Thomas Sankara, Africa’s often forgotten pan-Africanist

African Update – 07/09/12

Thomas Sankara is Africa’s often forgotten pan-Africanist revolutionist and theorist who once lived, fought, hoped, dreamt and put into actions his ideas for a better Africa but died like the ones before him. As we celebrate 25 years since his brutal murder on 15 October 1987, it is important, for the purpose of honouring our forgotten heroes and constantly reminding ourselves of our history and the road Africa has travelled through, to take stock of his achievements and what present and future leaders can learn from it.

He seized power in a coup in Burkina Faso in 1983 at the age of 33 with the aim of purging corruption and the dominance of French’s colonial interest in the country through the Colonial Pact that France signed with its former colonies. Thomas Sankara was a Marxist revolutionary as well as a pan Africanist theorist and on the eve of his revolution he declared that, “our revolution in Burkina Faso draws on the totality of man's experiences since the first breath of humanity. We wish to be the heirs of all the revolutions of the world, of all the liberation struggles of the peoples of the Third World. We draw the lessons of the American revolution. The French revolution taught us the rights of man. The great October revolution brought victory to the proletariat and made possible the realization of the Paris Commun dreams of justice. "

He renamed the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso which translates as Land of the upright men. He launched his program for social and economic change by refusing foreign aid (claiming, “he who feeds you, controls you”), nationalizing all land and mineral wealth and reducing the influence of the IMF and the World Bank and led an odious debt reduction campaign arguing that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.

Internally, he promoted food self-sufficiency and increased the food production through sound agricultural policies, prioritized education and promoted an ambitious policy to halt the approach of the desert by planting over ten million trees. He organized communities to construct their own schools and medical centers through their own labour. He promoted public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against the child killer diseases such as measles, yellow fever and meningitis.

Thomas Sankara was committed to women’s rights and this led to the abolition of such practices like female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy. Girls who were pregnant were encouraged to stay in school and study and he walked the talk by appointing women to higher offices. He declared that, The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution."

In revolutionary like manner, he reduced government expenditure on cars, reduced salaries of public servants with himself included. 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 and banned the use of drivers by government officers and mostly rode a motor bike himself. Air conditioning was a luxury to Thomas Sankara in a country where temperatures could go as high as 490C and he would not use it on the grounds that such luxury was not there for the average Burkinabes. He stripped the chiefs off their power to receive tribute and forced labour.

He was also popular among his people not only as a president but also as an accomplished guitarist who wrote the national anthem for the country. He would not have his picture hung in public places because “there are seven million Thomas Sankaras."

He was a great admirer and emulator of Che Guevara. He not only emulated Che Guevara in style but also in ideas, he preferred to wear a starred berret in Che Guevara’s style and lived a modest live jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit and posing in his tailored military dress with a starred beret. He, like Che Guevara before him, also admired Fidel Castro who paid Sankara an honorary visit in 1985. Thomas Sankara has been considered “Africa’s Che Guevara” and rightly so. Sankara and Che Guevara are both noted for having ridden motorcycles, were Marxist revolutionaries, and believed in armed revolution against imperialism, criticized capitalism, condemned financial neo-colonialism before the United Nations and supported land reform and land redistribution. Both of them were also assassinated in their thirties. Che Guevara was 39 when he was murdered on 9 October 1967 while Sankara was 38 when he was killed on 15 October 1987 together with his aides.

Sankara was overthrown and murdered by the French supported Blaise Compaore who was once Thomas Sankara’s ally and had freed Sankara from prison. A week before he was assassinated, Thomas Sankara declared that, "while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

The coup plotters led by Blaise Compaore cut Thomas Sankara’s body into pieces and buried him in an unmarked grave, while his wife and two children fled the country, the elusive truth to the details leading up to Sankara’s death still mysterious and his grave still unmarked and unknown.

Compaoré immediately overturned Sankara’s nationalization policies, rejoined the IMF and World Bank and effectively reversed nearly every one of Sankara's policies and has since made Burkina Faso what it is today.

Author: Stephen Atalebe, African student of Economics, Mendel University Brno, Czech Republic

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