Thomas Sankara was the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, when he was assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré. Behind a military uniform and a Marxist discourse, Sankara is often referred to as ‘Africa’s Che Guevara.’ Sankara seized power in a popularly supported coup, aged only 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He launched some of the most ambitious social and economic programs in modern African history. To symbolize a new autonomy and rebirth, Sankara renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means the land of upright men. This was an assertion of African identity, however, it did not sit well with France, who many Burkinabés believe was involved in his assassination.
Although Sankara’s government was only in power for four years, it brought more positive change for ordinary Burkinabés than all of the three decades since his assassination. Sankara’s government challenged the old elite political and social order; establishing revolutionary tribunals to prosecute corruption. Sankara prioritized free education, creating a nation-wide literacy campaign which increased the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987. His government believed in self-sufficiency, calling on every village to build a clinic and assisting over 350 communities to construct schools with their own labor. Sankara championed public health; vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles.
His domestic policies focused on preventing famine through agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform. One of the components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel. His hope was to start a culture of planting trees as a birthday celebration. Imagine it was a global cultural norm to plant a tree for every birthday.
Sankara doubled wheat production by redistributing land from historical land owners to peasants. During Sankara’s tenure, Burkina Faso became food self-sufficient. The government suspended rural poll taxes and domestic rents which it felt were hurting poor Burkinabés. His administration instituted an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together”.
Sankara eschewed foreign aid and called for comprehensive debt reduction. His government nationalized all land and mineral wealth and actively averted the influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on Burkina Faso’s economy. Sankara’s belief was that “he who feeds you, controls you.”
He preached fiscal prudence; selling off the government fleet of Mercedes Benzes and making the Renault 5, the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at the time, the official service car of ministers. He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets.
Internationally, Sankara was a charismatic and outspoken leader. He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity (OAU) against continued neo-colonial penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. He called for a united front of African nations to abandon their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting. To bolster local industries and Burkinabé pride, he required public servants to wear traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabé cotton and sewn by Burkinabé craftsmen.
Sankara had a commitment to women’s rights that has never been emulated by any country. He outlawed Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriages and polygamy. He appointed women to high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education. A motorcyclist himself, Sankara formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.
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.
In order to achieve some of these remarkable changes Sankara’s government became increasingly authoritarian. His régime was criticized by Amnesty International and other humanitarian organisations for violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture of political opponents. Oxfam once recorded the arrest and torture of trade union leaders in 1987. He admired Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution and set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). In 1984, seven individuals associated with the previous régime were accused of treason and executed after a hasty trial. The same year, 2500 teachers were dismissed after a teachers strike. Thereafter, non-governmental organisations and unions were harassed or placed under the authority of the CDRs.
Sankara’s policies alienated the powerful upper classes of Burkinabé society who benefited from Burkina Faso’s underdevelopment. His rhetoric, especially around debt repudiation, made him very unpopular with the West and with international organizations like the IMF and World Bank. As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated on October 15, 1987. A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” Compaoré’s dictatorship would remain in power for 27 years until it was overthrown by popular protests in 2014.
Sankara’s commitment to African self reliance made him an icon to Africa’s poor. He remains deeply popular, especially among youth, for daring to challenge the mechanisms of post imperialism. Many of the people who rose up in 2014 to remove Blaise Campaoré were inspired by a powerful belief in their former leader.
Sankara sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order. When most African countries depended on imported food and external assistance for development, Sankara promoted local production and the consumption of locally-made goods. His policies educated millions, made healthcare accessible, gave women new rights, and began to genuinely redistribute wealth to Burkinabés who had suffered under French colonial rule. For Africa, there are many lessons to be learned from the examples of Sankara and Burkina Faso.
When asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.” In this lifetime Burkina Faso has shown that a past colony could sever ties to her colonizer. Many of Burkina Faso’s current leaders align themselves with Sankara. Only time will tell whether they will continue his legacy or that of Compaoré. The uprising of 2014 gives hope that Sankara’s assertion was right.