Thomas Sankara

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Thomas Sankara
ThomasSankara.jpg
President of Burkina Faso
In office
4 August 1983 – 15 October 1987
Preceded by Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo
Succeeded by Blaise Compaoré
Prime Minister of Upper Volta
In office
10 January 1983 – 17 May 1983
President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo
Preceded by Saye Zerbo
Succeeded by Youssouf Ouédraogo
Personal details
Born 21 December 1949
Yako, French West Africa
(Now Burkina Faso)
Died 15 October 1987
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Spouse(s) Mariam Sankara
Religion Roman Catholic

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.[1][2]

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.[1][3] He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent.[3] To symbolize this new autonomy and rebirth, he even renamed the country from the French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso ("Land of Upright Man").[3] His foreign policies were centered on 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.[4] 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".[3] On the localized level Sankara also called on every village to build a medical dispensary and had over 350 communities construct 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.[3]

In order to achieve this radical transformation of society, he increasingly exerted authoritarian control over the nation, eventually banning unions and a free press, which he believed could stand in the way of his plans.[3] To counter his opposition in towns and workplaces around the country, he also tried corrupt officials, "counter-revolutionaries" and "lazy workers" in Popular Revolutionary Tribunals.[3] Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs).[1]

His revolutionary programs for African self-reliance made him an icon to many of Africa's poor.[3] Sankara remained popular with most of his country's impoverished citizens. However his policies alienated and antagonised the vested interests of an array of 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, and France and its ally the Ivory Coast.[1][5] As a result, he was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d'état led by the French-backed Blaise Compaoré on October 15, 1987. A week before his murder, he declared: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."[1]

Early life[edit]

A map showing the major cities of Burkina Faso.

Thomas Sankara was the son of Marguerite Sankara (died March 6, 2000) and Sambo Joseph Sankara (1919 – August 4, 2006), a gendarme.[6] Born into a Roman Catholic family, "Thom'Sank" was a Silmi-Mossi, an ethnic group that originated with marriage between Mossi men and women of the pastoralist Fulani people. The Silmi-Mossi are among the least advantaged in the Mossi caste system. He attended primary school in Gaoua and high school in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second city.

His father fought in the French army during World War II and was detained by the Nazis. Sankara's family wanted him to become a Catholic priest. Fittingly for a country with a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Qur'an. He was born in Yako.

Military career[edit]

After basic military training in secondary school in 1966, Sankara began his military career at the age of 19, and a year later was sent to Madagascar for officer training at Antsirabe where he witnessed popular uprisings in 1971 and 1972 against the government of Philibert Tsiranana and first read the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, profoundly influencing his political views for the rest of his life.[7] Returning to Upper Volta in 1972, by 1974 he fought in a border war between Upper Volta and Mali. He earned fame for his heroic performance in the border war with Mali, but years later would renounce the war as "useless and unjust", a reflection of his growing political consciousness.[8] He also became a popular figure in the capital of Ouagadougou. Sankara was a decent guitarist, he played in a band named "Tout-à-Coup Jazz" and rode a motorcycle. His deeds while in his early political career gives him a charismatic image that is admired by many.

In 1976 he became commander of the Commando Training Centre in . In the same year he met Blaise Compaoré in Morocco. During the presidency of Colonel Saye Zerbo a group of young officers formed a secret organisation "Communist Officers' Group" (Regroupement des officiers communistes, or ROC) the best-known members being Henri Zongo, Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani, Blaise Compaoré and Sankara.

Government posts[edit]

Sankara was appointed Secretary of State for Information in the military government in September 1981, journeying to his first cabinet meeting on a bicycle, but he resigned on April 21, 1982 in opposition to what he saw as the regime's anti-labour drift, declaring "Misfortune to those who gag the people!" ("Malheur à ceux qui bâillonnent le peuple!")

After another coup (November 7, 1982) brought to power Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, Sankara became prime minister in January 1983, but he was dismissed (May 17) and placed under house arrest after a visit by the French president's son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe Mitterrand. Henri Zongo and Jean-Baptiste Boukary Lingani were also placed under arrest; this caused a popular uprising.

President[edit]

A coup d'état organised by Blaise Compaoré made Sankara President on August 4, 1983,[10] at the age of 33. The coup d'état was supported by Libya which was, at the time, on the verge of war with France in Chad[11] (see History of Chad).

Sankara saw himself as a revolutionary and was inspired by the examples of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and Ghana's military leader Jerry Rawlings. As President, he promoted the "Democratic and Popular Revolution" (Révolution démocratique et populaire, or RDP). The ideology of the Revolution was defined by Sankara as anti-imperialist in a speech of October 2, 1983, the Discours d'orientation politique (DOP), written by his close associate Valère Somé. His policy was oriented toward fighting corruption, promoting reforestation, averting famine, and making education and health real priorities.

Abolition of chiefs' privileges[edit]

The government suppressed many of the powers held by tribal chiefs such as their right to receive tribute payment and obligatory labour. The CDRs (Comités de Défense de la Révolution) were formed as mass organizations and armed. Sankara's government also initiated a form of military conscription with the SERNAPO (Service National et Populaire). Both were a counterweight to the power of the army.

In 1984, on the first anniversary of his accession, he renamed the country Burkina Faso, meaning "the land of upright people" in Moré and Djula, the two major languages of the country. He also gave it a new flag and wrote a new national anthem (Une Seule Nuit).

Women's rights and AIDS[edit]

Improving women's status was one of Sankara's explicit goals, and his government included a large number of women, an unprecedented policy priority in West Africa. His government banned female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; while appointing females to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.[3] Sankara also promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Furthermore, Sankara was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military.[3]

Sankara's administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.[13]

Second Agacher strip war[edit]

In 1985, Burkina Faso organised a general population census. During the census, some Fula camps in Mali were visited by mistake by Burkinabé census agents.[14] The Malian government claimed that the act was a violation of its sovereignty on the Agacher strip. Following efforts by Mali asking African leaders to pressure Sankara,[14] tensions erupted on Christmas Day 1985 in a war that lasted five days and killed about 100 people (most victims were civilians killed by a bomb dropped on the marketplace in Ouahigouya by a Malian MiG plane). The conflict is known as the "Christmas war" in Burkina Faso.

Personal image and popularity[edit]

The coat of arms of Burkina Faso under Sankara from 1984–87, featuring a crossed mattock and AK-47 (an allusion to the Hammer and Sickle) with the motto "La Patrie ou la Mort, nous vaincrons" (English: "Motherland or death, we will win").

Accompanying his personal charisma, Sankara had an array of original initiatives that contributed to his popularity and brought some international media attention to his government:

Solidarity[edit]

  • He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.
  • He reduced the salaries of well-off public servants, including his own, and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and 1st class airline tickets.
    • He redistributed land from the feudal landlords to the peasants. Wheat production increased from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg per hectare, making the country food self-sufficient.[3]
  • He opposed foreign aid, saying that "he who feeds you, controls you."[3]
  • He spoke in forums like the Organization of African Unity against what he described as neo-colonialist penetration of Africa through Western trade and finance.[3]
  • He called for a united front of African nations to repudiate their foreign debt. He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.[3]

"Thomas knew how to show his people that they could become dignified and proud through will power, courage, honesty and work. What remains above all of my husband is his integrity."

Mariam Sankara, Thomas' widow [1]
  • In Ouagadougou, Sankara converted the army's provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone (the first supermarket in the country).[1]
  • He forced well-off civil servants to pay one month's salary to public projects.[1]
  • 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 Burkinabes.[4]
  • As President, he lowered his salary to $450 a month and limited his possessions to a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.[4]

Style[edit]

  • A motorcyclist himself, he formed an all-women motorcycle personal guard.[citation needed]
  • He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.[3]
  • He was known for jogging unaccompanied through Ouagadougou in his track suit and posing in his tailored military fatigues, with his mother-of-pearl pistol.[1]
  • When asked why he didn't want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm for other African leaders, Sankara replied "There are seven million Thomas Sankaras."[4]
  • An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.[1]

Alleged human rights violations[edit]

Sankara's régime was criticised by Amnesty International and other international humanitarian organisations for violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture of political opponents.[15] The British development organisation Oxfam recorded the arrest and torture of trade union leaders in 1987.[16] In 1984, seven individuals associated with the previous régime were accused of treason and executed after a summary trial. A teachers' strike the same year resulted in the dismissal of 2,500 teachers; thereafter, non-governmental organisations and unions were harassed or placed under the authority of the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, branches of which were established in each workplace and which functioned as "organs of political and social control.".[17] Popular Revolutionary Tribunals, set up by the government throughout the country, placed defendants on trial for corruption, tax evasion or "counter-revolutionary" activity. Procedures in these trials, especially legal protections for the accused, did not conform to international standards. According to Christian Morrisson and Jean-Paul Azam of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the "climate of urgency and drastic action, in which many punishments were carried out immediately against those who had the misfortune to be found guilty of unrevolutionary behaviour, bore some resemblance to what occurred in the worst days of the French Revolution, during the Terror. Although few people were killed, violence was widespread."[18]

"Africa's Che Guevara"[edit]

"Pioneers of the Revolution", donning starred berets like Guevara

Sankara, who is often referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara",[1] emulated Guevara (1928–1967) in both style and substance. Stylistically, Sankara emulated Guevara by preferring to wear a starred beret and military fatigues, living ascetically with few possessions, and keeping a minimal salary once assuming power. Both men also considered themselves allies of Fidel Castro (Sankara was visited by Castro in 1987), are well known for having ridden motorcycles, and are often cited as effectively utilizing their charisma to motivate their followers. Substantively, Guevara and Sankara were both Marxist revolutionaries, who believed in armed revolution against imperialism and monopoly capitalism, denounced financial neo-colonialism before the United Nations, held up agrarian land reform and literacy campaigns as key parts of their agenda, and utilized revolutionary tribunals and CDR's against opponents. Both men were also killed in their late thirties (Guevara 39 / Sankara 38) by opponents, with Sankara coincidentally giving a speech marking and honoring the 20th anniversary of Che Guevara's October 9, 1967 execution, one week before his own assassination on October 15, 1987.[19]

Assassination[edit]

On October 15, 1987, Sankara was killed by an armed group with twelve other officials in a coup d'état organised by his former colleague Blaise Compaoré. Deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries was one of the reasons given, with Compaoré stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power France and neighbouring Ivory Coast.[1] Prince Johnson, a former Liberian warlord allied to Charles Taylor, told Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that it was engineered by Charles Taylor.[20] After the coup and although Sankara was known to be dead, some CDRs mounted an armed resistance to the army for several days.

Sankara's body was dismembered and he was quickly buried in an unmarked grave,[3] while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation.[21] Compaoré immediately reversed the nationalizations, overturned nearly all of Sankara's policies, rejoined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring in "desperately needed" funds to restore the “shattered” economy,[22] and ultimately spurned most of Sankara's legacy.

Legacy[edit]

"Africa and the world are yet to recover from Sankara’s assassination. Just as we have yet to recover from the loss of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Eduardo Mondlane, Amílcar Cabral, Steve Biko, Samora Machel, and most recently John Garang, to name only a few. While malevolent forces have not used the same methods to eliminate each of these great pan-Africanists, they have been guided by the same motive: to keep Africa in chains."

— Antonio de Figueiredo [8]

Twenty years later, on October 15, 2007, Thomas Sankara was commemorated in ceremonies that took place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Niger, Tanzania, Burundi, France, Canada, and the USA.[4]

List of works[edit]

  • Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983–87, by Thomas Sankara, Pathfinder Press, 1988, ISBN 0-87348-527-0
  • We Are the Heirs of the World's Revolutions: Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution 1983–87, by Thomas Sankara, Pathfinder Press, 2007, ISBN 0-87348-989-6
  • Women's Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, by Thomas Sankara, Pathfinder Press, 1990, ISBN 0-87348-585-8

Further reading[edit]

Books[edit]

Web articles[edit]

DVD[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Burkina Faso Salutes "Africa's Che" Thomas Sankara by Mathieu Bonkoungou, Reuters, Oct 17 2007
  2. ^ Thomas Sankara Speaks: the Burkina Faso Revolution: 1983–87, by Thomas Sankara, edited by Michel Prairie; Pathfinder, 2007, pg 11
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man by California Newsreel
  4. ^ a b c d e Commemorating Thomas Sankara by Farid Omar, Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa (GRILA), November 28, 2007
  5. ^ "BBC NEWS - Africa - Burkina commemorates slain leader". News.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 15 October 2014. 
  6. ^ [1] [2]
  7. ^ Thomas Sankara Speaks: the Burkina Faso Revolution: 1983–87, by Thomas Sankara, edited by Michel Prairie; Pathfinder, 2007, pg 20–21
  8. ^ a b The True Visionary Thomas Sankara by Antonio de Figueiredo, February 27, 2008
  9. ^ We are Heirs of the World's Revolutions: Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution: 1983–87, by Thomas Sankara, Pathfinder, 2007, ISBN 0-87348-989-6
  10. ^ The date may have been chosen for a symbolic purpose as the 194th anniversary of the Abolition of Feudal Privileges in France, but there is no evidence.
  11. ^ Chad was at war with Libya. France was providing air support to Chad. According to some witnesses some French troops were involved in ground operations.
  12. ^ a b "We are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions": Lessons from Thomas Sankara by Akinyemi Adeseye, May 15, 2010
  13. ^ HIV/AIDS, illness, and African well-being, by Toyin Falola & Matthew M. Heaton, University Rochester Press, 2007, ISBN 1-58046-240-5, pg 290
  14. ^ a b Bryant, Terry (2007). History's Greatest War. Global Media.
  15. ^ Amnesty International, Burkina Faso: Political Imprisonment and the Use of Torture from 1983 to 1988 (London: Amnesty International, 1988).
  16. ^ R. Sharp, Burkina Faso: New Life for the Sahel? A Report for Oxfam (Oxford: Oxfam, 1987), p. 13
  17. ^ R. Otayek, 'The Revolutionary Process in Burkina Faso: Breaks and Continuities,' in J. Markakis & M. Waller, eds., Military Marxist Régimes in Africa (London: Frank Cass, 1986), p. 95.
  18. ^ C. Morrisson & J.-P. Azam, Conflict and Growth in Africa, vol. I: The Sahel (Paris: OECD, 1999), p. 70.
  19. ^ Sankara 20 years Later: A Tribute to Integrity by Demba Moussa Dembélé, Pambazuka News, October 15, 2008
  20. ^ "US freed Taylor to overthrow Doe, Liberia's TRC hears". The M&G Online. Retrieved 15 October 2014. 
  21. ^ Sankara v. Burkina Faso by the Canadian Council on International Law, March 2007
  22. ^ Mason, Katrina &, Knight, James (2011). Burkina Faso, 2nd. The Globe Pequot Press Inc. ISBN 9781841623528.  pg 31
  23. ^ DVD Review of Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man directed by Robin Shuffield

External links[edit]


Political offices
Preceded by
Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo
President of Upper Volta (Burkina Faso)
1983–1987
Succeeded by
Blaise Compaoré