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Thomas Sankara – Africa’s Che Guevara
Thomas Sankara – Africa’s Che Guevara

By - Victoria Akindele

Posted - 15-10-2019

Born Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara on Dec. 21, 1949, in Yako, French Upper Volta as the third of ten children to Joseph and Marguerite Sankara was a Burkinabé revolutionary and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. A Marxist and pan-Africanist, he was viewed by his followers as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, and is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.” His father, Joseph Sankara, a gendarme, was of mixed Mossi–Fulani (Silmi–Moaga) heritage while his mother, Marguerite Kinda, was of direct Mossi descent. He spent his early years in Gaoua, a town in the humid southwest to which his father was transferred as an auxiliary gendarme and as the son of one of the few African functionaries then employed by the colonial state, he enjoyed a relatively privileged life. He and his family lived in a brick house with the families of other gendarmes at the top of a hill overlooking the rest of Gaoua.

Sankara attended primary school at Bobo-Dioulasso where he gave himself seriously to his schoolwork and excelled in mathematics and French. He went to church often, and impressed with his energy and eagerness to learn, some of the priests encouraged Thomas to go on to seminary school once he finished primary school. Despite initially agreeing, he took the exam required for entry to the sixth grade in the secular educational system and passed. Thomas’s decision to continue his education at the nearest lycée Ouezzin Coulibaly (named after a pre independence nationalist) proved to be a watershed moment of his life. He moved out of his father’s household since the lycée was in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s commercial centre. At the lycée, Sankara made close friends, including Fidèle Too, whom he later named a minister in his government.

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Also, his Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he chose to enter the military. He entered the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the academy’s first intake of 1966 at the age of 17 where he witnessed the first military coup d’état in Upper Volta led by Lieutenant-Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana (Jan. 3, 1966). Adama Touré, who was known for having progressive ideas, even though he did not publicly share them, was the academic director at the time. He invited a few of his brightest and more political students, among them was Sankara, to join informal discussions about imperialism, neocolonialism, socialism and communism, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, the liberation movements in Africa and similar topics outside of the classroom. This was the first time Sankara was systematically exposed to a revolutionary perspective on Upper Volta and the world. Aside from his academic and extracurricular political activities, Sankara also pursued his passion for music and played the guitar.

Furthermore, after basic military training in secondary school in 1966, Sankara began his military career at the age of 19 and a year later was sent to Madagascar for officer training at Antsirabe where he witnessed popular uprisings in 1971 and 1972 against the government of Philibert Tsiranana and first read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, profoundly influencing his political views for the rest of his life thus, acquiring the concepts and analytical tools that he would later use in his reinterpretation of Burkinabe political history.

In 1974, he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali when he earned fame for his heroic performance, but years later would renounce the war as “useless and unjust”, a reflection of his growing political consciousness. He also became a popular figure in the capital of Ouagadougou. In 1976, he became commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô.

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 appointments, 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. 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 Aug. 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.

During the course of his presidency, Sankara successfully implemented programs that vastly affected his country positively. His foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, declaring 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. The following are some of Sankara’s accomplishments in his four years of power (1983 to 1987).

  • On the first anniversary of the coup that brought him to power, he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means “land of upright people” in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s two most widely spoken indigenous languages.
  • Roads and railway construction without foreign aid.
  • Appointments of the female gender in high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education.
  • Outlawed the female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy in support of Women’s rights.
  • Vaccination of about 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in weeks.
  • Initiation of a nation-wide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13 percent in 1983 to 73 percent in 1987.
  • Plantation of over 10 million trees to prevent desertification.
  • Sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
  • Reduction of salaries for all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets.
  • An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.
  • Redistribution of lands among the feudal landlords and the peasants.
  • Wheat production rose in three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient.
  • Eschewing foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, control you.”
  • In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provision store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).
  • He forced civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.
  • Being a motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
  • He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. (The reason being to rely upon local industry and identity rather than foreign industry and identity).

However, in order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).

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 Oct. 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given, with Compaoré stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Sankara’s body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in a pristine grave, while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalisations, overturned nearly all of Sankara’s policies, rejoined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring in “desperately needed” funds to restore the “shattered” economy, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy. Compaoré’s dictatorship remained in power for 27 years until overthrown by popular protests in 2014. A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

In Sankara’s Burkina, no one was above farm work, or graveling roads–not even the president, government ministers or army officers. Intellectual and civic education were systematically integrated with military training and soldiers were required to work in local community development projects. His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many Africans. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s impoverished citizens. However his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of groups, which included the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments, France and its ally the Ivory Coast.

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To end, Sankara’s visionary leadership turned his country from a lethargic West African nation to a dynamo of progress under the proud name of Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright People”). We can say that he led one of the most ambitious programs of far-reaching reforms ever seen in Africa.


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