Who was Thomas Sankara?

By Sacdiyo Abdulahi


Thomas Sankara was a military officer and socialist revolutionary who was installed as the President of Upper Volta (later known as Burkina Faso) from 1983 to 1987.


Growing up, he was privileged enough to receive a good education and was known as an exceptionally ambitious student who attended church often. After completing his basic military training in secondary school, his only options were to become a priest, a soldier or work for the colonial regime. Despite his parents’ hopes of him becoming a priest, he opted to attend a military academy in Madagascar at the age of 19.


In 1971, Sankara was at the military academy when he witnessed a series of protests known as the Rotaka which lasted until 1972. The country was in conflict at the time as locals struggled to get control of the country from France’s lingering colonial rule and the uprising eventually led to the toppling of the president. Protesters from farmers and the youth inspired Sankara to read the work’s of socilasit leaders such as Marx and turn to the wisdom of military strategy. He learnt about the history of Africa as well as the history of his own country. He also had a tutor who exposed him to concepts of imperialism, communism and taught him about the Soviet and Chinese revolutions. This then inspired him to free his country from its colonial legacy.


Upper Volta was a colony of French West Africa. This was a federation made up of eight French colonial territories in Africa which included countries such as French Sudan (now Mali), Dahomey (now Benin) and Ivory Coast. Much like the other former colonies, the French used the people of Upper Volta as cheap labour whilst simultaneously benefiting from the forests of the country and the raw materials.


After returning home following a heroic performance in a border war with Mali, Sankara gained public attention and his military achievements and charismatic leadership style made him a popular choice for political appointments.

1981, Sankara served as the Secretary of State for Information in Upper Volta under a new group of officers who seized power known as the CMRPN. His personal and political integrity put him at odds with the leadership of the successive military government and after a year of service, he resigned from his post and denounced the CMRPN. A military coup placed a new group in power and this resulted in Sankara being appointed as Prime Minister in 1983. Soon after, he was dismissed and placed under house arrest which caused a popular uprising. Blaise Compaoré, a friend and a political ally of Sankara, orchestrated a popularly supported coup d’état against the sitting government and this new regime made Sankara president on August 4th 1983.


From the start of his presidency, Sankara sought to bring a radical transformation to the country with the aim of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. To symbolise the new independence and rebirth of his country, he changed the colonial given name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (‘The Land of Upright People’). He also changed the flag of the country as well as the national anthem which he wrote himself. He immediately launched programmes for social, economic and ecological change.


One of his most prominent achievements was the gender equality he brought forth. He appointed women into key governmental positions and recruited them into the military- he even had an all female bodyguard unit. Sankara encouraged women to work outside of the home, stay in education and granted pregnancy leave during both work and education. Following that, he outlawed female gental mutilation (FGM), forced marraiges and polygomy. Sankara was described as a feminist who focused on women’s rights and issues which was unsual for an African president at the time. On International Women’s Day, he gave a speech reminding the men of Burkina Faso that they all had mothers yet treated their wives ‘worse than they did cattle’. He also emphasized the role of women in revolutions saying, “Women’s liberation is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”


Sankara prioritised education and initiated his nationwide literacy campaign which increased the literacy rates from 13% to 73% in just four years. School attendance under Sankara increased from 6% to 22%. He also promoted public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children from measles, meningitis and yellow fever. This prevented the death of 18,000 and 50,000 children who annually died of measles and meningitis. On the local level, Sankara urged every village to build medical dispensaries and had pharmacies built in 5,384 villages out of the 7,500. The infant mortality rate drastically decreased under his presidency. For the first time, Burkinabes built scores of schools, health centers, water reservoirs, and nearly 100 km of rail, with little or no external assistance


Many of his domestic policies were focused on preventing famine by achieving agricultural self-sufficiency. He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants. Wheat production rose in three years from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare and total cereal production rose by 75%, making the country food self-sufficient. He encouraged the production of Burkinabe goods and the consumption of those goods for the country to thrive without forgein aid. Other components on his national agenda included the construction of roads and railways to tie nations together and the planting of 10 million trees to tackle the growing desertification of the Sahel.


Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance was greatly conveyed in his foreign policies. His main goal was for his country to achieve without relying on the help of foreign nations and he did this by rejecting aid from organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and by boosting domestic revenues and diversifying the sources of assistance. He believed that imperialism came in subtle forms such as food aids and loans. He believed that by accepting aid from the West, Africa will always be subservile to the West. He famously said that “he who feeds you, controls you” and Sankara attempted to spread this message across the continent. He was strongly opposed to the debt of his country and other African nations. In a speech delivered at the summit of the Organization of African Unity held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he pressed on this issue saying that “debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa”. In similar summits and conferences, he called for the unity of African countries and encouraged the leaders present to use Burkina Faso as an example to rebuild their countries and without reliance on foreign aid and to promote the production and consumption of African goods to show Africa’s independence. Hoping to form alliances with other African countries based on their colonial past, he also gave speeches in different African languages to reach out to them and visited Harlem and Caribbean countries to reinstall the African identity.


Although Sankara remained popular amongst the impoverished, his policies were rejected by both groups within the country as well as outside of it. Domestic groups felt alienated and antagonised by his policies and these included powerful middle class Burkinabes who felt that their interests were not accounted for. Tribal leaders were not pleased with some of the decisions he made as he stripped them of their long-held traditional rights to tribute payments and forced labour. In his attempt to bring his country closer to gender equality, Sankara dismantled traditions as well as tribal systems which caused the ire of many. On an international level, his policies were heavily criticised by the former colonial power France and their ally Ivory Coast.


Moreover, Sankara implemented more policies to keep the radical transformation of the country continuing. To counter opposition, he encouraged the persecution of counter-revolutionaries, officials who were accused of corruption and those considered to be ‘lazy workers’ in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. He set up a Cuban Style Committee for the ‘Defence of the Revolution’ which led to criticism from Amnesty International and non-governmental organisations for violation of human rights, including arbitrary detention of political opponents and extrajudicial executions. Sankara’s increasingly authoritarian control over the country led to him banning unions and free press which he believed to have potential to stand in the way of the revolution and his plans.


In another 'coup d’état' organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré, Sankara was killed by an armed group alongside twelve other officials on 15 October 1987. Compaoré stated that Sankara jeopardised foereign relations with France and Ivory Coast and it could be said that deteriorating relations with neighbouring countries was a reason for Sankara’s murder. After his death, Compaoré took over as president of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014. In his 27 year dictatorship, he reversed Sankara’s policies and established a semi-authoritarian regime. Eventually, he resigned following a series of violent protests after his attempts to change the constitution and extend his tenure. Compaoré then fled to neighbouring Ivory Coast which he still remains in. Earlier this year, judges ruled that the former president must stand trial for his role in the assasination of Sankara, but it is unlikely that he will be extradited.


Today, Sankara is an icon to many of the new generations across Africa as he continues to inspire youth movements across the continent. The youth of Burkina Faso are now reinventing Sankara’s revolutionary philosophy of self-reliance and Pan-Africanism in their drive to envision a better future for their country. Burkinabe diaspora communities also advocate for a strong revival of his image and his political ideologies. After evicting the Compaoré-27-year regime, Burkinabes have had more opportunities to reflect on the role Sankara has had in the transformation and liberation of Burkina Faso. In 2019, the statue of Thomas Sankara was unveiled in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where he was assassinated. Burkinabes honoured his legacy on this day and the presence of his influence is proof of his statement, “Whilst revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.

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