The Story of Thomas Sankara

In this blog post, I’ve shared the interesting and revolutionary story of Thomas Sankara.

Many people refer to him as “Africa’s Che Guevara.” His Name was Captain Thomas Sankara. He is considered as an African revolutionary and a symbol of the liberation movement. He continues to be an inspiration to youth movements across Africa.

 While president, he sold the government’s Mercedes fleet and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car available in Burkina Faso at the time) the ministers’ official service car.

He reduced the salaries of well-off public servants (including his own) and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first class airline tickets.

As President, he lowered his monthly salary to $450 and Limited his possessions to a car, four bikes.

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 Burkinabés.

He opposed foreign aid, saying that “He who feeds you, controls you”.

He forced well-off civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects.

For many Africans, October 15, 1987, will always be a memorable date. This was the day Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso, was assassinated in a coup that many believe orchestrated by his close friend and deputy, Blaise Compaore, who took over the leadership and ruled Burkina Faso until 2014.

In this article I will tell A Brief Story of Thomas Sankara.

Thomas Sankara was born on 21 December 1949 in a small town called Yako, he was the third of ten children. His parents wanted him to be a priest, but he chose to join the military instead. The military was popular at the time, and young intellectuals saw it as a national institution that could potentially help to discipline the inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy, counterbalance the excessive influence of traditional chiefs, and help modernize the country in general. 

He enrolled in the military academy at the age of 17. While there,  the trainee officers were taught  by civilian professors  in the social sciences . Outside of the classroom, Sankara participated in informal discussions about imperialism, neocolonialism, socialism and communism, the Soviet and Chinese revolutions, African liberation movements, and other topics. This was the first time Sankara was exposed to a revolutionary perspective of Burkina Faso, then known as Upper Volta. Sankara also pursued his passion for music and played the guitar in addition to his academic and extracurricular political activities.

Sankara, then 20 year old, went on to further his military education in Madagascar, where he graduated as a junior officer in 1973. The range of instruction at the Military Academy in Madagascar went beyond standard military subjects, allowing Sankara to study agriculture, including how to increase crop yields and improve farmers’ lives—themes he later took up in his own administration .

In Madagascar, Sankara witnessed popular uprisings against the government in 1971 and 1972 and read about the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, which profoundly influenced his political views for the rest of his life.

Sankara returned home with a revolutionary spirit. By 1974, he had fought in a border war between Burkina Faso and Mali. He rose to fame as a result of his performance in the conflict, but years later he would call the combat “useless and unjust,” reflecting his growing political awareness. By that time, he had established himself as a hero and a popular person in Ouagadougou. Sankara was also a talented guitarist.

He was appointed commander of the Commando Training Centre in 1976. He met Blaise Compaoré with whom they formed a secret organization called the “Communist Officers’ Group.”.

On September 1981, Sankara was appointed Minister of Information in Saye Zerbo’s military government. Sankara distinguished himself from other government officials in a number of ways, including biking to work every day rather than driving. Unlike his predecessors, who would censor journalists and newspapers, Sankara encouraged investigative journalism and allowed the media to publish whatever they found. This resulted in the publication of government scandals by both privately and publicly owned newspapers. On April 12, 1982, he resigned in protest of the regime’s anti-labour stance, declaring, “Misfortune to those who gag the people!”

On 7 November 1982, another coup brought Major Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo to power. Sankara was appointed Prime Minister in January 1983, but he was dismissed soon after. Sankara persisted in pressuring Ouédraogo’s regime to implement more progressive reforms. This led to his  arrest , a decision that enraged the military regime’s younger officers, and his imprisonment provided enough motivation for his friend Blaise Compaoré to lead another coup.

At the age of 33, Sankara became President on August 4, 1983. Sankara saw himself as a revolutionary, inspired by the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba, as well as Ghana’s military leader Jerry Rawlings. He promoted the “Democratic and Popular Revolution” as President.

On the first anniversary of his accession, August 4, 1984, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, which means “the land of upright people. He also gave it a new flag and wrote a new national anthem.

Also Read – Revolutionary Thomas Sankara quotes

More to the Story of Thomas Sankara

Sankara’s first priorities after taking office were to feed, house, and provide medical care to his people, who were in desperate need. Between 1983 and 1987, Thomas Sankara has achieved the following.

Sankara initiated a mass vaccination campaign in an effort to eradicate polio, meningitis, and measles. Between 1983 and 1985, 2 million Burkinabé were vaccinated.

Prior to Sankara’s presidency, infant mortality in Burkina Faso was around 20.8 percent, but it fell to 14.5 percent during his presidency.  Sankara’s administration was also the first in Africa to publicly acknowledge the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to the continent.

He launched a nationwide literacy campaign, increasing the literacy rate from 13% in 1983 to 73% in 1987.

To fight deforestation, The People’s Harvest of Forest Nurseries was established. The organization helped to plant over 10 million trees.

A massive road and rail construction program quickly connected the country’s regions. He built roads and rail without the use of foreign aid or outside funds. These programs aimed to show that African countries would prosper without relying on foreign aid or assistance.

He appointed women to high-level government positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education.

In support of women’s rights, he prohibited female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy.

He redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it to the peasants directly. Wheat production increased from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare in three years, allowing the country to become food self-sufficient.

Sankara converted the army’s provisioning store in Ouagadougou into a state-owned supermarket open to the public (the first supermarket in the country).

His policy was aimed at combating corruption. He sold the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at the time) the official ministerial service car.

He reduced the salary of all government employees, including himself, and prohibited the use of government chauffeurs and first-class airline tickets.

Despite his fame and popularity, Sankara refused to have his portrait hung in government offices and public places like other African leaders, claiming that “there are seven million Thomas Sankaras,” referring to his country’s entire population.

He required that all public servants wear a traditional tunic made of Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen. (The reason being to rely upon local industry and identity rather than foreign industry and identity)

He was a vocal critic of foreign aid, claiming that “he who feeds you controls you.”

He spoke out against continued neocolonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance. He called for African nations to form a unified front to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited were not obligated to repay money to the rich and exploiting.

To achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the country, eventually outlawing unions and a free press, which he believed would stymie his plans.

His revolutionary programs for African self-sufficiency made him an icon for many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular among the majority of his impoverished countrymen. His policies, however, isolated and antagonized a number of groups, including the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, tribal leaders who he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labor and tribute payments, France and its ally, the Ivory Coast.

On October 15, 1987, Sankara was assassinated along with twelve other officials by an armed group in a coup d’état orchestrated by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. One of the reasons given was deterioration in relations with neighboring countries, with Compaoré claiming that Sankara jeopardized relations with former colonial power France and neighboring Ivory Coast.

While Sankara’s body was dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave, his widow Mariam and two children escaped the country. Compaoré promptly reversed the nationalizations, revoked practically all of Sankara’s initiativesSA, rejoined the IMF and World Bank to bring in “desperately needed” funding to rebuild the economy,  Compaoré’s dictatorship lasted 27 years before being overthrown in 2014 by massive protests.

A week before his murder, Sankara said: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

The Story of Thomas Sankara | Africa’s Che Guevara

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