Thomas Sankara, was a charismatic leader and president of Upper Volta, which he renamed Burkina Faso (“the land of upright people”) during his period of office between 1983 and 1987. As a professing Pan Africanist he fought for a United Africa.
Many revolutionary leaders talk the talk, but don’t always walk the walk. But with Sankara, his revolutionary principles guided his own life. At the time of his death he had a salary of $450 a month; and his most valuable possessions were a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He was the world’s poorest president, but indeed its richest revolutionary.
His Roman Catholic parents wanted him to become a priest, but he opted instead for a military career – a path that many Africans of his generation pursued as a route to a better life. In 1970, at the age of 20, Sankara was sent for officer training in Madagascar where he witnessed a popular uprising of students and workers that succeeded in toppling Madagascar’s government. Before returning to Burkina Faso in 1972, Sankara attended a parachute academy in France where he was exposed to left-wing political ideologies – particularly as they related to France’s neo-colonial relations with her former colonies.
In 1980s the country was being rocked by a series of labour union strikes and military coups. Sankara’s military achievements and charismatic leadership style made him a popular choice for political appointments, but his personal and political integrity put him at odds with the leadership of the successive military governments that came to power. In early 1983 Sankara was selected as the prime minister by the Council for the Salvation of the People (CSP) headed by Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo, which provided him with an entryway into international politics and a chance to meet with leaders of the Nonaligned Movement, including Fidel Castro, Samora Machel and Maurice Bishop.
This same year Sankara’s anti-imperialist stance and grassroots popularity once again put him at odds with the more conservative elements within the CSP, including President Ouedraogo. In an internal coup, Sankara was removed as prime minister and jailed. In response to mass demonstrations demanding Sankara’s release the CSP compromised by putting him under house arrest in the capital Ouagadougou.
On 4 August, 1983 Compaore along with some 250 other soldiers freed Sankara, overthrew the CSP and formed the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) with Sankara as its president. Sankara once described his country as an embodiment of “the microcosm of the entire natural evils from which mankind still suffers at the end of the twentieth century”. Upper Volta, which Sankara renamed Burkina Faso (land of upright men), was (and still is) amongst the world’s poorest countries.
A campaign for the restoration of women’s dignity and recognition of their role in society was launched in order to free women from the yoke of patriarchal domination. During Sankara’s presidency Burkina Faso was a leader in employing women in government posts. In a symbolic attempt to demonstrate to men what the daily realities of women’s lives were like, he declared a day of solidarity with housewives and forced men to go to market and take responsibility for household duties.
Sankara preached economic self-reliance. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Women, the poor and the country’s peasantry benefited mostly from the reforms. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, promoted gender equality in a very male-dominated society (including outlawing female circumcision and polygamy), instituted a massive immunisation programme, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programmes, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
He discouraged the luxuries that came with government office and encouraged others to do the same. He earned a small salary ($450 a month), refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, and forbade the uses of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants.
Sankara was murdered on October 15, 1987, by a conspiracy of European and African interests afraid of what transformative potential Burkina Faso under Sankara suggested and the danger of those ideas spreading.