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A United Front Against the Debt

With an introduction by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
 

The case of AKP, an eighty-year-old Polish immigrant in England described by neuropsychologist Chris Moulin et al. in a 2005 paper in the journal Neuropsychologia, is one of many prominent examples of aggravated sensations of déjà vu.1 AKP’s case was so chronic that he stopped reading newspapers and watching anything on television, as he was sure that he had seen all these things before, something Moulin described as persistent déjà vécu, i.e., the feeling of having already lived through something.

In recent months, some of us have more or less found ourselves in such a state, in captivity of an acute and persistent case of déjà vécu, but exclusively with regard to the media coverage, various discourses, and overall pandemonium around the Greek economic crisis. Like AKP, I could hardly bear the sight of any newspapers or TV, but for me, it was not a case of paramnesia or some phantasms of memory, as most of the things wibbled by the media and specialists were genuinely familiar. The images that spoke more than a million words of suffering and angst, pictures of closed banks and hospitals without medication; all the conversations about corruption, austerity, and whether Greece should pay its debts or not; the debating whether Germany owed Greece even more than vice versa: all this tickled in some of us who lived further south than Greece in the 1980s and ’90s—as south as the Southern Hemisphere—sensations of déjà vécu. The mathematical equation and its result were the same. The constant in the equation was the West, or as some cardinal-coordinate freaks might choose to call it, the North, while the variable in the equation had changed. The South or East had snuck up on them and swapped in Cameroon, Argentina, or the like for Greece.

One of the many parallel examples one can name was the crisis in 1994 after the French devaluation of the West and Central African currencies, themselves a remnant—still, to this day—of the colonial entanglements between France and Francophone Africa and a living example of neocolonialism. Violent demonstrations resulted after African governments bowed down to France’s decision to devalue. “People are trying to adapt to painful price increases for nearly everything they eat and drink,” Kenneth Noble vividly wrote at the time, in an article on the upheaval in the New York Times.2 “Prices for pharmaceutical products, nearly all of which are imported, have soared. The cost of drugs for malaria, the continent’s biggest killer, have nearly doubled in some places, putting them out of reach of many Africans.”

Maybe the sense of déjà vu over Greece was only possible because of the fact that the scars of the austerity measures that the devaluation provoked—the tax increases, spending cuts, unemployment, salary cuts—have been engraved in the African quotidian and in the popular culture, such that it lives on and remains very much able to trigger memories of the period. In his legendary piece “Mimba We” from the early 1990s, the radical Cameroonian poet, musician, and man of the people Lapiro de Mbanga, alias Ndinga Man, sang out in Pidgin what was at the crux of that economic crisis:

 

For dis heure for austerité so,

For dis heure weh cinq no mus change position

Yes, austérité da be sei dollar no mus change foot

Wusai we own espoir deh no?

Me a di mimba say na tam dis weh all man mus ndéngwe for yi own secteur,

For say we bumbla dan crise economique,

Weh e don put all man a génou.

 

(At this time of austerity

At this time when a dime must stay where it is

Yes, austerity means that each dollar must be spent wisely

Where is our hope today?

I reckon time has come for all sectors to come together

And fight this economic crisis

That has forced us all to our knees.)

But years before the explosion of this tumult on the African continent in the 1990s, a man named Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949–1987), who had taken power in 1983 in what was then Upper Volta at the tender age of thirty-three, had seen all this coming. Judging from his many speeches and interventions— starting with his symbolic act of renaming the country Burkina Faso (that is, “Land of Upright Men”), on through his 1984 speech to the United Nations General Assembly and his 1987 speech on foreign debt at the Organisation of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa—one could see that Sankara never intended to let his country remain plugged into that aforementioned equation of exploitation. Neither did he intend to bow down to austerity measures prescribed by the West, nor buy the idea that Burkina Faso and the rest of the African continent were indebted to anyone.

A lot has been written about Sankara, what he embodied, and the causes he fought for. Though this is not the platform for enumerating his numerous causes, it is worth mentioning here his fight against poverty; his support for liberation movements against colonial structures; his outstanding environmentalist positions; his relentless fight against corruption, capitalism’s infrastructure, and favoritism; and, most of all, his struggle for women’s rights.3

The moments of déjà vu for me and others became all the more striking for the remarkable fact that, in the heat of the debates on Greek debt and the crisis in general, very few ‘specialists’ were savvy enough to make the African connection, or were willing to do so. For those of us who come from further south than Greece, Sankara’s words on debt and (neo-)colonialism, debt and imperialism, debt as a means of conquest and currency for confrontation still ring in our ears. As Sankara said:

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. We cannot repay the debt because we have nothing to pay it with. We cannot repay the debt because, on the contrary, the others owe us something that the greatest riches can never repay—a debt of blood. It is our blood that was shed.

It is vital to consider these statements within the context of the current European crisis. Who owes whom what, and under what circumstances are these debts to be repaid? What are the causes of such an economic crisis? And where is the hope in austerity measures that force a country to its knees? The world has already lived through these situations. Thus, instead of dwelling in a state of paralysis and dumbfounded déjà vécu, we could rather reminisce on Sankara’s words to help us understand the status quo and equip us to pose questions that might pave a way out or solve the current conundrum.

— Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

A United Front Against the Debt.

Speech given at the African Unity Organisation Conference, Addis Ababa, July 29, 1987

 

Mr. President;

Heads of delegations:

I would like at this moment for us to take up the other question that plagues us, the question of debt, the question of Africa’s economic situation. As much as peace, resolving this is an important condition for our survival. That is why I thought I should impose a few additional minutes on you, so we could take this up.

We believe analysis of the debt should begin with its roots. 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 for 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 an 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.

Mr. President:

We listened and applauded to the prime minister of Norway when she spoke right here. She said, and she’s a European, that the debt as a whole cannot 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, on the contrary, the others owe us something that the greatest riches can never repay—a debt of blood. It is our blood that was shed.

People talk of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt the economy of Europe. Bur they don’t mention the African Plan, which enabled Hitler’s hordes at a time when their economies were under siege, their stability threatened. Who saved Europe? It was Africa. There is very little talk about that. There is so little talk that we can’t become accomplices ourselves of this ungrateful silence. If others can’t sing our praise, we have the duty, at the very least, to point out that our fathers were courageous and that our veteran fighter saved Europe and ultimately allowed the world to rid itself of Nazism.

The debt is also a 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 to them. That is, there is a 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 of 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.

Mr. President:

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.

Mr. President:

Video of Thomas Sankara’s speech, "A United Front Against the Debt,” at the African Unity Organisation Conference, Addis Ababa, July 29, 1987 (part one)

My proposal does not aim simply to provoke or to create a spectacle. I am trying to say what each of us thinks and hopes for. Who here doesn’t want to see the debt written off, pure and simple? Anyone who doesn’t want that can leave, take his plane, and go directly to the World Bank to pay it off. [Applause]  I hope you don’t take the proposal from Burkina Faso as something coming from immature youth, who have no experience. I also hope you don’t think only revolutionaries speak in that manner. I hope you acknowledge that it’s simply a matter of objectivity and of duty.

I can give you examples of both revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, of both young and old, who have called for not paying the debt. I could mention Fidel Castro, for example. He has said not to pay. He’s not my age, even if he is a revolutionary. François Mitterand has also said the African countries cannot pay, the poor countries cannot pay. I could cite the madam prime minister of Norway, I don’t know her age, and I would hesitate to ask. [Laughter and applause] I could also cite President Félix Houphouët- Boigny. He isn’t my age. But he has officially and publicly declared that, at least as far as his country is concerned, the debt cannot be paid. Now, the Ivory Coast is counted as one of the wealthier countries in Africa, at least in French-speaking Africa. That’s why, moreover, it’s no surprise that it no longer pay its dues here. [Applause]

Mr. President:

This is not a provocation. I hope you can very wisely offer us solutions. I hope our conference sees the necessity of stating clearly that we cannot pay the debt. Not in a warmongering or warlike spirit. This is to avoid our going off to be killed one at a time. If Burkina Faso alone were to refuse to pay the debt, I wouldn’t be at the next conference. On the other hand, with the support of all, which I greatly need [Applause], with the support of all, we can avoid paying. And if we can avoid paying, we can devote our meager resources to our development.

I would like to close by saying that when we tell countries we’re not going to pay the debt, we can assure them that what is saved won’t be spent on prestige projects. We don’t want any more of those. What is saved will be used for development. IN particular we will avoid going into debt to buy arms. Because an African country that buys arms can only be doing so to use them against an African country. What African country here can arm itself to defend against the nuclear bomb? No country is capable of that, from the best armed to the least armed. Every time and African country buys a weapon, it’s for the use against another African country. It’s not for the use against a European country. It’s not for the use against an Asian country. So in preparing the resolution on the debt we must also find a solution to the question of armaments.

I am a soldier, and I carry a gun. But Mr. President, I wish we would disarm. Because I carry the only weapon I own. Others have camouflaged the weapons they own. [Laughter and applause] So dear brothers, with everyone’s support we can make peace at home.

We can use Africa’s immense latent resources to develop the continent, because our soil and subsoil are rich. We have the means to do that and we have an immense market, a vast market from north to south, east to west. We have sufficient intellectual capacities to create technology and science, or at least to adopt it wherever we find it.

Mr. President:

Let’s assemble this united front if Addis Ababa against the debt. Let’s organize so that beginning in Addis Ababa we make the decision to limit the arms race between weak and poor countries. The clubs and swords we buy are of no use. Let’s make sure that the African market is a market for Africans. Let’s produce in Africa, transform in Africa, consume in Africa. Produce what we need and consume what we produce, in place of importing it.

Burkina Faso has come to show you the cotton produced in Burkina Faso, woven in Burkina Faso, sewn in Burkina Faso to clothe the Burkinabè. My delegation and I were clothed by our weavers, our peasants. Not a single thread comes from Europe or America. [Applause] I’m not here to put on a fashion show; I simply want to say that we should undertake to live as Africans. It is the only way to live free and to live in dignity.

 

Thank you, Mr. President

Homeland or death, we will win!

[Ovation]

Video of Thomas Sankara’s speech, "A United Front Against the Debt,” at the African Unity Organisation Conference, Addis Ababa, July 29, 1987 (part one)

1 Christopher J. A. Moulin, Martin A. Conway, Rebecca G. Thompson, Niamh James, and Roy W. Jones, “Disordered memory awareness: Recollective confabulation in two cases of persistent déjà vécu,” Neuropsychologia 43 (2005), pp. 1362–78.

2 Kenneth B. Noble, “French Devaluation of African Currency Brings Wide Unrest,” New York Times, February 23, 1994. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/23/world/frenchdevaluation-of-african-currency-bringswide-unrest.html (accessed August 14, 2015).

3 In his 1984 UN speech, Sankara declared: “I speak on behalf of women the world over, who suffer from a male-imposed system of exploitation. As far as we’re concerned, we are ready to welcome suggestions from anywhere in the world that enable us to achieve the total fulfillment of Burkinab. women. In exchange, we offer to share with all countries the positive experience we have begun, with women now present at every level of the state apparatus and social life in Burkina Faso. Women who struggle and who proclaim with us that the slave who is not able to take charge of his own revolt deser ves no pity for his lot. This harbors illusions in the dubious generosity of a master pretending to set him free. Freedom can be won only through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to go on the offensive to conquer their rights.” For the full text of the address, see “Freedom Must Be Conquered,” in Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983–1987, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Pathfinder Press, 2007), pp. 154–75.

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