“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young President with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”
The quotation in the sub-title should not be summarily dismissed as a glib, sweet-toned turn of phrase. It is a very fitting nod to the nonpareil phenomenon that was Thomas Sankara. It rolled off the tongue of Joan Baxter, a Canadian journalist, development researcher, anthropologist, and award-winning author as borne out in Chapter 5 of her 2011 book titled Dust From Our Eyes: An Unblinkered Look At Africa.
In the same, strikingly dispassionate book, Baxter goes on to laud Thomas Sankara as “one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity, and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head”. Paradoxically for a Westerner, Baxter was attempting to resurrect the hopes that Sankara, Africa’s greatest leader ever by far, inspired in the youth of this dismally stunted, shackled, and perhaps ill-starred continent.
On his inauguration as President on August 4 1983, Sankara spoke these highly evocative words: “We have to dare to invent the future … Everything that we are capable of imagining we are also capable of attaining.” The statement cut almost crisply to the heart of Napoleon Hill’s equally pregnant aphorism that “whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve”. To Sankara, no dream was forever a pipedream, no vision was simply a pie in the sky. So what was it that Sankara envisioned for his country? What future did the charismatic young leader and visionary have in store for the people whose destiny now lay in his 33-year-old hands, people who 23 years of pillaging and plunder at the highest levels of government and foreign vested interests had reduced to paupers?
It was this, as captured in a speech he delivered on another rostrum: “Our revolution will be of value only if, looking back and ahead, we are able to say that the Burkinabe people are a little happier because of it. Because they have clean drinking water, because they have plenty to eat, because they are in good health, because they have access to education, because they have decent housing, because they have better clothing, because they have the right to leisure, because they have greater freedom, more democracy and greater dignity … Revolution means happiness. Without happiness, we cannot speak of success.”
Yet even the most sanguine optimist had to take cognizance of the one inescapable fact – that the road to the Land of Milk and Honey would not be a stroll down what John Winston Lennon called Strawberry Fields. Realistically, it would entail a long stint in the wilderness, certainly not the 40 years of stasis the nation of Israel endured in the rocky terrains of Mount Sinai but considerably long anyway. Such misgivings were well-founded for the one stark truth was that the country was staggeringly and eye-poppingly poor. Would Sankara buckle under the enormity of the challenges that raged?
THE ODDS WERE FORMIDABLE
The Upper Volta Thomas Sankara took over in January 1983 was reeling from a raft of asphyxiating economic maladies. Firstly, nature itself had placed its own inscrutable veto on the fortuities of the country. It was landlocked and was partly enclasped in the tentacles of the drought-stricken Sahel Zone, a narrow band of semi-arid land which was contiguous to the Sahara Desert and stretched all the way from Senegal to the Sudan. Infant mortality rate was a whopping 280 per 1000 live births, one of the sorriest on the globe. Life expectancy was a piteous 40 years. A startling 90 percent of the population were unable to read and write, with a school enrolment rate of only 10 percent. There was only one doctor per 50,000 in a population of 7 million people. At a mere $100, average annual income per head was bottom-of- the-rung in the whole wide world.
A mandatory head tax, a flat rate for every able-bodied national of workable age which dated back to the days of French colonial rule, was still enforced as a desperate fiscal lifeline. Peasants had semi-feudal obligations to perform menial tasks for the paramount chiefs as and when they were called upon. As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, chiefs had the right to requisition food and animals from their subjects, another relic of the privilleges they enjoyed in the colonial days as a spur to reigning in nationalistic impulses amongst their people.
Sankara sought to reverse all these blights not inch by inch or step by step but fleet-footedly, at the speed of a gazelle. The revolutionary zealotry he undertook to instill in his people was not mere ideological posturing but was about tangible, realisable benchmarks for goal attainment. It was about a radically new approach to duty that presupposed the embrace of a radically new work ethic. It was all hands on deck now for every Jim, Jack, Mary, and Sharon: it was all systems go.
The Marxist-leaning leader’s idea of economic and institutional transformation was premised on change that was creative and non-conformist. It was change which, in his own words, contained “a certain amount of madness”, a foray if need be into realpolitik. That did not mean it was an exercise in futility, that it was so wild in its broad sweep and so onerous in its burdensomeness as to border on the fanciful. It was the pace at which it was going to be accomplished that required dying a little, that called for a level of self-sacrifice that was without parallel both historically and contemporaneously.
The young and feisty president was aware his task made that of Sisyphus seem like a Sunday School picnic but he was such a believer in the possibilities of his people and indeed in his own dynamism that he did not waver.
Sankara went to work literally from the very day he ascended to power. The first thing he did was to surround himself with a corps of 150 carefully vetted presidential aides who were going to assist him in moving the country forward by jet propulsion. Then he launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social, cultural, economic and political revival ever attempted on the continent of Africa. The concerted instruments of these reforms were the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs).
The CDRs were patterned after the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución of Cuba, which Fidel Castro had established in 1960 as a "collective system of revolutionary vigilance” that criss-crossed the entire island like a latticework. They were launched under a Peoples Development Plan under which provinces were to set down their objectives and devise a means through which to bring them to fruition.
Underscoring this pioneering experiment of the exercise of power in all its expressions by the people in the name of the people, Sankara observed thus: “The most important thing is to give the people confidence, to help them understand that they can at last define their own happiness, to enable them to decide on their own aims and understand the price to be paid.”
Sankara saw CDRs as a veritable organ for the devolution of the full spectrum of power to the grassroots which would go a long way in consolidating direct, participatory democracy. This divestiture of all facets of executive affirmation on the part of his regime in favour of a brand of authority and responsibility that was coterminous and co-equal with that of the governed was at least in theory envisaged to be wholesale.
“Democracy means using the full potential of the people,” he pointed out. “The ballot box and an electoral system do not prove the existence of democracy. There is no real democracy where those in power call elections from time to time and concern themselves with the people only in the run-up to an election … There can be no democracy unless power in all its forms – economic, military, political, social and cultural – is in the hands of the people.”
True to their billing, the CDRs became the cornerstone of popular participation in power, permeating as they did every nook and cranny of the constituent structures. There was a CDR for for the youth, a CDR for women, a CDR for farmers, a CDR for unions, a CDR for each workplace, ad infinitum. The CDRs had clout. Their mandate went beyond the preservation of public security to the inculcation of political education, maintenance of impeccable standards of sanitation, boosting production and productivity, bringing checks and balances to bear on the excesses of government and bureaucrats, red-flagging budget control deviations in the ministries, and a host of overarching judicial and administrative responsibilities.
Not only did CDRs deliberate on a whole range of national projects but they also had the power to reject them if they were not deemed crucial or were fraught with lapses. With the establishment of CDRs therefore, Sankara had radically restructured the basic functions of society, turning it from a mere cog in the wheel to an integral part of the wheel itself.
Sankara also gave considerable thought to the mobilisation of ideas from the youth cadre with a view to inform official policy formulation. His former Policy Adviser Fidele Kientega affirms this predilection thus: “Sankara created the Young Pioneers groups in all schools and communities to change the old feudalistic patron-client political discourse. Young people were trained to practice democracy in decision-making in terms of issues that affected them. They were asked to come up with proposals that were then formed into policies and were delegated with the mandate of implementing these same polices they helped to form. Sankara was building grassroots democracy.”
MILESTONES IN HEALH AND EDUCATION
On August 4 1984, the first anniversary of his accession to power, Thomas Sankara changed the name of his country from the colonially imposed Upper Volta to Burkina Farso, with the people now to be called the Burkinabe. The name was weaved together from two words borrowed from two local languages and meant “Land of Honourable People.” The name change was not prompted by the sentimental need to rid the country of any lingering imperialistic vestiges.
It was meant to underline a new dispensation altogether in the aspirations of the nation and as a rallying cry for his people to invoke so that they were forever reminded of forging a new international dignity through scaling new economic heights. That’s how he sought to galvanise his people and launch a bootstrap development movement. Granted, the name of the country was an integral symbol of his national crusade. Besides being a great psychological spur, it had positive ramifications, implicitly, at a karmic level.
Education and literacy were an overriding priority. In only the first two years of his presidency, the proportion of people who attended school jumped from 10 percent to about 25 percent, thus significantly denting the 90 percent illiteracy rate that bedeviled the country when he assumed office. In 1986, a whirlwind nationwide literacy campaign mounted in nine indigenous languages resulted in 35,000 being able to read and write. It was tantamount to imparting a competence across the board in one fell swoop.
Similar strides were made in public health. In a 15-day marathon immunisation programme in November 1984 – and this was only three months after he took office – Sankara enlisted the aid of Cuban volunteer medics to vaccinate 2.5 million Burkinabe children against the dreaded meningitis, yellow fever, and measles in a bid to fast-track the promotion of public health.
The feat was unprecedented anywhere. For the first time ever, basic health services were like in the Botswana of today made available to the entire population, one consequence of which was that river blindness was kept in check, again a first for the country under a plucky, doggedly determined Thomas Sankara. By January 1985, the infant mortality rate had precipitately fallen from 280 deaths for every 1000 births to 145. In only four months at the helm, the wunderkind president had delivered results as though he was waving a magic wand.
THE INFRASTRUCTURE AND THE SAHEL
Concerned that his country desperately needed an infrastructural uplift, Thomas Sankara embarked on an ambitious rail and road construction programme to “tie the nation together” as he put it. Schools, hospitals, dams, and houses were also factored into the hive of construction activity.
As much as government was the project bankroller, a considerable amount of labour was donated by the citizenry out of a sense purely of patriotic duty and the unremitting love of their iconic leader. For instance, peasants built storage dams by the sweat of their own brow, and every village was called upon to voluntarily build a medical dispensary. Over 350 communities were stirred by Sankara’s logically marshaled persuasive pitches to construct schools by sacrificially working their fingers to the bone. Note that the people were not expected to make a material contribution: only labour and of their own accord. No one was forcefully conscripted.
In February 1985, two construction programs were incepted. These were a public housing project and what Sankara called “The Battle for the Railroad” project. The latter was the construction of a missing rail link to the northeastern region of Tambo with a view to develop a major manganese deposit that had recently been stumbled upon. Sankara dubbed the undertaking a “battle” in that it was done independent of foreign financing after the Bretton Woods institutions and the jaundice-eyed donor community gave it the thumbs-down in favour of the less crucial road to the already flourishing northern mining region. The only foreign prop for the project took the form of an inconsequential number of rails Canada grudgingly provided from a plant in Trenton, Nova Scotia.
With government coffers stretched too thin, Sankara again took recourse to a resource of last resort – the citizenry. He appealed to them to lend the project a vital hand without which it was foredoomed. They readily obliged: between 1985 and 1987, the merry throngs of volunteers, who mostly comprised students and civil servants, led 62 km of rail under the blazing Sahel sun and a smog-like swirl of hovering dust.
Meanwhile, the encroaching Sahara Desert needed to be taken care of as another component of the national agenda. In this regard, Sankala launched a vigorous reforestation programme in which hordes of Burkinabes were both directly and indirectly mobilised. Over 10 million trees were planted around the country in the space of only twelve months in a bid to expeditiously halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. In order to keep the momentum of the reforestation going, new house owners or tenants were made to undertake to plant and tend to a prescribed minimum number of trees.
Concomitant measures to help perpetuate the reforestation programme have been summed up thus: “The CDRs of women and youth mobilised to build tens of thousands of improved stoves in order to reduce the consumption of firewood. Hundreds of wells were sunk to provide reliable drinking water to those who lacked it. An old, partly-abandoned tradition of each town and village cultivating its own grove of trees was revived. In the villages in the developed river valleys, each family was given the means and the obligation to plant one hundred trees per year. The cutting and selling of firewood was brought under strict control.” (To be continued next week)
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org