Thomas Sankara, 21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé pro-people revolutionary, Marxist, pan-Africanist and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is sometimes referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara”.
A group of revolutionaries seized power on behalf of Sankara (who was under house arrest at the time) in a popularly-supported coup in 1983. Aged just 33, Sankara became the President of the country that still retained its colonial name, Upper Volta, with the goal of promoting the wellbeing of the poorest people in the country by eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power among other things. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social, ecological, gender and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolise this new autonomy and rebirth, he renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (“Land of Upright Man”). His foreign policies were centred on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debt reduction, nationalising all land and mineral wealth and averting the power and influence of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. His domestic policies were focused on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nationwide literacy campaign and promoting public health by vaccinating 2,500,000 children against meningitis, yellow fever and measles.
Other components of his national agenda included planting over 10,000,000 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 railway construction programme to “tie the nation together”. On the localised level, Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary, and had over 350 communities build schools with their own labour. Moreover, his commitment to women’s rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school, even if pregnant.
In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, Sankara increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation. He eventually banned unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans. To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also prosecuted corrupt officials, alleged counter-revolutionaries and “lazy workers” in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa’s poor. Sankara remained popular with most of his country’s citizens. However, his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of several groups, which included the small, but powerful Burkinabé middle class, the tribal leaders whom he stripped of the long-held traditional right to forced labour and tribute payments as well as France and its ally Ivory Coast. On 15 October 1987, Sankara was assassinated by troops led by Blaise Compaoré, who took Sankara’s office shortly after. A week before his assassination, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.
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