In April this year, we celebrated 50 yrs of Ghana’s Independence. In October, we are marking the 20th year since Thomas Sankara’s assassination – a stark reminder that we are still in the state Odinga Oginga called Not Yet Uhuru. We will be remembering that if Africa suffers today, it is because yesterday its best political minds, and its most fiery and committed sons and daughters were assassinated. All for thirty pieces of silver, for tea, coffee, oil, diamonds, gold, cobalt, uranium and African sweat.
But we should also remember the living. Aziz Fall, the co-coordinator of the International Justice Campaign for Sankara (ICJS) has been receiving anonymous death threats since December 2006. They tell him “stop or be stopped” “commit suicide or face execution” and in the last one, he was informed that his family would be targeted. His crime? Coordinating 22 lawyers dedicated to using legal means to find the truth behind Sankara’s assassination.
The ICJS helped Mariam Sankara, Thomas Sankara’s widow, take her case to the United Nations after, predictably, the legal system in Burkina Faso stalled each time she appeared in court. Finally, in March 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Sankara’s family has “the right to know the circumstances of his death.” The Committee also argued that failure to correct the natural death entry on Sankara’s death certificate, refusal to investigate his death, and “the lack of official recognition of his place of burial” pointed to “inhumane treatment of Ms. Sankara and her sons” contrary to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Dictators and your torturers all over the world take note! Article 7 declares: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In a strange way, the death threats against Aziz further validate the UN ruling.
Victoria Mxenge, Ruth First, Steve Biko, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Chris Hani, Mhodlane, Kimathi and many others dead at the hands of colonialism and apartheid. But what makes the assassinations of Sankara, Lumumba or Maurice Bishop of Grenada all the more painful is knowing that they were betrayed by those closest to them. And their successors are egregiously guilty of violently pulling back their societies miles behind the starting line.
After Lumumba, Mobutu –a common thief who under the guise of a shallow nationalism – maimed, killed and stole in the Congo. In Grenada, Bernard Coard’s bloody counter-revolution allowed a predatory U.S. to invade Grenada. And in Burkina Faso, each day we see what President Blaise Compaore has done with the Sankara revolution.
Life expectancy is 47.9 years, adult literacy, 21.8 percent and Burkina Faso now has the dubious distinction of being ranked the 3rd poorest country in the world with 80 percent of its 13 million people living on less than two dollars a day. In November of 2007, Compaore will be running for presidency, again. I say give him five more years to see if he can do it – Let him get Burkina Faso the coveted first place title of poorest country in the whole world!
For a nation to heal, it must know and come to terms with the truth of its past. And it must make good with the promise of that past. In 1957, Kenya’s Dedan Kimathi was hanged and buried in an unmarked grave in Kamiti Prison by the British, where the post-independence government left him. Having set Kenya on neo-colonial rails and rewarded the collaborators with land, then turned their backs on Mau Mau veterans, both Kenyatta and Moi wanted what Kimathi stood for forgotten. Compaore is afraid of the truth because Sankara is a reminder of how far he has fallen from the promise of the revolution. Compaore knows we know he cannot make good on Sankara’s promise.
We have to remember our dead. But our presidents prefer gold monuments and statues. Sometimes they cultivate heroes’ acres without growing freedom. Better the monument be societies that are free and egalitarian. Instead of grand monuments, it is better we have nations that would welcome the revolutionary dead. Because truth be told, Nkrumah would not have been welcomed to Ghana’s 50 year celebrations. Kimathi would not be welcomed in today’s Kenya and Sankara would be assassinated again in today’s Burkina Faso.
Koni Benson, a friend and agitator, named her son Sankara because, she said, “What Thomas Sankara did, tried to do and what happened to him, should not be forgotten. He is the history and the future of the continent. He dared us to ‘invent the future.'”
As we remember our dead – Let us also remember the living. We have to dare to remember the past. We have to dare to dream again. But also, let us dare to act.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Hurling Words at Consciousness (AWP, 2006) and Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change (KPH, 2003), and editor of the forthcoming, New Kenyan Fiction (Ishmael Reed Publications, 2008). He is a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine where this essay first appeared.