Tuesday, 26 May 2015


      BLACK      SOCIAL     HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara
President of Burkina Faso
In office
4 August 1983 – 15 October 1987
Preceded byJean-Baptiste Ouédraogo
Succeeded byBlaise Compaoré
Prime Minister of Upper Volta
In office
10 January 1983 – 17 May 1983
PresidentJean-Baptiste Ouédraogo
Preceded bySaye Zerbo
Succeeded byYoussouf Ouédraogo
Personal details
Born21 December 1949
YakoFrench West Africa
(Now Burkina Faso)
Died15 October 1987 (age 37)
OuagadougouBurkina Faso
Spouse(s)Mariam Sankara
ReligionRoman Catholic
Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionarypan-Africanist theorist, feminist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.[1][2] Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara".[1][3][4]
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][5] He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent.[5] 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").[5] His foreign policies were centered on anti-imperialism, with his government eschewing all foreign aid, pushing for odious debtreduction, 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 meningitisyellow fever and measles.[6] 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 fromfeudal landlords to peasants, suspending rural poll taxes and domestic rents, and establishing an ambitious road and rail construction program to "tie the nation together".[5] 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 towomen's rights led him to outlaw female genital mutilationforced 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.[5]
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.[5] 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.[5] 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.[5] 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][7]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

A map showing the major cities of Burkina Faso
Thomas Sankara was born in Yako, the son of Marguerite Sankara (died March 6, 2000) and Sambo Joseph Sankara (1919 – August 4, 2006), a gendarme.[8] 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. As Burkino Faso has a large Muslim population, he was also familiar with the Qur'an.

Military career

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.[9] 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.[10] 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 ZongoJean-Baptiste Boukary LinganiBlaise Compaoré and Sankara.

Government posts

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.


coup d'état organised by Blaise Compaoré made Sankara President on August 4, 1983,[12] 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[13] (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.
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).

Creating self-sufficiency

Immediately after Sankara took office he suppressed most of the powers held by tribal chiefs in Burkina Faso. These feudal landlords were stripped of their rights to tribute payments and forced labour as well as having their land distributed amongst the peasantry.[14] This served the duel-purpose of creating a higher standard of living for the average Burkinabe as well as creating an optimal situation to induce Burkina Faso into food self-sufficiency. Within four years Burkina Faso reached food sufficiency due in large part to feudal land redistribution and series of irrigation and fertilization programs instituted by the government. During this time production of cotton and wheat shot up. In 1986 the average wheat production for the Sahel region was 1700 kg per hectare, in 1986 Burkina Faso was producing 3900 kg of wheat per hectare.[15] This success meant Sankara had not only shifted his country into food self-sufficiency but had in turn created a food surplus.[5] Sankara also emphasized the production of cotton and the need to transform the cotton produced in Burkina Faso into clothing for the people.[16]

Health care and public works

Sankara's first priorities after taking office were feeding, housing, and giving medical care to his people who desperately needed it. Sankara launched a mass vaccination program in an attempt to irradicate poliomeningitis, and measels. In one week 2.5 million Burkinabé are vaccinated, this garnered congratulations from the World Health Organization.[5] Sankara's administration was also the first African government to publicly recognize the AIDS epidemic as a major threat to Africa.[17]
Large scale housing and infrastructure projects were also undertaken, brick factories are created to help build houses in effort to end urban slums.[18] In an attempt to fight deforestation The People’s Harvest of Forest Nurseries is created to supply 7,000 village nurseries, as well as organizing the planting of several million trees. All regions of the country are soon connected by a vast road and rail building program. Over 700 Kilometers of rail was laid by Burkinabé people to facilitate manganese extraction in "The Battle of thee Rails" without any foreign aid or outside money.<[5] These programs were an attempt to prove that African countries can be prosperous without foreign help or aid. These revolutionary developments and national economic programs shook the foundations of the traditional economic development models imposed on Africa.[19] Sankara also launched education programs to help combat the country's 90% illiteracy rate. These programs had some success in the first few years. However, wide scale teacher strikes coupled with Sankara's unwillingness to negotiate led to the creation of "Revolutionary Teachers". In an attempt to replace the nearly 2,500 teachers fired over a strike in 1987 anyone with a college degree was invited to teach through the revolutionary teachers program. Volunteers received a 10 day training course before being sent off to teach; the results were disastrous.[5]

People's Revolutionary Tribunals

Shortly after attaining power Sankara constructed a system of courts known as the Popular Revolutionary Tribunal (Burkina Faso). The courts were created originally to try former government officials with simplicity so the average Burkinabe could participate in or oversee trials of enemies of the revolution.[5] They placed defendants on trial for corruption, tax evasion or "counter-revolutionary" activity. Sentences to former government officials are light and often suspended. The tribunals have been alleged to be only show trials,[20] held very openly with oversight from the public. Procedures in these trials, especially legal protections for the accused, did not conform to international standards. Defendants had to prove themselves innocent of the crimes they were charged with committing and were not allowed to be represented by council.[21] The courts were originally met with adoration from the Burkinabé people but over time became corrupt and oppressive. So called "lazy workers" were tried and sentenced to work for free or expelled from their jobs and discriminated against. Some even created their own courts to settle scores and humiliate their enemies.[5]

Revolutionary Defense Committees

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Burkina Faso) (Comités de Défense de la Révolution) were formed as mass armed organizations. The CDP's were created as a counterweight to the power of the army as well as to promote political and social revolution. The idea for the Revolutionary Defense Committees was taken from Fidel Castro who's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were created as a form of "revolutionary vigilance".[22] Sankara's CDR's in large-scale overstepped their power, accused by some of thuggery and gang like behavior CDR groups would meddle in the everyday life of the Burkinabé. Individuals would use their power to settle scores or punish enemies, Sankara himself noted the failure publicly. One of Sankara's biggest failures the public placed the blame of individual CDR actions squarely on Sankara.[5] The failure of the CDR's coupled with the failure of the Revolutionary Teachers program, mounting labour, middle class disdain and Sankara's steadfastness lead to the regime partially weakening within Burkina Faso.[5]

Women's rights

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 mutilationforced 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.[5] Sankara also promoted contraception and encouraged husbands to go to market and prepare meals to experience for themselves the conditions faced by women. Sankara recognized the challenges faced by African Women when he gave his famous address to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, 1987 in the Ouagadougou. He spoke to thousands of women in a highly political speech in which he stated that the Burkinabé revolution was "establishing new social relations" which would be "upsetting the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. This task is formidable but necessary."[24] Furthermore, Sankara was the first African leader to appoint women to major cabinet positions and to recruit them actively for the military.[5]

Second Agacher strip war

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.[25]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,[25] 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.

Human Rights and Alleged Violations

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.[26] The British development organisation Oxfam recorded the arrest and torture of trade union leaders in 1987.[27] 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.".[28] 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."[29] The following chart shows Burkina Faso's human rights ratings under Sankara from 1984-1987 presented in the Freedom in the World reports, published annually by Freedom House. A score of 1 is "most free" and 7 is "least free".[30]1
YearPolitical RightsCivil LibertiesStatus
198475Not Free
198576Not Free
198676Not Free
198776Not Free

Personal image and popularity[edit]

The coat of arms of Burkina Fasounder 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:


  • 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.[5]
  • He opposed foreign aid, saying that "he who feeds you, controls you."[5]
  • 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.[5]
  • 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.[5]
"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.[6]
  • 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.[6]


  • 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.[5]
  • 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."[6]
  • An accomplished guitarist, he wrote the new national anthem himself.[1]

"Africa's Che Guevara"

"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.[31]


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.[32] 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,[5] while his widow Mariam and two children fled the nation.[33] 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,[34] and ultimately spurned most of Sankara's legacy.


"Africa and the world are yet to recover from Sankara’s assassination. Just as we have yet to recover from the loss of Patrice LumumbaKwame Nkrumah,Eduardo MondlaneAmílcar CabralSteve BikoSamora 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 [10]
Twenty years later, on October 15, 2007, Thomas Sankara was commemorated in ceremonies that took place in Burkina FasoMaliSenegalNigerTanzania,BurundiFranceCanada, and the USA.[6]

List of works

  • 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