Over the weekend, I attended the play Sankara that was showing at The Cockpit Theatre in Marlyebone in London.
Sankara was written and directed by Ricky Dujany. Dujany claims the inspiration for the play, which is basically the rise and fall of an Africa hero, was Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar.
It is a timely reminder of the iconic African leader; his life, death, philosophy, principles and struggle against power, Western imperialism and international hypocrisy.
Sankara highlights the role of African leaders who come to power; do little to nothing to uplift their own people, protect Western interests at the expense of their own people and national interests; their role in the continual subjugation and exploitation of their own nations and people.
Sankara has all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy. However, the greatest tragedy is that this story is a real story inspired by actual events that are interwoven into the narrative by using dramatic devices such as audiovisual footage from the archives of history projected onto screens in the theatre to echoes of Sankara’s speeches from books like Thomas Sankara Speaks being recited by characters in the play.
Sankara is truly an African tragedy. It is the tragedy of Africa’s lost potential. It is the tragedy of Africa’s arrested development.
It is the tragedy of how those who have the genuine human, moral and political will to uplift the lives of Africans are murdered by the powers that be whose sole objective is to see Africa remain underdeveloped and subject to white interests.
From the outset of the play, we are reminded that Sankara came to power through a military coup – popular though it was – but a coup nevertheless.
It echoes recent developments in Zimbabwe in November 2017 that saw the ousting of Robert Mugabe through a coup that wasn’t a coup. It was a popular coup in the same way that The August Revolution was.
However, the similarities end there. The Zimbabwean coup lacks the moral backbone and the philosophical perspective of the Burkinabe Revolution. It was a reactionary move devoid of a sound political ideology.
Echoes of Sankara’s words in the play, “A soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal”, resonates with developments in Zimbabwe and the actions or omissions of the miltary that seized power to consolidate it’s own interests, and create a mililtary state under the guise of preserving the legacy of the liberation struggle and entrenching democractic ideals.
In the play, the role of the military is a world away from the role of the military in Zimbabwe. Whereas, in The Burkinabe Revolution, the military was actively involved in working hand in hand with the people to build roads, the first international railway and other projects that developed the communities; the opposite is true in Zimbabwe.
The military has awarded itself all the positions of power in goverment and the public sector, and has limited involvement in helping to make the living conditions for the masses better in Zimbabwe.
In addition, they have made themselves king makers, the ultimate arbitrator of who has the right to lead Zimbabwe through the ballot or other means.
Reliving Sankara through the play reinforced the principles that he enshrined and lived by. His wit, charisma, humour and powers of mind were brilliantly captured in this three hour long production.
However, it is Sankara’s attitude towards debt that is truly at odds with the Zimbabwean leadership.
“Debt is aimed at subjugating the growth of Africa through foreign rules. Thus each one of us become a financial slave, which is to say a true slave.”
In the play, this quote above is brilliantly captured in the speech that Sankara made at the OAU meeting addressing the question of debt and creating a club of Addis Ababa for African leaders to address these pertinent questions that many African leaders are reluctant to address to this day.
It is ironic that it is also in this speech that Sankara reminds the seated leaders at this meeting that he might not be there next year because of his speech and that was eerily so.
In the play, as Sankara speaks, the footage at that meeting is projected on the screens making the scene eerily realistic.
When Sankara returns to Burkina Faso, he is asked how did things go. He responds that he expects the other African leaders to come out in support of him. However, the irony is that we know it is not going to happen and they are going to betray him.
Three months after that speech at the Organisation of African Unity headqurters on the 29th of July 1987, Thomas Sankara was assassinated.
One can sense the same betrayal happening to the masses in Zimbabwe who are waiting for the military that removed Mugabe to change things, but are in the process of making them financial slaves as they go globetrotting seeking loans and indebting the nation, and seeking re-entry or reengagement with the clubs that Sankara despised for their hypocrisy and robbing the people of the fruits of their hard labour.
It is also ironic how in one scene Sankara receives an official from the IMF who is seeking to get contracts signed off that will undermine the interests of the people and Sankara refuses on points of principle.
This official from the IMF appears in the play in different guises as different characters. He is like a recurring motif that reminds you of the many facets imperialisms manifests itself like a pest that leeches off its host.
However, in the Zimbabwe situation, the new president declared Zimbabwe is open for business, and is actively seeking to engage investors who may not have the interests of the people at heart but their own.
What is eerily unnerving is that the president has no known stance on imperialism as Sankara did. His political philosophy is opaque. He lacks the political and moral gravitas of Sankara.
And it is this stance above, that partially made Sankara the African hero transcend his continental limitations to become a global icon, embraced across the world for speaking to power not only on behalf of his own people but all oppressed people all over the world. Women included. Sankara’s feminist stance is well known and also well entrenched in the play and some of his revolutionary comrades react to it in quite humourous ways.
From right to left: Yonka Awoni in green beret [Henry Zongo], Ike Chuks in red beret [Thomas Sankara], Chris Machari in blue beret [Blaise Compaore], Clovis Kasanda [Jean Lingani/ Charles Taylor]. Image belongs to Gova Media [https://www.govamedia.com/2018/04/04/theater-the-rise-fall-of-an-african-hero-play-written-directed-rickydujany/]
It is apparent that the Zimbabwe situation is devoid of a young, charismatic leader like Sankara who had the political will to carry out fundamental change as echoed in the play, “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness”.
The late Thomas Sankara was instrumental in changing the mentality of his country, promoting work for everyone to build the nation’s first internatinal railway, refusing aid and debt, and coining the famous slogan “he who feeds you controls you”.
There are scenes that are brilliantly captured in the play that show there was an urgency in the way Sankara implemeted reforms such as nationalisation of land, empowerment of women, building houses, addressing hunger and solving the environmental crisis, education and vaccination programmes.
This urgency is absent in the Zimbabwean situation. That lack of urgency reinforces that Zimbabwe is most likely than not headed for gloom.
There will be no revolutionary programmes coming from the encumbent government because it is a government of reactionaries and a privileged elite who are similar to the ones Sankara and others unseated in the hope of liberating Burkina Faso.
It is this urgency above that allowed Sankara to make Burkina Faso self reliant within four years while other nations have failed to achieve a fraction of what he did in over three and a half decades plus more.
The greatest question many will have is does the play teach us anything new about Thomas Sankara. The answer is in the affirmative.
I will not spoil that by revealing all, but I can say that I have read a lot of books on Thomas Sankara, watched numerous documentaries and written a fair bit about him and still learnt something new that I did not know from the above.
Sankara also raises questions about the agency of Captain Blaise Compaoré. I am not sure if it is a question of Ricky Dujany employing poetic licence or he is aware of something that a lot of people are ignorant of. It is a strong possibility considering that he did his research for writing the play.
However, whether the wife of Captain Blaise Compaoré really did influence him to assassinate Sankara or not is questionable, but in my opinion it doesn’t absolve him from the ultimate act of betrayal as it appears to do in the play or undermine his own agency.
In conclusion, Sankara is a timely and honourable production. It is honest, brutal, well executed and sensitively handled. The players rose to the occassion and did such a historical narrative justice, bringing the play to a new audience who may not have known or heard anything about Sankara.
I was happy to see some parents bringing their children to watch this play because it is important that our children grow up knowing our history, and where we are coming from, and those Africans who gave their lives to liberating the continent.
I was not impressed by the accents in the play. There were times when you could hardly hear what the actors were saying because of the funny and inconsistent accents. They were not necessary especially when you have actors using English when we know that the real life characters communicated in French and local languages in Burkina Faso.
That is a minor criticism of the play. My disappointment is mainly reserved for those who did not turn out to support.
I watched over the past weeks as Black Panther trended on social media and it appeared like every black person went out to watch the movie yet those same people who became honorary Wakandaians were nowhere in sight.
It appears that our people are more in love with the hype of Hollywood and fictious heroes and seductive white naaratives about Africa than they are about the real thing, and they remain ignorant and oblivious of African history and embracing our own African heroes and narratives.
The ultimate question though is how will the Zimbabwean coup that wasn’t a coup end. Sankara reminds us that coups rarely end well. As a Zimbabwean, I wish that we are an exception to the rule though this may go against what I know or have observed through our history. There are exceptions to the rule. And maybe our coup that wasn’t might not end up in the same way as Sankara and be one of the most notable exceptions.