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Remembering Thomas Sankara and his revolution



Though, it was afternoon on 15th October 1987, in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, but darkness hovered the entire landscape of the country. Political darkness of sort, which many Burkinabe had no idea of its impact, blankets the nation. It was the murder of an ambitious African dream, a high-profile killing in Africa’s post-independence history.

That afternoon, the ‘Land of the Upright Men’ had just witnessed dishonourable elements snuff life out of Thomas Sankara, the country’s beloved president. Assassinated at the age of 37, Sankara was slain by forces loyal to Blaise Compaoré, one of his oldest friends and most trusted ally.    

That day, the African continent lost one of its most revolutionary leaders. A leader who swore to unburden the shackles of mental slavery that kept his people in bondage. To the martial music that played that simmering afternoon, it was nothing but a regime change. A regime that soon the ordinary Burkina Faso will come to accept. For those who knew what has befallen them, it was catastrophic loss to their country and by extension to Africa. 

In internet age, the death of Sankara would have gone viral. Thomas Sankara was killed after four years as President of Burkina Faso. The outside world heard of his death a day after his killing but only few knew the information surrounding the circumstances of his death, even months after his death.

Those days, it was easy for governments to peddle falsehood without scrutiny or objection from its citizens and that exactly was the case with the new Burkina Faso government’s information surrounding Sankara’s death. The new regime explanation of Sankara’s death was that he died a natural cause. The regime led by Sankara’s best friend and second-in-command, Blaise Compaoré, issued a death certificate to that effect.

Leadership is Africa’s bane of development, on this path of quality only a few walked this path until date. Among the leaders who graced this passage many, have their light eclipsed by unprogressive forces, who often collaborate with Western powers with all intent in exploiting Africa for personal gain. He made no pretense to carry out one of the most ambitious sweeping reforms ever seen on the African continent; it sought to fundamentally reverse the structural social inequities inherited from the French colonial order.

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Samora Machel of Mozambique was cut down in his prime for his socialist standing in unfathomable circumstances, through a plane crash. In Democratic Republic of Congo, then Congo Kinshasa, Patrice Lumumba, the country’s Prime Minister was murdered in a gruesome manner with assistance of Western powers.

Sankara’s plan of giving the average Burkinabe’s life a new meaning by emancipating them from colonial and mental slavery was unwelcome by some foreign powers and disgruntled people in his homeland. Sankara’s scheduled 1984 visit to the White House was cancelled.

 After White House representatives reviewed his speeches, they demanded amendment to his speech but Sankara refused to change his anti-imperialist stand, criticism of exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and the debts African nations owed the IMF.  

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country located south of the Sahara Desert in West Africa, surrounded by six countries: Mali to the north; Togo and Ghana to the south; Niger to the east; Benin to the southeast; and Ivory Coast to the southwest. A former Fresh colony, formerly known as Upper Volta, adopted the name after it gained its independence from France August 5, 1960.

 The country is leader in African art and culture and hosts the largest craft market in Africa. About 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture. The country is prone to severe droughts and suffered severe droughts in the early 1970s and the early 1980s. Bad leadership and corruption complicated life for the Burkinabes that they desired change.

The November 7, 1982 coup that brought Major Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, to power saw Sankara becoming the prime minister in January 1983, but in  dramatic manner was dismissed and placed under house arrest on 17th May that year after a visit by the French president’s son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe Mitterrand. The  August 4th, 1983 efforts to free Sankara, directed by Capt. Blaise Compaoré, resulted in a military coup d’état.

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Sankara was a supporter of everything home grown. He championed local production and the consumption of locally made goods. He declared to Burkinabes, “He who feeds you, controls you.” To that effect, he decided to start with a name change with of the country. In 1984, on the first anniversary of his accession, Sankara renamed the country Burkina Faso “the Land of Upright Men” from Upper Volta. The former name related to the nation’s location along the upper reaches of the Volta River. The change of the country’s name also came with a new flag and wrote a new national anthem.

Sankara launched the Faso Dan Fani, Burkina Faso’s national cloth, and required all public servants to wear homegrown Burkinabé clothing. In a scene from the documentary “Thomas Sankara: The Upright Men,” beckons a young man from the crowd to come forward. He argues, “See, you’re wearing an advertisement for Levi. “Yes, it’s well made – it’s Levi’s. But it’s American. Don’t you think we have weavers able to make them here?’

Sankara launched one of the continents’ most ambitious plans, when most African countries dance to the dictates of the foreign power to survive. He believed his country has no need to depend on foreign donor. Sankara cancelled all foreign aid to his country; rather he pushed 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.

 With limited resources, he channeled his focus on preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform; such was the success of the programme that in four years the country was on the path of food sufficiency. This happened when most African counties depended on external assistance for development.

In the ‘80s, gender equality was not in the political equation of African leaders. Sankara stood out in that era. Not only did Sankara appoint women to high government positions, he also encouraged them to work, and stay in school even if pregnant, besides he recruited them into the military, and granted pregnancy leave during education. In support of Women’s rights, he outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy.

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 In his four years reign, illiteracy rate shrunk; school attendance leaped from 6 percent to 22 percent. The government opened thousands of healthcare centres, more than 2.5 million children were vaccinated. Sankara planted 10 million trees to protect to save guard the environment.

He sought to reduce government corruption, on a continent where luxury by government official are at the expense of poor masses is normal, Sankara, who refused to have his picture displayed in public buildings, embraced personal austerity, paying himself a salary of $450 a month, slashing the wages of his top officials and forbidding the use of chauffeur-driven Mercedes and first class airline tickets by his ministers and senior civil servants. To corrupt officials he said, “To the immoral ‘morality’ of the exploiting, corrupt minority, we counterpoise the revolutionary morality of an entire people acting in the interest of social justice.”

 Government officials charged with embezzlement, misappropriated funds, extortion, waste were tried and those found guilty had their names and crimes announced on public radio.

Blaise Compaoré cited the deterioration in relations with neighbouring countries as one of the reasons for the coup that led to Sankara’s death, stating that Sankara jeopardised foreign relations with former colonial power, France and neighbouring Ivory Coast. Thomas Sankara is dead but lives on.

The Burkinabe government exhumed Sankara’s corpse from its shallow grave after popular uprising toppled Compaoré in 2014 for proper burial. The government has issued an international arrest warrant for Compaoré, who ruled the country for 27 years over the death of Sankara.

This month marks 25 years since the death of Thomas Sankara, the selflessness and anti-imperialist leader. Only a few African leaders evokes the feeling and reverence people on the continent have for a leader, more so, leaders who did so much to impact the lives of his people.

 If there was a country known as Burkina Faso after independence, it was more because of Thomas Sankara.  Sankara never discovered Burkina Faso, neither was he its founding Father, but for his exceptionally leadership the country became more known to the outside world.

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