Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, 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 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
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 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”). 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. 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 women 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 free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, “counter-revolutionaries” and “lazy workers” in Popular 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 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 and its ally the Ivory Coast. As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987. 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 colleague 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. 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 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.
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.
In Sankara’s Burkina, no one was above farm work, or graveling roads–not even the president, government ministers or army officers. Intellectual and civic education were systematically integrated with military training and soldiers were required to work in local community development projects.
Sankara disdained formal pomp and banned any cult of his personality. He could be seen casually walking the streets, jogging or conspicuously slipping into the crowd at a public event. He was a rousing orator who spoke with uncommon candor and clarity and did not hesitate to publicly admit mistakes, chastise comrades or express moral objections to heads of powerful nations, even if it imperiled him. For example, he famously criticized French president François Mitterand during a state dinner for hosting the leader of Apartheid South Africa.