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After Covid, Sankara’s Lessons on Debt Are as Relevant as Ever

Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated on this day in 1987, understood global debt as a system of extraction – one that still keeps poor countries paying vast sums to their old colonial masters.

Credit: Getty Images

Today, on the 34th anniversary of his death, Thomas Sankara, once the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, remains a symbol of resistance against the system of racial capitalism.

For Sankara, one key element of the struggle against colonialism and capitalism was the struggle against global debt. Sankara was unequivocal in his criticism of debt as a system of continued extraction and control imposed on poorer nations across the Global South by a rich West, and his calls for action on this issue remain pertinent: today, more than one hundred countries are facing cuts to public funding on health, education, and social protection due to Covid-19’s exacerbation of longstanding debts.

Sankara’s view of debt as a system of exploitation of the poor by the rich is not only relevant, then, but a vital perspective through which we can understand the formation of the post-Covid world in the twenty-first century.

Debt Suspension

In 2020, G20 countries agreed to the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, which allowed the world’s poorest countries to delay their debt payments until December 2021 (excluding debts to private creditors, who constitute an increasing proportion of lenders to African nations). Sankara’s Burkina Faso was one of the 73 countries eligible.

The introduction of schemes like the DSSI reveals the conditional nature of debt. With common consensus among lenders—in fact, only then—debt can be halted, wiped, or cancelled. This was a power imbalance Sankara sought to highlight in its historical context. ‘The roots of the debt go back to the beginning of colonialism,’ he said in 1987. ‘Those who lent us the money were those who colonised us.’

Africa’s total foreign debt is currently estimated at $417 billion, with 36 percent of that being owed to so-called ‘development organisations’ like the World Bank. In his critique of debt Sankara called into question the legitimacy of these lending bodies, stating that ‘Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonisers have transformed themselves into technical assistants… Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa.’

In 1999, the first African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission Conference estimated that the cost of the impact of slavery and colonisation across the continent by the West would be $777 trillion dollars. The fact, as noted by Sankara, is that African countries are essentially being charged to repair the damage done by colonialism.

Defaulting on Debt

Covid-19 challenged capitalist assumptions about global debt in part by bringing about the scenario lenders dread most: defaults. Last year, Zambia constituted a technical default by missing two consecutive payments on its bonds. The brief halt to the system of repayments proved something crucial: that paying back this debt at a time of insurmountable health insecurity and poverty was a genuine question of survival for Zambian people. It cost the banks, on the other hand, only one thing: profit.

This was a concrete example of the continuing relevance of Sankara’s analysis. At the 25th conference for the member states of the Organisation of African Unity, he said: ‘The debt cannot be repaid, first of all, because, if we don’t pay, the lenders won’t die… On the other hand, if we do pay, we are the ones who will die.’ The Jubilee Debt Campaign has estimated that some banks make a 250 percent profit on Zambian bonds.

Zambia’s situation is heightened by the fact that since Sankara’s lifetime, neoliberal global hegemony has consolidated itself ever further, including through the privatisation of vital public services, enforced cuts to public funding, and the continued prioritisation of corporate and elite interests over those of the many. One key factor in this consolidation was the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), initiated in the 1980s by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which enforce punitive policies as a condition for loans.

The introduction of SAPs effectively constituted an attack on welfare states worldwide in the name of economic growth. Despite the supposed necessity of those conditions, four decades later, poorer countries in the Global South are still struggling under growing levels of debt; in 2019, more than 30 African countries spent more on debt repayments than public healthcare.

The result is that debt, and the conditions attached to it, have directly hampered the capacity of poorer nations to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 on their populations. Despite that, those financial institutions have exerted immense pressure to ensure the continued meeting of payment deadlines, forcing some governments to make deadly compromises. Following its default, Zambia now has to allocate 44 percent of annual government revenue to its creditors.

A Lost Opportunity

For some, the international rollout of the vaccine presented an opportunity for the countries of the world to work together to bridge gaps and pursue mutually beneficial policies of health equity, including action on debt. In April this year, the UN stated that ‘to avoid a development crisis, the world must avoid a debt crisis.’

This is not the first time major action on debt has been suggested. Following Sankara’s famous speech at the Organisation for African Unity, a movement began to call for the eradication of Third-World debt, with countries across Latin America demonstrating huge support. Sankara’s calls for an African front for the non-repayment of debt, however, were cut short by his assassination.

Today, we see dissenting voices calling for change, but the growth-oriented status quo remains strong. Fear amongst economists of another ‘lost decade’—a term referring to the 1980s, during which many Latin American countries were unable to service their foreign debt—for African countries focuses not on the wellbeing of their people, but their collective economic outputs.

Toward a Debt-Free Future

Thomas Sankara taught us the multitude of ways in which the causes of justice are interconnected, and the need for collective resistance to capitalism in order to achieve them. On debt, he demonstrated not only its neocolonial roots, but its immense and ongoing capacity to hamper progress towards a future in which all experience a decent quality of life.

Sankara’s assassination came at a time when he was gaining momentum as a leader of an international resistance against neo-colonialism and it attendant forces. With $11 trillion still owed by developing countries in foreign debt, though, the lessons of his critiques persevere – not only in the continued existence of an unjust system, but also in our attempts to imagine and bring about a radical alternative.