Ken and Sankara: Africa should demonstrate its Innocence

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This is an extract from the research, “UNDERDEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA: My Hands Are Clean”, as was published on the 10th of November 2010. Images and footnotes are omitted; to know more about this (216 pages) research, see the book at, and at

–Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) And Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria)–

“It was exactly the 15th of October, 1987 that a young and upcoming leader, Thomas Sankara, was assassinated in his own country, Burkina Faso. As many experts tried to analyse the assassination saga, there was no lack of accusations and the pointing of fingers towards the Europeans and other Western powers. On July 2009, a documentary titled (in Italian), “Ombre Africane” (African Shadows) was aired by an Italian popular TV channel, Rai3. In the documentary, one army general from a neighbouring West African country was thrilled to talk about the assassination of Sankara and he did not hesitate from spelling out the details.

Below is part of the transcript from the documentary, as was published in many international news agencies. (Names were intentionally omitted. To know more about the story, follow the link in the footnote):

“France was totally involved (…) I was right there when Sankara said, ‘(…) you are my best friend, I call you my brother, and yet you assassinate me?’(…) made an irritated gesture and said something to him in French (…) then he fired a shot…”

Just as a reminder, Fidel Kientega was the foreign policy adviser to Thomas Sankara. In the interview he granted to a Gambian journalist, Bubacarr Sankanu on the 10th of January, 2010, he said of Sankara’s leadership quality:

“His children were pedalled to school on the back seat of bicycles. We raised concerns about their safety but Sankara said he wanted his children to grow up modestly like every normal Burkinabe child… Thomas set the pace for modesty and simplicity in leadership. He renamed our country “Burkina Faso” which means, “Land of the Upright People”. He himself lived and died by an upright example… Sankara died at the age of thirty eight (38) without betraying his cause…”

Now let’s get the point clearer. If truly there is anything to reveal about Sankara’s death, it is the fact that local Africans should take responsibility in most of the actions often deemed ‘Western infiltrations into the African system’. This is because the direct infiltrators are usually the African people, in the exception of few instances, like the case of a British machinery who was involved in a failed coup d’état (2004), against an African head of state. This is where the question of responsibility comes into play and equally brings to bear the often exaggerated African brotherhood. By common sense, the latter will have no meaning until Africans have learned to be their brothers’ keeper, watch each other’s back and defend their common interests.

There is no doubt that someone somewhere could have been uncomfortable with Sankara’s philosophy and desire for his people, as an uncommon African leader. His drive to re-orientate his fellow countrymen and prepare them for a new beginning, renewing a fact that has become rejected, even by the Africans themselves, (that an African is beautiful and he can do it on his own). Considering the masquerading of the African political arrangement, the above could have made someone, far away, to call for the death of Sankara, but why should an African accept to pull the trigger and then tend to shy away from the responsibility later on? Why?

Let’s look at a different case with a similar story.

Naturally, there is no way that those who fight for ecological justice can be fighting for the wrong reason. Unfortunately, things can be different in Africa and excuses are never in short supply. That is how bad the African situation has become. Born on the 10th of October, 1941, in Bori, Niger Delta, Ken Saro-Wiwa was like every other Nigerian and African as it were. Yet, he not only understood the connection between a man and his natural environment. He equally upheld to the obligation of defending the latter for the good of everything that lives. This was the drive behind his strong will. It was the reason he chose to challenge Shell Oil Company, in Nigeria, for abusing the ecological system of the Niger Delta, through its decades of oil exploration.

Everybody knew that Ken’s campaign was a non-violent, yet he was considered a serious threat to one of the richest companies in the world and the largest army in Africa. On the 4th of May, 1994, he was arrested for the alleged connection in the death of four Ogoni men. And it was going to be doughty for him.

On his trial at a special military tribunal, the words of Ken were few. They were pure and full of human resilience. They were the type of words to remind the local people of their individual and collective responsibilities, towards their own community and survival as a people.

“In my innocence of the false charges I face here, in my utter conviction, I call upon the Ogoni people, the peoples of the Niger Delta, and the oppressed ethnic minorities of Nigeria to stand up now and fight fearlessly and peacefully for their rights. History is on their side. God is on their side…”

Convicted by the Nigerian military tribunal, Ken and his eight Ogoni colleagues were executed on the 10th of November, 1995. And talking about history, as Ken had pointed out on his trial, that particular case was going to turn Shell to devil in the eyes of many international civil right and environmental activists. In reaction to Ken’s death, just after the news became available on the 10th of November, 1995, the Greenpeace Movement, an international organization which preaches against the abuse of ecological system quickly released the following statement:

“The blood of Ken Saro-Wiwa will permanently stain the name of Shell”

Different protests were staged against Shell in many places, including some countries in Europe, all to clear a point that the death of Ken was unjust. Some few individuals even stopped buying Shell oil because of the incident of 10th November, 1995.

There was the need for all that, no doubt. The angle of this argument, rather, is ‘if Shell can be blamed for Ken’s death’, what about the Nigerian politicians and other local elites who have accepted or chose to eliminate one of their own? What about their material benefits, their deliberate sustenance of corruption in the Nigerian system, so that the natural resources can be exploited for their personal interests, (against the collective interest of the ordinary people)? Do these actions not have any consequence on the local economic development; the orientation of the local population towards the perception of wealth creation and growth? Do these actions not say anything about the responsibility and accountability of the local people, as it concerns their local economic development?

In a real world, what kind of economic development will occur in most parts of the Niger Delta? A place where the ecosystem and the rights of the indigenous people have been overly abused? A people who have traditionally depended on their land and water have now become jobless. The fishes in their waters are suffocating from oil spillages; their farm crops are dying. The local atmosphere and land space is polluted and almost uninhabitable due to oil activities. Yet the oil money is not plough back for alternative occupation; infrastructures and social amenities are not developed. Is it not natural that the local youths would someday revolt? That violent activities like that of ‘the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta’ will emerge, destroying oil installations and kidnapping oil workers? That the violence control violence will not be equal to local economic development?

This is the sad equation in the Niger Delta; the people, their resources and their local development.

Now, the argument can better be understood. What actually led to the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa was not a mere selfish attempt to sabotage the activities of Shell Oil Company in their land, but that through those activities, their human rights and the right of their natural environment needed to be respected. This was supposed to be a legitimate fight for the Nigerian/African people and their governments, who should protect the local interests. Instead, a different action was taken and the consequence of that action, as it relates to local development cannot be hidden, not now, not ever.

I know that the aforementioned Ken and Sankara are by no means the only outspoken people in Africa, in connection to how things should go for the interest of the African people. But for the purpose of this discussion, I will try to connect the two to local development, as follows:

First, I would say that ‘evaluating the development of a place without placing such evaluation vis-à-vis the local people and their collective aspiration is a mere philosophy’. And for the local people to be fully involved in what can be regarded as their developmental project, it will mean they have to be conscious of the process that drives the project. This is where Sankara came into the discussion. As an individual African who wanted to take responsibility in his action and conviction, he encouraged his Burkinabe people to believe in themselves, as a people who are capable of developing their own society.

The above was to mean that the people of Burkina Faso no longer needed to wait for the French and the Americans to tell them what to do and how to do it, but that they, as a people should know what to do and to do it in their own way. After all, their social/economic development was to be about them and their well-being, as a people. Consider the following paragraph:

If Shell Oil Company was owned by Nigeria or from the Niger Delta, there is no way it could have acted in the Niger Delta the same manner it has done all these decades. Take it from me; I’m not trying to stage a racial argument here, but that certain things can be much simple to understand about this issue. A Shell Oil Company from the Niger Delta, even though driven by the desire to make money (with the Nigerian oil), would definitely consider the interest of ‘the local people and their natural environment’.

This can better be understood from Ken’s argument because it is very simple: ‘while the multinational oil companies can extract petroleum from the Niger Delta, they should not forget that there are millions of people who call that land their home’. So, it was a struggle to prevent more than 30 million Nigerians from loosing their home, just for the fact that petroleum has been discovered on their land. The British could have done the same, the Germans could have done the same, and the same goes for the Americans. This is not about selfishness but that a people who want to survive and be relevant in a world such as ours must learn to defend their local and collective interests.

Finally, these two different struggles by two different Africans would naturally have led to local development in their respective places. This is because if the African people are encouraged to believe in themselves and pursue a common goal, they will collectively win. And if the interests of local Africans are put into consideration by the multinationals companies, operating in the African soil, the results from their activities will hardly be detrimental to the African people and their natural environment.

Yet, some Africans decided, for their personal interests to eliminate Ken and Sankara. Therefore, the question of responsibility as it relates to African development/underdevelopment cannot be more relevant than in the above cases.” From the discussion, “MEETING ACTIONS WITH RESPONSIBILITY”, page 36 to 52.

About Post Author

Anthony-Claret Ifeanyi Onwutalobi

Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websites. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.
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