Greatest Africans: Thomas Sankara

By Joburg Post

“The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” 
– Thomas Sankara

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, Pan-Africanist and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987. Viewed by supporters as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as "Africa's Che Guevara"

Political leadership 
Sankara seized power in a 1983 popularly supported coup d’état at the age of 33, with the goal of eliminating corruption and the dominance of the former French colonial power. He immediately launched one of the most ambitious programmes for social and economic change ever attempted on the African continent. To symbolize 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, 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 nationwide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by vaccinating 2.5 million children against meningitis, yellow fever, and measles. 

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”. 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. 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. 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. Additionally, as an admirer of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Sankara set up Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs). 

Thomas Sankara was one of the most confident and vocal anti-imperialists of the late 20th Century. Sankara’s collective praxis, vision and legacy continue to be enormously influential in shaping anti-imperial and pan-African resistance across the world. This influence has been reinvigorated since the popular uprisings in Burkina Faso in 2014. The historical range and significance of Sankara’s internationalist solidarities against oppression, including his political advocacy and collaborations with Saharawi in Western Sahara, African Americans in Harlem, anti-Apartheid groups in South Africa, and occupied Palestine. 

Both Sankara’s commitments to social justice, women’s rights, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and pan-African solidarity in an international context, and Sankara’s critiques of neo-colonialism and capitalism, his ecological-political philosophies and praxis, particularly as they relate to the nationalization of land and his oft-celebrated tree-planting and irrigation projects have shaped the continent. 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 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. He was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Blaise Compaoré on 15 October 1987. A week before his assassination, he declared: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” 

What Popular Figures Say About Him

“His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking. His loss is bad (Long silence) but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders.” 

  • Fela Kuti “Sankara is even more important than giants of the last century like Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe. Sankara used power to serve the people. We don’t know what Biko and Sobukwe would have done with power. And what Nelson Mandela and the ANC did with power was not pretty enough.” 
  • Andile Mngxitama “For the 4 short years he ruled over his people, he defied imperialism and showed Africa what could be accomplished by effectively allocating the nations mineral wealth and resources to benefits its people, shattering the imperialist lie that Africa could not survive without foreign aid. Thomas Sankara exemplified what it meant to be a selfless leader with no interest in material gain.” 
    – Pan-African Renaissance (Non-Profit Organisation) 

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