He was his country’s leader for a short period but it was still long enough for his name to resonate across the African continent and beyond. For many he is considered the Che Guevara of Africa, especially in the nation of Burkina Faso. Like many revolutionists before and after him, Thomas Sankara died violently and at an early age.
Sankara was born December 21, 1949, in the Upper Volta which is now Burkina Faso. His parents wanted him to be a priest but he opted for a military career instead. In 1970, at the age of 20, Sankara was sent for officer training in Madagascar, where he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers that succeeded in toppling Madagascar’s government.
Before returning to Upper Volta in 1972, Sankara attended a parachute academy in France, where he was further exposed to left-wing political ideologies. In 1974 he earned much public attention for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, but years later he would renounce the war as useless and unjust.
By the early 1980s, Burkina Faso was being rocked by a series of labour union strikes and military coups. Sankara’s military achievements and charismatic leadership style made him a popular choice for political appointment, but his personal and political integrity put him at odds with the leadership of the successive military governments that came to power, leading to his arrest on several occasions.
In January 1983, Sankara was selected as the prime minister of the newly formed Council for the Salvation of the People (Conseil de Salut du Peuple; CSP), headed by Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. This post provided him with an entryway into international politics and a chance to meet with leaders of the nonaligned movement, including Fidel Castro (Cuba), Samora Machel (Mozambique), and Maurice Bishop (Grenada).
Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance and grassroots popularity increasingly put him at odds with conservative elements within the CSP, including President Ouédraogo. Sankara was removed as prime minister in May and arrested once again. On August 4, 1983, Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s close friend and fellow army colleague, led a group that freed Sankara, overthrew the Ouédraogo regime, and formed the National Council of the Revolution (Conseil National de la Révolution) with Sankara as its president.
Burkina Faso hadn’t attracted much attention outside West Africa until Sankara overthrew the country’s corrupt and nondescript military leadership in 1983. The country had been ruled by military dictatorships for at least 44 years of its independence from France. The military before Sankara basically acted as surrogates for French interests in the region.
Sankara declared the objectives of the “democratic and popular revolution” to be primarily concerned with the tasks of eradicating corruption, fighting environmental degradation, empowering women, and increasing access to education and health care, with the larger goal of liquidating imperial domination. During the course of his presidency, Sankara successfully implemented programmes that vastly reduced infant mortality, increased literacy rates and school attendance, and boosted the number of women holding governmental posts.
On the environmental front, in the first year of his presidency alone 10 million trees were planted in an effort to combat desertification. On the first anniversary of the coup that had brought him to power, he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means roughly “land of upright people” in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s two most widely spoken indigenous languages.
Like Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba who was a violent casualty of the Cold War, Sankara proved to be a creative and unconventional politician. He wanted to a chart a “third way” separate from the interests of the major powers (in his case, France, the Soviet Union and the United States). This, however, resulted in a complex legacy where those who praised his social and economic reforms had a hard time squaring it with his often-undemocratic politics.
In 1985, Sankara said of his political philosophy: “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”
Sankara openly challenged French hegemony in West Africa. He called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks, as well as to their former colonial masters. Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production.
He outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, instituted a massive immunization programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from these reforms. His administration promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy). As Sankara told a local audience in 1984: “Socially, [women] are relegated to third place, after the man and the child – just like the Third World, arbitrarily held back, the better to be dominated and exploited.”
He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.
But Sankara’s regime was not immune to undemocratic practices.
He banned trade unions and political parties, and put down protests (most significantly one by teachers in 1986). Many people were the victims of summary judgments by people’s revolutionary tribunals, which sentenced “lazy workers” , “counter-revolutionaries” and corrupt officials.
Despite the great strides that were made, there was growing dissent in the country, partly because of economic problems and opposition from traditional quarters to some of Sankara’s more progressive social policies. His administration gradually lost popular support, and internal conflict within his government grew as well.
On October 15, 1987, armed men burst into the office of Sankara, murdered him and twelve of his aides in a violent coup d’état. After they had shot him the attackers cut up his body and buried his remains in a hastily prepared grave. The next day Compaoré, who was Sankara’s deputy, declared himself president. Compaoré then went on to rule the country until 2014, when he was forced to flee the country amidst a popular uprising. Between 1987 and 2014, Compaoré both attempted to co-opt and distort Sankara’s memory while making promises to bring his murderers to justice. He never did.
After Compaoré fled the country in 2014, he, along with fourteen senior army officers, were indicted in absentia for their role in Sankara’s murder.
Sankara’s death certificate stated that he had died of “natural causes” but the autopsy results after his remains were unearthed showed he had been riddled with bullets.
Last year Burkina Faso finally decided to pay homage to Sankara’s important role in the country’s history. A foundation in his name unveiled plans for a public memorial and museum.
His supporters and admirers have argued that his short four-year reign as President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987 – for all its faults – pointed briefly to the potential of different political futures for Africans, beyond dependency, neocolonialism and false dawns of “Africa Rising”.