Thomas Sankara. Photo: Book cover–“Voices of Liberation: Thomas Sankara.”
Thirty five years ago Africa’s struggle for true independence suffered a severe blow when Thomas Sankara president of Burkina Faso was brutally murdered by his number two man Blaise Compaore who went on to reverse all the revolutionary programs.
Compaore was working on behalf of French imperialism and the region’s neocolonial enforcer Felix Houphet-Boigny president of the Ivory Coast.
Sankara fundamentally transformed his country in the short four years he held power. Sankara showed his compatriots and all of power that Africa was not as impotent as the West–the former colonial powers–would like the world to believe. He showed that political power could be used for national transformation.
Sankara started by changing the name of the country to Burkina Faso, the “Land of the Upright People” from the meaningless Upper Volta. He knew that in order to mobilize his people and to get them to take control of their destiny he first had to decolonize their minds. He said the best evidence of imperial domination of Burkina Faso was the country’s food dependency on the outside world. He launched agrarian reform and food production tripled in the first three years; Burkina Faso became food self-sufficient.
He launched a national campaign to build clinics and schools throughout the country. He took government to the grassroots with the councils for the defense of the revolution so that ordinary Burkinabe, as the citizens became known, could play a role in government. He fought corruption and the scandalous privileges enjoyed by government officials by reducing salaries, starting with his own. There was to be no more driving around in Mercedes-Benz cars and they were replaced by modest vehicles.
Sankara was the first African president to seriously empower women–not through public relations tokenism–by appointing them to powerful positions in government and signing them up into the armed forces. He abolished feudalistic abuses that harmed women physically and banned forced marriages. Sankara wanted to break Burkina Faso’s economic dependence to the industrialized countries whereby African countries serve as plantations for the economically developed countries–providing them Africa’s valuable natural resources, minerals, and labor for cheap; and offering captives consumer markets for the outside world. “Let’s consume what we produce and consume what we produce,” Sankara declared.
He was years ahead of leaders in Africa, Europe, the United States and elsewhere when it came to fighting environmental degradation in the 1980s and promoted a campaign that led to the planting of millions of trees.
By promoting wearing of domestically manufactured clothes, Sankara spurred increased production of cotton, weaving, and tailoring–creating a multi-million dollar industry. He wanted Africa to take control of its resources and its production.
Word spread about the work Sankara was doing in Burkina Faso and caught the imagination of millions of young Africans who were disgusted and frustrated by their own inept, corrupt, and tyrannical rulers.
At the Organization of African Unity (OAU) meeting in July 1987, Sankara dared to touch the Third Rail of Western imperialism. He told his fellow African leaders that in order to free up resources to develop their economies the oppressive and debilitating debt burden crushing Africa had to be eliminated.
Sankara urged for a collective statement by all the presidents at the end of the summit, renouncing the foreign debt. He assured the other leaders that the powerful lenders couldn’t assassinate 54 African presidents. However, Sankara stressed, if Burkina Faso renounced the foreign debt alone, he wouldn’t be alive to attend the following year’s OAU summit. Sankara was prescient. Three months after he made that prediction, on October 15, 1987, he and about a dozen compatriots were shot in cold blood during a meeting. They were buried in a mass grave.
Even though Compaore and his men pulled the trigger, it was neocolonial puppet master France that didn’t want Sankara’s lessons to consolidate in Burkina Faso and to spread allover Africa. Compaore was in power for 27 years before he was deposed in a revolutionary uprising. However Burkina Faso has remained unstable. Nearly half of the country has been seized by armed militants and there have been two military coups this year alone.
Still, even members of the Burkina Faso military continue to invoke Sankara’s name because they are aware the people want his revolutionary programs restored.
Similarly, he’s a hero to millions of Africans who weren’t yet born when he was murdered. Sankara lives through the memory of his legacy.
The objective conditions in Africa–the continued exploitation by the industrialized countries–have created the demand for more Sankaras throughout Africa.