Thomas Sankara (1949-1987) was the President and leader of Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta) from 1983 to 1987. In 1984, on the first anniversary of his accession, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upright people” in Mossi and Djula, the two major languages of the country. In order not to be subjected to the diktats of the International Financiers, he refused any aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. His nation, half-desert, hungry, deep in debt, with one of the highest infant mortality rates, could only rely on itself.
Sankara rejected the inevitability of “poverty” and was one of the first proponents of food security. His slogan, “two meals and 10 litres of water everyday for everybody,” became a reality. He achieved the spectacular feat of making his country self-sufficient for food within four years, through sensible agricultural policy.
However, the burden of the external debt accumulated by previous governments was still threatening his nation. On July 27, 1987, he gave the following speech at the 25th African United Organization Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He called for a united front of all African nations against debt. “If Burkina Faso stands alone refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference!” Sankara was assassinated three months after this speech.
On the United Front against Debt
by President Thomas Sankara
We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lent us money are those who colonized us. They are those same people who used to manage our states and economies. It was these colonists 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. The debt is still neo-colonialism, in which colonizers transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should better say “technical assassins.” It is they who presented us with financing.
In French, a financial backer or sponsor is called a bailleur de fonds, literally, someone who “yawns funds.” This is a term that we use every day (in French), as if someone’s yawn could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been proposed with nice financial set-ups. We have been indebted for fifty, sixty years and even more. That means we have been led to compromise our people for fifty years and more.
Under its current form, that is dominated and controlled imperialism, the debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, aimed at subjugating Africa’s knowledge, growth and development through regulation that is totally foreign. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave (the worst kind of slave), of those who had the opportunity, who were so treacherous as to lend money to our countries with the obligations to repay them.
We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about a so-called honor whether we should repay (the debt) or not. Mr. President, we have been listening and applauding Norway’s prime minister when she spoke here. She is European, but she said that the debt cannot be paid.
The debt cannot be paid. Because if we do not pay the lenders would not die. Be sure of that. But, if we pay it, it is we who are going to die. That is also sure.
Those who led us into debt, gambled as if in a casino. As long as they were winning, there were no problems. But now that they lost the game, they are demanding payment. And we talk about crisis. No! Mr. President, they played, they lost, that’s the rule of the game and life goes on.
We cannot pay the debt because we don’t have any means to do so. We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt. We cannot pay the debt because others owe us what the greatest riches could never repay, that is, a blood debt. It was our blood that was spilled! 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 stability were at stake.
Who saved Europe? Africa. One rarely mentions it, to the point that we cannot be the accomplices of that thankless silence. If others cannot sing our praises, at least we have the obligation to say, that our fathers were courageous and that our troops had saved Europe and set the world free from Nazism.
Debt is also the consequence of confrontation. When we are told about economic crisis, nobody says that this crisis didn’t come out suddenly. The crisis has always been there but it gets worst each time that the popular masses become more and more conscious of their rights against exploiters.
We are in crisis today because the masses refuse that the wealth be concentrated into the hands of a few individual’s. We are in a crisis because some people are putting huge sums of money into foreign bank accounts; this wealth could be used to develop Africa. We are in a crisis because of this private wealth that we cannot name; because the popular masses refuse to live in ghettos and slums. We are in a crisis because everywhere people refuse to be in Soweto facing Johannesburg. There is then a struggle and its amplification worries those who hold the financial powers.
Now we are asked to be accomplices in the search for equilibrium. An equilibrium that is in favor of those holding financial power, which in turn, is a detriment towards 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 murdering ways.
Mr. President, we hear about clubs – Club of Rome, Club of Paris, club everywhere. We hear about the Group of Five, Group of Seven, Group of Ten, and maybe Group of hundred. And what else?
It is normal that we too have our own club and our own group. Let Addis Ababa become from now on, the center from which will come a new breath. The club of Addis Ababa. It is our duty to create Addis Ababa’s unified front against the debt. It is the only way to assert that refusing to pay (the debt) is not an aggressive move on our part, but instead a fraternal way to speak about what is.
Furthermore, popular masses of Europe are not opposed to the popular masses of Africa. Those who want the exploitation of Africa, are those who exploit Europe too. We have a common enemy. So our club started at Addis Ababa will have to explain to each person that debt shall not be paid.
And by saying that the debt will not be paid, we are not against morals, dignity and the respect of the word. There is not the same morality involved. Between the rich and the poor, there is not the same morality. The Bible and the Koran cannot serve those who are exploiting and those who are exploited in the same way. There should be two different editions of the Bible and two different editions of the Koran.
We cannot accept to be told about dignity and merit of those who pay and the distrust toward those who don’t. On the contrary, we must say that it is normal today; we have to understand that the greatest thieves are those who are the wealthiest.
When a poor man steals, it’s just a theft, a peccadillo; it’s just about survival and necessity. When the rich man steals, it’s through their fiscal authority, it is they who exploit the people.
Mr. President, my proposal doesn’t aim at provoking or showing off. I just would like to say what each one of us thinks and wishes. Who, here, doesn’t wish the debt to be merely cancelled? The one who doesn’t can go out, jump into his plane and go straight to the World Bank and pay!
I do not want people to think this opinion is only from Burkina Faso and that this proposal is coming from youth without maturity and experience. I wouldn’t want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak this way. I would want one to admit it is mere objectivity and obligation.
I can cite, as examples, others who said not to pay the debt, revolutionaries as well as non-revolutionaries, old and young alike. I would mention Fidel Castro who said not to pay; he is not my age, even if he is a revolutionary. I would also mention Francois Mitterrand who said that African countries cannot pay the debt, poor countries cannot pay.
I would mention Madam Prime Minister of Norway, I don’t know her age and I cannot bring myself to ask her. But it’s an example. I would also mention President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, he is not my age, but he officially, publicly declared, for his own country at least, that the Ivory Coast cannot pay. Even if the Ivory Coast is considered among the wealthiest countries in all French-speaking Africa.
Mr. President, it is definitely not provocation. I would like you to offer us some wise solutions. I would wish our conference to adopt the necessity of saying clearly that we cannot pay the debt. Not with a warlike spirit but to prevent us from being individually assassinated.
If Burkina Faso stands alone refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference!
But, with everybody’s support, which I need, we could avoid paying the debt. By avoiding paying the debt, we could devote our small resources to our own development. And I would like to conclude by saying that each time an African country buys a gun, it is against an African. It is not against a European, it is not against an Asian, it is against an African.
Consequently, we should take advantage of the debt issue to solve the weapons problem. I am military and I carry a gun. But Mr. President, I would want us to disarm. Because I carry the only gun I have and others have concealed guns.
My dear brothers, with everybody’s support, we will make peace at home. We will also use these huge potentialities to develop Africa, because our soil and subsoil are rich. We have enough labor force and a vast market from North to South and East and West. We have enough intellectual capabilities to create or at least, use technology and science from wherever we find it.
Mr. President, let’s set up an Addis Ababa unified front against debt. Let’s make from Addis Ababa the commitment of limiting armament among weak and poor countries. The clubs and knives we buy are useless.
Let’s make the African market, a true market of Africans. Produce in Africa, transform in Africa and 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, sewed in Burkina Faso, to dress the inhabitants 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 the African life. It is the only way to live free and to live dignified.
I thank you, Mr. President. The nation or death, we will overcome!
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With a speech like this, President Sankara became a scandal that had to be eliminated. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’etat led by Blaise Compaore on October 15, 1987. Compaore returned to the IMF fold, spurning Sankara’s legacy. Today, landlocked Burkina still ranks as the third least developed country in the world. One week before he died, Sankara said: “While individuals can be killed, you cannot kill ideas.” The point is to educate not only one person — the president of the nation — but the whole population about the swindle of the present debt-money system and how a country can create its own debt-free currency and ensure economic security for all its inhabitants. This is the idea the “Michael” Journal promotes and, like the truth, this idea cannot be killed or silenced, it will spread all over the world!