(December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987)
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.
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. It sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order.
Sankara focused the state’s limited resources on the marginalized majority in the countryside. When most African countries depended on imported food and external assistance for development, Sankara championed local production and the consumption of locally-made goods. He firmly believed that it was possible for the Burkinabè, with hard work and collective social mobilization, to solve their problems: chiefly scarce food and drinking water.
Sankara was born in Yako, French Upper Volta. He spent his early years in Gaoua, a town in the humid southwest to which his father was transferred as an auxiliary gendarme. He attended primary school at Bobo-Dioulasso. He applied himself seriously to his schoolwork and excelled in mathematics and French. Thomas's decision to continue his education at the nearest lycée Ouezzin Coulibaly proved to be a turning point.
He entered the military academy of Kadiogo in Ouagadougou with the academy's first intake of 1966 at the age of 17.
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. During that period, he read profusely on history and military strategy, thus acquiring the concepts and analytical tools that he would later use in his reinterpretation of Burkinabe political history.
Returning to Upper Volta in 1972, he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali by 1974. 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.
In 1976 he became commander of the Commando Training Centre in Pô. In the same year he met Blaise Compaoré in Morocco.
After a successful coup in November 1980, the new head of state, Colonel Saye Zerbo, appointed Sankara junior minister of information, but he resigned on 21 April 1982 in opposition to what he saw as the regime's anti-labour drift, declaring "Misfortune to those who gag the people!"
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.
On August 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 with Sankara as its president.
Sankara seized power in 1983 at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”).
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". The ideology of the Revolution was defined by Sankara as anti-imperialist in a speech of 2 October 1983. His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine and making education and health real priorities.
He was truly a man of deeds, not words:
- 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
- In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army’s provisioning 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.
- He refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.”
- An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.
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.
His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles.
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance 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 France.
A week before his murder, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”