to speak on behalf of a people who, in the land of their ancestors, have decided from now on to assert themselves and accept their history—both its positive and negative aspects—without the slightest complex.
I come here, mandated by the National Council of the Revolution of Burkina Faso, to express the views of my people regarding the problems on the General Assembly’s agenda, consisting of the tragic web of events that are painfully undermining the foundations of our world at the end of the twentieth century. It is a world of chaos in which humanity is torn apart by struggles between the great and the not-so-great, attacked by armed bands, and subjected to violence and pillage. It is a world in which nations, eluding international law, command groups of outlaws, who, with guns in hand, live by plunder and organize sordid trafficking.
I do not intend to enunciate any doctrines here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. I possess no truths. My only aspiration is twofold: first, to be able to speak on behalf of my people, the people of Burkina Faso, in simple language, in words that are clear and factual. And second, in my own way, to also speak on behalf of the “great disinherited people of the world,” those who belong to the world so ironically called the Third World. And to state, though I may not make them understood, the reasons for our revolt.
All this indicates our interest in the United Nations. We understand that demanding our rights requires from us a rigorous awareness of our duties.
No one will be surprised to hear us associate the former Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, with that hodgepodge held in such contempt—the Third World—which the other worlds invented when many countries became formally independent in order better to ensure our intellectual, cultural, economic, and political alienation.
We want to place ourselves within this world, without lending any credence to that gigantic fraud of history, and certainly without accepting the status of “hinterland of a satiated West.”
“Rather, we do so to assert our awareness of belonging to a tri-continental whole and, with the force of deeply felt convictions, acknowledge as a Nonaligned country, that there is a special relationship of solidarity uniting the three continents of Asia, Latin America, and Africa in the same struggle against the same political traffickers and economic exploiters.”
Then our eyes opened to the class struggle
Thus, recognizing that we are part of the Third World means, to paraphrase José Marti, asserting that we feel on our cheek every blow struck against any man in the world. Up to now, we have turned the other cheek. The blows have increased. But the evil-doers were not moved. They have trampled the truth of the righteous. They have betrayed the word of Christ. They have turned His cross into a club. And after they put on His robe, they have slashed our bodies and souls. They have obscured His message. They Westernized it, whereas we understood it as a message of universal liberation. Then our eyes opened to the class struggle. There will be no more blows.
It must be proclaimed that there will be no salvation for our peoples unless we decisively turn our backs on all the models that all the charlatans, cut from the same cloth, have tried to sell us for the past 20 years. There can be no salvation for us unless we reject these models. There can be no development without breaking from that.
Moreover, all the new “intellectual leaders” emerging from their slumber, awakened by the dizzying rise of millions of men in rags, aghast by the threat that this famished multitude presents to their digestion, are beginning to revamp their speeches. In an anxious quest, they are looking in our direction once again for miracle concepts and new forms of development for our countries. It’s enough to read the numerous proceedings of innumerable symposiums and seminars to understand this.
I certainly do not wish to ridicule the patient efforts of those honest intellectuals who, because they have eyes to see, are discovering the terrible consequences imposed by the so-called specialists in Third-World development.
I fear that the fruit of so much effort may be commandeered by Prosperos of all kinds to make a magic wand designed to turn us back to a world of slavery disguised in the fashion of the day.
This fear is even more justified by the fact that the petty bourgeoisie of Africa—if not the whole Third World—is not prepared to give up its privileges, whether because of intellectual laziness or simply because it has tasted the Western way of life. It, therefore, forgets that any genuine political struggle requires a rigorous theoretical debate, and it refuses to make the effort to think and invent new concepts needed for waging the kind of struggle to the death that is ahead of us. A passive and pathetic consumer, the petty bourgeoisie overflows with the terminology fetishized by the West, just as it overflows with Western whisky and champagne, enjoyed in lounges of dubious taste.
We would search in vain for genuinely new ideas that have emanated from the minds of our so-called intellectual giants since the emergence of the now-dated concepts of Negritude or the African Personality. The vocabulary and ideas come to us from elsewhere. Our professors, engineers, and economists are content with simply adding a little color because often the only thing they’ve brought back from the European universities of which they are the products are their degrees and their velvety adjectives and superlatives.
It is both necessary and urgent that our trained personnel and scribes learn that there is no such thing as unbiased writing. In these stormy times, we cannot leave our enemies of yesterday and today with an exclusive monopoly of thought, imagination, and creativity.
Before it’s too late—and it’s already late—these elites, these men of Africa and the Third World, must come back to who they are: they must return to their societies and to the misery we have inherited. They must understand that the battle for a system of thought that will help the disinherited masses is not in vain. They must understand too that they can only become credible at the international level by being genuinely inventive, that is, by painting a faithful picture of their people. This picture must allow the people to carry out fundamental changes in the social and political situation so that we can free ourselves from the foreign domination and exploitation that leave our states no perspective other than bankruptcy.
We had to have a revolution
This is what we glimpsed—we, the people of Burkina Faso—on that evening of August 4, 1983, when the first stars began to sparkle in the skies of our homeland. We had to take the leadership of the peasant uprisings visible in a countryside panic-stricken by the advancing desert, exhausted by hunger and thirst, and abandoned. We had to give meaning to the brewing revolt of the unemployed urban masses, frustrated and tired of seeing the limousines driving the out-of-touch elites around, succeeding one another as the head of state while offering the urban masses nothing but false solutions elaborated and conceived by the minds of others. We had to give an ideological soul to the just struggles of our masses as they mobilized against the monster of imperialism.
“Instead of a minor, short-lived revolt, we had to have revolution, the permanent struggle against all forms of domination.“
Others have noted this before me, and others will explain after me, how the chasm has widened between the affluent peoples and those who aspire only to have enough to eat, to quench their thirst, survive, and preserve their dignity. But no one can imagine to what extent “the poor man’s grain” in our countries “has fattened the rich man’s cow.”
In the case of the former Upper Volta, the process was even more striking. We represented the epitome of the calamities that have crushed the so-called developing countries.
The example of foreign aid, presented as a panacea and often praised without rhyme or reason, bears witness to this fact. Very few countries have been inundated like mine with all kinds of aid.
Aid is supposed to work in the interests of our development. But in the case of Upper Volta, one searches in vain for a sign that has anything to do with development. The men in power, either out of naivité or class selfishness, could not or would not take control of this influx from abroad, understand its significance, or use it in the interests of our people.
In his book Le Sahel Demain [The Sahel of Tomorrow], Jacques Giri, with a good deal of common sense, analyzes a table published in 1983 by the Sahel Club and draws the conclusion that because of its nature and the mechanisms in place aid to the Sahel helps only with bare survival. Thirty percent of this aid, he emphasizes, serves simply to keep the Sahel alive. According to Jacques Giri, the only goal of this aid is to continue developing nonproductive sectors, saddling our meager budgets with unbearably heavy expenditures, disorganizing our countryside, creating trade deficits, and, in fact, speeding up our indebtedness.
Here are just a few snapshots to describe what Upper Volta used to be like: 7 million inhabitants, with more than 6 million peasants; an infant mortality rate at 180 per 1,000; an average life expectancy limited to 40 years; an illiteracy rate of 98 percent, if literacy means being able to read, write, and speak a language; one doctor per 50,000 inhabitants; 16 percent of school-age youth attending school; and finally, a gross domestic product of 53,356 CFA francs, that is, just over $100 per capita.
The diagnosis was clearly dire. The source of the disease was political. The cure could only be political.
“Of course, we encourage aid that can help us in doing away with aid. But in general, welfare and aid policies have only ended up disorganizing us, subjugating us, and robbing us of a sense of responsibility for our economic, political, and cultural affairs.”
We have chosen a different path to achieve better results. We have chosen to establish new techniques. We have chosen to seek forms of organization better suited to our civilization, flatly and once and for all rejecting all forms of outside diktats, in order to lay the foundations for dignity that matches our ambitions.
We want to free our countryside from medieval stagnation
We refuse to accept a state of mere survival. We want to ease the pressures, to free our countryside from medieval stagnation or even regression.
“We want to democratize our society, to open up our minds to a world of collective responsibility so that we may dare to invent the future.”
We want to shatter the administrative apparatus and rebuild it with a new kind of civil servant. We want to immerse our army in the people through productive labor, reminding it constantly that without patriotic political education a soldier is only a potential criminal. That is our political program.
At the level of economic management, we are learning to live modestly, to accept and impose austerity on ourselves in order to be able to carry out our ambitious projects.
Thanks to the example of the National Solidarity Fund, which is financed by voluntary contributions, we are now beginning to find answers to the cruel questions posed by the drought. We have supported and applied the principles of the Alma-Ata principles by widening the range of primary healthcare services. We have adopted as state policy the global GOBI FFF Strategy recommended by UNICEF.
We believe that through the United Nations Sahel Office (UNSO) the UN should enable the countries affected by drought to establish a medium- and long-term plan to achieve food self-sufficiency.
To prepare for the twenty-first century, we have launched a huge campaign to educate and train our children in a new kind of school, financed by the creation of a special “Teach Our Children” raffle. Through the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, we have launched a vast program to build public housing—500 units in three months—as well as roads, small reservoirs, and so on. Our economic aspiration is to create a situation where every Burkinabé can at least use his brain and hands to invent and create enough to ensure him two meals a day and drinking water.
“We swear that from now on nothing in Burkina Faso will be done without the participation of the people of Burkina Faso. Nothing that we have not first decided and worked out by ourselves. There will be no more attacks on our sense of decency and our dignity.”
Armed with this conviction, we would like our words to embrace all who suffer in the flesh and all whose dignity has been flouted by a handful of men or by a system that is crushing them.
“To all of you are listening to me, allow me to say that I speak not only on behalf of my beloved Burkina Faso but also on behalf of all those who suffer somewhere.”
I speak for millions who are in ghettos because their skin is black
I speak on behalf of the millions of human beings who are in ghettos because their skin is black, or because they come from different cultures, and who enjoy a status barely above that of an animal.
I suffer on behalf of the Indians who have been massacred, crushed, humiliated, and confined for centuries on reservations in order to prevent them from aspiring to any rights, to prevent them from enriching their culture in joyful union with other cultures, including the culture of the invader.
I speak out on behalf of those thrown out of work by a system that is structurally unjust and periodically unhinged. I speak on behalf of the unemployed who are reduced to only glimpsing in life a reflection of the lives of the rich.
“I speak on behalf of women throughout the world who suffer from a system of exploitation imposed on them by men. As far as we are concerned, we are ready to welcome suggestions from anywhere in the world that will help us achieve the full development and prosperity of the women of Burkina Faso.”
In exchange, we offer to share with all countries our positive experiences, with women now present at every level of the state apparatus and social life in Burkina Faso. Women who struggle and who proclaim with us that the slave who is not ready to take charge of his own revolt deserves no pity for his lot. This slave alone will be responsible for his own misfortune if he has illusions in the dubious generosity of a master pretending to set him free.
“Freedom can be won only through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to rise up to conquer their rights.”
I speak on behalf of the mothers of our poor countries who watch their children die of malaria or diarrhea, unaware that simple means to save them exist. The science of the multinationals does not offer them these means, preferring to invest in cosmetics laboratories and cosmetic surgery to satisfy the whims of a few women or men whose smart appearance is threatened by too many calories in their rich meals, the regularity of which would make you—rather us from the Sahel—dizzy. We have decided to adopt and popularize these simple means, recommended by WHO and UNICEF.
I speak on behalf of the child. The child of a poor man who is hungry and who furtively eyes the accumulation of abundance in a store for the rich. The store is protected by a thick plate glass window. The window is protected by impenetrable shutters. The shutters are guarded by a policeman with a helmet, gloves, and a club. The policeman is posted there by the father of another child, who will come and serve himself—or rather be served—because he offers guarantees of representing the capitalistic norms of the system, which he corresponds to.
I speak on behalf of the artists—poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, and actors—people of goodwill who see their art prostituted by the alchemy of show-business tricks.
I cry out on behalf of journalists who are either reduced to silence or to lies in order to simply avoid the hardships of unemployment.
I protest on behalf of the athletes of the entire world whose muscles are exploited by political systems or by modern-day slave merchants.
My country is brimming with all the misfortunes of the peoples of the world, a painful synthesis of all of humanity’s suffering, but also—and above all—of the promise of our struggles. That’s why my heart beats naturally on behalf of the sick who anxiously scan the horizons of a science monopolized by the arms merchants.
“My thoughts go out to all those affected by the destruction of nature, and to those 30 million who die every year, struck down by the formidable weapon of hunger.”
As a military man, I cannot forget the soldier who is obeying orders, his finger on the trigger, who knows that the bullet being fired bears only the message of death.
(To be continued)
 Delivered: In French, at the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City, on 4 October 1984.
Source of the translation into English: United Nations (1984), United Nations General Assembly Official Records, 20th Plenary Meeting, Thursday, 4 October 1984, at 10.40 a.m., New York, (A/39/PV.20), pp. 405-410.
This edition: Marxists Internet Archive, January 2019 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sankara/1984/october/04.htm)
 José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892 to fight Spanish colonial rule. He organized the relaunching of the independence war in 1895 and was killed in battle that same year.
 In William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Prospero is a sorcerer who uses his power to control the fate of others. Some anti-colonial fighters of the 20th century came to see this figure as a symbol of the oppressors.
 African Personality was a concept that attributed unique qualities to African culture and credited it with predisposing Africans toward socialism. Negritude was a literary movement that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris in the 1930s. It emerged as a protest against French colonial rule and its policy of cultural assimilation. It stressed the value of African cultural traditions.
 The Sahel is the semiarid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal eastward to Sudan. It forms a transitional zone between the arid Sahara desert to the north and the belt of humid savannas to the south.
 The Alma Ata principles of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) emphasized proper nutrition, safe water, sanitation systems, maternal and child health care, immunization, and a reserve of basic medicine. UNICEF’s GOBI FFF strategy was focused on women and children. It included treating diarrhea-caused dehydration with an inexpensive solution of clean water, glucose, and salts; breastfeeding; inoculation against six major communicable diseases; and education.
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