Thomas Sankara (Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara) was born on 21 December 1949 in the town of Yako in north-ern Burkina Faso. In an interview with Swiss journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp in 1985, he reflected on his experiences growing up dur-ing the end of the colonial period in Gaoua. He vividly remembered how, as a child, he yearned to ride a bicycle that belonged to his European primary-school principal’s chil-dren, a bicycle which none of the neighbour-hood children was allowed to use:
The other children dreamed about this bicycle for months and months. We woke up thinking about it; we drew pictures of it; we tried to suppress the longing that kept welling up inside of us. We did just about everything to try to convince them to lend it to us. If the principal’s children wanted sand to build sand castles, we brought them sand … One day, I realized all of our efforts were in vain. I grabbed the bike and said to myself, ‘Too bad, I’m going to treat myself to this pleasure no matter what the consequences.’ (Sankara 2007c/1985).
For this act, Sankara’s father was arrested and Sankara was expelled from school. This early encounter with colonial injustice and inequal-ity shaped Sankara’s worldview. It was reaf-firmed when his father was arrested again when Sankara’s sister was caught throwing rocks to dislodge some wild fruit and some of the rocks fell onto the principal’s house. Sankara reflected years later:
‘[These falling stones] disturbed [the principal’s] wife’s nap. I understand that after a wonderful, refresh-ing meal, she wanted to rest, and it was irri-tating to be disturbed like this. But we wanted to eat’. These encounters with the systems of oppression (where a father was arrested, in essence, for his child’s hunger) can be seen as an early impetus for Sankara’s political consciousness. He was deeply troubled by the gap between the people living in relative lux-ury, whose primary concern was leisure, and those living in uncertainty, whose primary concern was food. The struggle for dignity and sustenance would remain at the centre of his political project.
In 1970, Sankara attended officer train-ing in Madagascar. There he witnessed the popular uprising of students, farmers, and labourers against the French-appointed leader Philibert Tsiranana. Two years later, he attended parachute academy in France and was exposed to some of the philosophies that would become the foundation for his revolutionary leadership, including Marxist political economy and development theory. At the age of 33, Sankara had risen as a mili-tary leader in the Upper Volta army. By 1980, he was speaking out against imperialism and building a network of allies within the ranks of the military. He was appointed minister of information in 1981, but quickly resigned after exposing high-level corruption to local journalists (Harsch 2013).
His anti-imperial political stance was not well received by Burkinabé elites and, as a result, Sankara and a handful of his sup-porters were arrested in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina, by the Ouédraogo regime. Thousands of Burkinabés took to the streets to protest and demand his release. Sankara’s long-time friend and military ally Blaise Compaoré marched with 250 men on Ouagadougou, overtook the old regime and released Sankara. This insurrection became known as the August Revolution. Sankara describes the movement as a culmination of years of struggle and demonstration against neo-imperial domination. For the next four years, the National Council of the Revolution (CNR), under Sankara’s leadership, ambi-tiously undertook one of the most radical col-lectivist and anti-imperialist projects on the African continent.
Sankarism and contributions to anti-imperialism
Sankara’s emancipatory project was founded on a conviction that a radical transforma-tion of the relationship between the people and the State in the post-colony was needed. He strove to dismantle the post-colonial Burkinabé State as an extension of neo-colonial power interests, one which facilitated the ongoing plunder of Burkina’s resources for a small native elite while the majority of the population lived in poverty. He abandoned the use of wealth and status symbols, which had become a component of the post-colo-nial African elite, stipulating that his minis-ters must drive modest vehicles rather than the preferred Mercedes Benz.
Breaking with a globalised political culture that idolises political leaders, Sankara refused to have his portrait on display. He advocated the con-sumption of locally produced goods for the self-sustainability of Burkina Faso.
Indeed, Sankara dressed modestly and boasted that his clothing, often a traditional Faso Dan-Fani, was made from materials woven in Burkina. Much like the name he selected for the country, Burkina Faso (the land of upright people), he encouraged and cultivated a love for country, for community and for self. This was a radical shift in con-sciousness for a post-colony that continued to draw upon the colonial education system, in which ideas of African selfhood were shaped and narrated through the colonial gaze.
Twenty-three years after the formal end of colonial rule in Burkina, students contin-ued to be instructed in French, the former colonial language, and in Western cultural, political, and social ontologies and episte-mologies. Sankara described this system: ‘The colonial schools were replaced by neoco-lonial schools, which pursued the same goals of alienating the children of our country and reproducing a society fundamentally serving imperialist interests’ (2007b/1983: 81–82). At the time he came into power, 98 per cent of rural Burkinabés were unable to read or write and only 16 per cent of school-age chil-dren attended.
He recognised the need for a radical re-education of Burkinabés, one that made necessary the building of a founda-tional respect for Burkinabé history, culture, and selfhood. In response, Sankara launched an educational campaign to begin the project of building and sustaining a critical political consciousness.
Sankara spoke with conviction, persuasion, and charm to argue for a holistic approach to social change, one that considered wom-en’s emancipation to be essential to the anti-imperial project. His contributions to women’s emancipation are not focused on equality in the Euro-American sense; instead they articulate a gender complementarity approach, one which recognises that ‘Women hold up the other half of the sky’ (Sankara 2007e/1983: 66). He did not replicate colonial or patriarchal power dynamics by profess-ing to speak for women. Instead, he spoke with them, reflecting his abiding respect for the dynamic and diverse roles of women in social and political life.
He said, ‘We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compas-sion. It is a basic necessity for the revolu-tion to triumph’ (ibid.). He envisioned the movement for social transformation as ‘one that entrusts responsibilities to women, that involves them in productive activity and in the different fights the people face’ (ibid.).
He implemented a national day of solidarity with housewives, encouraging men to adopt the work of women for a day as a means of cultivating recognition for women’s essential roles in Burkinabé society. Sankara’s com-mitment to the emancipation of women was a radical contribution to Pan-African politics, one that named patriarchy and male privi-lege as detrimental to the struggle for African empowerment.
Sankara’s speeches often included direct confrontations with neo-imperial powers and reactionary forces. At the 39th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1984, for example, Sankara described the state of international politics as ‘A world in which nations, eluding international law, com-mand groups of outlaws who, guns in hand, live by plunder and organize sordid trafficking’ (2007d/1984: 155). He pronounced the indige-nous Burkinabé elite as ‘a passive and pathetic consumer’ (157). Sankara’s goal of total emancipation and empowerment for every Burkinabé challenged the foundations of the neo-imperial capitalist system and threatened foreign and domestic elites. On 15 October 1987, Sankara and 12 of his comrades were assassinated on the order of his political asso-ciate and deputy Captain Blaise Compaoré.
On 17 January 1988, a death certificate was issued by the Compaoré regime, claiming that Sankara died of ‘natural causes’. International political elites, including Guy Penne in France, the CIA in the US, Houphouet Boigney in the Ivory Coast and Charles Taylor in Liberia (Montanaro 2009; Ray 2008), are suspected of having been involved in the movement to violently remove Sankara from power and to stop his political momentum, which had gained significant international attention and support.
A comprehensive investigation into the events of his death has never been carried out and the United Nations Committee for Human Rights closed its file on the assassination on 21 April 2008. After Sankara’s assas-sination, Compaoré immediately set-out on a ‘rectification’ programme that opened Burkina Faso to the neo-liberal economic reforms that have had devastating consequences for the Burkinabé population. Compaoré remains president of Burkina, after nearly 27 years in power.
Sankara’s contributions to the anti-impe-rial struggle cannot be overstated. He led one of the world’s poorest nations in one of the world’s most radically egalitarian political projects. He emphatically refused to pay back debts that had been incurred during colonial-ism and by the neo-colonial regimes that fol-lowed. He urged African leaders to unite in their refusal to repay. His courage and con- viction were founded on an abiding respect for ordinary people and in his recognition of their intellectual, creative, and political contributions. He fearlessly critiqued the destructive and exploitative forces of global empire.
In moments that seem to be deeply reflec-tive and anticipatory of his own assassination, he spoke of death, meaning, and the return to homeland. It is difficult not to read his trib-ute to Che Guevara, ‘You cannot kill ideas’, as foreboding his own death. He said, ‘Che Guevara was cut down by bullets, imperialist bullets, under Bolivian skies. And we say that for us, Che Guevara is not dead … you can-not kill ideas.
Ideas do not die’ (2007a/1987: 421). A week later, he was assassinated by machine-gun fire. ‘La patrie ou la mort, nous vaincrons’ (Homeland or death, we will win), Sankara declared triumphantly at the end of each of his speeches. Although there are pow-erful forces that would erase Sankara’s mem-ory and heritage, African youth, activists, and students across the continent continue to draw upon the tenets of Sankarism to criti-cise political corruption, to advocate political change, and to draw inspiration and hope for a better future.
Under pressure from a popular youth-led movement, which drew inspiration from Sankara’s political heritage and organised under the slogan ‘enough is enough’, Blaise Compaoré resigned as president of Burkina Faso on 31 October 2014.
- Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara Biography and Profile (Academia)