Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.”
Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he even renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Men”). His foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Other components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together.”
On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.
In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a press that was dominated by the french colonial minority, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans and be manipulated by powerful outside influences. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, counter-revolutionaries and “lazy workers” in peoples 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).
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance as a defiant alternative to the neo-liberal development strategies imposed by the West, made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. 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, and the foreign financial interests in France and their ally the Ivory Coast. As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by the French-backed Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987. A week before his execution, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
His father fought in the French army during World War II and was detained by the Nazis. Sankara’s family wanted him to become a Catholic priest. Fittingly for a country with a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Qur’an.
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. Returning to Upper Volta in 1972, by 1974 he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali. He earned fame for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, 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. The fact that he was a decent guitarist (he played in a band named “Tout-à-Coup Jazz”) and rode a motorcycle may have contributed to his charismatic public images.
In 1976 he became commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô. In the same year he met Blaise Compaoré in Morocco. During the presidency of Colonel Saye Zerbo a group of young officers formed a secret organisation “Communist Officers’ Group” (Regroupement des officiers communistes, or ROC) the best-known members being Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Compaoré and Sankara.
Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in the military government in September 1981, journeying to his first cabinet meeting on a bicycle, but he resigned on April 21, 1982 in opposition to what he saw as the regime’s anti-labour drift, declaring “Misfortune to those who gag the people!” (“Malheur à ceux qui baillonnent le peuple!”)
After another coup (November 7, 1982) brought to power Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, Sankara became prime minister in January 1983, but he was dismissed (May 17) and placed under house arrest after a visit by the French president’s son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe Mitterrand. Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani were also placed under arrest; this caused a popular uprising.
“ Our revolution in Burkina Faso draws on the totality of man’s experiences since the first breath of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world, of all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World. We draw the lessons of the American revolution. The French revolution taught us the rights of man. The great October revolution brought victory to the proletariat and made possible the realization of the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice. ”
— Thomas Sankara, October 1984
A coup d’état organised by Blaise Compaoré made Sankara President on August 4, 1983, at the age of 33. The coup d’état was supported by Libya which was, at the time, on the verge of war with France in Chad.
Sankara saw himself as a revolutionary and was inspired by the examples of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Ghana’s military leader Jerry Rawlings. As President, he promoted the “Democratic and Popular Revolution” (Révolution démocratique et populaire, or RDP). The ideology of the Revolution was defined by Sankara as anti-imperialist in a speech of October 2, 1983, the Discours d’orientation politique (DOP), written by his close associate Valère Somé. His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, and making education and health real priorities.
The government suppressed many of the powers held by tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labour. The CDRs (Comités de Défense de la Révolution) were formed as popular mass organizations and armed. Sankara’s government also initiated a form of military conscription with the SERNAPO (Service National et Populaire). Both were a counterweight to the power of the army.
In 1984, on the first anniversary of his accession, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, meaning “the land of upright people” in Moré and Djula, the two major languages of the country. He also gave it a new flag and wrote a new national anthem (Une Seule Nuit).
“ The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky. ”
— Thomas Sankara
Improving women’s status was one of Sankara’s explicit goals, and his government included a large number of women, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant. Sankara also promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Furthermore, Sankara was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military.
Sankara’s administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.
In 1985, Burkina Faso organised a general population census. During the census, some Fula camps in Mali were visited by mistake by Burkinabé census agents. The Malian government claimed that the act was a violation of its sovereignty on the Agacher strip. Following efforts by Mali asking African leaders to pressure Sankara, tensions erupted on Christmas Day 1985 in a war that lasted five days and killed about 100 people (most victims were civilians killed by a bomb dropped on the marketplace in Ouahigouya by a Malian MiG plane). The conflict is known as the “Christmas war” in Burkina Faso.
Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to the Burkinabé revolution:
“Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity.”
“Sankara’s assassins were guided by imperialism, which could not allow a man with the ideas and actions of Sankara to lead a country on a continent so exploited for hundreds of years by international imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonial governments that do their bidding. Sankara’s political ideas will endure, like those of Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau, also assassinated by traitors at the behest of the empire.”
— Ulises Estrada, a key organizer of Che Guevara’s 1966-67 guerrilla mission to Bolivia
On October 15, 1987 Sankara was killed by an armed gang 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 Compaore stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast. Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor, told Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that it was engineered by Charles Taylor. After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several weeks.
Sankara’s body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave, while his widow and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, overturned nearly all of Sankara’s policies, returned the country back under the International Monetary Fund fold, and ultimately spurned most of Sankara’s legacy.
A week prior to his death Sankara gave what would become his own epitaph, remarking that “while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
“Africa and the world are yet to recover from Sankara’s assassination. Just as we have yet to recover from the loss of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Eduardo Mondlane, Amílcar Cabral, Steve Biko, Samora Machel, and most recently John Garang, to name only a few. While malevolent forces have not used the same methods to eliminate each of these great pan-Africanists, they have been guided by the same motive: to keep Africa in chains.”
— Antonio de Figueiredo, February 2008
Twenty years later, on October 15, 2007, Thomas Sankara was commemorated around the world in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada, and the USA.