Born Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara on 21 December 1949, in what was then called Upper Volta, Sankara was the 3rd of 10 children. He is remembered as a Pan-Africanist, a revolutionary, a president, a musician and an upright man. His parents wanted him to be a priest, he wanted to be a doctor, but when corruption prevented him from getting into medical school, he became a soldier. He was a very talented musician, who believed the power of music as a force for building community.
He was forged by the fire of the army and it was in the army in 1978, that Blaise Compaoré and Sankara met for the first time in Morocco. Sankara and Compaoré were inseparable friends who told each other everything. The two officers from the Parachute Regiment were so close that people often mistook them for brothers. Sankara was to claim a few months before his death that he valued his friendship with Blaise more than any other thing. He said: ‘I was lucky to have someone who I could trust completely. The day you hear that he [Compaoré] is planning to stage a coup against me, don’t bother wasting your time trying to stop him, it’ll be too late for that …’
Sankara’s position in the army and his natural charisma made him a good choice for political appointments, but his personal convictions also meant that he was often arrested. In May 1983, Sankara was removed as prime minister of then President Ouédraogo’s government and arrested once again. On August 4, 1983, Compaoré, led a group that freed Sankara, overthrew the Ouédraogo regime, and formed the National Council of the Revolution (Conseil National de la Révolution) and Sankara became its president. President of the country.
At the age of thirty, Sankara was the youngest President in the African continent. (When we praise Emmanuel Macron for being a young president of France, we forget Sankara over 30 years before that.) Sankara changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’ in Mossi and Dyula. He instituted many changes to shake the old order. He donated all the Mercedes and Chevrolets owned by top civil servants and government officials to the National Lottery, and the money acquired was used on public spending. Sankara himself drove a Renault 5. He readjusted salaries so that all ministers and public servants earned the same wage of FCFA 192,500 (£480); he himself received the same monthly sum.
He made jogging and aerobics compulsory twice a week for all civil servants. School attendance went from 6% to 22%, millions of children were vaccinated, and 10 million trees were planted. The number of women in government soared, female genital mutilation was banned, and contraception was promoted. He shunned World Bank loans and promoted local food and textile production. Sankara outlawed tribute payments and obligatory labour to village chiefs, abolished rural poll taxes, instituted a massive immunization program, built railways and kick-started public housing construction. His administration aggressively pushed literacy programs, tackled river blindness and embarked on an anti-corruption drive in the civil service.
He had a vision for an Africa that was bold, free, proud and unfettered and he proclaimed this vision insistently. Ending all his speeches with the words, ‘Homeland or death, we will triumph!’ Sankara openly challenged both French hegemony in West Africa as well as the unchallenged power of his fellow military leaders (Sankara labelled them “criminals in power”). He called for the scrapping of Africa’s debt to international banks, as well as to their former colonial masters.
Sankara was criticized in the West for being undemocratic as he banned protesting and striking, abolished trade union and party politics. Some Burkinabè intellectuals felt his quest to develop the country had an overly paternalistic, authoritarian edge. He prevented people from becoming excessively wealthy. His fervent socialism and uncategorical independence was seen as nearly frightening to the petite bourgeoisie in Burkina Faso, neighbouring Francophone leaders (such as Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire) as well as leaders of the West to which he had adamantly refused to show obeisance (François Mitterrand, to name one). The dust clouds were gathering.
On 15 October 1987, Sankara was assassinated in a coup led by soldiers loyal to his erstwhile brother-in-arms and best friend Blaise Campaoré – who went on to lead the country for the next 27 years. (The insect that destroys the ugwu plant, lives on the ugwu itself.) Blaise Compaoré, while ‘regretting’ the death of his grand frère, nevertheless proceeded to rate Sankara a traitor to the ‘Popular Revolution.’ Compaoré reversed everything Sankara instituted. And Sankara’s death remains unsolved. Though fingers remain pointed at all the entities who decried his work within and outside Africa. Igbehin lo ju. Ojo kan, ojo kan esan a ke.
Here is some of Sankara’s vision; in his own words:
‘Neo-colonial and colonial society are fundamentally no different. Thus, the colonial administration was replaced by a neo-colonial administration which was identical in all respects with the first. A colonial army was replaced by a neo-colonial army with the same attributes, the same functions and the same role as guardian of the interests of imperialism and those of his national allies. In the colonial school replaces a neo-colonial pursuing the same goals of alienation of children in our country and reproduction of a society primarily serve imperialist interests, incidentally serving local lackeys and allies of the imperialism.’
‘Revolution and liberation of women go together. And this is not an act of charity or a burst of humanism than talking about the emancipation of women. It is a fundamental necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.’
‘I cry out on behalf of those thrown out of work by a system that is structurally unjust and periodically unhinged, who are reduced to only glimpsing in life a reflection of the lives of the affluent. I speak on behalf of women the world over, who suffer from a male-imposed system of exploitation. … Women who struggle and who proclaim with us that the slave who is not able to take charge of his own revolt deserves no pity for his lot. This harbors illusions in the dubious generosity of a master pretending to set him free. Freedom can be won only through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to go on the offensive to conquer their rights.’
‘Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it.
Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been offered nice financial arrangements. We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even longer. That means we have been forced to compromise our people for over 50 years.
Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.’
‘There is a struggle, and its intensification is worrying to those with financial power. Now we are asked to be accomplices in a balancing – a balancing favoring those with the financial power; a balancing against the popular masses. No! We cannot be accomplices. No! We cannot go with those who suck our people’s blood and live on our people’s sweat. We cannot follow them in their murderous ways.’‘
“You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”
We often decry our current African leaders, their incompetence, corruption, complete lack of willingness to stand up for the good of their countries or their people. But while we decry them – and we must do that with all that we have – let us not forget that we sometimes had leaders with the required amount of madness. Let us not forget what happened to them. Let us keep their visions alive as we dare to invent a future Africa.
‘Homeland or death, we will triumph!!!’
BBC Radio 4 Programme ‘Sankara: Africa’s Revolutionary President’
Branford, Becky, ‘Thomas Sankara – interviewing an African legend aged 11‘, BBC News, 15 October 2017,
Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Thomas Sankara: President of Burkina Faso‘
Jacobs, Sean, ‘The Upright Man, Thomas Sankara,’ Africa is a Country,
Sankara, Thomas. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87. Pathfinder Pr, 1988.
Wilkins, Michael. “The death of Thomas Sankara and the rectification of the people’s revolution in Burkina Faso.” African Affairs 88, no. 352 (1989): 375-388.