Twenty-seven years ago, on October 15, during a staff meeting, a rogue military gang, either led or ordered by Blaise Compaoré, Thomas Sankara‘s close friend, ally and trusted comrade, assassinated the young Pan Africansist icon and anti-imperialism revolutionary, Captain Thomas Isidore Sankara.
He was was only 37 years old. His untimely murder marked the death of one of Africa’s last anti-imperialist revolutionaries.
His body was chopped, cut up and dismembered in macabre circumstances. He was buried unceremoniously and his ideas, memory and name erased from the public view. However, it remained in the personal memory of Africans worldwide. And this is why I choose to remember this icon to prevent us from forgetting, and keeping Thomas Sankara‘s ideas alive.
Captain Thomas Isidore Sankara is remembered fondly as the hope of Africa. Some compare his charm and political trajectory and the tragedy that robbed Africa of an inspirational leader to Che Guevera.
That does a disservice to him. He was unique. He was the spokesman of the poorest of the poor in Africa and an advocate of women worldwide. There are those who have a less romantic and idealistic perception of him: they depict him as an autocrat who came to power through a coup. They are entitled to their opinions.
Sankara was ahead of his time. It’s a cliché but it’s also a fact. It is undeniable.
However, one thing is unquestionable: his legacy to African political thought and inspirational leadership are unparalleled especially in the present. His popularity, then and now, remains as strong as ever. Once he came to power, he undertook the most ambitious and radical programme for socioeconomic change ever attempted on the African continent, then and now.
He is remembered for the value he placed on discipline, plus his integrity and selflessness. He implemented radical reforms when he came to power. His ministers drove small cars and travelled economy class. Sankara, himself, rode a bicycle. Chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz and 1st class airline tickets were banned.
He reduced his own salary and that of his own government ministers and public servants. He left nothing in the way of the immediate and radical transformation of society which is a move that upset his opponents and the western powers.
They (France and her allies) feared his ideology of an independent Africa which was not dependent on the West for its survival. It threatened its hegemonic control over Burkina Faso and other west African colonies.
He was an advocate for good governance, sustainability and transparency.
He understood why women are so critical to Africa’s transformation and he implemented bodies and policies that addressed women’s rights long before it was popular.
Decades before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was calling on African men to be feminists, he had already declared, “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.” Thomas Sankara viewed the struggle of Burkina Faso’s women as “part of the worldwide struggle of all women”.
Sankara was a preeminent thinker. He was the first African leader to recruit women into the military and appoint them to major cabinet positions. He was a doer not just a talker.
He was not afraid of challenging culture and tradition. He risked the ire of Burkinabè men by banning forced marriages and encouraging women to work outside the home, plus implementing policies to retain girls at school when they fell pregnant.
He put an end on the pressure on women to marry. He viewed the emancipation of women as central to dismantling the stranglehold of the feudal system on Burkina Faso.
He set a world record, launching a nationwide public health campaign vaccinating 2 1/2 million people in a week. He was an avid environmentalist planting over 10 million trees to arrest the desertification of the Sahel.
To promote local production, Thomas Sankara actively encouraged cotton production and made a decree for public servants to wear a traditional tunic sewn by Burkinabè tailors and woven using local cotton. Western style suits were discouraged. Sankara himself also wore clothes made by local tailors, when he was not in military fatigues, and advertised them at continental and international conferences.
He angered the feudal landlords by taking land from them and redistributing it directly to the peasants. Consequently, wheat production rose in just three years from 1700kg per hectare to 3800, making Burkina Faso self reliant, a feat nations like Zimbabwe, Nigeria, South Africa and other African nations with rich repositories of precious minerals and fossil fuels have failed miserably.
Thomas Sankara shunned foreign aid and famously called for aid that helped the aided to become self reliant. He began a rail and road building programme to link up the country’s infrastructure and improve market accessibility.
His political education was simple: “Let us consume only what we ourselves control!” Be self sufficient. Be honest. Live simply. But above all, it was his main goal that resonated beyond Burkina Faso and the African continent: Sankara wanted a fairer, proud, independent Africa that was equipped to tackle its challenges and that is what ultimately cost him his life.
He famously said, “Where is imperialism?” Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.”
His solution was self reliance through growing what they could consume.
Thomas Sankara was a political statesmen and a political thinker who merged theory with practise in the manner of great philosopher-Kings throughout human history. His dual approach places him in the exalted company of a few.
What probably sets Sankara aside is his application of Marxist-Lenist ideology to drive structural change in an unequal society characterised by poverty and oppression by a tiny political minority.
His appeal to the majority of modern Africans, unlike the current crop of African leaders, is his undisguised dedication to the welfare and well being of his country and country-people.
Few African leaders today can match his extraordinary zeal to uplift Africa and its citizens. Today’s breed of African leaders come to power and do little or nothing to change the miserable conditions the masses find themselves in.
After independence, the people are left asking: what did we fight for. The only change in the post-independent state is the colour of the oppressor by a tiny wealthy minority.
There are no sweeping policy, structural or socioeconomic changes. There are a few aesthetic changes but the colonial structure and apparatus remain virtually intact and are used to maintain the status quo after independence.
Imperialism and neocolonialism emerge as the true winners and economic apartheid continues unchecked.
There is no need to emphasise that Thomas Sankara was a committed African nationalist. African nationalism is a broad based and flexible mode of thought which encompasses African Marxism, African populism and African socialism.
In addition, African nationalism isn’t a uniform ideology but it takes various forms. Some African nationalists embraced modernisation, capitalism and westernisation.
Then there were the early theorists like Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sékou Touré and others who advocated for a unique blend of African socialism mixed with traditional African values and traditions together with elements of Marxist-Leninist ideology.
However, Thomas Sankara was a class apart from the types described above. He was an African populist like Steve Bantu Biko. They both embraced the tenets of African socialism but their emphasis was on structural change such as the transformation of their countries’ economies, policies and their societies for the benefit of their people.
Apart from their youth and charm, Biko and Sankara were doers, active participants in social transformation, contrary to the older brand of African socialists and nationalists who were theorists and merely played lip service to their political rhetoric.
They both came up with genuine and practical liberation ideologies.
Biko and Sankara, like Amilcar Cabral, believed in the intelligentsia committing class suicide to help uplift the masses because they believed that the gap between the black intelligentsia and the masses was a deterrent to development.
Thomas Sankara like Biko, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba are African martyrs. They share a common thread that runs through their tragic narratives: they were murdered by agents of the Western powers.
Sankara’s murder eerily echoes that of Lumumba.
Sankara’s untimely death robbed both the Burkinabè and Africa of a young charismatic leader who was chartering a new course. However, he left behind a template of what an African leader can, could, must and should be.
Today, there are many committed Sankarists across the African continent, extending, into the Diaspora reinforcing Sankara’s thoughts: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas“.
The appeal of Sankara’s ideas is even stronger today because of the growing divide betweens the haves and have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressed, the western puppets and masses.
Thomas Sankara‘s radical four year rule in the early 1980s transforming Upper Volta, which he renamed Burkina Faso (the land of upright men), into a self reliant nation fired the imagination of Africans and Pan Africanists. His ideas not only found currency with the Burkinabè but they resonated elsewhere in Africa and the Diaspora.
Sankara’s ideology of African economic independence, self reliance, freedom from serfdom and slavery, education, literacy, women’s equality, addressing deforestation and wiping out corruption are ideas that are still poignant in the struggle for African liberation and the realisation of the envisioned self.
This is why Thomas Sankara is still as popular and relevant as ever. His ideology, memories and popularity have a longevity which continues to haunt those responsible for his murder. They assassinated him but they didn’t kill his ideas.
Sankara’s Revolution sent seismic shocks throughout the continent threatening the status quo of France’s unchallenged dominance of its ex-colonies in West Africa and the corrupt regimes (neocolonial elite or puppets) acting as gatekeepers of these neocolonialist states.
Thomas Sankara spoke in layman’ terms publicly and at forums such as the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), articulately diagnosing the raping and pillaging of Africa by the neocolonialist powers using proxy wars, Western finance and trade. He pinpointed the pitfalls of aid saying it simply and clearly, “he who feeds you, controls you”.
He also provided the remedy to his diagnosis.
He called for the formation of the Club of Addis Ababa to collectively confront the catastrophes and issues debt was causing in Africa. He reiterated the benefits of a united front of African nations to refuse to pay debt for many reasons such as if Africa paid, it would face a crisis.
He said, “It is our duty to create an Addis Adeba’s unified front against debt. That is the only way to assert that refusing to repay is not an aggressive move on our part, but a fraternal move to speak the truth.”
In addition, he argued that the current governments were not the ones who had run up the debts. It was their (neocolonialist powers) cousins. Therefore, it was not Africans’ responsibility to repay that debt.
Below is an excerpt of his speech against debt at the OAU in Addis Ababa in 1987:
“We think that debt has to be seen from the standpoint of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who had colonized us before. They are those who used to manage our states and economies. Colonizers are those who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it. Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers transformed themselves into “technical assistants”.We should better say “technical assassins”.
They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s back could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been proposed with nice financial set-ups. We have been indebted for fifty, sixty years and even more. That means we have been led to compromise our people for fifty years and more.
Under its current form, that is imperialism controlled, debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa, aiming at subjugating its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honour of repaying or not.”
You can read more at the following link: Thomas Sankara’s Speech Against Foreign Aid at the OAU.
He was aware about the role of Western aid and equally clear on the role of debt in controlling Africa as he stated: “The root of the disease was political. The treatment could only be political. Of course, we encourage aid that aids us in doing away with aid. But in general, 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 chose to risk new paths to achieve greater well-being.”
Three months after this famous speech at the OAU, the angel of death closed in on Thomas Sankara because of his outspoken and uncompromising stance against neocolonialism and white supremacy.
He had prophesied at the OAU summit that, “If Burkina Faso alone were to refuse to pay the debt, I wouldn’t be at the next conference.”
Unfortunately, he was correct.
He was warned to take action but he refused because he chose to remain true to the ideals and spirit of the revolution.
Consequently, the dogs of imperialism in the Burkinabè leadership and another French puppet, Côte d’Ivoire president Félix Houphoet-Boigny, did the bidding of their masters and Africa’s brightest star was murdered.
Thomas Sankara‘s narrative has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy. It has betrayal, intrigue, friendship, loyalty, a hero, a villain; he is overthrown and murdered at the request of his best friend, ally and trusted comrade.
Most important of all, his case study is a must for those who preach about Black Consciousness and unity. It illustrates the selfless approach and self discipline required to practise what you preach especially if you are dedicated to African advancement and development.
If you want to find a solution to the problems afflicting Africa, Thomas Sankara‘s narrative provides the perfect case study. He is the antithesis to the current crop of neocolonialist puppets.
Africa’s leaders and political parties should borrow several pages out of his book, if not the whole book.
Thomas Sankara‘s character and ideology doesn’t fit in with the dominant narrative propagated in the west for decades. It is impossible to find a less corrupt, selfless or self-serving leader than Thomas Sankara. It is even more impossible to find a leader today with more integrity than Sankara.
He was a man among great men. This is why he is referred to as The Upright Man.