Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara was a military officer in the Burkinabe forces and later acquired the role of the President of Burkina Faso. He was Marxist. Due to his aspirations and position, he is commonly recognised as Africa’s Che Guevara.

Born on 21st December 1949, this iconic figure demonstrated the right of self-determination by heading a military coup in 1983. And set an excellent example for African leaders throughout the continent.

His rise to power

In 1983, Sankara was appointed as the prime minister of Upper Volta. Sankara, a man of vision and inspiration, disagreed with the sitting government. This led to his imprisonment. However, they could not contain his Pan-Africanist spirit for long. Though bound in house arrest, a group of revolutionaries rose like a tide snatched power on behalf of Sankara in a well-staged coup. At 33, Sankara became the Republic of Upper Volta President.

 His policies to revive the social status of his region

Sankara enjoyed a short four years as the country’s head before he was assassinated by his ideological enemies. In this short span, he made drastic measures to reclaim the African identity from the French colonisers. He did this by renaming the country from its French colonial identity of the Republic of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. The name clearly indicated the shift of power. It means the land of uncorrupted people. The people were known as Burkinabe, which meant upright people. This was deemed a direct attack on the integrity of the French colonisers, known for their corrupted morals.

His foreign policies

As a Pan-Africanist President, he was bent on stopping all dependency on the western countries and making the country self-sufficient. To this end, he turned down all aid from the International Monetary Fund. He did acquire financial support from other means, but he laboured to reduce overall reliance on aid.

His economic policies centred on becoming self-sufficient. He introduced agrarian reforms to increase food production in the country and avoid desperate seasons of famine. He also set education as his priority to an independent nation. Under his short rule, he tried his best to eradicate illiteracy by making education widespread and accessible to all. The school attendance rose from a mere 6% to 22%.

He also made public health his concern. Under his leadership, about 2 million children were vaccinated for contagious diseases like meningitis, yellow fever and measles. His untiring efforts ensured that the lives of about 18,000 to 50,000 children were saved every year. His government built many schools, health centres, and reservoirs to conserve water and support agriculture.

Thus, during his era, the production of basic grains and cereals increased by 75% in just three years. Additionally, ten million trees were planted under his governance to combat the widespread desertification happening across Africa and the Sahel. He also introduced policies to redistribute land from private owners and grant ownership to rural farmers to encourage the production of agricultural products. He abolished rural taxes and excessive rents to decrease the burden on the poor Africans.

Other proactive measures to stimulate economic activity included building a hundred km long railway track and roads without external assistance. 

Sankara also ordered the rural villages to set up their own regional and local medical dispensaries to make healthcare readily available to the entire population. Thus, 5384 towns out of 7500 established their own pharmacies and medical centres. This meant that the mortality rate fell from 208 to 145 for every 1000 babies born during Sankara’s presidency.

Sankara also struggled to improve the standing of women in society. He passed measures to remove women from suppression of all kinds, including genital mutilation, early marriages and forced nuptials. He passed laws against polygamy. Women were awarded high positions in his government to manifest their empowerment. They were supported to hold their jobs during pregnancies and post-natal periods and encouraged to find their purpose and place through professions.

His antagonistic policies

Though Sankara is an icon of the Pan-African movement for many and had accolades as a saviour of Burkina Faso, he was not without his fair share of enemies. In his mission to purify the ranks of Burkina Faso, he allowed the prosecution of senior officials in government alleged for corruption. He also allowed the prosecution of his counter-visionaries and inefficient workers in the local tribunals. Opposition parties and protests against Sankara’s government were all banned, and all voices of criticism shushed over the media giving rise to sentiments of rebellion.

As a result, a set of Burkinabe middle class rose to defy Sankara. Tribal leaders were also unhappy with Sankara’s government since it abolished their long-standing feudal power and banned forced labour. Additionally, the French government opposed the government of Sankara since it came at the cost of the abolishment of their colonial rule. The French had the support of their allies at the Ivory Coast.

Ultimately, all the groups unhappy with Sanakra’s government joined forces, and Sankara was assassinated by Blaise Campaore. He assumed the position of the president after Sankara.

It is said that many African leaders who have dared to make a difference have had the same fate as Sankara. As we honour this great leader, the question is, how can we individually and communally support the legacy of these great children of the Motherland?