Remembering Thomas Sankara, the living ghost

A week before his own assassination, Sankara had declared: "While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas." It is not until now, 28 years after his assassination that his death is being investigated. But who was Thomas Sankara? This is everything you need to know about the legendary pan-African leader.

Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was born in a French colonized Burkina Faso, or the Republic of Upper Volta, as it was called then. His parents wanted him to be a priest but Sankara pursued a carrier in the military instead. In 1967, 20 years old Sankara was sent to Madagascar for officer training. That is where he came across the works of Marx and Lenin. He befriended also Blaise Compoaré and they became like brothers.

Coups after coups

The early 1980’s was very chaotic for Burkina that suffered from several labor union strikes and military coups. Sankara whose military achievement and charisma made him a popular choice for political appointments remained firm to his personal and political integrity.

“I find myself like a cyclist going up a steep slope with precipices on the left and on the right. He has no other choice than pedaling otherwise he’ll fall. So to remain true to myself I have to keep on the same track.”

But Sankara’s adamant conviction would also be his downfall.

His openly criticized Francois Mitterand at a state dinner for hosting Angolan warlord Jonas Savimbi and South African apartheidist Pieter Botha. It was easy to read between the lines of the French president’s answer. “I admire his strong qualities but he judges too much. In my opinion he goes beyond what is necessary”, Francois Mitterand coldly and diplomatic responded Sankara.

Sankara became prime minister in January 1983 but was dismissed already in May and placed under house arrest after a visit by the French president's son and African affairs adviser Jean-Christophe. He was known in the continent as ‘Papamadit’ (‘daddy told me’), meaning that he only executed the politics of his father. There are also suspicions that Jean-Cristophe, later convicted arms dealer was involved with the killing of Sankara.


Freed by Compoaré

Blaise Compoaré organized a coup d’état and freed Sankara who became President on August 4, 1983 at the age of 33. Sankara promised that his primary tasks would be to “liquidate imperialist domination and exploitation and cleanse the countryside of all social, economic, and cultural obstacles that keep it in backward state.” He did not, unlike many other African leaders, want to create a cult around him. He refused to have his portrait hung in offices and government institutions because “every Burkinabè is a Thomas Sankara.”

He named the country to Burkina Faso, the land of upright people has big plans for the new- born country. “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness… I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future,” he said when told that his plans were too unrealistic or radical. But Sankara was certain that Burkina would learn how to walk by itself. By his side stood his long time best friend Blaise Compoaré. Burkina Faso would no longer have leaders driven by own interests or be marionette for it former house, France and organizations like IMF. Sankara was clear that he would not bend down for rich Western nations.

He refused aid from IMF that he felt came with string attached and claimed that “welfare and aid policies have only ended up disorganizing us, subjugating us, and robbing us of a sense of responsibility for our own economic, political, and cultural affairs. We choose to risk new paths to achieve greater bell-being.”

The Burkinabè had to become independent. “Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism,” he said.

Burkina became within four years self sufficient in food production through redistributing of agriculture program. Sankara encouraged also the growth of the local industry such as cotton.

Bike to work and no air conditioning

Sankara lowered his own and other MPs salaries. He had by the time of his death a salary of $450 a month; and his most valuable possessions were a car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer.

He replaced the government’s fleet of Mercedes-Benz with Renault 5 that were far more affordable and easier to maintain. At the start of his presidency, Sankara rode a bicycle to work but was later persuaded to ride a Renault like the others but he refused to have air-conditioning in his office because “such luxury was not available to anyone but a handful of Burkinabes.”

Lowering illiteracy and mortality rate

Burkina had an illiteracy rate of over 90%, the world’s highest infant mortality rate (280 deaths for every 1,000 births), inadequate infrastructure to provide basic social services, one doctor per 50,000 people, and an average yearly income of $150 per person.

Sankara implemented mass measles vaccination campaigns decreasing infant mortality rates to 145 (from previous 280) deaths per 1,000 in less than two years.

“ I hear the roar of the women”

He was also a strong advocate of women’s right. “We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabè woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.”

He launched a campaign for the restoration of women’s dignity and recognition of their role in society was launched in order to free women from the yoke of patriarchal domination. September 22 became a day of solidarity and men were encouraged to go to the market and prepare the family meal so that they experienced what women faced daily. His government had the highest percentage of women in the whole of Africa.

He launched also a reforestation program in order to slow down the advance of the Sahara Desert.

Criticized and critical

But Sankara was also criticized for his strict measures such as the intolerance of political opposition, arbitrary decisions and indoctrination of the educational system, which he regarded as an “instrument of the revolution.”

Sankara did not stop with implementing radical changes in only Burkina. He also challenged the global debt and aid industries. “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa, a reconquest that turns each one of us into a financial slave. The lenders would not die if the debt were not repaid, he told the UN General Assembly, “but if we repay, we are going to die”. He urged African leaders in 1987 to repudiate their debts en masse. In 1987 about a fifth of Burkina’s GNP consists of foreign aid; about two-fifths of its government ex­penditure is paid for by French subsidies.

He spoke in 1994 in Harlem, the U.S declaring that “Our White House is in Black Harlem.” He was also a strong admirer of Fidel Castro whom he had also met. Sankara believed that the fight against imperialism had to be global.


Blaise’s coup

Behind Sankara’s growing popularity was also an increasing opposition from the international scene. His long time ally Compoaré turned his back on him and later justified his 1987 coup and said that the killing of Sankara had been an “accident” but that Sankara’s politics was damaging the relation with France.

People had already warned Sankara about Compoaré . “We thought that Blaise was going to do a coup but Sankara had always denied it. Everyone said it; the intelligence service, the police, the security, the military. Everyone talked about it but Thomas himself did not want to hear anything of it,” says Pascal Cambu, Sankara’s former school friend.

The death of Sankara was never investigated during Compoaré’s 27 years in power. Compoaré denied any involvement in the killing. However, while he was in office, Burkina Faso court refused to grant requests by Sankara's family to have his remains exhumed. The process started not until last year with then when a transitional government replaced Compoaré who was ousted in a coup.


“Riddled with bullets”

Autopsies on the other 12 soldiers buried with Sankara in 1987 showed that they had only one or two gunshot wounds.

"But as far as Thomas Sankara was concerned, there were more than a dozen all over the body, even below the armpits," said Mr. Ambroise Farama, one of the lawyers representing the Sankara family.

"You could say he was purely and simply riddled with bullets."

Text by...

Sumbu Temo

27 years old journalist student and dreamer from Stockholm