African Revolutionaries: remembering Maurice Bishop and Thomas Sankara

This week marks the anniversary of the assassinations of two black revolutionaries, Maurice Bishop on 19 October 1983 and Thomas Sankara on 15 October 1987. The assassination of Bishop effectively ended the Grenadian revolution and the New Jewel movement, when six days after his death US forces under Ronald Reagan invaded the island.    

A ‘communist threat’

The JEWEL Movement (The Joint Endeavour for Welfare, Education & Liberation) originally started in 1972 as a political movement centered on agricultural co-operatives. A year later the New Jewel movement was created; Maurice Bishop became prime minister in March 1979.

Bishop was assassinated in a ‘palace’ coup led by deputy prime minister and childhood friend, Bernard Coard, over ideological differences. Coard and his wife Phyllis were sentenced to death, a decision later softened to life imprisonment. In 2007, the Privy Council of the UK ruled the death sentences unconstitutional, which has implications for the case in the first place.

What is clear is that the New Jewel movement’s socialist ideology and its relationship with Cuba were perceived as a ‘communist’ threat to the US hegemony in the Caribbean. The invasion battle lasted for just over a week and resulted in the death of many Grenadians and 12 Cuban civilians, who were there to help with the construction of an airport.

According to Don Rojas, Bishop’s press secretary, the US invasion had been planned as early as 1981 and the coup provided the perfect excuse:

‘The coup provided a pretext for the invasion to take place at that particular moment. In other words, taking advantage of an opportunity of internal destabilization as a result of the coup and confusion within the Grenadian society.

The invasion, however, had been planned by the Reagan administration as far back as 1981. In fact, there was mock invasion, military exercises on the island of Viequas off the island of Puerto Rico. Viequas happens to be similar in topography to Grenada. This had been in the works, so to speak, for at least two years before October 1983.’

Grenada under the New Jewel movement

The aim of the revolutionary movement, which received aid both from Cuba and the Soviet Union, was to create a modern agricultural programme based on a system of co-operatives, people’s assemblies, free health and education for all and low-cost housing. Workers’ and women’s rights, as well as the struggle against racism and Apartheid, were Bishop’s core principles.

Women’s rights were furthered through the formation of the National Women’s Organization, which participated in policy decisions along with other social groups. Women were given equal pay and paid maternity leave, and sex discrimination was made illegal.

The Grenadian revolution only lasted four years, but in that brief period the New Jewel movement transformed the country from a neo-colonialist state to a Pan-African revolutionary state.

Thomas Sankara seized power in 1983 in a popular Pan-African coup in what was then Upper Volta (he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which means ‘land of honest men’). Like Bishop, Sankara had a vision to change the way things were, to show that there are other ways of socioeconomic and political organization which are in the interest of the people rather than international corporations and Western governments.

The revolution sought to create an anti-imperialist social democracy in one of the world’s poorest countries. Issues such as land rights, labour rights, agriculture, education and women’s rights were at the forefront of the revolution’s aims. Sankara stated: ‘There is no true social revolution without the liberation of women.’ It was one of his principal priorities to ban female genital mutilation; he promoted contraception and discouraged polygamy.

Sankara also embarked on a massive nationalization project which no doubt infuriated the business élite and the French government. In 1987 Sankara was assassinated after only four years in power, in an ‘imperialist’ coup by his former comrade, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré, who overturned most of Sankara’s policies, remains in power today. 

Who killed Thomas Sankara?

The truth of who was behind the assassination is still illusive. It has been suggested that former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor may have been involved. In a 2009 documentary, Italian film maker Silvestro Montanaro implicated the US and the French governments as well as Compaoré and Taylor in Sankara’s assassination.

This brief excerpt from the documentary shows Taylor as working for the CIA to destabilize African liberation movements and this is what his former aide said:

‘PRINCE: Right, after I spoke, the president of Burkina Faso faced all kinds of problems, and I do not want to end up there again. Besides, if you really want to know what happened in Burkina Faso, why don’t you go there and ask President Blaise Compaoré… You are part of the international media, you are like a doctor, to whom the truth must be told. Therefore, go to Burkina Faso… [bursts of laughter].

NARRATOR: Then, with the camera ostensibly off...

PRINCE: There was an international plot to get rid of this man, and if I tell you how this happened, are you aware the secret services could kill you?

SILVESTRO: An international plot. Because the truth would harm the current president Blaise Compaoré. In 1987, when Sankara was murdered, Compaoré was considered his best friend. Immediately after Sankara’s death, Compaoré said 'I was ill'.

NARRATOR: Momo and Allen recount to me what exactly happened.

ALLEN: Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Sankara, Domingo Guengeré, and Foday Sankoh, as well as the man from Chad, whose name I can’t recall, had all been trained in Libya and were all friends. They are the ones who actually organized the Burkina revolution and installed Sankara as president. Once in power, he set about putting in place his plans. The next thing you know, the US had infiltrated the liberation movements and set about overthrowing Sankara, who was leaning too far left. The Americans were not happy with Sankara. He was talking of nationalizing his country’s resources to benefit his people. He was a socialist so he had to go.’

Burkina critics of Sankara claim he became authoritarian, closing down trade unions and banning strikes.  But in defence of Sankara, ‘you cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness’.  This is the kind of madness African leadership is missing today.

‘I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory. You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.’ Thomas Sankara, 1985