Appreciations of Thomas Sankara often marred by bad economic analysis

26 years ago, on October 15 1987, Thomas Sankara was killed by soldiers loyal to current president Blaise Compaoré.  Mr. Compaoré’s regime has never allowed a full truthful process of accounting for exactly what happened.  Most of Sankara’s companions in the Conseil d’Entente, the office building where the killing took place, were also killed.  So there are many witnesses amongst the killers, few amongst the victims.  And most of the killers are not very open about what happened.

Mr. Compaoré says he was not there, and as far as I know nobody disputes this.  So he has always claimed it was a kind of regrettable accident.  It should be remembered that the Sankara regime itself killed, in the coup of 1983, Colonel Yorian Gabriel Somé , by all accounts the top threat to Sankara and Compaoré when they took power.  That’s not to justify, just to contextualize.

Sankara’s legacy is complex. As a symbol he is unparalleled.  And goodness knows, unemployed African youth need powerful symbols of integrity, justice, empathy, love of learning, simple living, and all the good things.  He stands right up there with Bob Marley (and more dubiously with Haile Selassie!) as an aspiration.

But when it comes to his economic policy legacy, many Sankara admirers do him a disservice with exaggerated hyperbole (often qualified with a sentence or two, for sure).  But the picture they paint is of someone who might have transformed Burkina Faso.  We cannot know what would have happened, had he stayed in power another 4 years.  (Would there have been the same calls for alternance, one wonders, if Sankara had been in power 7 years?)  The 1990s and 2000s of Ghana are probably the best counterfactual.  Just like nobody thinks Jerry Rawlings was God’s gift to Ghana, but all-around probably the best of a bad lot,  I think Sankara would be regarded similarly.  The best kind of person who could emerge and lead in the highly unstable and fractured polities that are African states.

What prompted this reflection was an article by Peter Dorrie.  He has a good sense of the politics of Burkina Faso, but I often disagree with him on the economics.  And today he writes:

Prices for the most important household goods – basic food stuffs and natural gas for cooking and petrol – are rising constantly. Burkina Faso relies on imports for practically all goods consumed in the country, which makes it highly vulnerable to changes in world market prices. The little money generated through the export of gold, cotton and sesame benefits mostly external investors and the corrupt elite.

But what can this mean, really?  Here is the share of imports in GDP for Burkina, compared with Senegal and Ghana.  The share is actually relatively low, about 25%.  Most consumption in Burkina Faso is produced locally.  The vast majority of Burkinabè are rural dwellers, and their share of imports in consumption is probably less than 10%.


And here is the evolution of inflation for Burkina Faso and Ghana, over the same time period.  The sharp inflation following the FCFA devaluation of 1994 is evident.  Otherwise inflation is quite moderate, certainly nothing at all compared with Ghana, which has regularly had years of 20%+ inflation


Here is a chart for the more recent 15 years.  Inflation has been generally around 5%.


Burkina Faso has a significant poverty problem, and growth has been highly unequal.  Part of la vie chère has been the rapid urbanization concentrated in Ouagadougou.  When people leave villages and live in shantytowns, indeed life becomes more expensive.  But incomes rise too (that is why many people move to Ouagadougou).  It is a complex social process.  There is no need to obscure the very legitimate grievances of the vast poor population of Burkina Faso, vis-à-vis the small elite capturing a very large share of the benefits of economic growth, by making arguments that either (1) are not backed by data, so that we trade anecdotes or (2) are not stated clearly, so that we trade “that’s not what I meant and everyone knows what I meant even if I could not say precisely what I meant.”

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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