Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, Pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara.
Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched the most ambitious program for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he even renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Men”). His foreign policies were centered around anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalizing all land and mineral wealth, and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritizing education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. Other components of his national agenda included planting over ten million trees to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel, doubling wheat production by redistributing land from feudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to “tie the nation together.”
Making a popular name for himself through his dedication to easing the plight of the common man in his native land, the Marxist leader Thomas Sankara made a serious attempt to eliminate the poverty and abuse of power that had been commonplace in Burkina Faso before he took power in 1983. “Without a doubt the young and charismatic Sankara was one of the most notable and popular military political leaders of post-independence Africa, despite the fact that he was only in power for four years before being assassinated in 1987,” wrote John A. Wiseman in Political Leaders in Black Africa. “Sankara’s inspirational leadership, the influence of which extended well beyond the borders of Burkina Faso, marked something very new in the political history of the country,” added Wiseman.
From an early age Sankara condemned the effects of French colonialism on his country. “In his view it was the French colonials who had been directly responsible for the unfair social system, whereby the wealth of the country remained in the hands of the white rulers while the indigenes were victims of miserable poverty and economic repression,” claimed Michael Wilkins in African Affairs. Sankara had no use for any exploitation wielded by the powerful, and was hailed for his willingness to forego the spoils of his own high position. “In this part of the continent whose garishly rich, egotistical tyrants inspired the label ‘Big Man,’ many people regarded Sankara as the anti-Big Man,” commented James Rupert in the Washington Post. After becoming his nation’s leader, Sankara continued to eat in the mess hall with other army officers and even sold off the expensive cars of high-ranking officials in a lottery. But eventually his fear of opponents and alienation of former supporters in his populist movement made him vulnerable. He was unable to make much of a dent in the poverty of Burkina Faso, which at the time of his leadership was ranked the third poorest nation in the world.
Born into a low-class family in Upper Volta—formerly Burkina Faso—in 1949, Sankara grew up Catholic in a country dominated by traditional religions and Islam. He began receiving military training in secondary school in 1966, and soon established a reputation for both his studiousness and athletic ability. He began his military career at age 19, and a year later was sent to Madagascar for officer training . While there he was known for his austere lifestyle, and he became increasingly idealistic and political as he was exposed to perceived injustices instilled by colonialism. Sankara also witnessed a Communist-led revolution in the country’s capital that may have laid the seeds for his Marxist practices.
In the early 1970s Sankara was sent to the prestigious Parachute Training Center in France. He worked his way up the ranks in the military, while also making contacts with African radical students and organizations in France that helped shape his revolutionary mentality. In 1974 he returned to Upper Volta and began actively participating in meetings of various left-wing groups, among them some of the more prominent trade unions. All of these meetings were held secretly, since law prohibited any gatherings of groups opposing the government. Sankara’s involvement with these groups proved critical to forging relationships that helped him assume power in the 1980s.
Sankara served with honor on the front lines in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali in 1974, although he saw the dispute over a basically worthless strip of land as futile. He became commander of his country’s Commando Training Center in 1976, and two years later established an important friendship with Captain Blaise Compaore after meeting him in Morocco. The two friends formed the so-called “Popular Republic” at the Commando Training Center, which helped them build their power within the military. Sankara made his way into government in 1981, when he was appointed secretary to the president in charge of information by Colonel Saye Zerbo, who had taken control of the government after a coup in 1980.
Due to his objection to the government’s banning of strikes and its passing of anti-union legislation, Sankara soon fell into disfavor with Zerbo. After resigning in protest in 1982, he was arrested and put into prison. He regained his freedom when Zerbo was ousted by Major Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo in November of that year. By this time Sankara had become a popular figure among the people due to his willingness to attack those in power. As Ouedraogo became more controlled by the military, his fear of Sankara’s popularity increased. He condemned him for treason in 1983 and had him imprisoned, but the stay behind bars was short-lived. Compaore mobilized a unit of paratroopers and told Ouedraogo that he would seize the capital unless Sankara was freed and allowed to resume his post in the army. Ouedraogo’s agreeing to the demands empowered Sankara to rally his many sympathizers and seize the government himself. Just 34 years old, Sankara became the youngest leader of an African republic in 1983. Top of his political agenda was the waging of a war on poverty, which reached a critical level due to a horrible drought that ravaged the country’s agriculture in 1983 and 1984. He attempted to start up massive agricultural projects to overcome widespread hunger, set up a revolutionary emergency to help buy grain for disaster victims, and began a tree-planting program to stem the advance of the Sahara Desert on fertile land.
Sankara also became highly vocal about his plans for reform, traveling widely and making rousing speeches that promised a new era for Upper Volta. “The primary objective of the revolution,” he was quoted in Issue, “is to take the power out of the hands of our national bourgeoisie and their imperialist allies and put it in the hands of the people.” Sankara’s words became deeds when he adjusted salaries so that all ministers and public servants earned the same salary, including himself, and he changed the tax system to one based on ability to pay. He also forced top civil servants and army officers to donate one month of their annual salary toward the funding of development projects. Among his policies for helping the common people were mass literacy campaigns, attempts to bring back health care to rural populations, and extensive vaccinations programs. As a symbolic gesture to erase the memory of colonialism, Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso, which means “the land of people of integrity.”
Sensitive to past exploitation of his country by foreign powers, Sankara was very choosy about his allies. For the most part he distrusted Western countries as exploiters whose friendship was a means to gain strategic influence. “Donors have not always had the sincere aim of helping Upper Volta,” he said in Africa Report. “They used aid as a means of gaining control over our country….” Holding true to his Marxist ideology, Sankara forged bonds with other Marxist nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Angola, as well as the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. He demonstrated no tact with Western leaders, openly criticizing chiefs of state such as President Mitterand of France. He also felt that much foreign aid entering his nation had been squandered by either ineffective management or corrupt officials.
Various policies implemented by Sankara got him in trouble with the status quo. He stunned all of Africa when he began working to establish greater equality between the sexes, something that was unprecedented in the continent. He banned prostitution, condemned polygamy, and appointed five women to ministerial posts. “Women are exploited in relations of production and also in sentimental relations, in affection,” he said in Africa Report. “But women are further exploited because of imperialism, which also dominates the Voltaic man.” Sankara fueled the ire of more enemies by establishing People’s Revolutionary Courts to investigate members of previous governments and initiating a series of anti-corruption campaigns. He also alienated the Mossi, the country’s major ethnic group, by eliminating many of the powers held by the tribe’s traditional chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labor.
A coup against Sankara in 1984 was put down in short order, but resistance against him continued to grow due to his policies. Support from leftists who had helped carry him to power began to wane because they regarded his reforms as too tame. He angered trade unions when he fired striking teachers, then rehired them on his own terms. Most damaging to Sankara’s position may have been his failure to alleviatethe country’s extreme poverty, despite an increase in public spending of 120% during his first three years as head of state, as well as his inability to make a dent in Burkina Faso’s foreign debt. Over time Sankara’s concern about keeping his position grew and he began attempting to ban certain political groups. Wavering support from Compaore led Sankara to establish his own security force as protection against his former ally, who was supported by the powerful Parachute Regiment. As Michael Wilkins wrote in African Affairs regarding the relationship between Sankara and Compaore, “These tensions were not only caused by the alienation process … but also by the economic failure of Sankara’s reforms and personal difference in opinion which led to accusations of megalomania and the creation of a cult of personality.”
Finally the scales of resistance tipped against Sankara. He was assassinated in a hail of bullets in October of 1987 along with thirteen other officials outside the central parliament building in Ouagadougou. No inquiry was held into the murder, and Sankara was buried in an unmarked grave. While denying his involvement in the killing—a claim disputed by many at the time—Compaore then condemned Sankara as a traitor to the very Popular Revolution he had led.
Over a decade after Sankara’s death, thousands in Burkina Faso still mourn at his grave on the anniversary of his assassination, and his mystique as a leader who sacrificed himself for the good of the people remains strong. Cassettes of his speeches still sell well, a major Sankarist Youth Movement dedicated to his policies remains active in the country, and several political parties in Burkina Faso bare his name. “Sankara is not remembered as a saint,” noted Dramane Sessouma, the editor of a local newspaper in Burkina Faso, in the Wall Street Journal. “But he was honest and dedicated to improving the lives of ordinary people—and almost no other [West African] leader has been so.”