World Politics

Thomas Sankara: ‘Freedom Must Be Conquered’ (II)

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 because 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.”

This book by Pathfinder Press is the best introduction to Sankara’s revolutionary outlook.

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;[1] 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 second of which follows. The first can be found here.


By Thomas Sankara

Lastly, I speak out in indignation as I think of the Palestinians, whom this most inhuman humanity has replaced with another people—a people martyred only yesterday. I think of the valiant Palestinian people, these shattered families wandering across the world seeking asylum. Courageous, determined, stoic, and tireless, the Palestinians remind us all of the moral necessity and obligation to respect the rights of a people. Along with their Jewish brothers, they are anti-Zionists.

Thomas Sankara addressing the United Nations General Assembly on October 4, 1984. (Photo: UN)

Standing alongside my soldier brothers of Iran and Iraq, who are dying in a fratricidal and suicidal war, I wish also to feel close to my comrades of Nicaragua, whose ports are being mined, whose towns are being bombed, and who, despite all, face up with courage and lucidity to their fate. I suffer with all those in Latin America who are suffering from imperialist domination.

I wish to stand side by side with the peoples of Afghanistan and Ireland, the peoples of Grenada and East Timor, each of whom is searching for happiness based on their dignity and the laws of their own culture.[2]

I protest here on behalf of all those who vainly seek a forum in this world to make their voices heard and to have themselves taken seriously.

Many have already spoken from this podium. Many will speak after me. But only a few will make the decisions. Yet we are all officially presented as being equals. Well, I am acting as spokesperson for all those who vainly seek a forum in the world where they can be heard. So yes, I wish to speak for all those “left behind” because “I am a human, and nothing that is human is alien to me.”

Our revolution in Burkina Faso embraces the misfortunes of all peoples. We are also inspired by all the experiences of mankind, from the very first breath of the first human being.

We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world and all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World. Our eyes are on the profound upheavals that have transformed the world. We have drawn the lessons of the American Revolution, the lessons of its victory against colonial domination, and the consequences of that victory.”

We endorse the doctrine of non-interference by Europeans in American affairs and non-interference by Americans in European affairs. Just as Monroe declared “America to the Americans” in 1823, we echo this today by saying “Africa to the Africans,” “Burkina Faso to the Burkinabé.”

French revolution, Paris Commune, and the Russian revolution

The French revolution of 1789, which overturned the foundations of absolutism, taught us the connection between the rights of man and the rights of people to liberty. The great revolution of October 1917 [in Russia] transformed the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundations of capitalism, and made possible the dreams of justice of the Paris Commune.[3]

Open to all the winds of the will of the peoples of the world and their revolutions, having also learned from some terrible failures that led to tragic violations of human rights, we want to retain the core of purity from each revolution. This prevents us from becoming subservient to the realities of others, even though we share common ground because of our ideas.

It is no longer possible to keep up the deception. The new international economic order for which we are struggling and will continue to struggle can only be achieved if we destroy the old order that has ignored us; if we impose our rightful place in the political organization of the world; and if, conscious of our importance in the world, we obtain the right to participate in discussions and decision-making on the mechanisms governing trade, the economy, and monetary policies on a global scale.

Thomas Sankara with other African leaders, 1983. (Photo: Marco Werman / PRI)

The new international economic order should simply be inscribed alongside all the other rights of the people—the right to independence, to the free choice of the governmental form and structure, the right to development. And like all the peoples’ rights, it is conquered in struggle and by the struggle of the people. It will never be obtained by an act of generosity by the powers that be.

I personally share unshakeable confidence—confidence shared by the immense community of Nonaligned countries—that, under the pounding blows of the howling anguish of our peoples, our group will preserve its cohesion, strengthen its collective bargaining power, find allies among all nations, and begin, together with all who can hear us, to organize a genuinely new system of international economic relations.

I agreed to come to speak before this assembly because, despite the criticism made of it by some of its major contributors, the United Nations remains the ideal forum for our demands, the place where the countries that have no voice must appear to be considered legitimate.

This is what our Secretary General[4] so accurately expressed when he wrote:

“The United Nations is unique in that it reflects the aspirations and frustrations of numerous countries and groupings around the world. One of its great merits is that all nations, including those that are weak, oppressed, and victims of injustice”—he is talking about us—“can, even when they face the harsh realities of power, come and have a platform to be heard. Though a just cause may meet with misfortune and indifference, it can nevertheless find a voice in the United Nations. This characteristic of our organization has not always been appreciated, but it is nonetheless essential.”

There can be no better definition of the meaning and significance of our organization.

That’s why it is absolutely essential for each one of us to consolidate the foundations of the United Nations, to give it the means to act. That is why we endorse the Secretary-General’s proposals to help the organization extricate itself from numerous dead ends, which have been carefully orchestrated by big-power maneuvering in order to discredit the UN in the eyes of public opinion.

Recognizing the merits, admittedly limited, of our organization, I can only rejoice to see it welcome new members. That is why the delegation of Burkina Faso welcomes the admission of the 159th member of the United Nations, the state of Brunei Darussalam.

The Movement of Nonaligned Countries

Due to the folly of those into whose hands the leadership of the world has fallen by a quirk of fate, the Movement of Nonaligned Countries—which, I hope, the state of Brunei Darussalam will soon join—is compelled to consider the struggle for disarmament to be one of its permanent goals. This is an essential aspect of the basic conditions of our right to development.

In our view, we need serious studies that take into account all the elements that have led to the calamities that have befallen the world. In this regard, President Fidel Castro stated our point of view admirably in September 1979 at the opening of the Sixth Summit Conference of Nonaligned Countries, held at Havana, when he said:

“Three hundred billion dollars is enough to build 600,000 schools, with a capacity for 400 million children; or 60 million comfortable homes, for 300 million people; or 50,000 hospitals, with 18 million beds; or 20,000 factories to provide jobs for more than 20 million workers; or make possible the irrigation of 150 million hectares of land—which, with the application of technology, could feed a billion people.”[5]

Cuba’s President Fidel Castro welcomes Sankara to Havana, September 25, 1984.

If we multiply these figures today by 10—and I am sure that this is a conservative figure—we realize what humanity squanders every year in the military field, that is, against peace.

It is easy to see why the indignation of the peoples is easily transformed into revolt and revolution at the sight of the crumbs tossed their way in the degrading form of a little aid, sometimes tied to frankly despicable conditions. So it is clear why in the fight for development we consider ourselves as tireless combatants for peace.

We pledge to fight to ease tensions, to introduce principles of civilized life into international relations, and to extend them to all regions of the world. This means we can no longer stand by passively and watch concepts being banded about.

We reiterate our determination to work actively for peace; to take our place in the struggle for disarmament; and finally to act as a decisive factor in international politics, completely unfettered by any of the major powers, whatever their plans may be.

But the quest for peace goes hand in hand with the firm application of the right of countries to independence, of peoples to liberty, and of nations to an autonomous existence. On this point, the most pitiful and appalling—yes, the most appalling—example of arrogance, insolence, and incredible stubbornness is found in a small country in the Middle East, Israel. With the unspeakable complicity of its powerful protector, the United States, Israel has continued to defy the international community for more than 20 years.

Israel scorns history by inflicting on others tortures Jews suffered

Scorning history, which only yesterday condemned Jews to the horrors of the gas chamber, Israel has now ended up inflicting on others the tortures it suffered.

In any case, Israel—whose people we love for their courage and sacrifices of the past—must be made aware that the conditions for its own tranquility can not to be achieved through military might financed from abroad. Israel must begin to learn to be a nation like others and among others.”

Palestine Liberation Organization fighters leaving Lebanon, August 1982, following their heroic resistance to Israeli occupation. “We declare our militant and active solidarity with the wonderful people of Palestine,” Sankara said. (Photo: Gerard Ranciman / Sygma)

For the present, we declare from this rostrum our militant and active solidarity with the combatants, men and women, of the wonderful people of Palestine, because we know that no suffering lasts forever.

Analyzing the economic and political situation in Africa, we cannot fail to stress our serious concern at the dangerous challenges made to the rights of peoples by certain nations which, secure in their alliances, openly scorn international moral standards.

We are naturally pleased with the decision to withdraw foreign troops from Chad[6] so that the Chadian people themselves, without intermediaries, can find a way to put an end to that fratricidal war and finally be able to dry the tears that have been shed for so many years.

But despite some progress registered here by the African peoples in their struggle for economic emancipation, our continent continues to reflect the basic reality of the conflicts between the major powers. We continue to bear the intolerable difficulties of today’s world.

That is why we cannot accept the treatment of the people of Western Sahara by the Kingdom of Morocco and we unconditionally condemn it. Morocco is using delaying tactics to postpone the day of reckoning that, in any case, will be imposed on it by the will of the Saharawi people. I have visited the regions liberated by the Saharawi people, and I am convinced that nothing will stop their progress toward the total liberation of their country under the militant and enlightened leadership of the Polisario Front.

Polisario Front combatants receive arms training to resist occupation by Morocco, Western Sahara, 1976. (Photo: Jacques Pavlovsky / Sygma)

I do not wish to dwell too long on the question of Mayotte and the islands of the Malagasy archipelago. When facts are clear and principles are obvious, there is no need to elaborate. Mayotte belongs to the Comoros. The islands of the archipelago belong to Madagascar.[7]

With regard to Latin America, we welcome the initiative of the Contadora Group as a positive step in the search for a just solution to the explosive situation in the region. On behalf of the revolutionary people of Nicaragua, Commander Daniel Ortega has made concrete proposals here and asked fundamental questions of the appropriate people. We hope to see peace in his country and throughout Central America on October 15 and thereafter and call on world public opinion to bear witness to what happens.[8]

Just as we condemned the foreign aggression against the island of Grenada, so we condemn all foreign intervention. Thus, we cannot remain silent about the foreign military intervention in Afghanistan.[2]

There is, however, one particular question of such gravity that it demands a frank and decisive answer from each of us. As you might imagine, this question can be none other than of South Africa.[9] The incredible arrogance of that country toward all the nations of the world—even toward those who support the terrorism it has developed into a system designed to physically liquidate the Black majority of that country—and the contempt with which it treats all our resolutions, are among the most serious concerns of today’s world.

Apartheid South Africa has outlawed itself

But the most tragic factor is not that South Africa has outlawed itself from the international community because of its apartheid laws. Even less that it continues to occupy Namibia illegally and keep it under the boot of colonialism and racism. Or that it behaves toward its neighbors with the impunity of a gangster. No, the most despicable, the most humiliating thing for human conscience, is that it has made “ordinary” the misfortune of millions of human beings who have nothing but their chests and the heroism or their bare hands with which to defend themselves.

Secure in the complicity of the major powers, knowing that some will even actively intervene on its behalf, counting too on the criminal collaboration of a few wretched leaders of African countries, the white minority makes no bones about mocking the feelings of all peoples everywhere across the world, who find the savage methods of that country to be absolutely intolerable.

About 30,000 people march in 1960 from Langa into Cape Town, South Africa, to demand the release of prisoners arrested by the apartheid regime for protesting the segregationist pass laws. The struggle to end the scourge of apartheid must be the most weighty concern of the world, Sankara declared at the UN in 1984. (Photo: Keystone / Halton Archive)

There was a time when international brigades were formed to defend the honor of nations whose dignity had been assaulted. Today, despite the festering wounds we all bear, we are going to vote for resolutions whose only purpose, we will be told, is to bring to its senses this nation of pirates, which “destroys a smile as hail kills flowers.”

We will soon be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of slaves by the British Empire. My delegation supports the proposal of Antigua and Barbados to commemorate this event in a major way, an event of very great importance to the African countries and the Black world. In our opinion, everything said, done, or organized throughout the world during these commemorative ceremonies must stress the terrible price paid by Africa and the Black world in the development of civilization. A price paid without receiving anything in return, and which no doubt explains the tragedy of our continent today.

It is our blood that fed the rapid development of capitalism, that made possible our current state of dependence, and that consolidated our underdevelopment. The truth can no longer be avoided. The figures can no longer be doctored. For every Black person who made it to the plantations, five others suffered death or mutilation. I purposely leave aside the devastation of our continent and its consequences.”

Mr. President:

If, thanks to you, and with the help of the secretary-general, the entire world can be convinced of that truth on the occasion of this anniversary, then the world will understand why we long for peace among nations with every fiber of our being. And why we demand and lay claim to our right to development on the basis of total equality, through the organization and redistribution of human resources.

Of all the human races, we belong to those who have suffered the most. That’s why we in Burkina Faso have promised ourselves that we will never again accept any denial of justice on the slightest bit of this earth.

It is the memory of this suffering that places us at the side of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] against the armed bands of Israel.

It is the memory of this suffering that leads us, on the one hand, to support the African National Congress of South Africa [ANC] and the South West Africa People’s Organization [SWAPO of Namibia], and makes it absolutely intolerable, on the other, that South Africa harbors men who torch the world in the name of being white.

Finally, it is this same memory of suffering that leads us to place in the United Nations all our faith regarding shared duty, shared efforts, and shared hope.

Free Nelson Mandela

We call for intensifying throughout the world the campaign to free Nelson Mandela[10] and guarantee his actual presence here at the next session of the UN General Assembly. This can be a victory we can be proud of together.

African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela after being freed from prison in 1990 and elected President of South Africa in 1994. “We call for intensifying throughout the world the campaign to free Nelson Mandela,” Sankara said from the UN rostrum in 1984.

In memory of our sufferings and as a collective pardon, an International Prize for Human Reconciliation should be created, to be awarded to all those whose work and research have contributed to defending human rights. All the space research budgets should be cut by 1 percent, and the funds devoted to research in health and the restoration of the environment, which has been disturbed by all these fireworks harmful to the ecosystem.

We also propose that the structures of the United Nations be reviewed and revised so that an end may be put to that scandal known as the right of veto. It is true that the perverse effects of its abuse have been mitigated by the vigilance of some of those who hold the right to a veto. However, nothing justifies such a right—neither the size of the countries that hold it nor their wealth.

There are those who justify such inequity by citing the price paid during the Second World War. The nations that granted themselves these rights should know that each of us has, too, has an uncle or a father who, like thousands of other innocent people was torn from the Third World to defend the rights flouted by the Hitlerite hordes. Our flesh, too, bears the scars of Nazi bullets. So the arrogance of the major powers should cease. The powers that miss no opportunity to challenge the rights of the people of the world. Africa’s absence from the club of those holding the right of veto is unjust and must come to an end.

Finally, my delegation would be failing to fulfill its duties if it did not call for the suspension of Israel and the expulsion of South Africa from the United Nations. When, in the course of time, those countries have done what they must do to justify their presence in the international community, then we would be only too happy to welcome them here and to guide their first steps.

We want to reaffirm our confidence in the United Nations. We are grateful for the work its agencies have carried in Burkina Faso and for their presence side by side with us in the difficult times in which we are living. We are grateful to the members of the Security Council for having allowed us twice this year to preside over the work of the council. We would simply hope to see the council adopt and apply the principle of the struggle against the extermination of 30 million human beings each year by the hunger weapon, which today wreaks more devastation than the nuclear weapon.

This confidence and faith in the organization lead me to thank the secretary-general, Mr. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, for the much-appreciated visit he made to us to see firsthand the harsh realities of our existence and get an accurate picture of the aridness of the Sahel, and the tragedy of the conquering desert.

I cannot end without paying a tribute to the President of the General Assembly [Paul Lusaka of Zambia], who, with the intelligence and perceptiveness for which we know him, will guide the work of this thirty-ninth session.

‘Soon the stars will revisit the earth’

I have traveled many thousands of kilometers to be here. I have come here to ask each of you to work together to put an end to the arrogance of those who are wrong so that the spectacle of children dying of hunger vanishes, so that ignorance disappears, so that the legitimate revolts of the people triumph, so that the sound of weapons falls silent, and so that, finally, as we fight for the survival of humanity, we are able to sing together with the great poet Novalis:

“Soon the stars will revisit the Earth where they have long been gone; soon the sun will return, the star will shine again among the stars, all the races of the world will gather together again after a long separation, the old orphaned families will find one another again and every day there will be new discoveries, more people will embrace one another; then the inhabitants of the old days will come back to the Earth, the ashes will be relit in each tomb, the flame of life will burn again, the old houses will be rebuilt, the old times will come again and history will be the dream of the present extended to infinity.”

Down with international reaction! Down with imperialism! Down with neo-colonialism! Down with “puppetism”!

Eternal glory to the people struggling for their freedom! Eternal glory to the people who stand shoulder to shoulder to defend their dignity! Eternal victory to the people of Africa, Latin America, and Asia in their struggle!

Fatherland or death. We will win.


[1] 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 (

[2] The four countries Sankara mentioned here were all under military occupation when he gave this speech. Troops from the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and occupied the country until 1989. Northern Ireland remained a British colony brutally repressed by London. The U.S. army had invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada in October 1983. Indonesia had invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in the Pacific and forcibly annexed it in 1975.

[3] In 1871 workers and craftsmen of Paris revolted and established the first workers’ government in history, known as the Paris Commune. The French bourgeoisie used its army subsequently to crush it in blood.

[4] At the time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was the UN Secretary General.

[5] The speech by Cuba’s President Fidel Castro to the Nonaligned summit meeting on September 3, 1979, is included in Fidel Castro Speeches: Cuba’s Internationalist Foreign Policy 1975-80 (Pathfinder Press).

[6] Chad was a former French colony in Central Africa. A recurrent civil war gripped the country. The main contenders were factions supported by France in the south and Libya in the north. The government of France intervened militarily in 1968-72, 1977-79, 1983-84, and 1986 to 2014. Libyan troops occupied the north from 1983 to 1987.

[7] Three of the four islands making up the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean near Mozambique won independence from France in 1975. The fourth, Mayotte, remains a French colony. The French-controlled islands off Madagascar include Europa, Bassas de India, Juan da Nova, the Iles Glorieuses, and Tromelin.

[8] Addressing the UN General Assembly on October 4, 1984, the same day as the speech by Sankara, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega had warned that Washington planned to escalate its attacks against Nicaragua to disrupt the November 4 presidential elections there.

[9] The decades-long struggle to overthrow the apartheid system in South Africa—under which a white minority exercised a brutal, racist rule over the vast majority of the country’s Black population—accelerated sharply in the mid-1980s, during Sankara’s 1984 speech at the United Nations and in the months and years that followed. The odious apartheid regime was thrown into the trash heap of history in 1994. That year the democratic revolution registered its victory when the African National Congress (ANC) swept the country’s first-ever one-person-one-vote nonracial elections. The ANC set off to establish a nonracial, democratic republic in a single South African nation-state.

[10] Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) was the central leader of the African National Congress (ANC), which led the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He was imprisoned for 27 years because of his opposition to the racist regime. The democratic revolutionary movement he helped lead forced the apartheid regime to free him from prison in February 1990 and unban the ANC. Four years later, he was elected President of the Republic of South Africa and served in that capacity until 1999.

2 replies »

  1. Every once in a while the world produces an individual who channels the aspirations of all of the downtrodden of the Earth; an individual who not only embodies the dignity of millions, but who has also done the work and read enough history to give a powerful voice to those who have been condemned to silence because of lack of education and a desperate personal situation. Thomas Sankara, a son of Burkina Faso, was one such individual.
    His voice was a clarion call to all those with enough will and determination to fight for a better world. In his speech before the world in 1984, using the forum of the United Nations, he spoke to power with the candor and certainty of one who knows WHY there is such want and suffering, one who understands the mechanisms that unjustly siphon wealth from the poorest among us to feed the coffers and bellies of the rich.
    Thomas Sankara saw how his country and his people were a perfect example of why those in the under- and mis-developed world, the so-called “Third World,” are trapped by neocolonial relationships that allow an educated but subservient elite to live off the crumbs of imperialist domination, creating an obstacle to the liberation and freedom of their own people.
    Today, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, where the capitalist governments of the world have shown that they are utterly incapable of providing the most basic guarantees of safety, health, and leadership to their citizens, the example of the first vaccination campaigns organized by the new, struggling government of Burkina Faso led by Thomas Sankara should settle any arguments about which way forward for suffering humanity!
    Che Guevara called for “Two, Three, many Vietnams” in the struggle against imperialist domination.
    We should all now call, in unison, for “Two, Three, many Burkina Fasos” in the purposely mis-developed “Third World”!!!!
    Thomas Sankara, TEACH! May your example live on and awaken the conscience of millions!
    We echo your demands! Down with imperialism! Down with colonialism! Down with the international forces of reaction! Eternal glory to the peoples who fight for their liberation! Eternal glory to the peoples who defend their dignity!
    You will live in our hearts forever!

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