On 29 July 1987, at the summit of the Organization of African Unity held in Addis Ababa, Thomas Sankara delivered the “Discours sur le Front Uni Contre La Dette” (“A United Front Against Debt”) speech — a fearless and incisive discourse on the place of debt in Africa’s development agenda.
He was assassinated a mere three months later, on 15 October 1987. On this day, as we celebrate his life and sacrifice for Africans, let us also examine his ideas on foreign debt.
“Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa”
When talking about debt in Africa, the textbook explanation is that a country facing scarcity of capital will acquire external debt to supplement domestic saving. This perspective presents debt as a development strategy. A developing country, in need of capital, can borrow abroad when the cost of borrowing is lower than the expected rate of return at home. Thus, sustainable foreign debt is that which meets development objectives while also satisfying debt service obligations.
In 1987, when Sankara was giving the debt speech, the stock of sub-Saharan debt and debt-service levels had been increasing steadily since the 1970s. In 1970, the aggregate external debt was US$ 6 billion, but by the end of 1987, external debt had increased to US$126 billion, a whooping 650% increase. Total debt-service payments increased from US$1 billion in 1970 to US$12 billion in 1985 before falling to US$9 billion in 1987.
External Debt and Debt Service of Sub-Saharan Africa, 1970–87 (In billions of U.S. dollars)
This was the debt picture in sub-Saharan Africa when Sankara took to the podium on 29 July 1987. Away from debt as a development strategy argument, Sankara scaled back to a more foundational discussion: the origin of debt.
“We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins,” he said. “Debt comes from colonialism’s origins. Those who We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt.”
“Debt is neo-colonialism,” he continued, “in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development.” … “Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a cleverly managed re-conquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.”
Today, the total external debt stock has increased to more than US$702.4 billion. The amount owed to official creditors (such as multilateral lenders, governments, and government agencies) has increased to US$ 258 billion.
“We cannot repay because we don’t have the means to do so”
In 1987, debt distress was a reality in most African countries. The statistics were disheartening. The ratio of external debt to GDP increased from 14.1% in 1970 to 81.6% in 1987. The ratio of debt-service payments to exports of goods and services increased from 7.7% in 1970 to 25.6% in 1987. Countries with recent debt-serving problems increased from 131.7% in 1970 TO 317.0% in 1987.
Debt Burden Indicators for Sub-Saharan Africa and Debt-Distressed Countries, 1970–87
International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics (1988)
It is based on these statistics that Thomas Sankara argued that “Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure.” … “We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so.”
Today, in 2022, in addition to the worrying growth of debt-to-GDP levels, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports that 22 African countries are either in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress. African countries are struggling to repay their debts.
Without debt cancellation, more African countries are being forced to use all or nearly all their domestic tax revenues to service debt repayments, effectively trapping hundreds of millions in a cycle of abject poverty and underdevelopment.
Instead of burdening Africa with debt, Europe owes us reparations
“We cannot repay but the others owe us what the greatest wealth could never repay, that is blood debt. Our blood had flowed. We hear about the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe’s economy. But we never hear about the African plan which allowed Europe to face Hitlerian hordes when their economies and their stability were at stake. Who saved Europe? Africa. It is rarely mentioned, to such a point that we cannot be the accomplices of that thankless silence. If others cannot sing our praises, at least we must say that our fathers had been courageous and that our troops had saved Europe and set the world free from Nazism.”
As we have argued before, the West has a moral obligation to pay reparations. Countries that participated in colonialism in Africa have a moral imperative to pay reparations. These countries benefited immensely from unpaid African labor, committed untold crimes against the African population. They engaged in brutal exploitation of the continent’s resources. Former colonial masters, such as Britain and France can only claim to stand on ethical and moral grounds if they recognise the wrongs done to African people through chattel slavery and colonialism. These countries can confront their pasts by paying reparations to the victims of their horrific devastation.