By Ben Norton. Originally published on his Geopolitical Economy Report, August 3, 2023.
The new president of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traoré, has vowed to fight imperialism and neocolonialism, invoking his country’s past revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara and quoting Che Guevara.
The West African nation has also formed close diplomatic ties with the revolutionary governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran, as well as with NATO’s arch-rival Russia.
In January 2022, a group of nationalist military officers in Burkina Faso toppled the president, Roch Kaboré, a wealthy banker who had fostered close ties with the country’s former colonizer, France, where he was educated.
The military officers declared a government run by what they call the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR), led by a new president, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.
They pledged to seek true independence from French hegemony, condemning the neocolonial policies and economic, political, and military control that Paris still exercises over Francophone West Africa.
Burkina Faso ended its decades-long military agreement with France, expelling the hundreds of French troops that had been in the country for years.
The new president, Damiba, was initially popular. But support waned as he was unable to defeat the deadly Salafi-jihadist insurgents that have destabilized the country.
In September 2022, discontent led to a subsequent coup in Burkina Faso, which brought to power another nationalist military leader named Ibrahim Traoré. He was just 34 at the time, making him one of the world’s youngest leaders.
Traoré has pledged to carry out a “refoundation of the nation” and comprehensive “modernization”, to quell violent extremism, fight corruption, and “totally reform our system of government”.
The charismatic Burkinabè leader frequently ends his speeches with the chant “La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons!”, the French translation of the official motto of revolutionary Cuba: “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” – “Homeland or death, we will prevail!”
As president, Traoré has brought back some of the revolutionary ideas of Thomas Sankara.
Sankara was a Marxist Burkinabè military officer and committed pan-Africanist who ascended to power in a 1983 coup.
Sankara launched a socialist revolution, transforming the impoverished country through land reform, infrastructure development, and expansive public health and literacy programs.
Under Sankara’s leadership, Burkina Faso also challenged French neocolonialism and pursued an anti-imperialist foreign policy, forming alliances with revolutionary struggles across the Global South.
These leftist policies were reversed in 1987, when Sankara was overthrown and killed in another coup, led by his former ally Blaise Compaoré – who subsequently moved hard to the right and allied with the United States and France, ruling through rigged elections until 2014.
Today, Ibrahim Traoré is drawing heavily on the legacy of Sankara. He has made it clear that he wants West Africa, and the continent as a whole, to be free of Western neocolonialism.
This July, the Russian government held a Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg. Traoré was the first African leader to arrive to the conference. There, he delivered a fiery anti-imperialist speech.
“We are the forgotten peoples of the world. And we are here now to talk about the future of our countries, about how things will be tomorrow in the world that we are seeking to build, and in which there will be no interference in our internal affairs”, Traoré said, according to a partial transcript published by Russian state media outlet TASS.
In his speech, the Burkinabe head of state also focused on sovereignty and the struggle against imperialism. “Why does resource-rich Africa remain the poorest region of the world? We ask these questions and get no answers. However, we have the opportunity to build new relationships that will help us build a better future for Burkina Faso,” the president said. African countries have suffered for decades from a barbaric and brutal form of colonialism and imperialism, which could be called a modern form of slavery, he stressed.
“However, a slave who does not fight [for his freedom] is not worthy of any indulgence. The heads of African states should not behave like puppets in the hands of the imperialists. We must ensure that our countries are self-sufficient, including as regards food supplies, and can meet all of the needs of our peoples. Glory and respect to our peoples; victory to our peoples! Homeland or death!” Traore summed up, quoting the words of legendary Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The 35-year-old president of Burkina Faso was attired in a camouflage uniform and red beret during the summit.
On July 29, Traoré had a private meeting in Saint Petersburgh with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In their talks, the Burkinabè leader praised the Soviet Union for defeating Nazism in World War II.
Burkina Faso strengthens ties with Latin American revolutionary movements
The new nationalist government in Burkina Faso has also sought to deepen its ties with revolutionary movements in Latin America.
In May, the West African nation’s prime minister, Apollinaire Kyélem de Tambèla, traveled to Venezuela.
Tambèla met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who pledged to “advance in cooperation, solidarity, and growth… building a solid fraternal relation”.
In July, the Burkinabè prime minister traveled to Nicaragua to celebrate the 44th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution.
Tambèla attended the July 19 celebration of the revolution in Managua, at the invitation of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Following the September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, the new president, Traoré, surprised many observers by choosing as his prime minister a longtime follower of Thomas Sankara, Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla.
Tambèla was an ally of Sankara during the Burkinabè revolution. When Sankara came to power in the 1980s, Tambèla organized a solidarity movement and sought international support for the new leftist government.
Tambèla is a pan-Africanist and has been affiliated with communist and left-wing organizations.
Traoré said in a speech in December that Tambèla will help to oversee the process of the “refoundation of the nation”.
By appointing Tambèla as prime minister, Traoré tangibly showed his commitment to reviving the revolutionary legacy of Sankara.
In his remarks at the anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution, Tambèla discussed the historical legacy of solidarity between the revolution in Burkina Faso and that of Nicaragua.
Tambèla recalled that Sankara visited Nicaragua in 1986, and the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega visited Burkina Faso that same year.
When he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in 1984, Sankara declared, “I wish also to feel close to my comrades of Nicaragua, whose ports are being mined, whose towns are being bombed and who, despite all, face up with courage and lucidity to their fate. I suffer with all those in Latin America who are suffering from imperialist domination“.
In 1984 and 1986, Sankara also visited Cuba, where he met with revolutionary President Fidel Castro.
“For people of my generation, there are things that unite us with Nicaragua, Augusto César Sandino, the Sandinista National Liberation Front and Commander Daniel Ortega”, Burkinabè Prime Minister Tambèla said in his speech in Managua on July 19, 2023.
“We have learned to know Nicaragua. When the liberation struggle began, I was small, but we followed, day by day, the context of Nicaragua’s liberation. I went in July of ’79, and when they entered Managua we were happy, people of my age celebrated that”, he recalled.
“And then, when Thomas Sankara came to power, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Revolution was something happy for us; we as students studied a lot the history of Nicaragua, we followed its evolution”.
Tambèla added that Burkina Faso supported Nicaragua in its International Court of Justice case against the United States. Washington was found guilty of illegally sponsoring far-right “Contra” death squads, which waged a terror war against the leftist government, as well as putting mines in Nicaragua’s ports. (Yet, although Nicaragua won the case in 1986, the US government has still to this day refused to pay the Central American nation a single cent of the reparations that it legally owes it.)
“Nicaragua’s struggle is also that of our people”, Tambèla stressed.
In his July 19 speech, the Burkinabè prime minister also sent special greetings to the diplomatic delegations from Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.
“We have very close relations with Cuba”, Tambèla added. “President Fidel Castro has been and was a very important person for the revolution in Africa; we have excellent memories, both of Cuba and of President Fidel Castro”.
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