Thomas Sankara: The Pan African Hero Whose Fleeting Rule Left a Timeless Footprint
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Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a pan-African revolutionary who served as the president of the Republic of Upper Volta from 1983 till his death in 1987. Exactly a year after the coup that brought him into power, Sankara ushered in a new era for the West African country by renaming it ‘Burkina Faso’, meaning ‘the land of upright and honest people’ in Mooré and Dyula, the country’s two major indigenous languages.

Long revered by radical youths and activists across Africa, Thomas Sankara finally also achieved a measure of government recognition in his country, Burkina Faso, on the thirty-sixth anniversary of his assassination in a military coup. For years, the commemorations of the late president’s death were organized by civil and political groups inspired by his revolutionary achievements and ideas. But on October 15, 2023, Burkina Faso’s governing military regime, keen for more popular support, made the anniversary an official event for the first time. Sankara was named a “hero of the nation,” the day was proclaimed an annual national holiday, President Ibrahim Traoré laid flowers at his memorial site, and one of the capital’s main thoroughfares was renamed for Sankara—from its previous designation as Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, the French president when the country gained its independence from France.

Sankara was passionate about freeing Burkina Faso, and Africa at large, from lingering imperialist influence. He also led ambitious campaigns and championed socialist ideals, which were somewhat controversial, for the development of his nation. On a global scale, he denounced imperialist wars, apartheid, and poverty and defended the rights of Palestinians to self-determination.

Sankara was well on his way to becoming one of the most important African voices of his time, but unfortunately, the 37-year-old’s legacy was cut short when he was assassinated in a coup led by opposing military leaders.

In this article, we will examine the life and lasting impact of Thomas Sankara.

Early Life

Thomas Sankara (born December 21, 1949, Yako, Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso]—died October 15, 1987, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) military officer and proponent of Pan-Africanism who was installed as president of Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso) in 1983 after a military coup. He held that position until 1987 when he was killed during another coup.

In 1966, after obtaining his baccalaureate in the capital city of Ouagadougou, Sankara enrolled in a military academy instead of becoming a priest like his devout Christian parents wished. This marked the start of Sankara’s brilliant military career. At the academy, he was introduced to ideologies such as anticolonialism, anti-imperialism, and Marxism by his learned civilian professors.

Then in 1970, he decided to go for officer training in Madagascar, where he witnessed a popular revolt by students and workers that successfully toppled the government. President Philibert Tsiranana, who was considered too submissive to France, their former colonizer, was ousted. In the island country, Sankara also became well-versed in agriculture which set the foundation for his future interest in conserving his own country’s environment.

When Sankara was done training in Madagascar, he briefly enrolled in a parachute academy in France, where he became acquainted with left-wing political ideologies. He returned to Upper Volta in 1972 and was assigned to the training of young recruits. Two years later, he fought gallantly in the border war with Mali, earning him substantial recognition. However, he would later denounce the war as unnecessary and unjust.

Interestingly, Sankara also built a somewhat successful career as a guitarist for a popular band, Tout-à-Coup Jazz, in Ouagadougou. However, his military career took pre-eminence in 1976, he became the commander of a commando training center in Pô, a city in the south of the country. That same year, he joined a secret organization called the Communist Officers’ Group. It was likely in this group that Sankara’s close friendship with fellow military man, Blaise Compaoré, began.

Political Career

In the early 80s, Burkina Faso was troubled by labor union strikes and military coups. Sankara was a charismatic military leader, making him a popular choice for political appointments. His first appointment, as the Minister of Information, was given by President Saye Zerbo’s government in 1981. However, his personal and political integrity was at odds with the crooked ways of the successive military governments that came into power, leading to his arrest on multiple occasions.

In January 1983, Sankara was appointed as the prime minister of the newly founded Council of the Salvation of the People (Conseil de Salut du Peuple; CSP), which was headed by President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo. This opened the door for him to enter into international politics and meet leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, a forum of 120 developing countries. However, just four months after his appointment, he was sacked and thrown into prison, once again due to his moral clashes with his colleagues.

On August 4, 1983, Compaoré led a group of military officers that freed Sankara and ousted the Ouédraogo regime. The group also founded the National Council of the Revolution AKA Conseil National de la Révolution (CNR), a committee that was charged with leading the nation. Sankara was installed as the president of CNR and, effectively, the Republic of Upper Volta.

Sankara declared that his revolution would primarily focus on eradicating corruption, championing environmental conservation, empowering women, increasing access to education and healthcare, and on a larger scale, relinquishing the hold of colonialism. Indeed, his administration’s programs were successful in reducing infant mortality, increasing literacy rates, school attendance, and the number of women in government as well as improving access to healthcare—between 1983-85, 2 million Burkinabe people were vaccinated. He also oversaw the planting of 10 million trees to curb desertification.

To mark the completion of his first year of rule, he renamed the country and adopted a new national flag and anthem. The new flag took on the pan-African colors of red, green, and yellow to represent the revolutionary struggle and Burkina Faso’s abundance of natural resources.

Despite these and a host of other achievements, Sankara’s administration lost favor with the public, partly owing to economic problems and some problematic policies he had implemented. For example, he instituted Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), militias that were charged with spreading revolutionary ideologies and protecting the government. Unfortunately, these soldiers were largely corrupt and grossly abused their power.

Additionally, Sankara’s insistence on ethnic equality stirred conflict with the Mossi, a majority ethnic group that has a strict hierarchical social structure. Sankara viewed this structure as an obstruction to equality and saw to it that many of the Mossi elite were stripped of their privileges. Consequently, internal strife grew within his government.

Assassination and Legacy

In a twist of events, on October 15, 1987, Compaoré who had rescued Sankara from prison just 4 years before, led a coup in which Sankara was assassinated. Sankara had been a part of a meeting at the CNR headquarters when a band of soldiers stormed the room and shot him and 12 others. Compaoré subsequently took over as president until an insurrection forced him to step down in 2014, ending a 27-year reign that reversed virtually all of his predecessor’s progressive policies.

In 2021, 14 people, including Compaoré, were finally charged for crimes related to Sankara’s killing in a military tribunal. However, Compaoré refused to participate in the proceedings and was tried in absentia as he was still in exile in Côte d’Ivoire.

On April 6, 2022, the verdict of the long-awaited trial was announced and found Compaoré and 9 others guilty of being complicit in Sankara’s murder, while Hyacinthe Kafando alone was found guilty of the murder. Compaoré, Kafando, and Gen. Gilbert Diendéré were sentenced to life in prison, while 8 others received lesser sentences. The remaining three defendants were acquitted. The trial also shed light on the alleged involvement of Côte d’Ivoire, France, and possibly, the US in the assassination.

On October 15, 2023, the 36th anniversary of his assassination, Sankara was finally bestowed a befitting level of government recognition. He was conferred the title of ‘hero of the nation’ and the day was declared an annual national holiday. The government also changed the name of Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, a major road in Ouagadougou, to Boulevard Capitaine Thomas Isidore Nöel Sankara.

Thomas Sankara, who has been likened to Cuba’s Che Guevera, remains an all-too-important symbol of hope and pan-Africanism for the Burkinabe people. His unusual humility and insistence on forgoing luxuries typically afforded to government officials have also established him as the standard of servant leadership. Moreso, the impact of Sankara’s legacy has seemingly multiplied posthumously as more people study him and reflect on the tragedy of his unrealized potential.


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