Where one has access to Thomas Sankara’s collection of speeches both written and audio visual, it is apparent that even though he had a military background, this was a an African leader with the characteristics of a true revolutionary. Then he was assassinated, allegedly by his contemporaries, in 1987. And one of these alleged assassins of Sankara was his deputy and friend who was to eventually succeed him and become president of the country, Blaise Compaore. The latter is now in exile following an unsuccessful bid to extend his term of office as president in October last year. His ousting, after mass protests, has now come to be known as the Burkina Faso revolution.

Captain Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso gives a press conference, 07 February 1986 in Paris. AFP PHOTO PASCAL GEORGE

Captain Thomas Sankara 07 February 1986 in Paris. AFP PHOTO PASCAL GEORGE

But now at the time of writing, there has been another attempted coup against the transitional government by those who are alleged to be Compaore loyalists. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to its credit, was quick to the mark; not only condemning the coup but instigating a mediation process that appears to be bearing fruition after the main army has asked for a peaceful surrender of the Presidential Guard that led the coup in the first place.

We hope it all works out for the best, especially through the continued mediation of ECOWAS as supported by the African Union and with the blessing of a majority of the long suffering Burkina-be.

An important aspect of the current crises in the land of upright men, as that country’s name implies, is the role of the army(ies) in creating or trying to bring an end to what are essentially internal political conflicts as opposed to external military threats to national security. This has been the case in a number of countries, namely Lesotho, Burundi and, now, Burkina Faso.

There are good and bad sides to these political roles of armies. The most important progressive thing is that they come in to restore democratic or at least civilian rule and order, as it is hoped that the national army of Burkina Faso will do. And it is hoped that in the aftermath of such restorations of civilian (democratic) order, the army will return to the barracks and not want to assert its newfound political role.

The negative side to this is that the army and individual leaders begin to find that there are what they perceive to be inherent weaknesses in leaving civilians to determine the political and reinvent itself to be specifically a kingmaker, if not a default executive authority in itself.

Photo: Mamadou Toure Behan/AFP

Photo: Mamadou Toure Behan/AFP

And not necessarily for revolutionary purposes as most armies sometimes claim. It will, as in the case of Egypt, be in order to retain a military political complex that supports a dishonest intention at establishing political stability minus democratic values and principles. This is sometimes now commonly referred to as an ‘oligarchy’.

This is different from the general role Sankara would have envisioned for a people’s army. And a key lesson is that the age wherein we can expect our armies to defend our internal democracies from perceived civilian threats with genuine democratic intent should now be put behind us. It should never have to come to any division of the army rolling out the tanks against a civilian government.

Thomas Sankara. Photo: Nehanda Radio

Thomas Sankara. Photo: Nehanda Radio

But where it does, and a counter division of the army goes out to release or negotiate the release of detained civilian leaders, there must be a firm understanding that this is a transitional act and not a revolutionary one. And an act that to all intents and purposes must be guided by civilian instruction as opposed to military intent at overall control of civilian affairs of the state.

Admittedly there are many arguments that posit the significance of the stabilizing factor a ‘progressive military’ can bring to a ‘transition’ to democracy. Some credit Jerry Rawlings of Ghana for such a feat. Ye the ‘Cold War’ circumstances in which he arguably achieved this are instructive as to how there is continually a thin line between an ideologically favoured international acceptance of success and stability than a people centered and democratic civilian one.

And this is the key challenge of looking for ‘revolutionary soldiers’ in present day African contexts. Once they become political, they become amenable not to the unique values that Sankara as a revolutionary soldier and leader had for his country and the African continent. In many cases they become conduits of global forces that prize stability at almost any cost to the democratic aspirations of civilian leaders and ordinary people they will claim to have liberated and made subservient to the gun. An issue that contradicts the Maoist dictum which informed many a progressive guerrilla liberation struggle, the gun must always follow the politics and not the other way around.