‘Debt is a cleverly organized reconquest of Africa’
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Thomas Sankara parle, the French-language edition of Thomas Sankara Speaks and one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for November. Sankara was the central leader of the 1983-87 revolution in Burkina Faso, West Africa.
The excerpt is taken from a speech Sankara gave on July 29, 1987, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the 25th conference of the Organization of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union. Here he calls for nonpayment of the onerous foreign debt imposed on imperialist-dominated African countries. Copyright © 1988 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY THOMAS SANKARA
The roots of the debt go back to the beginning of colonialism. Those who lent us the money were those who colonized us. They were the same people who ran our states and our economies. It was the colonizers who put Africa into debt to the financiers—their brothers and cousins. This debt has nothing to do with us. That’s why we cannot pay it.
The debt is another form of neocolonialism, one in which the colonialists have transformed themselves into technical assistants. Actually, it would be more accurate to say technical assassins. They’re the ones who advised us on sources of financing, on underwriters of loans. As if there were men whose loans are enough to create development in other people’s countries. These underwriters were recommended to us, suggested to us. They gave us enticing financial documents and presentations. We took on loans of fifty years, sixty years, and even longer. That is, we were led to commit our peoples for fifty years and more.
The debt in its present form is a cleverly organized reconquest of Africa under which our growth and development are regulated by stages and norms totally alien to us. It is a reconquest that turns each of us into a financial slave—or just plain slave—of those who had the opportunity, the craftiness, the deceitfulness to invest funds in our countries that we are obliged to repay. Some tell us to pay the debt. This is not a moral question. Paying or not paying is not a question of so-called honor at all… .
[N]one of the debt can be repaid. The debt cannot be repaid, first of all, because, if we don’t pay, the lenders won’t die. Of that you can be sure. On the other hand, if we do pay, we are the ones who will die. Of that you can be equally sure. Those who led us into debt were gambling, as if they were in a casino. As long as they were winning, there was no problem. Now that they’re losing their bets, they demand repayment. There is talk of a crisis. No, Mr. President. They gambled. They lost. Those are the rules of the game. Life goes on. [Applause]
We cannot repay the debt because we have nothing to pay it with. We cannot repay the debt because it’s not our responsibility… .
The debt is also the product of confrontations. When people talk to us today about economic crisis, they forget to mention that the crisis didn’t appear overnight. It has been with us for a long time, and it will deepen more and more as the popular masses become increasingly aware of their rights in face of the exploiters.
There is a crisis today because the masses refuse to allow wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. There is a crisis because a few individuals hold colossal sums of money in foreign banks—enough to develop Africa. There is a crisis because in face of these individual fortunes, whose owners we can name, the popular masses refuse to live in ghettos and slums. There is a crisis because people everywhere refuse to stay in Soweto when Johannesburg is directly opposite them. That is, there is struggle, and the deepening of this struggle leads to worries among the holders of financial power.
They ask us today to collaborate in the search for stability. Stability to the benefit of the holders of financial power. Stability to the detriment of the popular masses. No, we can’t be accomplices in this. No, we can’t go along with those who suck the blood of our peoples and who live off the sweat of our peoples. We can’t go along with their murderous ventures.
We hear talk of clubs—the Club of Rome, the Club of Paris, the Club of Everywhere. We hear talk of the Group of Five, of Seven, of the Group of Ten, perhaps the Group of One Hundred. Who knows what else? It’s normal that we too have our own club, our own group. Starting today, let’s make Addis Ababa a similar seat, the center from which will come a breath of fresh air, the Club of Addis Ababa. We have the duty to create the united front of Addis Ababa against the debt. This is the only way we can say today that, by refusing to pay, we’re not setting out on a course of war but, on the contrary, a fraternal course of explaining the facts as they are.
What’s more, the popular masses of Europe are not opposed to the popular masses of Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are the same ones as those who exploit Europe. We have a common enemy. Our Club of Addis Ababa must tell both sides that the debt cannot be paid. When we say the debt cannot be paid we are in no way against morality, dignity, or respect for one’s word. It’s our view that we don’t have the same morals as the other side. The rich and the poor don’t share the same morals. The Bible and the Koran can’t serve in the same way those who exploit the people and those who are exploited. There will have to be two editions of the Bible and two editions of the Koran. [Applause]
We can’t accept their morals. We can’t accept their talking to us about dignity. We can’t accept their talking to us about the merits of those who pay and about a loss of confidence in those who don’t pay. On the contrary, we must explain that it’s normal these days to favor the view that the richest people are the biggest thieves. A poor man who steals commits no more than larceny, a petty crime, just to survive, out of necessity. The rich are the ones who rob the tax revenue and customs duties. They are the ones who exploit the people.