An Open Letter to the Spirit of a Rebellious Leader
[Note: Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso from 1983-87, was assassinated on October 15, 1987. This letter was written on the 25th anniversary of his death and modified slightly after.]
Dear President Sankara,
It was 25 years ago this autumn that you were removed from office and killed. So much has happened since then. Your beloved Burkina Faso, the country you renamed to reflect the upright nature of the people there, is imperiled. The vast majority is impoverished and frustrated by the current state of affairs. Your former comrade, Blaise Compaoré, who was instrumental in bringing you to power and supporting you, had eventually engineered your removal and assassination. He has most certainly congratulated himself on this twenty-fifth anniversary in power. Recently, Blaise won his last election but quickly set to work on how he could maneuver around a constitutional amendment that limits a president to two terms. Strange! He is currently serving his fourth term and has indicated he will run yet again in 2015.i
I imagine you are not surprised by this turn of events. You were making predictions about how your removal was inevitable in the years, months, and weeks leading up to the dark, fateful day when Africa lost a powerful and fiercely independent voice. It also probably would not surprise you that most people around the world have never heard of you and they most certainly won’t pay heed to the reminders of this tragic anniversary by international media or official government ceremonies. There will surely be commemorations in your honor but the silence will ultimately be deafening.
You broke too many rules. You disrespected the leader of the almighty France to his face, in front of your counterparts on the world stage. We can see the shock and anger in the eyes of Francois Mitterand, then socialist leader of France; he didn’t appreciate your lapse of memory about the superiority of old white men in the capitals of the developed world. A price was to be paid. The world was not host to some anarchic international system where bold young men could ignore conventional wisdom and lay out an alternative path for the people of any country, be it in Africa, Latin America, or elsewhere.
Your policies read like a dream for the weary youth of today. They are hungry for green jobs, strong independent voices, and visionaries to counter the mighty multinational corporations and global capital. They long for environmentally sane policies, as well as the empowerment of women and the underprivileged. They are disgusted by the same old empty rhetoric and partisan inaction.
Your government, one of the first to recognize the AIDS epidemic and its potential for devastating the African continent and the world, was aware that the health of the people must be put ahead of every other consideration. Today, health care programs are among the first on the chopping block in the wealthy nations and seeing a qualified and equipped doctor is a rarity for most people on the planet still today. Compaoré had a massively expensive hospital built with much fanfare and named it after himself. It now receives next to no visitors.ii
Your identification of the oppressive nature of the IMF and World Bank and swift and decisive actions to neutralize these powerful international forces are exactly what people around the world wish their governments might be courageous enough to do. Most governments seem to believe that free trade is a goal in and of itself and that this requires people to suffer under brutal budgets and privatization schemes, while banksters sip champagne on a nightly basis and mock the growing poor populations around the world.
Your reforestation projects, simple and wise plans successfully carried out, are denied the recognition they deserve. Most states and their leaders seem to prefer deforestation so everyone can eat meat three times a day, have plentiful cheap paper, and even grow food to fuel our vehicles.
Your encouragement of sustainable food cultivation is believed by many to be a cure to some of our worst health, environmental and even cultural problems. The control of our modern food supply is increasingly concentrated in the hands of private capital, as governments prefer shipping food often halfway around the globe, because it’s good for business. You charged this as imperialism. People today rarely make that connection, yet they are unable to say with any degree of certainty what exactly they are eating.
Your support for a united Africa that could have potentially replaced dependence on western power was courageous and serious enough that something had to be done. Today, one hardly hears a mention of greater genuine regional integration in Africa to counter the definitive asymmetry in the continent’s relations with the insatiable United States, Europe, China and others. Proxy wars continue unabated across the continent as a result of bountiful resources, foreign intervention and a relentless arms trade. In fact, the Congo is set to explode into violence yet again and most of the innocent people that are suffering and will suffer have no comprehension of why this inevitable. Closer to your home, Islamists have taken control of a huge portion of Mali and present a major threat to stability in the region. Blaise has attempted to take the lead in negotiations for peace but reminds us through one of his ministers that force will also be needed.iii
There is a lot you might be surprised about in the year 2012. You would probably be shocked to learn that a leader of African descent is frequently cited as the most powerful man in the world. The President of the United States can trace his lineage to the Luo in Kenya, yet he also has the blood of the liberal white American tradition. These roots are reflected in how he speaks but hardly how he governs. He occasionally voices support for the underprivileged but offers little more in reality. He doesn’t like when foreign leaders, journalists, legal scholars or even those who make up his base to challenge him on many of his actions or his support for greedy and murderous figures. The US Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama is very powerful in certain respects. He can order the assassination of anyone on the planet according to legislation he signed in a very unceremonious manner.
The National Defense Authorization Act is but one example of the US president’s attempts to hide what he does. This is despite earlier promises of transparency. Sometimes, he likes to leak stories or photos that may demonstrate his strength as a bold leader in a dangerous world, such as when he dramatically ordered the killing of a very evil terrorist from the United States’ staunchest of allies, Saudi Arabia, or when his decisive action leads to the senseless murder of innocent children across the Arab world. He regularly sends pilotless airplanes to sovereign nations to kill bad guys and, in so doing, terrorizes entire regions of countries that are not even at war with the United States. Worst of all, he confuses the fine-tuning or reform of abusive power with political fortitude.
I guess there is a lot to explain and as I mentioned, some of these developments on planet Earth in 2012 would surprise you, but most would not. Libya has descended into a fractious workshop for a host of ambitious types after NATO bombs wreaked havoc and terror. This eventually culminated in the brutal murder of your old ally Muammar Gaddafi, an act etched into the minds of those curious enough to watch the footage. Syria is also in the throes of a horrific civil war and its stubborn leadership will not listen to Western demands to concede to a shadowy opposition that is increasingly backed by the US and its allies.
Across the African continent, men cling to power and are an affront to any hope of a brighter future. Ismail Omar Guelleh in Djibouti is the latest member in his family who refuses to let go of his country.iv Washington and Madrid propped up the morally bankrupt head of the rentier state in Equitorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiango, for years. Now he is emboldened by his new Chinese amigos.v However, in most of these cases, unlike in Libya and Syria, the free and liberal west doesn’t really care that much to get involved, much less assemble a political and military opposition or even a pussy riot (don’t ask). It’s safe to assume this is mostly because its interests are being served by these neoliberal stooges, providing footholds for the US military and readily handing over the wealth within their borders for opulent lifestyles, expediency and maintenance of power. The list goes on. In Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell—a person, according to the US government’s definition—has created a dire situation for Nigerian citizens. They have systematically destroyed the environment, neutralized the opposition, and continually spill massive amounts of petroleum. Yet they are rewarded with the protection of the United States and the Obama Administration,vi probably because they are considered capitalist titans of a obscenely profitable industry that does what it wants and pays no real consequences.
Moving across the Atlantic westward, there are interesting developments taking place as well. A leader in Venezuela named Hugo Chavez, declared by many intellectuals, pundits and their audiences around the world to be a dangerous dictator, just recently won another election, which indicates that he may eventually serve a total of 20 years in office. He actually has a lot in common with you. He is often depicted in his fatigues, is seemingly fearless and has never met a rule of diplomatic or civil politics that he didn’t enjoy breaking from time to time. One of my favorite moments was when he handed the newly elected US president a book by the radical intellectual Noam Chomsky. The book was called Hegemony or Survival but Obama clearly wasn’t much interested, despite his voracious appetite for both options, albeit his own political survival is his concern.
The interesting thing about Chavez is that he has helped reform much in the country with the vast oil resources of the nation, including the health, education and the electoral system. Enough so that the National Lawyers Guild, and former US President have praised it as one of the most sophisticated and transparent voting systems in the world, alongside praise from the OAS, Unasur and the EU. President Chavez also presides over a country where the opposition, funded by the US and other Western detractors, is allowed to spew vicious lies through its maintenance of the country’s major newspapers and most popular television channels. He practices a strange form of authoritarianism, wouldn’t you say.
Regardless of dangerous enemies of popular revolution lurking about, leaders across Latin America continue to be inspired, as you were, by the Cuban model and a 21st century version of socialism is highly touted in the region including in the countries of Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. There is much talk of the leftist leaders of Latin America and it certainly is worthy of attention, alas the narratives continue to be tightly scripted. That doesn’t prevent meddling in line with the machinations of power that brought you, Lumumba, Allende, Mossadegh, and others down. Historians have recently added new coups to the annals of history in the Maldives, Paraguay and Honduras. We can see that this is still a viable strategy for getting rid of troublemakers worldwide.
There is hope, as the leadership in Venezuela and Latin America demonstrate, for the politics of the people to prevail. You see Mr. President, we are dealing with obvious signs of advanced crisis currently in the realm of the natural environment and the economy. The inequality of Africa, based on exploitation of workers, nature, women, and the voiceless made possible through politics of fear, now plagues much of Europe, the US, and Asia as never before. The policies of structural adjustment are now being applied ruthlessly to countries such as Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and others. The term austerity is applied to sound like a moderate, reasonable approach to the world’s crises, but actually this is a radical approach designed to ensure the survival of the system that is causing misery far and wide. Your austere approach to governing with insistence on the cheapest automobiles available, instead of Burnkinabe officials’ use of Mercedes, was more than just a symbolic gesture. Austerity’s most battered victims would surely appreciate it today.
You would also be encouraged by the current president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, a woman who, like you has emphasized the importance of education throughout her career and, like you, has decided to scale down her salary along with government extravagance, including a presidential jet and a fleet of luxury vehicles, to help finance popular policies.vii Even more impressive, the Uruguayan leader, Jose Mujica, donates 90% of his relatively meager salary and endorses healthy living, free from material obsessions and is about to deal a huge blow to Washington by legalizing marijuana.viii
However, the fat cats in Germany and around Europe prefer the most vulnerable go forth in the dark, cold caves of a neoliberal hell first and then report back in a few years if they survive. Hope is difficult to find in Europe these days, though the positive aspect of all this negativity is the reaction by huge amounts of the population to demonstrate their disgust with their so-called leaders. A closer look reveals a massive flight is taking place, for example, Spaniards are leaving their country en masse for other parts of Europe and even Africa, but mostly to Latin America where they speak the language and appreciate the politics.ix
That is actually why I am writing you. Today, many dedicated souls across the world fear what you feared, celebrate what you celebrated and fight for that which you fought. Cultural borders are coming down and divisions are disappearing as people seek knowledge while spreading messages of love, regardless of class, race and distance. Technology, (I forgot to mention this innovation called the internet that links tiny computers around the world and offers knowledge that once required libraries and the lifting of heavy books) is advancing with remarkable speed, serving as somewhat of a potentially sharp double-edged sword, and the people currently have breathtaking amounts of power over this system. Yet, many of us are lost most of the time. Leadership is something we assume will take care of itself, allowing for both our apathy and our endurance. This is the intentional result of clever marketing, economics of servitude, and cultural hegemony, as Gramsci explained.
People are remarkably ignorant today when it comes to policy because we are too bogged down in how to survive and thrive, against the odds. This is true no matter where you go. As technology and awareness have now spread across every corner of the globe, so has confusion and fear. Often, many in power know how to capitalize on this fear (the capitalization of nearly everything is now evident in 2012). They use it to bludgeon the bulk of humanity into apathy and scapegoating.
Sometimes, though, just sometimes, we remember things from the past and ponder them for more than a brief moment or two. We relearn lessons from the giant courageous minds of history. We are the beneficiaries of the boundless ancient strength, wisdom and rebelliousness provided by a healthy, indomitable human spirit. We do not always tread down paths that were carved out by mindless traditions. We carve our own paths that require belief, hope and humanitarian gestures. I remember you today for these reasons. For your courage as president of a tiny, forgotten country buried in Western Africa and your ability to change the conditions and the debate by tapping into the ancient spirit that too often lies dormant within us. This should inspire the best of us today to keep going, to keep documenting, talking, writing, resisting, loving, crying, laughing and dreaming. Dreaming of a better world that we know is a reality because leaders unsung and unnamed, forgotten and remembered throughout history have helped to create these conditions if only briefly.
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
i Much of the information about Thomas Sankara was found on the website http://thomassankara.net/ , http://www.blaisecompaore2015.info, and the documentary film The Upright Man produced by Robin Shuffeild, found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvBC7tmgFFM
ii Le Reporter. “Hopital National Blaise Compaoré : les raisons d’une agonie prématurée lundi,” 12 November 2012 at http://www.blaisecompaore2015.info/Hopital-National-Blaise-Compaore
iii Colin Freeman. “Meet President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso the man who could help solve Africas al Qaeda crisis,” The Telegraph 7 November 2012 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/mali/9680574/Meet-President-Blaise-Compaore-of-Burkina-Faso-the-man-who-could-help-solve-Africas-al-Qaeda-crisis.html
iv Patrick Bond. “Which Africans Will Obama Whack Next,” Counterpunch 5-7 October 2012 at www.counterpunch.org/2012/10/05/ which-africa ns-will-obama-whack-next/
v Mario Esteban, “The Chinese Amigo: Implications for the Development of Equatorial Guinea,” The China Quaterly (2009).
vi Glen Ford. “Obama on wrong side Shell oil human rights case,” Black Agenda Report 3 October 2012 at http://blackagendareport.com/content/obama-wrong-side-shell-oil-human-rights-case-0
vii Aislinn Lang. “Malawi’s new president sells off presidential jet and 60 Mercedes,” The Telegraph 1 June 2012 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/malawi/9306069/Malawis-new-president-sells-off-presidential-jet-and-60-Mercedes.html
viii Vladimir Hernandez. “Jose Mujica: The World’s Poorest President,” BBC News Magazine 15 November 2012 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20243493
ix Gabriel Stargardter and Paul Day. “Spanish migration to Latin America surges as recession bites,” Reuters 4 November 2012 at http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2012/11/04/2003546816