Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

Thomas Sankara and the boycott of the debts by African countries: Debt Trap

08.03.2020
Article from AFRIC Editorial
What does the future hold with the massive re-indebtedness of African countries since the plebiscite on the boycott of colonial debt advocated by Thomas Sankara? How should we define the economic future of these African countries that are caught up in the vicious circle of debt? The answer to these questions is simple. Beyond the continuation of a colonial legacy, it is a skillfully orchestrated system that consists in further enslaving poor countries; maintaining them in a situation of partial dependence that would lead one to think that some people decide to take loans and while others only "satisfy" a demand. One realizes that many decades after independence, many countries, especially those that had France as a colonial master; continue to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in the French treasury. Under the perspective of a "colonial pact", this system, inherited from colonization, lays the foundations for understanding the background of the debts.

According to Lucile Daumas and Irene Karfazo Domboué, authors of the article “Colonial Debt and Migration” published on August 28, 2019, this colonial system “left a colossal demographic, economic, ecological and cultural debt behind”. On the economic level, this debt remains the most difficult to repay since efforts and struggles have been made to reduce it. At the head of the stage, several pan-Africanists such as Sékou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba who considered this system of ruling as one to avoid, fought to see this phenomenon disappear. For Thomas Sankara who in his days openly advocated the “boycott of the colonial debt”, ignoring the retaliation of the colonial powers against him, this phenomenon which continues to fuel economic relations between Africa and colonial countries today was “nonsensical”. 

The “Thomas Sankara” Legacy

More than a leader, Thomas Sankara still represents one of the icons for the emergence of the continent for many Africans. Born on 21 December 1949 in Yako in Upper Volta, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, who was influenced by the Malagasy revolution that led to the end of the neo-colonialist regime of Philibert Tsiranana, was an anti-imperialist, revolutionary, socialist, pan-Africanist and Third World statesman. President of the National Revolutionary Council during the first revolution in Burkina Faso, he became Head of State on 4 August 1983. During his 4 years, 2 months and 11 days stay at the head of the country; he restored the image of Burkina Faso, transforming it from a country dependent on foreign aid to a productive one. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food gave him his testimony when he declared: “Thomas conquered hunger: he made Burkina Faso self-sufficient in food in four years”. In this same light, Francis Simonis, lecturer in “African History” at the University of Aix-Marseille, goes even further in his analysis; “for today’s youth, Thomas Sankara represents the symbol of an independent Burkina Faso, and also an Africa that would have freed the country from the tutelage of France”.

Thomas Sankara was murdered on 15 October 1987 at the age of 37. “Today, Thomas Sankara remains indisputably the most popular figure of African youth because he was honest, realistic and ahead of his time,” says Serge Bayala, a member of the Balai Citoyen, a major civil society organization. In his four years at the top of the state, in addition to the fact that he succeeded in ensuring his country’s food self-sufficiency, he also anticipated the ravages of untimely agriculture and, above all, helped to understand the importance of the role of women in society, enabling them to participate greatly in the country’s economy, by weaving clothes for civil servants. For this actor of the continent whose greatest struggle has always been the desire to see the whole of Africa emerging, the game is not yet over. Thirty-three years after his death, his fight for a united and independent Africa continues because his ideas are immortal.

The essence of the boycott of colonial debt 

Totally opposed to the capitalist system that exploits people and governments, Thomas Sankara, one of the greatest anti-imperialist figures known in Africa, built his African values on life experiences. During his childhood, he was mocked by European children who at that time did not fail to taunt their small African neighbors, showing off their branded shoes or toys. The young Thomas decided to carry out his first boycott action at the age of 11, when he decided to secretly make a flag for Upper Volta a few days before independence. He and his classmates then lowered the French school flag to hoist the flag he made, “which immediately led to a fight,” writes Bruno Jaffré in the biography of Thomas Sankara (Ed. L’Harmattan, 2007).

As he grew up, Thomas Sankara became fixated on the financial world, which he believed to be the source of all the problems of African countries. For Eric Kinda, spokesman for Le Balai Citoyen, who still remembers Sankara’s words, “the common enemy is the financial milieu and greed, because it exploits the masses”. The confirmation came in 1979 with the actions of Volker, director of the FED, who at that time had unilaterally decided a sharp increase in interest rates from 5 to 18%, in order to attract foreign capital back to the North and to curb inflation, which shareholders’ detest. As their loans were at variable rates, the countries of the South were then suddenly obliged to pay three times more interest and more, exclusively in dollars. At the same time, however, the prices of raw materials at the farm gate collapsed because of competition between countries of the South. States could no longer repay their loans and were forced to borrow endlessly. This was the beginning of the sovereign debt crisis and the entry into play of the international financial institutions. 

The case for boycott

Nicknamed the “African Che Guevara”, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara gave his most powerful pan-African speech on July 29, 1987. At the 25th summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he delivered this memorable speech on the debt imposed on African states. Dubbed the “debt speech”, Thomas Sankara wanted to demonstrate to his African peers, the usefulness and validity of the boycott of colonial debt at that time. For Boukary Kabore, a high school teacher in Bobo-Dioulasso during the Sankarist era, “he wanted to send a strong signal, the mark of a frank independence and a total break with neo-colonialism.

In his introductory remarks, it was noted that the issue of the debt of African countries was not on the agenda. But as a good pan-Africanist, and a Third World Leader, he stressed that with the sovereign debt crisis that was raging; it remained a central hindrance to achieving full financial autonomy for the continent. For him, “as much as peace, it is an important condition for the survival of the continent”. 

Subsequently, he continued his argument by demonstrating that the origins of this debt go back to the origins of colonialism. And, as such, the disputed debt, in its present form, was nothing more than a skillfully organized re-conquest of Africa, forcing its growth and development to obey levels and norms totally foreign to the reality of the continent. More than anything else, the said debt for him, was intended to ensure that each and every African would become the financial slave to those who had the opportunity and means to invest funds or give out loans Africa, with the obligation to repay. Demonstrating that it is not a matter of honour to repay or not repay the debt, he declared: “those who lent us money, they are the ones who colonized us, they are the same ones who managed our states and our economies, they are the colonizers who indebted Africa to the donors, their brothers and cousins… If we do not pay this debt, our donors will not die. Let’s be sure of that. On the other hand, if we pay, we are the ones who will die”.

The failure of the boycott 

Several African experts questioned on the issue of the implementation of the colonial debt boycott are unanimous. If the boycott advocated and claimed by Thomas Sankara had been followed by his peers, it would have given Africa a new economic impetus; it would have allowed or at least participated in the acquisition of a more glorious status for several countries. It is therefore clear that it is the refusal of other African heads of state to join his initiative that led to the failure of the boycott of the colonial debt. Many of these Heads of State who held their mandate of acquaintance with the colonist were not in pursuit of the common interest. Much more preoccupied with defending their own interests, they had preferred to do an about-turn, leaving one of the continent’s greatest icons to wade alone in this perilous adventure. “If Burkina alone refuses to pay the debt, I won’t be at the next conference,” he warned them in a premonitory tone about what would happen to him. He was assassinated a few months later.

The burden of colonial debt on Africa’s current state of underdevelopment

The debt system is more efficient than the operating systems it replaced.  It is this situation, linked to the burden of colonial debt that has plunged some African countries into the state of underdevelopment in which they find themselves today. During his time, Thomas Sankara, with regard to the gloomy future that was taking shape, noted that “These donors have been advised to us, recommended to us. We were presented with attractive files and financial packages. We are in debt for fifty years, sixty years and even longer. In other words, we were led to compromise our people for fifty years and more,” he said. 

The burden of colonial debt in Africa’s current underdevelopment is therefore undisputed. Several African countries engaged in the vicious circle of debt known as “dettocracy”, continue to witness the darkening of their economic future. Like Djibouti, whose external public debt has jumped from 50 to 85 per cent of GDP in two years, the fear of a stranglehold of growing debt weighs heavily on several other countries on the continent. For example, with the subprime crisis in the United States in 2007, we saw that the debt issue is a major challenge, not only for the countries of the South as a whole, but for developing countries as well. According to the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debts / Committee for the Cancellation of Third World Debt (CADTM), which published a report on “Debt Figures 2011”, the developing countries have repaid the equivalent of 110 times what they owed in 1970, but in the meantime their debt has been multiplied by 50. Over the period 1990-2000, for example, debt servicing represented an amount greater than the education budget in more than half of the debtor countries and an amount greater than that allocated to health in 75% of the countries.

Another fact is the question raised by the UNDP, which had estimated that 80 billion dollars over 10 years was enough to eradicate extreme poverty in the world, left no room for doubt, since in 2008, the countries of the South paid back 600 billion dollars in debt servicing. We are in 2020 and the phenomenon of famine has still not subsided, yet the African countries that suffer from it continue to pay interest on their colonial debt as a matter of priority. It must be noted that thirty-three years after his death, the predictions of “Thomas Sankara, the immortal” continue to be confirmed.

Article from AFRIC Editorial

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