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Thomas Sankara: A Leader Before His Time?

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Thomas Sankara: A Leader Before His Time?

Twenty-five years ago, the charismatic leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, was murdered during a coup but his legacy continues to inspire Africans today. With each passing year, Sankara’s leadership, the personal examples he set and his reading of global and local situations appear exceptional. Africa can continue to learn from the Sankara golden period. Dr Hippolyte Fofack, a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences, explains why the Sankara factor is still crucial to Africa’s development.

MILLIONS of Africans and friends of Africa around the world came together in spirit to pay their tribute to the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso on the 25th anniversary of his assassination. Sankara is one of the few African leaders who continue to be widely admired, more than two decades after his unexpected exit on 15th October 1987.

Although he presided over his country’s destiny for just about four years (1983–1987), he achieved a lot on the development front and left indelible marks. He also touched the hearts and minds of millions of people beyond his country.

The continued admiration for President Sankara in a continent notorious for lacking transformational and accountable leaders is remarkable and quite exceptional.

In effect, since the departure of a handful of charismatic leaders who led the struggle for independence, very few leaders have enjoyed the esteem of their populations the way Sankara has.

To understand President Sankara’s ‘Exceptionalism’, one has to go back to the foundational attributes of transformational leadership, which involves, among other things: a governing philosophy underpinned by a high sense of integrity, the ability to articulate a clear vision and translate it into reality to change people’s lives for the better, the courage to identify and confront the dominant contradictions at each point in the development process, and, of course, frontier thinking – the ability to anticipate and lead on major development issues likely to greatly impact future generations.

Whether it was climate change, gender equality, fight against corruption or debt relief, which have become fashionable in recent years, President Sankara was at the forefront of these issues when they were still considered as marginal.

Buttressing self-confidence of citizens

One of the major thrusts which ran through President Sankara’s governing philosophy was his very high sense of nationhood and his commitment to the notion of sovereign state and respect of the people.

The paramount importance of the state and the people was almost a religion for him. He adopted the rallying slogan “Country or death! We shall prevail!”.

He campaigned actively against apartheid. His public lecture admonishing President François Mitterrand for indirectly participating in the crimes inflicted by the apartheid regime after the official visit of President Pieter Botha of South Africa to France stands out.

At the time, it was quite unusual for an African leader (especially a leader of a poor and aid-dependent country) to question actions undertaken by a French president.

Yet mutual respect and reciprocity were central in Sankara’s approach to international relations. In one of his first actions as President, he asked development partners to strike out the reference to ‘foreign aid’, and instead refer to it as “mutual assistance”, arguing that if Burkina Faso was unable to make financial gifts to France, the Burkinabé immigrants who sweep the streets of Paris every day for meagre wages should be considered as a form of reciprocal compensation from Africans.

This reciprocity argument, which assumes the globalisation of the labour market, becomes even more logical when foreign aid takes the form of technical assistance, with African countries providing an outlet for excess labour supply in Europe.

Sankara’s development strategy was also greatly influenced by his commitment to preserve the sovereignty of his country while at the same time meeting people’s aspirations to improved living standards. In essence, this strategy emphasises graduating from aid-dependency through endogenous growth and value addition in the production space. Through a careful cost-benefit analysis of that model, he concluded that the long-term economic and social costs of the underlying model far outweigh the short-term benefits.

In particular, while foreign aid provided some benefits in the short run, most notably by enabling African households to expand their consumption basket to include imported goods, it also came with long-term costs, including leading people to live above their means (for instance, Africans driving Mercedes-Benz cars in the 1970s when the Chinese rode locally manufactured bicycles).

In addition to the looming risk of aid-dependency traps, the long-term costs of the underlying development model also included rising external debt incurred to finance imported goods and structurally high unemployment rates in the absence of labour-intensive manufacturing to rebalance households’ consumption baskets over time through import substitution.

Determined to move away from the model of import of final consumption goods as a substitute for domestic production, the development strategy harnessed existing resources to expand domestic output through increased value addition and strengthened forward and backward linkages.

The results and development outcomes were spectacular: increased road density and rail infrastructure networks, a booming textile industry through processing of domestically produced cotton and growing market share of cotton fabric for local producers; food self-sufficiency through sensible agricultural policy (successful mobilisation of rural population and land reform).

The achievement on food security was remarkable (wheat production rose from 1,700 kg per hectare to 3,800 kg per hectare), especially given the recurrence of droughts and famine in the region and the deficit of technology for productivity enhancement.

These achievements reflected the intimate link between national security and food security, as country sovereignty cannot be achieved and sustained over time in the absence of food security. In Sankara’s own words: “He who feeds you, controls you”.

At the same time, Sankara had the courage to identify and confront the major constraints to the implementation of his development strategy. Key among these constraints were corruption, fiscal deficits, global warming, inadequate human resources and the prohibitive cost of external debt.

While his administration took the bold step of shedding the externally financed development model, the country still faced external liabilities incurred by the previous administrations. Interest payments on these liabilities crowded out the scarce resources which could have been used to expand public investment and growth.

Sankara attempted to address the debt overhang by calling for debt cancellation in his famous 1987 speech to African heads of states, essentially arguing that “If we do not pay the debt, our lenders will not die; however, if we do pay it, we will die …”.

About a decade after that historical speech which was considered unrealistic at the time, he was later vindicated when the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative was adopted in the late 1990s to provide debt relief to low-income countries. In nominal terms, that initiative cancelled about $62.7bn of debt owed by African countries to their external creditors without resulting in the death of any lenders. However, it provided a lifeline to most African economies which were on life support. The resurgence of growth in recent years has been partly attributed to debt relief.

Global warming

Global warming is another area where Sankara appears to have been ahead of his time. Having identified the progression of the Sahara Desert and recurrent heat waves and droughts as perennial constraints to food security, he launched a tree-planting programme to stem the advance of the desert on fertile land.

More than 10m trees were planted in the first year of the programme. Since then, tree planting has become a way of life in Burkina Faso. Although global warming has become a major concern in the international community in recent years, the tree-planting initiative was criticised at the time as a misplaced priority for a poor country which has no control over carbon pollution. Promoting transparency and accountability in public finance was another centrepiece of his development strategy. In addition to the institution of zero-tolerance for corruption at a time when it was still considered as taboo, his administration implemented one of the most drastic across-the-board cuts in public spending, getting rid of the most expensive Mercedes-Benz cars driven by all senior government officials and banning first-class travel.

Not only was that bold measure progressive, it was also fiscally conservative and resonated well with the population. President Sankara also cut his monthly salary to $450, making him the lowest-paid leader in the world. However, the salary cut also elevated him to the exclusive club of exceptional leaders like General Charles de Gaulle of France who refused to receive the salary allocated to the head of state, arguing that the income received as a general was enough for his family.

In a continent that is often known to have some of the wealthiest rulers in the world leading countries with the lowest per capita incomes and the highest incidence of poverty, the idea of a humble president seduced many, not only in Burkina Faso, but throughout the continent. Several decades later, Sankara’s commitment to fiscal responsibility continues to be remembered as an important milestone and benchmark for future governments. In 2003, when Kenyan authorities allocated $12m in the budget to purchase luxury cars, critics advised the government to follow the example set by Sankara.

The promotion of equity and social inclusion are other key components of his development strategy. Just a year into his presidency, more than 2.5m children were immunised for several infectious diseases. Infant mortality declined significantly. At the same time, school attendance rose from 12% to 22%, and was complemented by policies to encourage attendance and raise the completion rates, especially for girls.

Sankara was the first gender-equality-sensitive president in the world. He was not only one of the first to offer cabinet positions to women, but he also launched a crusade against social norms which either perpetuated gender inequality or undermined the self-esteem of women. In particular, he encouraged women to work outside the home, banned prostitution, outlawed female genital mutilation and forced marriage, and condemned polygamy.

In a symbolic attempt to draw attention on the daily plight of women, he instituted a day of solidarity with housewives; on that day, men handled household duties, though this could well have been a strategic move to enhance the women’s bargaining power by bringing men closer to the financial costs of the household consumption basket.

However, Sankara’s commitment to gender equality was not just symbolism. He viewed women as a key component of the development process: “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge in human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” More than two decades later the World Bank 2012 World Development Report on gender concluded that gender equality was smart economics.

In a popular stroke of political genius, Sankara erased the memory of colonialism by changing the name of his country from Haute-Volta (Upper Volta) to Burkina Faso: “the land of people of integrity” in Moré and Djula, the two major languages, giving meaning to their shared geographical space and unifying the people around one concept, a sea change where very few countries’ names mean anything to the people. More than two decades later the people are still very proud of that heritage. As more Burkinabé aspire to that high sense of integrity, Sankara’s invisible hand will continue to contribute to the construction of a more accountable and proud nation.

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