Africa reimagined: Burkina Faso's Ibrahim Traoré advocates for resilience, recognition, and resistance

Captain Ibrahim Traoré, Transition President of Burkina Faso, during a meeting in Ouagadougou with a delegation from the Peace and Security Council of the African Union. Photo by Lamine Traoré/VOA – Voice of America on Wikimedia Commons, July 24, 2023. Public Domain.

Burkina Faso's interim head of state, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, delivered a powerful address at the Second Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum on July 28, in which he called for greater sovereignty, food security, and recognition of Africa's historical contributions. Listening to his rousing speech, many made comparisons to the legendary Burkinabé Pan-Africanist leader, Thomas Sankara, suggesting that Traoré's rhetoric mirrored the fervor and dedication to African autonomy and prosperity that characterized Sankara's vision. They were reminded of Sankara's prophetic words in 1987, “Kill Sankara, and thousands of Sankaras will be born,” which he pronounced amid intelligence from his circle about the impending threat of his assassination via a coup d'état. Radio France Internationale (RFI), the premier French international media outlet, reported on France's alleged involvement in his assassination but only twenty years later.

In a speech marked by strong themes of historical memory and recognition, Traoré underscored the often forgotten role of the Soviet Union and Africa in the fight against Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy during World War II, alongside Western powers such as the UK, France and the United States. He lamented that historical narratives frequently marginalize the vital contributions of these nations, perpetuating a distorted view of history that neglects Africa's key role.

In an obvious call for a paradigm shift among African leadership, Traoré urged fellow African leaders to resist manipulation by imperialist forces. In his words, “We African heads of state have to stop behaving like puppets who dance every time the imperialists pull the strings.”

“By the end of 2022,” he continued, “my administration and I made calls for volunteers, leading to nearly 100,000 additional civilian forces enlisting. Several hundred of these courageous individuals have already sacrificed their lives to safeguard those of their fellow countrymen.”

“What I cannot comprehend,” Traoré said, “is why other African leaders, who offer no assistance, stoop so low as to label these brave men and women ‘militias.’ Elsewhere, they would have been hailed as ‘patriots.’

Traore also stressed the critical importance of food self-sufficiency for African nations. He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of sending free grain to six African nations after the collapse of the Black Sea deal, while simultaneously framing it as a wake-up call for African leaders. “At the next forum, we must not come here without having ensured food self-sufficiency for our peoples,” he asserted.

Wrapping up his speech, Traoré echoed the potent words from Thomas Sankara’s 1984 UN address, “The slave who is unable to assume his revolt does not deserve to be pitied,” coupled with Sankara’s characteristic concluding phrase, ‘Fatherland or death: we shall triumph!’ These statements resounded like a battle call, swiftly spreading through social media platforms and striking a chord in the hearts and souls of African youths.

Screenshot from the video ‘Ibrahim Traore. Burkina Faso President's Pan African speech wins him fans all over Africa’ by African Insider on YouTube. Fair use.

It is this spirit that Traoré seeks to ignite, not just within his own nation, but across the entire African continent. His plea is for a future where Africa is no longer subjected to external exploitation, but instead stands strong as a federation of nations that are self-reliant, resilient, and recognized equitably on the global stage. As suggested in Traore's address, this is not just aspirational but essential for the survival and progress of the continent.

This rallying cry does more than just stir the dormant and resilient spirit of the African people; it signifies more than mere words. It encapsulates the very soul of a continent that remains steadfast in its pursuit of dignity, autonomy, and prosperity, in spite of the hurdles past and present. This sentiment was strikingly manifest in the rapturous welcome from an exuberant crowd in Burkina Faso upon the return of their head of state on July 31.

Traoré, a military officer from Bondokuy in western Burkina Faso, successfully staged a coup d'état on September 30, 2022, ousting Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. He assumed the mantle of the head of state and leader of the “Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration” (Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration), making him, at 34, the youngest serving head of state globally.

This overthrow was not an isolated incident. It joined a trend that saw five similar coups d'état take place in Africa between August 2020 and July 2023, in Mali, Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and now Niger — all former colonies of France. These seismic political disruptions represent an outcry against what is seen as the persistent echo of colonialism — a system denoted as “françafrique.”

Leaders initiating these coups widely denounce the perceived inertia and subservience of civilian political authorities to this system, questioning the responsibility, and even the complicity of Western powers, in propagating terrorism across Africa. These concerns have been particularly amplified following NATO's assassination of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi.

Controversial issues include the surge of military bases across Africa and the maintenance of unequal and unfair trade contracts designed to benefit foreign multinationals. The coup leaders contend that these elements serve only to perpetuate a cycle of exploitation, to the detriment of Africa's growth and development. Citizens of these nations have often shown support for military takeovers. For instance, in Mali, mass demonstrations culminated in the removal of the incumbent president, backing the military and its mission.

Traoré's rise to power in Burkina Faso, then, is part of a larger narrative — a sweeping wave of military-led coups d'état across French-speaking Africa. As these nations navigate the tremors of political instability, the world watches, hoping for peaceful transitions and the sustainable development of these states. History is stained with the assassinations of influential African and Black leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Amílcar Cabral, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muammar Gaddafi, whose ideologies often put them in direct conflict with Western interests. In the face of such a disturbing historical precedent, hope prevails that Burkina Faso's current leader may continue his unwavering pursuit of African sovereignty and prosperity, defying the same hazardous geopolitical forces that have claimed the lives of his revolutionary predecessors.

This new wave of military leadership also unfolds against the backdrop of a burgeoning geopolitical contest — a renewed “scramble for Africa.” Here, former colonial masters like France, the UK, along with the United States, are returning to the continent. However, the landscape has evolved to accommodate new global powerhouses like China, Turkey, India, and Brazil, all keen to establish a foothold. Unlike the 1884–1885  Berlin conference which enacted the historical scramble for Africa that resulted in the continent being divided into micro entities forcibly called nation-states and exploited as an abundant source of enrichment for foreign powers, there is a growing defiance and desire for autonomy on the continent.

Instead of remaining mere spectators in the realm of global affairs, African nations are working to assert themselves as impactful actors, crafting their own trajectories amidst the surge of international focus, while maintaining an uncompromising dedication to determining their own destiny. This change is happening in a world that is steadily and irreversibly becoming a “multiplex” world. A trend recognized by Amitav Acharya in 2014, is that in the “multiplex cinema, (…) [n]o single director or producer would monopolize the audience’s attention or loyalty for long. The audience has a choice of shows.”

As this transformative breeze sweeps through Africa, gauging the reach and potential of these radical changes remains a challenging task. However, what is evident is the growing resonance of these revolutionary voices, reaching far beyond the African continent. This influence is most noticeable through the support of the African diaspora to their continent of origin, becoming a significant force in fostering Africa's autonomy and development through initiatives including remittances, investments, advocacy, cultural promotion, and knowledge transfer, embodying the vision advocated by prominent figures such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton.

The journey towards autonomy is further bolstered by the rise of influential African figures who are increasingly capturing the imagination of the continent's youth: icons like Kemi Seba, Nathalie Yamb, and Ousmane Sonko. Their resonant voices denounce the division of Africa into pieces for the consumption of foreign powers, inspiring a younger generation yearning for change. Perhaps the time has truly arrived for the realization of Charles Henry Pearson's 1893 prediction and Gustave Le Bon’s 1894 psychological laws of human evolution, alluding to Africa's rise following China, a resurgence propelled by population growth and industrialization.

Undoubtedly, the demographic makeup of Africa introduces an additional dimension to this hopeful scenario. Given its notably youthful and expanding population coupled with a land rich in natural resources, the continent can harness this demographic power to advance its ambitions towards self-governance.  As the pendulum of change swings, the collective energy of Africa's youth may well be the catalyst empowering the continent towards a future where it stands not as a subordinate, but as an equal player on the global stage

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