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Thomas Sankara: A United Front Against Debt

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In 1987, Thomas Sankara called for a united front against debt. His struggle remains as urgent today as it was then.

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Thomas Sankara: A United Front Against Debt

Mister President, Heads of Delegations,

At this moment I would like for us to speak about another pressing issue: the issue of debt, the question of the economic situation in Africa. It is an important condition of our survival, as much as peace. And this is why I have deemed it necessary to put several supplementary points on the table for us to discuss.

Burkina Faso would like to first of all talk about our fear. Our fear is that there are ongoing United Nations meetings, similar meetings, but less and less interest in what we are doing.

Mister President, how many African heads of state are present here when they have been duly called to come speak about Africa in Africa?

Mister President, how many heads of state are ready to head off to Paris, London, or Washington when they are called to a meeting there, but cannot come to a meeting here in Addis-Ababa, in Africa?

I know some of them have valid reasons for not coming. This is why I would suggest, Mister President, that we establish a scale of sanctions or penalties for the heads of state who do not presently respond to the call. Let’s make it so that through a set of points for good behavior, those who come regularly – like us, for example – can be supported in some of their efforts. For example: the projects that we submit to the African Development Bank should be multiplied by a coefficient of Africanness. The least African should be penalized. With this, everyone will come to the meetings.

I would like to say to you, Mister President, that the debt issue is a question we cannot hide. You yourself know about something in your country where you have to make courageous decisions, reckless even – decisions that do not seem to be related to your age or gray hair. His Excellency, the President Habib Bourguiba, who could not come but had us deliver an important message given this other example in Africa, when in Tunisia, for political, social, and economic reasons, has also had to make courageous decisions.

But Mister President, are we going to continue to let the heads of state individually seek solutions to the debt issue at the risk of creating social conflicts at home that could put their stability in jeopardy and even the construction of African unity? The examples I have mentioned – and there are others – warrant that the UN summits provide a reassuring response to each of us in regards to the debt issue.

We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it.

Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been offered nice financial arrangements. We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even longer. That means we have been forced to compromise our people for over 50 years.

Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.

Mister President, we have been listening and applauding Norway’s prime minister [Gro Harlem Brundtland] when she spoke right here. She is European but she said that the whole debt cannot be repaid. Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mister President, they played, they lost, that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.

We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so.

We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt.

We cannot repay but the others owe us what the greatest wealth could never repay, that is blood debt. Our blood had flowed. We hear about the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe’s economy. But we never hear about the African plan which allowed Europe to face Hitlerian hordes when their economies and their stability were at stake. Who saved Europe? Africa. It is rarely mentioned, to such a point that we cannot be the accomplices of that thankless silence. If others cannot sing our praises, at least we must say that our fathers had been courageous and that our troops had saved Europe and set the world free from Nazism.

Debt is also the result of confrontation. When we are told about economic crisis, nobody says that this crisis has come about suddenly. The crisis had always been there but it got worse each time that popular masses become more and more conscious of their rights against exploiters. We are in a crisis today because the masses refuse that wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. We are in crisis because some people are saving enormous sums of money in foreign bank accounts that would be enough to develop Africa. We are in a crisis because we are facing this private wealth that we cannot name. The popular masses don’t want to live in ghettos and slums. We are in a crisis because everywhere people are refusing to repeat the problems of Soweto and Johannesburg. There is a struggle, and its intensification is worrying to those with financial power. Now we are asked to be accomplices in a balancing – a balancing favoring those with the financial power; a balancing against the popular masses. No! We cannot be accomplices. No! We cannot go with those who suck our people’s blood and live on our people’s sweat. We cannot follow them in their murderous ways.

Mister President, we hear about clubs – the Rome Club, Paris Club, club whatever. We hear about Group of Five, Group of Seven, Group of Ten, and maybe Group of One Hundred. And what else? It is normal that we too have our own club and our own group. Let’s have Addis-Ababa become now the center from which will a new beginning will emerge. An Addis-Ababa Club. It is our duty to create an Addis-Ababa united front against debt. That is the only way to assert that the refusal to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth. Furthermore, the popular masses of Europe are not opposed to the popular masses of Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are those who exploit Europe, too. We have a common enemy. So our Addis-Ababa Club will have to explain to each and all that debt shall not be repaid. And by saying that, we are not against morals, dignity and keeping one’s word. We think we don’t have the same morality as others. The rich and the poor do not have the same morality. The Bible, the Koran cannot serve those who exploit the people and those who are exploited in the same way. It could be used in favor of both sides, there should be two different editions of the Bible and two different editions of the Koran. We cannot accept to be told about dignity. We cannot accept to be told about the merit of those who repay and the mistrust toward those who do not. On the contrary, we must recognize today that it is normal for the wealthiest to be the greatest thieves. When a poor man steals it is merely a theft, a petty crime — it is solely about survival and necessity. The rich are the ones who steal from the treasury, customs duties, and who exploit the people.

Mister President, my proposal does not aim to simply provoke or create a spectacle. I would just like to say what each one of us thinks and wishes. Who here doesn’t wish for the debt to be canceled outright? Whoever doesn’t, can leave, get into his plane and go straight to the World Bank to pay! All of us wish for this…my proposal is nothing more. I would not want people to think that Burkina Faso’s proposal is coming on behalf of youth without maturity or experience. I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way. I would want one to admit it is merely objectivity and obligation. And I can give examples of others who have advised not to repay the debt – revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, young and old. I would mention Fidel Castro, for example, who said not to repay; he is not my age, even though he is a revolutionary. I would also mention François Mitterand, who said that African countries, poor countries, could not repay. I would mention Madam Prime Minister [Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland] – I don’t know her age and I would begrudge myself to ask her – but it’s an example. I would also mention President Félix Houphouët-Boigny; he is not my age but he officially, publicly, declared that, at least as far as his own country is concerned, Ivory Coast cannot repay. Now, Ivory Coast is among the wealthiest countries in Africa, at least Francophone Africa; that is also why it naturally has to pay a larger share here. Mister President, this is definitely not a provocation. I would like you to offer us some very intelligent solutions. I would want our conference to take on the urgent need to plainly say that we cannot repay the debt. Not in a warlike or bellicose spirit – but to prevent us from being individually assassinated. If Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference! But, with everyone’s support, which I need, with the support of everyone we would not have to pay. In doing so, we would devote our meager resources to our own development.

And I would like to conclude by saying that each time an African country buys a weapon, it is against an African country. It is not against a European country, it is not against an Asian country. It is against an African country. Consequently, we should take advantage of the debt issue to solve the weapons problem. I am a soldier and I carry a gun. But Mister President, I would want us to disarm. Because I carry the only gun I have and others have concealed guns or weapons that they have. So my dear brothers, with everyone’s support, we will make peace at home. We will also make use of our immense potentialities to develop Africa, because our soil and subsoil are rich. We have enough bodies and and a vast market – from North to South, East to West. We have enough intellectual capacity to create or at the very least use technology and science from wherever we find it.

Mister President, let us form this Addis-Ababa united front against debt. Let’s make the commitment to limiting armaments amongst weak and poor countries. The clubs and knives we buy are useless. Let’s also make the African market be the market for Africans: produce in Africa, transform in Africa, consume in Africa. Let’s produce what we need and let’s consume what we produce instead of importing. Burkina Faso came here showing the cotton fabric produced in Burkina Faso, weaved in Burkina Faso, sown in Burkina Faso, to dress citizens of Burkina Faso. Our delegation and I are dressed by our weavers, our peasants. There is not a single thread coming from Europe or America. I would not do a fashion show, but I would simply say that we must accept to live as African – that is the only way to live free and dignified.

I thank you, Mister President.

Patrie or death, we will overcome!

Editors Note: At the 1987 summit of the Organization of African Unity, Thomas Sankara warned that he would not live to attend another meeting if Burkina Faso were alone in resisting its debt obligations. A few months later, he was murdered in a coup backed by France for calling out the neocolonialist and imperial character of the debt imposed on African countries and calling for African unity and freedom.

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The Progressive International is an international organization uniting progressive left-wing activists and organizations. Its main proponents are Bernie Sanders and Yanis Varoufakis and it was launched by The Sanders Institute and DiEM25.

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Manifesto for Human Life

On the anniversary of COVID-19, we must build a world centered on human life — a planet of care, equality, and popular sovereignty.

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Manifesto for Human Life

The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed the myth of “global health.” There is no global public health system, and there never was. The pandemic has stripped the mask of multilateralism from the pharmaceutical-philanthropic complex, revealing a system that serves rich countries before the rest, and puts private profits before public health. We should not celebrate the anniversary of the pandemic by reviving the myth of “global health.” We should build a system that actually delivers it.

The foundations of this powerful myth were crushed at the very outset of the pandemic. The Trump administration walked out of the World Health Organization, and its allies stirred racist, orientalist, and xenophobic sentiment instead of prepraing for the spread of the virus. Within months, a handful of rich countries had stockpiled every existing vaccine candidate, hoarding more than half the world’s supply. Meanwhile, they voted to uphold intellectual property rules that would deny them to the rest.

The institutional architecture of the so-called global health system caved immediately to these nationalist interests, from global health organizations — two-thirds of which are headquartered in the US, UK, and Switzerland — to international financial institutions, mobilized to protect creditors’ right to collect interest over debtors’ right to survival.

Even the philanthropists — who have worked assiduously to construct the myth of global health — played their part in this process, urging the privatization of vaccine technology instead of sharing it with the world.

Now, these institutions mark the anniversary of pandemic declaration with debates about the future of global health — finance reforms, governance mechanisms, innovation costs, and so on. But we cannot save a system that does not exist.

Instead, we must revisit the question at the very heart of the health debate: How can we protect human life? How can we resist a health apartheid that protects the lives of the rich and discards those of the poor? How can we build a system that prioritizes the love and care that we need to keep each other alive?

Convening scholars, activists, and practitioners from around the world, the Covid-19 Response group of the Progressive International has proposed some principles in a new ‘Manifesto for Life.’

First, a People’s Vaccine for Covid-19.

As long as the virus spreads, it can mutate and move. No one country can end the pandemic alone; Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere. A system truly premised on global health would guarantee open access to all know-how for the COVID-19 vaccine and the creation of production facilities across the globe.

Second, a World Health Organization that can work for world health.

The interests of its rich countries, private funders, and bad ideas of big financial institutions hinder the World Health Oorganisation. It is time to free the WHO from these constraints. This does not mean building a supranational authority unaccountable to the governments it serves; on the contrary, it means delivering on the WHO’s core promise of multilateral governance. A WHO focused on world health would focus on building the regional and national public health systems that enhance the principle of self-determination, rather than riding roughshod over it.

Third, private capital must be made to submit to public health.

The plain objective of “Big Pharma” is to profit from people falling ill. The right to life is made into a commodity and sold as a luxury to a limited few. To enshrine a global right to life, we must begin from the principle of free and universal healthcare, shifting from a private locus of provision over to a public.

Fourth, human life is not a bargaining chip.

We are asked to believe in a “global health” system that considers public health a source of geopolitical leverage. The pandemic has made clear that seeing health through the lens of “national security” leads to policing over provision, aggression over cooperation. A true global health system will end medical sanctions and the deployment of security forces in response to public health emergencies.

Finally, pride of place for our carers.

‘Essential’ workers have been hailed as heroes but dehumanized in practice: underpaid and overworked, often without any rights as workers or recourse to social support. Carer unions will be key to any public health policies. Workers must be trained, protected, paid, and their right to provide or withdraw labour respected.

One year into the pandemic, it is easy to feel that everything has changed. But it hasn’t, and it must. We continue to live by the laws of a “global health” system that does not exist, preventing us from building one that does.

There are only two choices. One path leads us backwards to a planet of neglect, where the rich shield themselves with the bodies of the poor. This is a familiar story. The other leads to life. On the anniversary of Covid-19, this is the path that we choose.

Signatories:

Noam Chomsky
Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva
Vanessa Nakate
Nnimmo Bassey
Elizabeth Victoria Gomez Alcorta

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What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters

The BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament and to a parasitic model of government.

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What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters

Linda Katiba is a citizen’s voluntary initiative that is determined to resist the government-led move to unconstitutionally cannibalise and overthrow the will of the people of Kenya encapsulated in the 2010 constitution. It is a collective movement of Kenyans who believe that our constitution holds great promise for the Kenyan people and when fully implemented will bring about the transformative changes envisioned by its framers and the Kenyans who voted for it.  Linda Katiba is therefore an effort to help citizens sift through the falsehoods being peddled by the proponents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and make informed decisions.

The most powerful feature of the 2010 constitution is that it places citizens (Wanjiku) at the centre of governance, providing them with the tools and the power to demand participation, inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance processes. Where this is not complied with, the constitution further provides for interventions such as through the courts and people power.

This shift of power is what has put the political class in a direct collision course with the citizens amidst the recent misguided calls for constitutional reforms by a section of the political class. It is the reason why we must constantly remind ourselves that this constitution was negotiated by Kenyans over two decades with the objective of transforming Kenya by constitutionally overthrowing the old order that represented a parasitic model of government, where the political elite and top civil servants, despite earning hefty salaries, allowances and other perks (including multiple top of the range motor vehicles) on the peoples sweat, continuously ignored and failed to prioritise the critical needs of the people.

At its core, the BBI initiative is about defending this untenable parasitic model and that is why it is being led and defended not just by a section of the political elite, but also by top civil servants who by law are prohibited from participating in active politics. This nostalgia for a powerful past is probably the reason why BBI is being forced down our throats through bribery, threats and all manner of intimidation.

It is a life and death matter for a sizeable number of the political elite to defend undeserved and unearned privilege at the expense of underprivileged Kenyans whose right of access to critical government services such as health, education, water and sanitation, to housing and adequate food as guaranteed by Article 43 of the constitution has all but been ignored. The right to and provision of these basic needs is among the key reasons why protecting the tenets of the 2010 constitution matters.

Aware that Kenyans hold devolution dear, the political elite are using the promises of more money to the counties—a whopping 35 per cent compared to the current 15 per cent—as the bait to lure citizens to support the BBI project. This promise is coming from an administration that has for the last nine years been reluctant to disburse in a timely manner the 15 per cent, the minimum provided for by the constitution.  Given that the constitution does not set a ceiling for the maximum amount that the National government may allocate to the counties, nothing is preventing the current administration and the BBI brothers, who jointly wield a majority in parliament, from implementing the budget increase coming June budget. There cannot be a better way for the BBI brothers to demonstrate good faith than to allocate the 35 per cent in this last year of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. I suspect that this administration will not actualise this promise because they know it is mission impossible in the prevailing economic situation.

Our country is reeling under a debt burden that is almost at ten trillion shillings, a debt that we are experiencing difficulties servicing, forcing the government to seek a six-month moratorium from its creditors. Much of our revenue is going towards servicing the debt leaving us with little or no money for development and recurrent expenditure including salaries. This is the context in which the BBI proponents are saying to us that we should prioritise the expansion of parliament and the executive over our health needs, our livelihoods and our children’s education. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBI project prioritises political deal making over the lives of Kenyans. The government is telling us that it will take us up to three years for only 30 per cent of the population to access COVID-19 vaccines.

We are not helpless. We need to make our voices count. We must rise up and tell the BBI brothers that our lives matter, that our needs matter and that they must be prioritised above all else.

From where I stand, the BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament. It is a gateway to a bloated parliament and an expanded executive. It is a return to political intolerance spearheaded by the state. We are back to labelling people with divergent opinions as “enemies of state”. Teargassing of perceived opponents of BBI is now the preferred weapon of the state. The political environment is toxic and does not favour rational discussion of the BBI project by citizens. Moreover, the Jubilee administration is split down the middle, with divisions even within the presidency. It is time to tell the BBI brothers: “prophet heal thyself”. Let them heal the divisions within their ranks which are threatening to burn the country. Let the BBI project cease fomenting intolerance.

Sold by its proponents as a people’s initiative, the BBI project has illegally spent and continues to spend scarce taxpayer’s money. No disclosures are made on what the money has so far been spent and how much more is expected to be splashed in these times of scarcity and a looming food crisis. MCAs countrywide have given the BBI project a nod in exchange for car grants. There has been little or with no public participation and nor has the public been provided with copies of the proposed constitutional amendments.

As citizens, we must not give up. It is time for Kenyans of goodwill to reclaim their voices individually and collectively and speak truth to power. We must refuse to be intimidated or silenced by a political elite and senior civil servants who number less than four thousand while over twenty million Kenyan voters are waiting to be informed and persuaded. All we need is the courage of our convictions to galvanise the country by word of mouth to say no to enslavement through the BBI project.

Let us be reminded that the independence constitution was eroded bit by bit until it became unrecognisable thus necessitating a fresh start. We should be wary of opening the door to a similar cannibalisation of our constitution even before we have implemented it.

To President Uhuru, you have time to stop this. Do not let your legacy be that of the president who destroyed our democratic gains. Live up to your oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution.

This is what is at the heart of the Linda Katiba resistance and defense of the constitution. It matters because it is easier to defend our democratic gains than to lose them and attempt to reclaim them later with no guarantee that it will be possible. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us all join hands to Linda Katiba.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.

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Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It

“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.

As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.

Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.

Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.

DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.

Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.

Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.

The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.

Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”

At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.

DHK represents in many ways a revival.

Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.

In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.

Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.

What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.

For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.

DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”

In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.

Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.


This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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