Below is an excerpt from Thomas Sankara Speaks, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. Sankara led the revolution in Burkina Faso from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Workers and peasants in this West African country established a popular revolutionary government that began to fight the hunger, illiteracy and economic backwardness imposed by imperialist domination, and the oppression of women inherited from millennia of class society. This excerpt is from “Dare to Invent the Future,” a series of interviews conducted in the capital Ouagadougou in 1985 by Swiss journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp. Copyright © 1988, 2007 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
RAPP: A related question is that of the foreign debt. At the conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, the participants were quite divided on how to deal with the question of paying back this debt.
SANKARA: As far as we’re concerned, we say very clearly: the foreign debt should not be repaid. It’s unjust. It’s like paying war reparations twice over. Where does this debt come from, anyhow? It comes from needs imposed on us by other countries. Did we need to build mansions or to tell doctors they would receive a fabulous salary at the end of the month? Or foster the mentality of overpaid men among our officers? We were coerced into running up very heavy debts, and the economic enterprises made possible by these loans have not always run smoothly. We entered into weighty financial commitments on their account — often suggested, proposed, organized, and set in place by the same people who lent us the money.
They have quite a system. First come the members of the assault squad, who know exactly what they are going to propose. Then they bring out the heavy artillery, and the price keeps going up. These are wonderful investments for the investors. They don’t put their money in their own banks because at home the returns aren’t good. They have to create the need for capital elsewhere and make others pay.
Do we really need to smoke this or that brand of cigarette? They’ve convinced us, “If you smoke such-and-such brand you’ll be the most powerful man on earth, capable of seducing any woman.” So we took up smoking, and got cancer as a bonus. The most privileged among us have gone to Europe to be treated. And all to give a second wind to your tobacco market.
RAPP: But does refusing to pay the debt make any sense if only one or two countries do it?
SANKARA: The pressure to pay the debt does not come from the isolated usury of a single banker. It comes from an entire organized system, so that in the event of nonpayment, they can detain your planes at an airport or refuse to send you an absolutely indispensable spare part. So deciding not to pay the debt requires we form a united front. All the countries should act together — on the condition, of course, that each one of us is open to looking critically at the way we ourselves manage these funds. People who have contracted huge debts because of their own lavish personal expenses don’t deserve our support. We said this clearly in the message we delivered to the OAU [Organization of African Unity]: “Either we resist collectively and refuse categorically to repay the debt or, if we don’t, we’ll have to go off to die alone, one by one.”
RAPP: But this point of view was not unanimous?
SANKARA: Though everyone understands the logic behind such a legitimate refusal to pay, each of us thinks he’s smarter, more cunning than the other. A particular government will skirt the need for collective action to go and see the moneylenders. This country is then immediately portrayed as the best organized, the most modern, the most respectful of written agreements. They’re given more loans, so further conditions can be imposed. When the discontent spills out into the streets, they suggest sending in the “heavies” to break those who won’t fall into line — and to put someone of their choice on the throne.
RAPP: Aren’t you afraid of a violent public reaction against your internal economic measures?
SANKARA: The general support we’re finding as we impose measures that are not in themselves very popular shows the nature of our revolution. It’s a revolution directed not against any people or any country, but rather one that’s aimed at restoring the dignity of the Burkinabè people, at allowing them to achieve happiness as they define it.
In other countries happiness and development are defined by ratios — so many hundred pounds of steel per inhabitant, so many tons of cement, so many telephone lines. We have different values. We’re not the least bit embarrassed to say we are a poor country. Within international organizations we’re not at all afraid to get up and speak and to block discussions in order to gain a reduction of a dollar or two in the dues or contributions countries must pay. We know this irritates a good many delegations that are capable of throwing thousands, if not millions, of dollars out the window.
When we receive a foreign ambassador who has come to present his credentials, we no longer do so in this presidential office. We take him out into the bush, with the peasants. He travels on our chaotic roads and endures dust and thirst. After that we can receive him, explaining, “Mr. Ambassador, your Excellency, you have just seen Burkina Faso as it really is. This is the country you must deal with, not those of us who work in comfortable offices.”
We have a wise and experienced people capable of shaping a certain way of life. While elsewhere people die from being too well-fed, here we die from not having enough food. Between these two extremes there is a way of life to be discovered if each of us meets the other halfway.