Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Burkina Faso)

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The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (French: Comités de Défense de la Révolution, CDRs) were a system of local revolutionary cells, established in Burkina Faso by the Marxist-Leninist and pan-Africanist leader Thomas Sankara, President of the country from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Committees were established in each workplace. They were inspired by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Cuba, and functioned as "organs of political and social control."[1]


Two decades after decolonization from France, the Republic of Upper Volta had suffered numerous military regimes and uprisings (primarily led by the strong trade unionist movement). In 1982 Major Dr. Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo overthrew the government of Colonel Saye Zerbo, instituting the rule of the Council of Popular Salvation (CSP). Factional infighting developed between moderates in the CSP and the radicals, led by Captain Thomas Sankara, a war veteran who was appointed Prime Minister in January 1983.

Sankara was arrested soon afterwards, which triggered a coup on 4 August 1983 organized by among others Captain Blaise Compaoré. Sankara was released, and made President. The National Council for the Revolution (CNR) was formed to rule the country. Within short he began implementing a radical programme of social, cultural, economic and political reform, which he dubbed the "Democratic and Popular Revolution" (French: Révolution démocratique et populaire, or RDP).

The policies enacted by Sankara included the abolition of tribal chiefs' privileges, heavy advances in women's rights, anti-HIV/AIDS efforts, anti-corruption campaigns, a foreign policy based on anti-imperialism, land redistribution from feudal landlords to the peasantry, mass vaccinations of children, a nationwide literacy campaign, the promotion of reforestation, and so on. Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso, to promote a new national identity. In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted government control over the nation, eventually banning trade unions and the independent press. Corrupt officials, "lazy workers" and supposed counter-revolutionaries were tried publicly in the Popular Revolutionary Tribunals.[2]

One primary tool of implementing the "Democratic and Popular Revolution" was the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They were formed in 1983, having been mentioned in Sankara's first speech following the coup – he called on "the Voltaic people to form Committees for the Defense of the Revolution everywhere in order to fully participate in the CNR's great patriotic struggle and to prevent our enemies here and abroad from harming our people."[3] Sankara, heavily inspired by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution,[4] modelled them after the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución of Cuba, a network of neighbourhood committees across the island. Formed by Fidel Castro in 1960, they were dubbed by Castro a "collective system of revolutionary vigilance".[5]

The Burkinabé CDRs, however, took a wider approach – Sankara intended them to serve as a new foundation of society, a platform for popular mobilization[6] which would revolutionize life in Burkina Faso and restructure its social space on a local level.[7] This goal of restructuring the basic functions of society was carried out by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution through attempting to mobilize the masses, and to carry out political education.[8] Involving the people in governance was also portrayed as "the best way to avoid the army seizing power for itself",[3] and as such the CDRs were endowed with administrative, economic and judicial responsibilities.[9]

Some have viewed the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution far less benevolently, enacting thuggery rather than social revolution.[4] It has been alleged that the CDRs were formed to intimidate and weaken the trade unions as well as other established interest groups.[10] The Ugandan Catholic priest Emmanuel Katongole has written that the CDRs operated as "administrative tentacles and vigilante groups rather than incubators or exemplars of what a genuinely transformed new society might look like."[11] Others have described the CDRs as slowly falling into such activities rather than being formed for them, deteriorating from popular mass organizations into gangs of armed thugs which clashed with trade unionists.[12]

In Ghana, ruled by the military junta of Jerry Rawlings and the Provisional National Defence Council, groups likewise dubbed the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were instituted on 31 December 1984, possibly inspired by the Burkinabé variant of the name. These were intended to "act as watchdogs against corruption",[13] and replaced the previous People's and Workers' Defence Committees.[14] Rawlings, a close friend of Thomas Sankara,[15] would eventually adopt conservative and right-wing policies rather than radical left-wing such.

On 15 October 1987 Sankara was killed by a group of military officers, in a coup d'état organised by his former colleague and friend, Blaise Compaoré. Despite knowledge of the revolutionary's death spreading, some Committees for the Defense of the Revolution mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days. Compaoré, who would go on to rule Burkina Faso for almost three decades before being ousted from power by the 2014 Burkinabé uprising (at least partially inspired by Thomas Sankara[16]), immediately set out to reverse most of the reforms made in the name of the "Democratic and Popular Revolution". Among other changes, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were quickly abolished.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Otayek, René (1986). "The Revolutionary Process in Burkina Faso: Breaks and Continuities". In Markakis, John; Waller, Michael. Military Marxist Régimes in Africa. London: Frank Cass. p. 95. ISBN 113-517-654-X. 
  2. ^ Robin Shuffield (Director) (2006). Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man. San Francisco: California Newsreel. 
  3. ^ a b Kandeh, Jimmy D. (2004). Coups from Below: Armed Subalterns and State Power in West Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 124. ISBN 140-397-877-8. 
  4. ^ a b Bonkoungou, Mathieu (17 October 2007). "Burkina Faso salutes "Africa's Che" Thomas Sankara". Reuters. London. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  6. ^ Welch, Claude E. (1990). "Human Rights in Francophone West Africa". In An-Na'im, Abdullahi; Deng, Francis M. Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p. 192. ISBN 081-571-563-3. 
  7. ^ Boudon, Laura E. (2005). "Burkina Faso". In Leonard, Thomas M. Encyclopedia of the Developing World. London: Psychology Press. p. 211. ISBN 157-958-388-1. 
  8. ^ Lawson, Edward H.; Bertucci, Mary Lou, eds. (1996). Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis. p. 167. ISBN 156-032-362-0. 
  9. ^ Kandé, Sylvie (1994). Irele, Abiola; Jeyifo, Biodun, eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 303. ISBN 019-533-473-6. 
  10. ^ Sklar, Richard L. (1994). "Social Class and Political Action in Africa: The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat". In Apter, David Ernest; Rosberg, Carl Gustav. Political Development and the New Realism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. p. 134. ISBN 081-391-479-5. 
  11. ^ Katongole, Emmanuel (2011). The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 97. ISBN 080-286-268-3. 
  12. ^ Dickovick, J. Tyler (2014). Africa 2014. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 74. ISBN 147-581-238-8. 
  13. ^ Dickovick, J. Tyler (2013). Africa 2013. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 91. ISBN 081-087-500-4. 
  14. ^ Owusu-Ansah, David (2014). Historical Dictionary of Ghana. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 225. ISBN 147-580-472-5. 
  15. ^ Duval Smith, Alex (30 April 2014). "'Africa's Che Guevara': Thomas Sankara's legacy". British Broadcasting Corporation. Ouagadougou. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  16. ^ Kobo, Kingsley (31 October 2014). "Burkina Faso: Ghost of 'Africa's Che Guevara'". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  17. ^ Ake, Claude (2001). Democracy and Development in Africa. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p. 95. ISBN 081-572-348-2.