Thomas Sankara: the iconic legacies of an Important Pan-Africanist
Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s political icon was born in December 1949, in Yako, a northern town in French West Africa’s Burkina Faso. A son of a Mossi mother and a Peul father, he embodied the region’s Burkinabè diversity. Sankara experienced the country’s independence from France in 1960, as well as the oppressive and turbulent existence of the regimes that governed in the 1960s and 1970s, during his adolescence.
Sankara studied to be an army officer at the military academy of Antsirabe in Madagascar from 1970 to 1973. He fought the prominent Mali border war as a young lieutenant in the Burkina Faso army in 1974 and returned home as a hero. Sankara proceeded to study in France and then Morocco, where he met Blaise Compaoré and other Upper Volta civilian students who went on to form leftist organizations in the region – political factions in the Ouédraogo’s government,
In the 1970s, Sankara increasingly adopted leftist politics. He formed the army’s Communist Officers Party and, typically in civilian clothes, attended meetings of various leftist parties, unions, and student groups.
Sankara served as Secretary of State for Information under the newly created Military Committee for Reform and Military Progress in 1981 for a short time (CMRPN). This was a group of officers who had recently taken control of the situation. He resigned his position and denounced the CMRPM in April 1982. Sankara was appointed Prime Minister in 1983 after another military coup placed the Council for the People’s Safety in power, but he was soon dismissed and imprisoned. It however caused a popular uprising.
Blaise Compaoré with supports from Ghana and Libya organized the “August Revolution,” or coup d’état, against the Council for the People’s Safety on August 4, 1983. Thomas Sankara was named president by the new government, which called itself the National Council for the Revolution (CNR).
Immediately after Thomas Sankara was named the president, he initiated several social, ecological, and economic reform programs. In line with his reformation agenda and effort to create a Burkinabé identity based on the principle of diversity and equality among the country’s more than 60 ethnic groupings and tribes, he renamed the nation Burkina Faso from “Upper Volta”, a name given by the then French colonialist. He also fostered a sense of national identity and tolerance in Burkina Faso by celebrating cultural festivals and ensuring that news on the radio and television was multilingual.
He adopted anti-imperialist foreign policies and rejected down funding from institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Sankara entertained foreign aid from other sources, but he sought to minimize dependence on it by increasing domestic revenues and diversifying aid sources.
Another landmark achievement during the reign of Sankara was the Planting of over 10 million trees to tackle the nation’s increasing desertification. Redistribution of lands from private landowners, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rentals, and creating a road and railway construction program were all part of his national agenda. Sankara urged every village to establish a medical pharmacy, and pharmacies were established in 5,384 of the 7,500 villages he visited. The child mortality rate fell from 208 per 1,000 births to 145 between 1982 and 1984. Under Sankara’s leadership, school enrollment rose massively from 6% to 22%.
Because Sankara detested the increasing domination of malnutrition, his domestic policies focused on avoiding malnutrition by agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform through the redistribution of land owned by tribal chiefs to the poor to stimulate food production while also providing generous assistance to farmers in the form of irrigation and fertilization schemes.
Sankara also prioritized education through a national literacy program and encouraging public health through immunizing over 2 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. Per year, between 18,000 and 50,000 children die from measles and meningitis. Burkinabe constructed hundreds of schools, health centers, water reservoirs, and nearly 100 kilometers of rail for the first time, with little to no outside help. Total cereal production increased by 75 percent between 1983 and 1986.
Sankara also made female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy illegal. He pushed women to high levels of government, causing them to work outside the home and continue their education. Thomas Sankara supported the use of Common Revolutionary Tribunals to prosecute officials suspected of corruption, counterrevolutionaries, and “lazy workers.”
Many Africans saw Sankara as a hero because of his groundbreaking programs for Burkina Faso’s self-sufficiency. He was well-liked by the majority of his country’s people, and sometimes refers to as Africa’s “Che Guevera,” a reference to the Argentinian revolutionary who led several armed struggles, including in Cuba.
Why was Sankara murdered?
Sankara’s political exclusivity generated the total separation of his government from organizations, groups, parties, and trade unions that couldn’t support his initiatives.
By direct implication of his policies, some classes of citizens in Burkina Faso were affected, including the Burkinabé middle class, tribal leaders who were deprived of long-held traditional rights such as forced labor and tribute payments, and the governments of France and its ally, the Ivory Coast.
In the dusk of his regime, Sankara formed Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations criticized such services for human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions of political opponents.
On October 15, 1987, he was murdered along with twelve other of his advisers during a meeting in a coup d’état believed to have been orchestrated by Blaise Compaoré, his friend and former political aid. He died after having been shot severally by gunmen in military uniform.
Who assassinated Sankara?
Blaise Compaoré, immediately denied involvement in the coup, claiming he was sick and at home with the incident that happened.
By the evening of the assassination, Compaoré was the new president. He ruled Burkina Faso from 2014 when a revolt was sparked by his effort to change the constitution to extend his 27-year reign. He was forced to resign on October 31, 2014, and then fled to the Ivory Coast.
On April 13, 2021, a military court in Ouagadougou indicted Compaore in connection to the 1987 murder of Thomas Sankara. The statement issued by the court cited Compaore’s “complicity in the assassination” and an “attack on state security”. Gilbert Diendere, Compaore’s right-hand man, and Hyacinthe Kafando, his security chief – among thirteen others – were also indicted on charges ranging from “assassination” to “concealment of corpses”.
Sankara in his words
“Our country produces enough to feed us all. Alas, for lack of organization, we are forced to beg for food aid. It’s this aid that instills in our spirits the attitude of beggars”. – From Thomas Sankara Speaks: the Burkina Faso Revolution: 1983.
“he who feeds you, controls you”. ― Thomas Sankara
“Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory. Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on Earth to rule all of humanity.” ― Thomas Sankara
“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”. – From an interview with Swiss Journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp, 1985.
“Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence. I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.” ― Thomas Sankara, Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle
“Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women will enjoy equal rights…Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them”. – From ‘The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women’ speech, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, International Women’s Day commemoration, March 8, 1987.
“The patriarchal family made its appearance, founded on the sole and personal property of the father, who had become head of the family. Within this family the woman was oppressed”. – International Women’s Day commemoration, March 8, 1987.
“I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity”.