“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”
- Thomas Sankara, one week before being shot dead
Thomas Sankara (1949-1987), also known as “Africa’s Che Guevara,” was a controversial icon who served as the President of Burkina Faso from 1983 until his assassination in 1983. Sankara is making a huge resurgence as justice for his murder in 1987 is finally served. While accused of human rights violations during his presidency, Sankara is remembered as a revolutionary pan-Africanist throughout Burkina Faso and the continent. His death sparked a fire in the Burkinabe people that refuse to be killed even today as there remains a growing appreciation for his efforts in trying to stabilize and strengthen the nation during his reign.
Early Life and Political Beginnings
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born on December 21st, 1949 in Yako, a town in the northern region of the Republic of Upper Volta. Sankara’s military achievements and charismatic personality made him a popular choice for political appointments, but his progressive ideology and public criticism of the incumbent administration made him a target for constant arrests. While as the prime minister, Sankara was soon arrested again for challenging the government's conservative policies. On August 4, 1983, Blaise Compaoré, Sankara’s fellow army colleague and close friend at the time, executed a plan to free Sankara, overthrow the government, and form the National Council of the Revolution with Sankara as president.
Reforms and Achievements
Under Sankara’s regime, his approach was best summarized by his statement, “He who feeds you controls you.” He aimed to fight famine, decolonize minds, and be more self-sufficient. In 1984, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright People” in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s most-spoken indigenous languages. He nationalized all land and mineral wealth, pushing back against neocolonialism institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He also pushed austerity policies like reducing his and all public servant’s salaries and actively combatted embezzlement and corruption within his government. Health and education were also key priorities. He led nationwide campaigns that increased literacy rates, school attendance, and the number of children being vaccinated. He also advocated for women’s rights by banning genital mutilation and forced marriages. In addition, he redistributed arable land from local elites to poor farmers, leading to a significant increase in cotton production.
Despite Sankara’s achievements, his approach was highly condemned. Sankara’s radical left-wing policies were seen as Draconian by many human rights organizations. In a report by Amnesty International in 1986, they alleged that political opponents were detained without trial and severely tortured. He was also accused of repressing unions and firing teachers who strike. The growing dissent among the more conservative political groups led to Sankara’s administration losing support. On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup led allegedly by Compaoré, putting him in power for 27 years until mass protests in 2014 led to his forced resignation and exile to Côte d’Ivoire. While Sankara’s widow filed a criminal complaint in 1997, it took over a decade for the Supreme Court to proceed with the investigation and finally charge Compaoré and his accomplices for the murder of Sankara. In 2022, Compaoré and nine others were found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
While Sankara’s reign lasted only four years, many young people today see his past policies as the key to reversing today’s deteriorating conditions within the nation and utilize his image as a source of inspiration. While a controversial icon, one cannot deny his legacy. Stickers of him wearing his red beret like Guevara continue to adorn taxis across West Africa. Sankara left his mark on his beloved Burkina Faso, which the Burkinabé people will forever remember.