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Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (French pronunciation: [tɔma sɑ̃kaʁa];
Thomas Isidore Noel Sankara was born on 21 December 1949 and he died on 15 October 1987. He was a Burkinabe revolutionary and President of Burkina Faso from 1983-1987. One of the most confident and outspoken anti-imperialist leaders of the late 20th century he was. Sankara’s life and political praxis continue to be significant in shaping and inspiring anti-imperial and Pan-African youth activism and resistance across the African continent and beyond.
A Marxist–Leninist and pan-Africanist, he was viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution and is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”
In my judgement, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a man who should be remembered in African history as one of the most passionate and prolific leaders ever to grace the land. Serving for only a short 4 years (1983 to 1987) as president of Burkina Faso, a man of such charismatic nature and so beloved by many departed far too soon.
At the age of 33, Sankara became the President of the Republic of Upper Volta. His parents were Marguerite Sankara and Joseph Sankara. He was born in the town of Yako.
Once in office, he immediately began one of the most committed programs for social and economic change ever accomplished on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial name Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Incorruptible People”), with its people being called Burkinabé (“upright people”).
One of Sankara ultimate goals was to eliminate corruption and demolish the superiority stronghold of French colonialism.
Not only was Sankara a military captain, pan-Africanist and a revolutionist, he also possessed the purest of intentions, that was very short lived. Sankara was determined to make an enormous impact and implement auspicious changes for the people of Burkina Faso. He accomplished this and much, much more.
Sankara is, unfortunately, one of many who were undermined by their own. Patrice Lumumba of Congo and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana come to mind. They were challenging their Africa with new ideas. Their Africa was plotting to see their ends. Years later, their names become reference points for continental studies on governments that entertain collectivist visions of nation-building.
In Sankara’s time, the food Burkinabes needed had to be produced in the country. Interestingly, in less than three years of his four in office, Burkina Faso was self-sufficient. He insisted on land redistribution and forced the professional middle class to be cognisant of Burkina Faso’s overwhelmingly poor majority.
Facts about Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso
– He vaccinated 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles in a matter of weeks.
– He initiated a nation-wide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987.
– He planted over 10 million trees to prevent desertification
– He built roads and a railway to tie the nation together, without foreign aid
– He appointed females to high governmental positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education.
– He outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy in support of Women’s rights
– He 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.
– He reduced the salaries of all public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.
– 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, making the country food self-sufficient.
– He opposed foreign aid, saying that “he who feeds you, controls you.”
– He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against continued neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. • He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting
– As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.
– 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.
– 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.”
These being some of the things he did.
His foreign policies were centered on 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.
In terms of revolutionary movements in Africa, Sankara’s stands out not only because it occurred well after independence but also because of the ambition of its vision. Sankara was a militant economic revolutionary who aimed to achieve social justice at home through a prioritization of food justice while recalibrating Burkina Faso’s place in the international system. Unlike most of the African leaders of his generation and those preceding him, Sankara did not author books that captured or guided his political philosophy in any systematic way.
“We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” His words.
During an interview with Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985, Sankara said:
“I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory .. 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. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen.. We must dare to invent the future.”
Sankara understood the immensities and dangers of the revolutionary project before him. He knew that he would be perceived as a “madman” for fighting against a powerful global and regional economic elite. After just four years and two months as president, Sankara was assassinated by Liberian mercenaries who had been trained in Libya, with ideological support from Cote D’Ivoire, France and the US, under the leadership of his closest friend, Blaise Compaoré.
A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d’état organised by his former comrade 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.
When his autopsy was finally released to the public in October 2015, it revealed that his body had been penetrated with bullet holes, including one just under his armpit. He was killed with his hands in the air. The autopsy confirmed what Halouna Traoré, the only living survivor of the assassination, had long maintained: Sankara went peacefully and knowingly to his death.
Sankara understood his role as that of critical space-maker: he sought to create the socio-economic and political conditions for wellbeing, integrity, and empowerment with the understanding that these were not material goods to be given or passed around. His revolutionary orientation was founded upon an insistence that all Burkinabè be free and empowered but that genuine self-empowerment was something to be cultivated through hard-work and seized through struggle rather than allotted by the government or given through international aid.
After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days.
Sankara’s body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave, while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation. Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, 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 transformational leader
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 4 October 1984, Sankara identified ignorance, hunger, and thirst as equally important for the aspirations of the revolution. His role, as he articulated it, was to set in place the economic, political, and social structures that would allow all Burkinabè to pursue their own dignity, knowledge, and wellbeing: “Our economic aspiration is to create a situation where every Burkinabè can at least use his brain and hands to invent and create enough to ensure him two meals a day and drinking water” (Sankara ‘Freedom Must be Conquered’, 1984)
Sankara’s visionary leadership turned his country from a sleepy West African nation with the colonial designation of Upper Volta to a dynamo of progress under the proud name of Burkina Faso (“Land of the Honorable People”). He led one of the most ambitious programs of sweeping reforms ever seen in Africa.
In this project of dignity and liberation, he recognised his limitations and challenges. On the topic of women’s liberation, he said, “we are ready to welcome suggestions from anywhere in the world that enable us to achieve the total fulfilment of Burkinabè women… Freedom can only be won through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to go on the offensive to conquer their rights” (Sankara ‘Freedom Must be Conquered’, 1984).
How could one man with such vision and foresight accomplish so much in such a short span?
Now, I will ask the question, if one man could accomplish so much why can’t the other leaders follow suit?