New Africa in the world coming to Harlem: a retrospective comparison of Jerry Rawlings and Thomas Sankara.

Author:Williams, Justin C.

"At its most developed, Pan-Africanism can amount to an ideology in its own right- a vision of the past, the present, and the future, and a guide to policy and political action. At another level, Pan-Africanism is an emotional predisposition that identifies with African causes and African cultures."

--Ali Mazrui (1)

"Keep up appearances; there lies the test; The world will give thee credit for the rest."

--Charles Churchill (2)


When Captain Thomas Sankara's revolutionary coup took hold in the Upper Volta in 1983, observers of African politics were quick to compare him to Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, who came to power in Ghana roughly two years earlier. In 1985, Time wrote that these leaders, "Once backed by extreme leftist elements, both men now appear committed to pursuing a pragmatic, less doctrinaire route out of poverty [...] had given hope to their respective countries." (3) In 1986, Ghanaian political scientist Eboe Hutchful saw both leaders as part of a sweeping trend of pragmatic junior officers leading "popular or progressive" regimes that rejected communist, capitalist and Western democratic ideologies for amorphous notions of bringing more "power to the people" across Africa. (4) Comparisons like this seemed intuitive, as Rawlings and Sankara were both young, charismatic, firebrand junior officers who led military coups in neighboring countries. Both promised their populations some form of revolution and attempted to engage the African diaspora with their radical rhetoric. The two even became political allies and friends based on their similarities, but do they appear so similar after three decades?

Cognizant of the benefit of hindsight, this paper will compare policies and speeches made by Sankara and Rawlings to Harlem audiences as a way to gauge the critical differences between their regimes and the contexts in which they governed. Historically, Harlem has a been an ideal place for African leaders to engage the African diaspora due to its proximity to the United Nations and as Richard Schaffer and Neil Smith explained, "Harlem is an international symbol for Black culture. Two themes dominated most contemporary images of Harlem. The first, a nostalgic image now, is the Harlem of the Harlem Renaissance or of the Black Panthers. The second theme is Harlem the ghetto, one of the largest concentrations of Black working-class and poor inhabitants in the U.S." (5)

Overall, analyzing the appeals from African leaders to Black audiences gives us insight into how they sought to legitimize their governments and core domestic/international objectives. As a preliminary step, it is imperative to give a basic brief overview of Ghana and Burkina Faso's political histories that produced the leaders and the speeches they gave in what is widely regarded as the most famous Black enclave in the world.

Ghana and Upper Volta: Outlooks at Independence

When Gold Coast Colony became a pioneer of African nationalism by breaking from the United Kingdom and becoming Ghana in 1957, it was commonly cited as the African colony most suited for a smooth transition into independence. Among the wealthiest colonies in Africa, Ghana was well endowed with natural resources such as cocoa, gold and timber. It also had a popular leader in Kwame Nkrumah, whose Pan-African aspirations put the nation front and center on the global stage. Nkrumah attempted to leverage his position as the leader of Africa's first independent state by building alliances with other African leaders who espoused some form of "African socialism" and Pan-African union. The most famous manifestation of this was the short-lived Union of Pan-African States (1958-1963), which included Ghana, Sekou Toure's Guinea and Modibo Keita's Mali. (6)

Undoubtedly due to his experiences in the United States and the United Kingdom as a young man, Nkrumah also used his position as the world's first Black Prime Minister as a platform for engagement with the global Black political movements that largely shaped his worldview. This drove Nkurmah's Ghana to host an array of radical Black figures including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B Dubois, C.L.R James, Maya Angelou and more. Historian Kevin Gaines summarized Ghana's relationship with the African diaspora during this period by writing, "Ghana was unrivaled among African nations in its willingness to provide sanctuary to Black (and non-Black) radicals from the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe unable to function politically in their countries of origin." (7) It's also worth noting that Nkrumah gave two addresses in Harlem, where he lived as a student, promoting these objectives directly.

Despite Ghana's bright outlook at independence, the structural weakness of the colonial economy began to quickly undermine the initial euphoria. In order to deliver the rapid industrialization and African socialist welfare state promised to Convention People's Party (CPP) supporters, Nkrumah's government spent the nation's savings on an array of development schemes, many of which failed to produce and fell prey to corruption. Furthermore, Ghana's reliance on raw materials subject to global prices became a problem as cocoa prices declined. In order to make up for the funds lost due to increased spending and declining revenues, Ghana began borrowing from global financial institutions. This quickly sent Ghana into the vicious cycles of unequal exchange and the African debt crisis.

As domestic dissatisfaction with the state of the nation's economy mounted, Nkrumah's outspokenness on Civil Rights issues in the United States, agitation against moderate African regimes opposed to his Garveyite/Leninist Pan-African vision and denouncements of Western neo-colonial policies across the continent (especially during and after Congo Crisis of 1960) produced enemies abroad. After a failed assassination attempt in August and September of 1962, and again in January 1964, Nkrumah began to dismantle Ghana's democratic institutions by declaring himself president for life and jailing high-profile political opponents.

By 1966, all these forces converged in a CIA-sponsored coup that inadvertently began a cycle of military interventions into government. Civilian governments came to power, but were unable to stem the powerful tide of the forces that brought down Nkrumah. Each new military government promised different radical solutions to the nation's ongoing economic crisis, but performed just as badly, or sometimes worse than the civilian governments they deposed. This cycle and the nation's economic decline continued until Jerry Rawlings took power for the second time on New Year's Eve of 1981.

When it gained independence from France in 1960, the Upper Volta had a very different economic outlook than Ghana. Dry climate conditions and a small natural resource base made it somewhat of a backwater in the French colonial system. Ever-increasing taxation and forced labor led scores of potential workers to migrate to the Gold Coast or to Cote D'Ivoire. (8) Despite having an economic situation that was much less optimistic than its southern neighbor's at independence, and a much less muted place on the international stage, the Upper Volta and Ghana have a shared history of political instability accompanying independence.

Not unlike Kwame Nkrumah, the nation's first president, Maurice Yameogo, quickly attempted to undo the political system inherited from the colonial era by steadily centralizing power. By 1965, the country largely boycotted the vote for a re-election, was scandalized by his extravagant marriage to a "twenty-two-year old former beauty queen" despite not being divorced from his first wife and further angered by the appointment of relatives to government posts. The announcement of austerity measures as a means to deal with the nation's economic crisis led to strikes and protests by trade unions that called for the military to intervene. On January 3, 1966, the military obliged and placed Colonel Sangoule Lamizana in power after Yameogo's resignation. (9)

In 1970, Lamizana returned the Upper Volta to constitutional rule, but the nation's persistent economic crisis, made worse by a disastrous drought on the Sahel and leadership's persistent antagonism toward trade unions and other key civil society groups, led to more coups and the entrenchment of the military as a political actor. In the end, Lamizana used many of the same mechanisms as his predecessor to keep power, only to be overthrown by the military in 1980.

A new wrinkle in all this was a generational and ideological divide within the military establishment itself. This divide led Commander Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo to overthrow Colonel Saye Zerbo and set the stage for Thomas Sankara's rise to power.

The Rawlings and Burkinabe Revolutions in Retrospect

The first year of Rawlings' "second coming" could best be characterized as one defined by desperate hopes, confusion and fear. Immediately after the coup, journalist Ebenezer Babatope enthusiastically predicted, "Imperialism will...

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