Thomas Sankara: Better one step forward with the people than ten steps without!

The speech delivered by Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in New Delhi in March 1983.
"Long live international cooperation, long live the solidarity of the peoples of the non-aligned countries, long live peace, security and the independence and progress of all peoples."
"Long live international cooperation, long live the solidarity of the peoples of the non-aligned countries, long live peace, security and the independence and progress of all peoples."

This is a bonus issue of The Internationalist — our weekly newsletter featuring essays, analysis, interviews, and artwork from across our global network — featuring President Thomas Sankara’s historic speech in New Delhi, “Better one step forward with the people than ten steps without!

Thomas Sankara was the leader of the popular revolution in the West African country of Burkina Faso, assassinated in a foreign-backed coup d’etat in October 1987.

Sankara was a socialist revolutionary and pan-Africanist. Inspired by the worker-led Madagascan uprising he had witnessed as an officer, Sankara launched programmes for social, ecological and economic change.

His government vaccinated 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in just a few weeks. His literacy campaign increased the number of people who could read from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987. His land redistribution programme was so successful that wheat production increased more than 200% during his presidency.

In 1983, four years before his assassination, Sankara took the stage at the 7th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in New Delhi and delivered a speech that is widely regarded as a seminal moment in his presidency. This Special Issue of The Internationalist translates Sankara’s speech from its original French and reproduces it in abridged form.

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Madam President, Excellencies, Heads of

State and government, honourables, delegates,

On behalf of the Voltaic people, in the name of the People’s Salvation Council, of its president, the doctor Commander Jean Baptiste Ouedraogo, and of my own self, I would first of all like to thank and congratulate the Indian people and government to have accepted to host the 7th summit of the non-aligned movement, which gives us the pleasant opportunity to gather in the admirable and historic city of New Delhi to debate, in a friendly atmosphere of reciprocal goodwill, problems of peace and humanity’s future.

My delegation and I have been particularly appreciative of the warm welcome, entirely in keeping with the long tradition of hospitality, courtesy and solidarity that constitutes one of the many elements of the reputation of the Indian people and their brilliant civilisation across the world, for which we are deeply grateful. 

Madame President, allow me, following the delegations that preceded me to this podium, to express my warmest congratulations for your brilliant election to the Summit’s presidency, and the work of our movement. I do so with all the more pleasure and sincerity because your undeniable qualities as a statesman and your long personal experience of the problems that are those of all the countries represented here, as well as the eminent place India occupies in the non-aligned movement since the dawn of its birth, are guarantees of the success of our work and of the continued development of our common cause. 

During his three years as leader of our movement, President Fidel Castro has shown unmatched qualities, which have reinforced our dignity and credibility.

We would like to reiterate our satisfaction and profound respect for him. 

On behalf of the Voltaic people, the People's Salvation Council and the Voltaic Government, I salute here the representatives of brotherly and friendly peoples and governments to whom we are bound by a common history of colonial and neo-colonial suffering, by a painful and heroic struggle for our freedom and independence, and now by a common destiny in the pursuit of peace, the consolidation of our independence, and the fair and balanced development of humanity.

I also welcome the new members of our movement, namely, the Bahamas, Colombia, Barbados and Vanuatu. Their admission will undoubtedly be a fruitful contribution for the consolidation of our common struggles.

After the preliminary consultations of the Bandung conference, which brilliantly affirmed to the world and through the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the right to self-determination and independence of the colonial peoples, thus decisively signalling the shaking and general collapse of the odious colonial system, the non-aligned movement was born 22 years ago in Belgrade, initiated by its founding fathers whose names are Nehru, Sukarno, Nasser, Tito: heroes of humanity whose deep mark upon history shall be eternal.

Others after them have played a dynamic role to enhance our movement, to avoid the sclerosis that imperialism and neo-colonialism were trying to impose on it through economic and political blackmail. Allow me to mention only Kwame Nkrumah and Boumediene whom we will always remember with deep respect.

From the first summit in Belgrade in 1961 to the second in Cairo in 1964, from the one in Lusaka in 1970 to the one in Algiers in 1973, from the one in Colombo in 1976 to the one in Havana in 1979 and now to the one in New Delhi, our movement has never ceased to confirm and expand its audience, to clarify itself and to assert itself in the world through its objectives and its noble ideals as a force of peace, as a force of reason, as finally the deep and courageous conscience of a world that imperialism would like to see eternally subjected to its domination, to its plunder and to its blind massacres. For born in the middle of the cold war, the non-aligned movement was intended first of all as a force representing the profound aspiration of our countries for freedom, independence and peace in the face of hostile blocs, as a force affirming our right to a country and as a sovereign people to choose freely and without subservience our own paths towards progress, to freely choose our friends in the world on the basis of their concrete attitude towards the aspiration of our peoples to liberate themselves from the colonial, neo-colonial or racist yoke towards independence, security, peace and socio-economic progress.

Contrary to the restrictive and simplistic interpretation that imperialism wants to impose on us as a definition of non-alignment, this has nothing to do with an arithmetical equidistance of the two blocks that dominate the world or a ridiculous equilibrium of the traumatised between these two blocs, all of which are obviously meaningless and deny our freedom to appreciate sovereignly and in all independence the attitudes and actions of one another in the world. We will never be able to put on the same footing one who oppresses a people, plunders and massacres it when it fights for its liberation, and another who helps in a disinterested and constant way this people in its struggle for liberation. We cannot stand in equidistance between the one who arms, strengthens, supports diplomatically and economically a racist clique that has been coldly murdering a whole people for decades, and the other who helps this people to put an armed end to the racist regime that massacres them.

We cannot put on the same footing and keep at equal distance, on the one hand, those who support through all their powerful military, political, diplomatic and economic means regimes and governments whose only obsession is to subjugate and terrorise all the countries around them, including by direct military aggression, assassinations organised by their secret services, and on the other hand, those who provide concrete support to these attacked countries to ensure their defence and security on their own soil.

Of course, the non-aligned movement is not a military power and fortunately so, even if this is cause for derision by some powers who prefer to use force over the right of peoples to dignity and independence.

Our movement is first and foremost a moral force that brings together countries that are diverse in terms of geography, size, population, economy and social systems to promote the democratisation of international relations based on equal rights and obligations instead of the current unjust and unequal international relations, to finally promote the progress of countries and peoples instead of the continued impoverishment of poor countries and, on their backs, the enrichment of the richest.

To promote a collective peace between non-aligned member countries and between all countries, for this first great objective, our movement must never abandon its persevering efforts to bring its members to respect one of our great principles, which is to seek, through negotiation and peaceful means, solutions to divergences or conflicts that can arise between them and which are, moreover, often sharpened or ignited by imperialistic manoeuvres.

That is why we not only deplore the fratricidal war that has been going on for more than two years between Iraq and Iran, two countries that are members of our movement, but we call on these two countries to accept the mediation of the non-aligned movement towards a swift, just and honourable peace.

Similarly, we believe that our movement cannot accept the role of the mute and passive observer that is being imposed on it, as on the rest of the world, in this conflict in the Middle East, which is now nearly 40 years old, where the combined forces of imperialism and Zionism have succeeded not only in expelling the Palestinian people from their homeland, but also, as a result of successive barbaric aggressions, in carrying out and maintaining the military occupation and annexation of vast territories of several Arab countries that are members of our movement.

Even more recently, less than a year ago, the government of Israel, publicly encouraged by the United States, and despite the unanimous condemnation of the peoples of the world, invaded the state of Lebanon with its army, subjecting the capital city of Beirut to the merciless destruction of its enormous military, land, sea and air resources, despite the heroic resistance of the city and of the Palestinians under the leadership of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).

Despite the ceasefire obtained by the international community, the Israeli government allowed the unspeakable massacres of Sabra and Shatila, whose perpetrators should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity, and still refuses to withdraw the aggressor troops from Lebanon.

Wherever the people rise up to demand their liberation and independence, imperialism crudely intervenes to arm their enemies, ignite war and organise their massacre, thus actively standing up against peace and the freedom of the peoples.

This is the case in Nicaragua, where in an attempt to wipe out the victory of the Nicaraguan people, imperialism has set armed gangs and governments of neighbouring countries against the people to manipulate them.

In El Salvador, the same scenario aims to stop the advance of the national liberation movement.

But we believe that on this issue of peace and security and people’s right to self-determination and independence, the non-aligned movement is entirely correct to stick to its consistent position of supporting those who are fighting for their freedom and independence and their national liberation movement, no matter how the fury and pressure of imperialism exerts on one or another of our members to try to weaken the voice of our movement.

We salute the constant support given by the non-aligned movement to the struggle of the people of Namibia for their liberation under the leadership of their sole legitimate representative, SWAPO, to the struggle of the black people of South Africa against the odious racist system of exploitation that is apartheid, to the right to independent self-determination of the Saharawi people, to the peaceful reunification of Korea free from the foreign troops that have been occupying its soil for the past 30 years.

Promoting the democratisation of international relations is simply to align these relationships, established in an increasingly bygone era, with the current situation of our world. It is to take into account the undeniable emergence of colonised or subjugated peoples on the international stage, who naturally aspire to progress and well-being, to be masters of the resources of their soil and subsoil so that they are used first to satisfy their own needs, to participate with equal rights and obligations in the development of international exchanges of all kinds: economic, commercial but also technological and cultural.

Our countries no longer want the old economic order built on uncontested supremacy and the dictate of the strongest, organised around the one-way exchange of our raw materials, commodities or barely processed products against their manufactured goods, their technology and their way of life.

The objectives of our movement for peace, the independence of countries and peoples and the democratisation of international relations may appear ambitious, but the growing audience of the non-aligned movement, the fact that more and more countries are joining us as full members or as observers, the regular participation in our meetings of high-level personalities such as the Secretary General of the Organisation of African Unity and the Secretary General of the United Nations, whose presence we wish to acknowledge here, underline the growing impact of our movement. We must therefore pursue our action with perseverance.

In spite of the obstacles and momentary failures, constantly seeking to strengthen our cohesion, because peace, the independence of peoples and the democratisation of international relations for humanity’s global progress deserve more than anything else – and particularly at a time when the gigantism of nuclear arsenals poses a permanent threat of insane self-destruction – that we dedicate all our efforts, all our intelligence and all our courage to them.

In our world gripped by multiple convulsions, the constant search for peace must be the major imperative of our movement because without peace, none of the objectives we seek can be attained.

Under these conditions, for example, how can we not encourage and support the tireless efforts of the Democratic Republic of Madagascar and others to make the Indian Ocean a zone of peace, that is to say, a more humane zone for the happiness of the bordering peoples.

Madam President, Heads of State and Government, honourable delegates, allow me before leaving this historic podium to reaffirm that for us, the people of Upper Volta under the leadership of the People’s Salvation Council, non-alignment must be understood first as our permanent autonomy of decision and for non-interference in the internal affairs of states, but that we do not confuse non-alignment with the complicity of passivity amid the crimes of imperialism against the independence and freedom of peoples, nor do we confuse non-interference with blindness before the crimes of reactionary forces against the freedom of their people and the respect of their rights.

Our membership in the non-aligned movement demands, among many tasks, that we block all forces that aspire to align other peoples. South Africa is one such force. Responsible non-alignment forbids us to remain silent when men, women and children are murdered for no other crime than thinking about the notion of freedom, which is so far away for them.

Since November 7, 1982, in the name of the just and progressive principles that the People’s Salvation Council outlined when it took power, the Voltaic people have felt closer to all those who fight for justice, freedom and democracy. They are no longer the people to whom racists presented euphemisms without commitment. The people of Upper Volta feel cruelties suffered by others geographically far from them in their bones, but now so close to them because of their common determination to denounce racism, another form of fascism.

We want to say to all those who are victims of the harassment of the bandits in South Africa that we fully support their struggle.

We salute the popular forces of Mozambique and Angola who are victoriously repelling the hordes that the sinister incorrigibles continue to send them from Pretoria.

Our movement has already condemned South Africa and must continue to do so. This is good, it is already a lot.

I would like to end my speech with a question. When will there be a real condemnation of all those who, in the shadows as well as in broad daylight, provide Pretoria with financial, economic, diplomatic and military support?

Long live international cooperation, long live the solidarity of the peoples of the non-aligned countries, long live peace, security and the independence and progress of all peoples.

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